Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Former TV talk show host Dick Cavett has been kind enough to grant me several interviews over the years, but we had always spoken by phone, that is until last summer, when we finally met face to face. This story is largely drawn from that encounter. I have always liked Cavett for his wit and charm and genuine fondness for his native Nebraska.
The story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less as it is here.
Being Dick Cavett
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). Access the story there at Cover – TheReader.com | Omaha Weekly Reader.
While Johnny Carson’s ghost didn’t appear, visages of the Late Night King abounded in the lobby of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Temple Building.
Carson’s spirit was invoked during an Aug. 1 morning interview there with fellow Nebraska entertainer, Dick Cavett. That night Cavett did a program in its Howell Theatre recalling his own talk show days. Prompted by friend Ron Hull and excerpts from Cavett television interviews with show biz icons, the program found the urbane one doing what he does best — sharing witty observations.
The Manhattanphile’s appearance raised funds for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre housed in the Temple Building. The circa-1907 structure is purportedly haunted by a former dean. Who’s to say Carson, a UNL grad who cut his early chops there, doesn’t clatter around doing paranormal sketch comedy? His devotion to Nebraska was legendary. Only months before his 2005 passing he donated $5.4 million for renovations to the facility, whose primary academic program bears his name.
The salon-like lobby of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film is filled with Carsonia. A wall displays framed magazines — Time, Life, Look — on whose covers the portrait of J.C., Carson, not Christ, graced. Reminders of his immense fame.
A kiosk features large prints of Carson hosting the Oscars and presiding over The Tonight Show, mugging it up with David Letterman. In one of these blow-ups Carson interviews Cavett, just a pair of Nebraska-boys-made-good-on-network-TV enjoying a moment of comedy nirvana together.
It’s only apt Cavett should do a program at a place that meant so much to Carson. They were friends. Johnny, his senior by some years, made it big first. He hired Cavett as a writer. They remained close even when Cavett turned competitor, though posing no real threat. Cavett was arguably the better interviewer. Carson, the better comic.
They shared a deep affection for Nebraska. Carson starred in an NBC special filmed in his hometown of Norfolk. He donated generously to Norfolk causes. Cavett’s road trips to the Sand Hills remain a favorite pastime. Though not an alum, he’s lent his voice to UNL, and he’s given his time and talent to other in-state institutions.
Looking dapper and fit, Panama hat titled jauntily, Tom Wolfe-style, the always erudite Cavett spoke with The Reader about Carson, his own talk show career, his work as a New York Timescolumnist/blogger, but mostly comedy. In two-plus hours he did dead-on impressions of Johnny, Fred Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton. His grave voice and withering satire, intact. He dropped more names and recounted more anecdotes than Rex Reed has had facelifts. Walking from the UNL campus to his hotel he recreated a W.C. Fields bit.
He’s so ingrained as a talking head Cavett’s comedy resume gets lost: writing for Jack Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin; doing standup at Greenwich Village clubs with Lenny Bruce; befriending Groucho Marx. He hosted more talk shows than Carson had wives. He’s had more material published than any comic of his generation.
On the native smarts comedy requires, Cavett said, “comedy is complete intelligence.” He said the best comics “may not be able to quote Proust (you can bet the Yale-educated Cavett can), but there’s an order of genius there that sets them apart. There aren’t very many stupid, inept, dumb comics. There are ones that aren’t very talented and there are the greatly talented, but the comic gift is a real rare order. It doesn’t qualify you to do anything else but that.”
Good material and talent go a long way, but he concedes intangibles like charisma count, too. He said, “Thousands of comics have wondered why Bob Hope was better than they are. What’s he got? I’ve got gags, too.”
For Cavett, “Lack of any humor is the most mysterious human trait. You wonder what life must be like.” He appreciates the arrogance/courage required to take a bare stage alone with the expectation of making people laugh.
“Oh, the presumption. It’s not so bad if the house isn’t bare but that has happened to me too at a club called the Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village, where many of us so to speak worked for free on Grove Street. A great motherly woman named Jan Wallman ran this upstairs-one-flight little club with about seven tables. Joan Rivers worked there. Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Klein, Linda Lavin. Woody (Allen) worked out some material there early on.”
He knows, too, the agony of bombing and that moment when you realize, “I have walked into the brightest lit part of the room and presumed to entertain and make people laugh and I’m doing apparently the opposite.” A comic in those straits is bound to ask, “What made me do this?” The key is not taking yourself too seriously.
“If you can get amused by it that will save you, and I finally got to that point at The Hungry Eye,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because I’d played there for two weeks and been doing alright and then one night, nothing, zero. The same sound there would be if there was no one seated in the place. Line after line. It was just awful. You could see people at the nearest tables gaping up at you like carp in a pool, not comprehending, not laughing, not moving. And I finally just said, ‘Why don’t you all just get the hell out of here?’ It gave me a wonderful feeling.
“Two, what Lenny Bruce used to call diesel dikes sitting in the front row with their boots up on the stage, one of whose boots I kicked off the stage, taking my life in my hands, got up to leave. And as they got to the door I said, ‘There are no refunds,’ and one of them said, ‘We’ll take a chance.’ And she got a laugh. So they (the audience) were capable of laughing.”
He finished his set sans applause, the only noise the patter of his patent leathers retreating. Inexplicably, he said, “the next show went fine. Same stuff.” For Cavett it’s proof “there is such a thing as a bad audience or a bad something — a gestalt, that makes a room full of unfunnyness, and I don’t think it’s you. It might be something in you. Whatever it is, you’re unaware of its source, not its presence.”
Anxiety is the performer’s companion. It heightens senses. It gets a manic edge on.
“Whether you want it, you’re going to get some,” he said. “I can go into a club and perform without any nerves of any kind now. But if it isn’t there you want a little something, and there are ways you can get it. Like be a little late. Or I found with low grade depression, before diagnosed, not knowing what it was, I would do things like go back and rebrush my hair or put another shirt on. ‘This is dangerous, they’re going to be mad,’ I’d think. ‘But that’s alright somehow.’ I didn’t realize the somehow meant it’s giving me adrenalin that lifted the depressed seratonin level. It raises you a little bit above the level of a normal person standing talking to other normal people. It’s a recent realization. I’ve never told that before.”
Cavett was always struck by how Carson, the consummate showman, was so uptight outside that arena. “I’ve said it before, but he was maybe the most socially uncomfortable man I’ve ever known. At such odds with his skills. There are actors who can play geniuses that aren’t very smart seemingly when you talk to them, but whatever it is is in there and it comes out when they work. I have a sad feeling Johnny was happiest when on stage, out in front of an audience. I don’t know that it’s so sad. Most people are sad a lot of the time, but some don’t ever get the thrill of having an ovation every time they appear.”
“It’s funny for me to think there are people on this earth who have never stood in front of an audience or been in a play or gotten a laugh,” he said.
People who say they nearly die of nerves speaking in public reminds him he once did, too. “I had the added problem of every time I spoke everybody turned and looked at me because of my voice. It was always low. If I heard one more time ‘the little fellow with the big voice’ I thought I’d kick someone in the crotch.”
He said performers most at home on stage dread “having to go back to life. For many of them that means the gin bottle on the dresser in a hotel in Detroit. On stage, god-like. Off-stage, miserable.”
In Cavett’s eyes, Carson was a master craftsman.
“He could do no wrong on stage. I mean in monologue. He perfected that to the point where failure succeeded. If a joke died he made it funnier by doing what’s known in the trade as bomb takes — stepping backwards a foot, loosening his tie…’” Not that Carson didn’t stumble. “He had awkward moments while he was out there. Many of them in the beginning. My God, the talk in the business was this guy isn’t making it, he’s not going to last. It’s hard to think of that now. Merv Griffin began in the daytime the same day as Johnny on The Tonight Show. Merv got all the good reviews. He was the guy they said should have Tonight, and Merv really died when he didn’t get it.”
When the mercurial Paar walked off Tonight in ’62 NBC scrambled for a replacement. Griffin “was actually seemingly in line” but the network anointed Carson, then best known as a game show host. In what proved a shrewd move Carson didn’t start right away. Instead, guest hosts filled in during what Cavett refers to as “the summer stock period between Paar and Johnny. People don’t remember that. Everybody and his dog who thought he could host a talk show came out and most of them found out they couldn’t.” Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Leonard, Bob Cummings, Eva Gabor, Groucho. Some were serviceable, others a disaster.
Carson debuted months later to great anticipation and pressure. “At the beginning he was really uncomfortable, drinking a bit I think to ease the pain, and as one of my writer friends said, ‘with a wife on the ledge.’ It was a very, very hard time in his life to have all this happen” said Cavett, “and then he just developed and all this charm came out.”
Off-air is where Carson’s real problems lay. “Many a time I rescued him in the hall from tourists who accidentally cornered him on his way back to the dressing room after the show. They’d made the wrong turn to the elevators and decided to chat up Johnny, and he was just in agony.” The same scene played out at cocktail parties, where Carson hated the banter. It’s one of the ways the two were different. Said Cavett, “I don’t seek it but I don’t mind it. He couldn’t do it and he knew he couldn’t do it and it pained him.”
That vulnerability endeared Carson to Cavett. “I liked him so much. We had such a good thing going, Johnny and I. It dawned on me gradually how much he liked me. I mean, it was fine working for him and we got along well, and when I was doing an act at night he’d ask me how it went, and we’d laugh if a joke bombed. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you change it to this?’ He’d give me a better wording for it. I feel guilty for not seeing him the last 8 or 10 years of his life, though we spent evenings together. The staff couldn’t believe I ate at his house. ‘You were in the house?’ On the phone he was, ‘Richard’ — he always called me Richard, sort of nice – ‘you want to go to the Magic Castle?’ I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Johnny.’ And I would think somebody imitating him, even though I’d been around him a million times.”
Something Brando once told Cavett — “Because of Nebraska I feel a foolish kinship with you” — applied to Cavett and Carson.
Cavett realized a dream of hosting his own show in ’68 (ABC). In ’69 he went from prime time to late night. A writer supplied a favorite line: “‘Hi, I’m Dick Cavett, I have my own television show, and so all the girls that wouldn’t go out with me in high school — neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah.’ It got one of the biggest laughs. Johnny liked it.”
Getting more than the usual canned ham from guests was a Cavett gift. Solid research helped.
“I often did too much. I’d worry, ‘Oh, God, I’m not going to get to the first, let alone the 12 things I wrote down. Or. ‘I’ve lost the thread again.’ Only to find often the best shows I did had nothing I’d prepared in it. The best advice I ever got, which Jack Paar gave me, was, ‘Kid, don’t ever do an interview, make conversation.’ That’s what Jack did.” A quick wit helps.
At its best TV Talk is a free-flowing seduction. For viewers it’s like peeking in on a private conversation. “Very much so,” he said. “You’d think that can’t be possible because there are lights and bystanders and an audience, and it’s being recorded, and yet I remember often a feeling of breakthrough, almost like clouds clearing. ‘We’re really talking here. I can say anything I want .’”
With superstar celebs like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and his “favorite,” Groucho, Cavett revealed his fandom but grounded it with keen instincts and insights. “That did help. I could see on their faces sometimes, Oh, you knew that about me? I guess I have to confess to a knack of some sort that many people commented about: ‘How did you get me to say those things?’”
He said viewing the boxed-set DVDs of his conversations with Hollywood Greats and Rock Greats reveals “there was a time when nobody plugged anything” on TV. Then everyone became a pimp. “When first it happened it was rare. Then it was joked about,” he said, “and then it got so it was universal — that’s the reason you go on.”
Today’s new social media landscape has him “a bit baffled and bewildered.”
“I have wondered at times what all has changed, what’s so different. It did occur to me the other day looking at the Hollywood Greats DVD — who would be the 15 counterparts today of these people. I might be able to think of three. And that’s not just every generation thinks everything is better in the past than it is now. I know one thing you could start with is the single act that propelled me here — the fact I was able to enter the RCA Building via the 6th Ave. escalators, which were unguarded, and walk up knowing where Paar’s office was, and go to it.”
He not only found Paar but handed him jokes the star used that night on air, netting Cavett a staff writing job. “No career will start that way today,” he said. Then again, some creatives are being discovered via Facebook and YouTube.
In terms of the talk genre, he said, “it doesn’t mean as much to get a big name guest anymore. They’re cheap currency now,” whereas getting Hepburn and Brando “was unthinkable.” He’s dismayed by “how much crap” is on virtually every channel.” He disdains “wretched reality shows” and wonders “what it’s done to the mind or the image people have of themselves that allows them to think they’re still private in ways they’re not anymore.”
Comedy Central is a mixed bag in his opinion. “I like very little of the standup. I don’t see much good stuff. They all are interchangeable to me. They all hold the mike the same and they all say motherfucker the same. You just feel like I may have seen them before or I may not have. And I don’t believe in the old farts of comedy saying ‘we didn’t need to resort to filthy language’ and ‘they don’t even dress well.’ That’s boring, too.”
Cavett’s done “a kind of AARP comedy tour” with Bill Dana, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Dick Gregory. “It was pretty good.” But he’s about more than comedy nostalgia. He enjoys contemporary topical comics Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, about whom he said, “he gives as good as he gets and gets as good as he gives.” He’s fine not having a TV forum anymore: “I’ve lived without it and I got what I wanted mostly I guess in so many ways.” Besides, who needs it when you’re a featured Times’ blogger?
“Yeah, I like that, although it can be penal servitude to meet a deadline.”
His commentaries range from reminiscences to takes on current events/figures. His writing’s smart, acerbic, whimsical, anecdotal. He enjoys the feedback his work elicits. “My God, they’re falling in love with Richard Burton,” he said of reader/viewer reactions to a ditty on the Mad Welshman’s charms. He covers Cheever-Updike to Sarah Palin. “My Palin piece broke the New York Times’ records for distributions, responses, forwarding. The two from that column most quoted about her: ‘She seems to have no first language’ and ‘I felt sorry for John McCain because he aimed low and missed.’ Many, many people extracted those two.”
He said Times Books wants to do a book of the columns.
When his handler came to say our allotted 90 minutes were up, he quipped, “Oh, God, it went by as if it were only 85.” And then, “I’ve got a show tonight but I said everything. Biga has had my best.” Before leaving he asked his picture be taken beside the Cavett-Carson repro. Two Kings of Comedy together again.
I enjoy a unique relationship with acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne that has resulted in my writing several articles on him and his creative process. He has accorded me many in-depth interviews and he’s invited me to the set of three of his feature films. My work has covered the arc of his feature filmmaking career. I hope to do a book about his creative process.
This article appeared in a summer 2009 issue of The Reader just after he had finished directing the pilot for the HBO series Hung and just as he was trying to finalize financing for his long-awaited follow-up to Sideways, a project called Downsizing.
Well, the pilot looked great, although the series only played so-so after that, and Payne never did get enough money people to say yes to Downsizing. This article appeared before either of those things happened. He quickly switched gears and adapted the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel The Descendants, whose Hawaii shoot wraps May 24. It stars George Clooney.
I was invited to visit the set of The Descendants but I just could not make the trip work. However, I did interview Payne and Hemmings about the project and my story about it will appear this spring in The Reader. I hope to catch up with Payne on the set of whatever next film he makes in our shared home state of Nebraska.
Size Matters: The Return of Alexander Payne, Not that He was Ever Gone
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Has it really been five years since Sideways? The 2004 film’s success gave its director and Oscar-winning co-writer Alexander Payne the kind of career momentum few filmmakers ever enjoy. What did he do with it? From a crass POV, he squandered the opportunity when instead of leveraging that critical-commercial hit to make some dream project, he chose not to make anything.
Well, not exactly. He did write and direct the short, 14e Arrondissement, for the 2006 omnibus film, Paris, Je T’aime (Paris, I Love You). He and writing partner Jim Taylor took passes at the scripts for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Baby Mama. In 2007 the pair also began work on a script that turned into an unusually arduous process. Payne hopes to direct that script, Downsizing, next year.
Also, Payne helped produce two films, the disappointing King of California and the sublime The Savages. All those commitments kept him busy, which is how he likes it, but they also made it more difficult to launch a new feature of his own.
Besides the Paris short, he’d actually exposed no film for six years from the time Sideways wrapped in 2003 until last summer, when he shot the pilot episode for the new HBO comedy series Hung. Thomas Jane stars as a typical middle-class American man driven by economic distress to offer his gift to women as a high class escort. The opening episode Payne helmed premiered last Sunday.
Paris notwithstanding, the gap between Sideways and Hung was interminable for this celluloid junkie who once said, “Every day I’m not directing I feel like I die a little.” OK, maybe he was being over-dramatic, but the point is he went a long time not making cinema. He presumably could have had he really wanted. But Payne is nothing if not a considered, deliberate study. Anyone who knows him understands how particular he is when it comes to his work. Everything must be done on his terms. He’ll only shoot after a script’s gone through endless permutations, revisions, vettings, drafts. It must be solid as gold. No question marks, no loose ends.
Given the choice of rushing to follow up Sideways or stepping back to survey his options, he chose the latter course. Thus, the last five years was about regaining his personal/artistic bearings. Things came at him so hard, so fast after Sideways blew up that he lost his equilibrium there for awhile. A breather was in order.
It didn’t help that in the wake of the film taking off he was reeling from his and Sandra Oh’s divorce. Amidst all that, he moved, he had knee surgery, he did a ton of press and he fielded multiple directing offers. He discovered what it’s like to be a hot commodity. It all got to be a bit much and in typical Payne fashion he didn’t want to compromise his principals by just jumping into anything that came along or feeling pressured into a project he really wasn’t passionate about. So, he entered a self-imposed hiatus from shooting. He would only break this pact with himself in the event the right assignment came along at the right time. Paris was such an assignment. He filmed his segment in 2005.
Until last year he hadn’t found anything conducive enough with his sensibilities and schedule to compel him to shoot again. That all changed with Hung. The new HBO series equates America’s desperate new straits to the plight of ex-golden boy Ray Drecker, a one time athletic hero turned high school basketball coach whose life has soured after a run of bad luck that leaves him feeling worthless.
As Payne noted in a recent interview at mid-town’s Caffeine Dreams, this is the first television pilot he said yes to after years of courting by producers. So what made the ever cautious one bite? “Every May I get a couple offers to direct a pilot and I’ve never done so until now because the scripts weren’t good or at least I didn’t like them, or I was busy. But this time Jim Taylor and I had just finished a draft of Downsizing and I was just so eager to shoot something and maybe let Downsizing simmer before coming back to it to do yet another draft, because the script has been so difficult. I thought, Just go make something short, go shoot some film, go beat up some actors, assemble my team.”
Itching to shoot aside, he clearly responded to the series developed by Hung writers-producers Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin (The Riches).
“What interested me,” said Payne, “is that it’s about a guy who loses everything. His house burns down when he’s uninsured, he’s been hit hard in a divorce, and he ends up turning to the only asset he thinks he has left, one that he was born with. And I thought that maybe somehow that was a symbol for America in a way, where so much has been taken away from it that it only has its large member, and however it uses that. So it’s kind of a wacky metaphor but it’s something I could hang my hat on,” he said, smiling wryly, pun fully intended.
The premise may not be Payne’s but given his track record it’s not hard to imagine him envisioning Hung’s scenario. In line with his taste for discerning, critical, original material, Hungexplores the nation’s economic, moral downturn through the prism of an All-American male’s experience gone awry. In this downward spiral Ray does what the sorry, wounded protagonists in Payne’s conception of the world do, he acts out. In this case, the beleaguered Ray turns the one endowment he feels he can market into a second career turning tricks.
Is what Ray does really so different than Ruth Stoops playing her pregnancy off the pro-life/pro-abortion camps for cold hard cash (Citizen Ruth)? Or Jim McAllister giving Tracy her comeuppance by rigging the student body’s vote (Election)? Or Warren Schmidt asserting his emancipation by rashly making an RV road trip and assuaging his guilt by supporting an African orphan (About Schmidt)? Or Miles going off on a self-loathing jag and Jack having his last fling (Sideways)?
Payne’s less sure how consistent Hung is with his oeuvre. “I don’t know if it fits into the body of my work or not but it was fun to do and I was certainly able to bring something to it. I’m proud of the work I did on it. I can’t speak for the rest of the show because they just finished shooting it, but I know the pilot. It speaks well for the pilot that the network did select Hung to be a series because part of that decision is the pilot. And it was really great to work with HBO. They’re awesome.”
As he didn’t write the script, he said, “it’s nothing from my soul,” but that he would respond to Hung makes sense as its creators had his tone in mind when conceptualizing the series.
“It’s funny because we recently found our very first notes from our very first session and we had said months before we had Alexander on board that it should be a comedy with ‘a Paynsian sensibility,’” said Burson. “Alexander finds both the humanity and the comedy in every day life. His movies feel very true and yet they’re very funny. It’s comedy that emerges from truth. Comedy without a wink.”
Further, Burson said, when it came time to pitch a director to HBO Payne’s name was at the top of her and Lipkin’s list. “When we met with HBO and they said to us, ‘Who is your dream director?’ we said our number one choice would be Alexander Payne.” To HBO’s credit, she said, the network didn’t blink. “Two days later he had the material and he called us up.”
Once attached to the project Payne gathered his core crew and went to work. “I then was able to use my line producer, my editor, my costume designer, my second unit director, my assistant. I kind of got my team on board. It was like, let’s just stretch our legs a little before getting back to a feature. And so it was fun.” He only had a small window of time to mount the pilot. “I said yes in May and we were casting and working on the script and scouting locations over the summer and then shooting in September. I finished editing picture at Thanksgiving. And then I did the final sound and music work last month. So I was on the show for a long time.”
He meticulously cast the show and selected its locations.
“The way we’re cast has everything to do with Alexander,” said Burson. “Alexander is very old school about it. He insisted on auditioning everyone. He has such an eye for it and such a clear notion for what we should be looking for. The other thing he was very demanding about was locations. He really wanted just the right house (for Ray). A lot of people assume it’s a set, it’s not, it’s the house Alexander found next to the huge mansion Alexander found. He searched for it for weeks.”
The ill-fated house and McMansion next door sit on an a Michigan lakefront beach.
Payne has a theory why feature directors like himself are sought after for pilots: “They figure a feature director might be a little bit more adept at creating the world of the show, helping cast it, helping determine the look, helping pick some of the creative and then beginning to shape something out of nothing that can then be used as a template for the show henceforth.” Not only is it a chance to shape a world but to work on a more intimate scale. “It’s fun to work in miniature and one puts no less attention,” he said. TV production is faster and cheaper, but he said the budget and schedule allotted Hung’s pilot was generous.
“The nice thing about a pilot with respect to the rest of the episodes is that typically a network lavishes more time and money into the making of the pilot. I was able to direct it in a way as a very small feature as opposed to a TV show.”
His pilot does indeed read richer and deeper than episode two. Where his work has the fullness of a lush feature, the other is flat, plastic, unrefined. Double entendres only take you so far. Like Ray calling himself “a happiness consultant.”
As Payne was regarded a kindred spirit, he came in not just as a hired hand but a full-fledged creative collaborator. “We’re very aligned creatively with him. We tend to be very particular. With almost every scene he shot we felt he would almost be reading our minds,” said Lipkin. Added Burson, “He kept telling us, ‘I’m your faithful gardener and I just want to nurture your vision and help it to grow.’”
One way he did that was to emphasize place. Set in Detroit, the pilot parallels the city’s and car industry’s dissolution with Ray’s. Just as longtime titans Ford and GM have devolved into corporate derelicts seeking bailouts and Detroit a wasteland awaiting rescue, Ray’s a former Mr. Big turned nobody who prostitutes himself. The series means to be a running commentary on the middle class being marginalized. Payne liked the rich subtext Burson and Lipkin gave him to work with.
“It’s rare for me to direct something I haven’t written, although Jim Taylor and I did do a little bit of polishing to the script, but it’s still basically the vision of the writers/producers,” he said. “But actually they were collaborative enough with me. In bringing me on they allowed me to kind of take their work and interpret it my way and bring concerns I would find interesting into relief, like the fact that it was set in Detroit. Now it was set in suburban Detroit because they wanted to have somehow the idea of lake houses as symbols to explore class. You know, where there are these huge nouveu monstrosities being built next door to old mom-and-pop cabins on lake shores. The creators wanted that dynamic.
“The car companies faltering and the recession beginning were elements I wanted to bring out more strongly in this pilot. I wanted to make Detroit much more of a character and to really bring the foundering economy and car business into focus because it’s about a guy who’s down on his luck.”
He’s particularly successful at that in the opening montage. He portrays iconic American symbols in assorted states of desolation, from heaps of discarded cars in junkyards to abandoned auto manufacturer headquarters and factories to the razing of Tiger Stadium, all punctuated by Ray’s bitter, ironic narration.
“Everything’s falling apart and it all starts right here in Detroit, the head waters of a river of failure. Thank God my parents aren’t around to watch the country they loved go to shit. They were proud Americans. They had normal jobs and made a normal living. They fit in. They weren’t kicked up the ass every day of their lives by property taxes and home owners associations…What would I tell them if they saw me? That I’m not to blame, that it’s not my fault? They didn’t raise me that way. They taught me to take responsibility and get the job done. No excuses. You do your best with whatever gifts God gave you…”
As the American empire declines the nation resorts to defining itself by its big stick. Now that America doesn’t make anything anymore, it’s all about posturing. Ray Drecker’s an emblem for that warped psyche. Show creators Burson and Lipkin describe “the burden of being hung” that Ray carries with him as an “existential state.” In a Shakespearean sense, Ray’s dilemma is what he and his dick are meant to be or not to be. Or, if you prefer a classical Greek analogy, Burson and Lipkin suggest that Ray accepts his burden as “his calling.” Prostitution as quest.
As the American empire declines the nation resorts to defining itself by its big stick. Now that America doesn’t make anything anymore, it’s all about posturing. Ray Drecker’s an emblem for that warped psyche. Show creators Burson and Lipkin describe “the burden of being hung” that Ray carries with him as an “existential state.” In a Shakespearean sense, Ray’s dilemma is what he and his dick are meant to be or not to be. Or, if you prefer a classical Greek analogy, Burson and Lipkin suggest that Ray accepts his burden as “his calling.” Prostitution as quest.
It is the oldest profession. Ray discovers selling yourself as a sex toy in this social media age is as easy as posting online ads of your attributes and services. A good hook helps. Transactions are fast, easy, anonymous. Safe? You be the judge. A victimless crime? It depends. After all, who’s using who here? Then again, there’s little overhead and you’re your own boss. Did anyone mention it’s illegal?
Ray soon finds prostitution a cold, hard business that leaves him feeling rather, well, empty when he’s through. As with everything, illicit sex comes with a price. Leading a double life means lying in order to skip out of classes, practices, games and family doings to attend to business. That means complications. The guilt, the hypocrisy, the fear of being found out come with the job. Boundaries get blurred. Maintaining his alter ego, not to mention living up to his appendage, is hard work. There’s real pressure to perform. A lot of these clients are demanding.
There’s also Ray’s journey in the land of estrogen. In school he got any girl he wanted and he stayed married 20 years to his wife, Jessica (Anne Heche), so he’s not had to work very hard at understanding women. Now that Jessica’s left him and he’s in the trade of servicing females, he gets a rude awakening into what women want. “The gender dynamics,” as Burson calls them, are more than Ray bargained for. In episode two he asks, “Why can’t they just fuck me for me?”
Thomas Jane plays Ray with the crumbling sardonic veneer of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. Holden’s character, Joe Gills, is a once promising screenwriter now on the skids who deals with the degradation of being a gigolo to an aged ex-screen goddess. Jane’s character, Ray, is a once Saturday hero who must come to terms with being reduced to a human dildo. As Ray’s new at this he needs a “business manager.” Enter Tanya Skagle, a minor poet who is his occasional lay and full-time pimp. Jane Adams plays Tanya with the nihilistic cynicism of Jane Fonda in Klute. Ray and Tanya make a matched set. He’s the sad picture of what happens to many sports stars after the parade’s gone by and they wind up whores in the broadcast booth, in commercials, in movies, in books, playing off their old glory. Ray’s not in that league and so his prostitution is of the down-and-dirty variety.
Tanya’s the classic starving artist with no real prospect of being discovered and, so, she sells out. In lieu of a grant or residency she rides the next best thing that comes around and prostitutes her own creative bent to exploit it.
Circumstances bring these seeming opposites — the macho jock and ditzy Beat — together. Deep down, they’re not so different. Each leads a life of quiet desperation. Each feels at the end of the rope. Each hungers for a way out: Ray from under the mess he’s in; Tanya from the treadmill she’s on. They also fit the classic addict mold of using sex to fill the void they feel inside. Even though Payne didn’t conceive these characters, he could have. They resonate with his universe of flawed, disaffected souls in search of, if not love, then attention, affirmation.
It is a Paynsian world alright and he could have easily made Hung a comfortable, ongoing gig. “They wanted me very much to direct as many episodes as I wanted,” he said. But, he added, “doing the pilot was enough for me.”
The last thing he wanted was getting stuck on a show that delayed his return to features anymore. Not when he’s close to finally sealing the deal on Downsizing, the epic comedy with sci-fi trappings whose script he and Taylor have labored over for three years.
Several factors contributed to Downsizing’s protracted development. There were the script-for-hire projects Payne and Taylor did and the films Payne produced. The fact the filmmakers live on separate coasts means they can’t always get together and write when they’d like. Then there’s the mind-numbing process of inking a deal. “I am in that hideous process of trying to find financing for it. It has to do with casting, it has to do with a lot of stuff. These things always take a little longer than you think. I’m working on it every day,” he said eight weeks ago.” Little had changed by mid-June except that the final draft was complete and he was anxious for a green light.
But the main problem with Downsizing has been accommodating its ambitious themes.
“Without giving the concept away, the concept is so big that it’s been difficult to tame the idea into a manageable size,” said Payne. “Feature filmmaking is frustrating a little bit in that you have to keep a two-hour limit in mind. You can’t add on to the world of the story you’re telling like you can in a novel or in a mini-series. Filmmaking is a search for economy, so you’re always finding ways to tell more story in less time. That’s why the script is as concentrated as possible.
“It’s just been a challenge because there are two stories at work in the script — one is the story of the world and the other is the story of our lead character (reportedly Paul Giamatti’s part but Payne won’t confirm). To tell both of those stories responsibly, in a way I as an audience member would be satisfied, and then have it all wrap up in a manageable, directable length, within a certain budget…”
Ironically, in a film about scale, Payne’s agonized over cutting it down to size. He refuses to be constrained by “the burden of making it like this or that. Like any film, I want it to be what it wants to be,” he said. That means “taking artistic risks.”
The high concept behind it will require visual effects and the sprawling story it tells will necessitate a four-month shoot, making the film a big budget undertaking, at least by his standards. That’s why securing financing has been a struggle. Well, that and the rather odd hook the story hangs on.
“It’s about the idea of people miniaturizing as a panacea to the world’s ills. It’s a comedy with that premise but that takes that idea very seriously, like that it actually happens and what might be a consequence of that,” he said.
He discussed the social-political issues that are its context. “Overpopulation is our single greatest problem,” he said. “So many things stem from that — famine, disease, war, climate change, over-fishing the seas, cutting down the rain forests. They say this planet is sustainable for about 100 million people, and we’ve long passed that. So, long-term, what are we going to do? Start slaughtering? Or let war, famine, natural disasters do that for us? Or colonize other planets? Or, what if we just reduce our mass and volume?” he said, laughing. “So I’ve said too much.”
If things go to plan he’ll do preproduction in the summer/fall and start shooting after the first of the year. About a third of the film would be Nebraska-based. If there’s a hang-up, he has a backup project ready, Nebraska, a father-son road pic he “can jump into.” Downsizing “is by far my priority,” he said. “But Nebraska would be a very attractive film to make at anytime. I’m just ready to shoot.” Until cameras roll his next public gig here will be the Sept. 13 Film Streams fundraiser, A Conversation with Debra Winger. He’ll interview the actress on stage at the Holland per the Laura Dern program he did last year. Payne’s a Film Streams board member.
He admires the mercurial Winger. “I think Debra Winger is so interesting. Meryl Streep-like early on. Like, wow, is there nothing she cannot play and bring such emotional depth to? And then the fact she’s disappeared from movies, so there’s a mystique about her. She rarely does this kind of stuff, like never, and so when I called her up the first thing I said was, ‘You will not get an award and you are not being honored. It’s a retrospective of your films at a very serious film place.’”
To sweeten the pot, she will select films from her career along with two that have inspired her. The idea of Payne having her back on stage helped. He assured her their conversation will not be personal “but just about film nerd stuff.” “We’re really excited to have her,” he said.
Film nerds are excited Payne’s back, too.
Future HBO playdates for the Payne-directed Hung pilot are July 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 23; the pilots plays HBO2 on July 4. Check local listings for times.
This story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in the after-glow of Alexander Payne’s triumph with Sideways, whose unexpected success had mixed effects on the filmmaker. When I met with him in Omaha for the interview that led to this story he was a bit put out by everything that had come at him after Sideways. Offers and requests and inquiries to a new order or scale than ever before. Because he and I go back a long ways and he trusts me, he opens up to me in ways that perhaps he doesn’t with other interviewers. I believe you’ll find his comments insightful for how much he reveals about himself here and how much thought he gives things. It was a vulnerable time in his life for other reasons, too, and I think that vulnerability really comes out in the piece.
Alexander Payne’s Post-’Sideways’ Blues
In the Wake of His Oscar-win the Filmmaker Draws Inward to Reflect on the New Status He Owns and What It May Mean
©by Leo Adam Biga Published in a 2005 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Alexander Payne’s Oscar win for Sideways officially anointed him a member of American film royalty. His ascendancy to Hollywood’s ruling class, no matter how short-lived it proves, increased the already intense courting of him that began when the picture morphed from nice little adult comedy to big fat hit. With his coronation complete, everybody wants a piece of him, all of which makes the reflective Payne deliberate ever more carefully about his next move.
On a recent Omaha visit, the filmmaker looked tired describing the deluge of requests, deals, offers and scripts he gets these days. This followed an exhausting awards and festival season that saw him do extensive media. He presided over the A Certain Regard jury at Cannes. As the breakup of his marriage to actress Sandra Oh goes through the courts, he’s in the process of moving. With so much in the offing and at stake, grabbing at just anything would be a mistake.
After all, when the world is offered up on a silver platter, you don’t bite off more than you can chew. As Payne recently put it, “You eat too much birthday cake and you get sick.” With “a whole new level of having to deal with stuff coming at me,” he said, he’s taking a step back to “catch my breath” and to go into “life maintenance” mode before “getting back to work.”
“I’m just surrendering for about four more months. I’m really not doing anything for a feature film, other than thinking and reading some scripts that come in,” he said. “I’m getting a knee operation. I’m moving from one house to another. Dealing with the divorce. I’ve a little more travel to do. After I do this life stuff then I’ll start to think about what my next film is, because once you start a feature film you’re scuba diving under water for two years. The rest of your life goes away, which I prefer. I prefer to be scuba diving.”
He almost forgot to mention an international project he’s part of called Paris, I Love You. This anthology or omnibus film will interweave 20 commissioned shorts, each a rumination on Parisian culture, by some of world cinema’s leading artists, including Payne, into a feature-length tribute to the City of Light. He’ll shoot his five-minute segment there, specifically in the 14th Arrondisement, in September.
“From where I am in my life right now, the idea of making a short film in a distant city sounded appealing,” he said. “And part of the reason is precisely that I don’t know Paris well at all.”
Paris sojourn aside, he’s retreating for the moment to let things die down and sink in before taking the plunge again.
The eminence attending Oscar has vaulted Payne into rarefied company. It began as soon as he accepted his statuette. “People wanted to hold it. It was a little like handing over the ring in Lord of the Rings. Then, other people didn’t want to touch it thinking it would jinx their own chances of winning one day,” he said, “It’s too early to tell whether it has changed my own perception of my worth.” He expressed mixed feelings about what it all confers.
“On the one hand, I think, Oh, I guess I’m a ‘made guy’ now. On the other hand, I think, Oh, I’ve won an Oscar, mainstream seal of approval. What did I do wrong?”
The real question is where does he go from here and how does he remain true to himself amid all the swirl?
This is not entirely new territory for the writer-director. Even with only four features to his credit, he’s enjoyed an exulted position for some time now. He was a previous Academy Award nominee for Election. His About Schmidt was selected for the main competition at Cannes, closed the 2002 New York Film Festival and received several Oscar nominations in addition to grossing more than $100 million. Moreover, Schmidt proved to Hollywood insiders that Payne could shepherd a successful vehicle with a major star — Jack Nicholson — thereby making the filmmaker more packagable. As Payne said, “Anymore, I view success as a commodity to help get the next film made.”
Often overlooked in his rise up the industry ladder is the “sell-out” work he and writing collaborator Jim Taylor, the co-Oscar-winning scenarist of Sideways, do as script doctors. They did rewrites for mega-hits Meet the Parents and Jurassic Park III. They just finished their latest job-for-hire on Universal’s I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy about a pair of Phillie firefighters who feign being a gay couple, all the way to the altar, to qualify for job health benefits unavailable to single straight men. “We want to rename it Flamers,” Payne said, smiling.
Then there’s what he calls the Sideways “tsunami.” Even though he went through the gauntlet onSchmidt, he was taken aback when Sideways hit. Its success, and all the attention it brought, he said, has been “the most disorienting” experience of his career. Before its general release, he perceived the project as “a nice little movie.” He politely turned down a request from the Cannes Film Festival to submit the pic for competition, explaining to officials, “I don’t think it’s big enough.’” His view was reinforced when it was “turned down for competition” in Venice. So, when the buzz ignited, he was naturally surprised.
“I was caught off guard for the amount of stuff coming at me. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s put me in a highly reactive rather than active mode. Like, much more of my time is spent answering inquiries about using me than doing my work. It’s meant a lot of travel. My number of e-mails has increased vastly. Also the number of requests I get to read scripts and to do things for charity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great. I’m grateful. I have interesting access to people nowadays. But nothing in life is clean cut. It’s all a mixed bag. Like all these people asking, ‘Will you read my script?’ I don’t even have time to go to the gym. If I say no to being on a charity’s board of directors, does it mean I’m an asshole? When Jim and I started we never hit anybody up for anything. It’s like, not cool.”
An example of the heat surrounding him, even pre-Oscar, came at a University of Nebraska at Omaha symposium he gave in December, when an overflow crowd of students, aspirants and acolytes energized the Eppley Auditorium, charging the air with adulation and fascination. Sure, that was on his home turf, but cut to a scene six months later at the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for a June 3 program kicking off a week-long retrospective of his work. Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio film critic Kenneth Turan interviewed Payne on stage of the Walker cinema before a full crowd every bit as juiced as the one in Omaha. Yes, Payne’s a hot ticket wherever he goes these days.
As his fame grows Payne finds some see him differently. “They see me in a new context. Not everybody. Not close friends. That doesn’t change. But sometimes, I experience the perception of others change more than I change. I’m like, ‘Are you sure it’s me? I mean, I didn’t return your phone calls before.’”
Even before opening nationwide, Sideways caused a stir at the Toronto Film Festival that carried over to its closing night slot at the NY Film Festival, where Payne’s a favorite son. By the time Sideways cleaned up at the Independent Spirit Awards and earned five Oscar nods, including for Best Picture and Best Director, it was a bona fide commercial/critical success. To date, the film has grossed some $115 million worldwide after topping out at $75 million domestic.
While the film won but a single Oscar, for Best Adapted Screenplay, an award Payne and Taylor shared, the fact that it was in the running at all in the major categories and that it did this without the benefit of a name actor, has given Payne a cache only the regal and the hot are accorded.
Then there’s the breakout aspect of Sideways that, as Payne’s first feature made outside Nebraska, perhaps once and for all removed the Omaha tag from his filmmaker’s profile, a label some sought to define him and and his work by.
As he told Kenneth Turan that night at the Walker, “I get so sick of the question, ‘Why Omaha?’ because I always think you never ask Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen that question about New York. It’s just that they happen to be from there. Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson happen to be from L.A., and you don’t ask that question, Why L.A.? And, you know, I like to point out that Fellini shot early on in Rimini (the Italian filmmaker’s hometown) and he returned later on in Amarcord. And I just think in many arts you feel a necessity somehow to connect to that home base. I was and I am sick of seeing films really only set in L.A., which I feel is an anomalous place within this country and yet it’s shown to the world as being typical . It’s only because the film business is located there and they’re too lazy to get out of town.
“Excuse my tirade, but we’re all so anxious to see a version of ourselves mirrored in art and in cinema. I didn’t grow up seeing myself — a Midwesterner — in film. Instead of asking me how did where I come from shape me as a filmmaker, the real question is, how does where I come from have do with me as a person? It’s a great place to grow up. You know, good values and a good rhythm of life. A certain honesty and a certain sense of humor. Omaha is of the Midwest that way, but also specific to itself. I like to get reality in film and to somehow take a documentary approach in fiction filmmaking, and yet I felt I needed to get it right first in Omaha – in the place I knew best — before I could move on.
“I think if Sideways is successful at all in terms of getting a sense of Santa Barbara it’s because I was armed with tools I had learned in finally starting to get in right in About Schmidt, which was made in Omaha.”
By proving he could apply the same precisely-honed satire and well-observed scrutiny to character and place in Santa Barbara as he did in Omaha he’s opened a universe of possibilities once denied him by the suits.
“Generally, when you finish a film and it has some notoriety, there’s a short window of opportunity where stuff comes at you and people are interested in you before they move on to the next big thing. From observation, successful directors generally have about 10 years where you are in touch with the Zeitgeist. You can go from film to film, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Before that and after that it’s a little harder. You might still be doing good, honest work, but it’s not hitting. You don’t generate excitement. Your films are not met with a sense of event. You’re still respected, but it’s not quite the same thing. Knowing how to capitalize on that window is something I continue to witness and is something I haven’t known how to do until recently,” he said.
He intends using his new found leverage — by not going after riches but staying close to his heart. That’s why he’s taking his time before inking his next project.
“I always do really think out what my next film is going to be. I mean, that’s a big commitment, so you always want it to be right, and yet not over think it. But I’m thinking how could I use this opportunity to get something made which otherwise would be difficult to get made. And I don’t know exactly what that it is…Ideally, I want to use whatever ‘power’ I’m getting to make increasingly more personal films, not impersonal films. That’s where you can really use your power — to make more personal films more successfully.”
Payne’s insistence on adhering to his vision fits squarely within his overarching concern for the state of American cinema today, which he feels is disconnected from the potent issues of our time. He awaits a film movement, akin to what evolved in the ‘70s, that closely reflects what’s happening in society.
“In what’s a horrible time for the world in general and particularly for America, I’m hoping that will translate into a wonderfully vital time for cinema. Now, I think it’s a time when in many aspects of life we need to change the form and change the language a little bit. Drive around Omaha and you see a homogenization of architecture and commerce that didn’t used to be here. Where there used to be something individual, there’s now a Walgreens or Walmart. Like what corporations have done to the look of this country and the feel of the country, in my little corner of activity there’s a homogenization going on in the movies of this country. So, individual practitioners have to avoid homogenization, which means coming up with new and personal things and getting them out there.”
Always the film buff, Payne applies an informed analysis to cinema trends and influences. He’s intimately familiar with such models of ground breaking cinema as the Italian Neorealist movement and the French New Wave. But, as with any cineaste, he has his own favorite patterns to draw on.
“For me, I look at Italian films of the ‘60s and American films of the ‘70s. Certainly with the great Italian films of the ‘60s, each new film was positing a new idea of what a film could be. 8 1/2. La Dolce Vita. The Leopard. L’avventura. La notte. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Once Upon a Time in the West. Bertolucci’s 1900. They’re all really different. All narrative. All entertaining. All meaningful and humanist. But all different forms with different and new uses of film language. In American films of the ‘70s, there is, among others, Little Big Man, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Film was very political then. At least you had consistent themes of an individual alienated within the society he lives. We need movies like that now. That’s the kind of American cinema I want. Maybe it’s going to take a little while, because from idea to getting it out there is at least two years.”
Prior to the Sideways crush, he was thinking in terms of his next film being political and referring to some of America’s disturbing actions and policies that make the nation a corporate-run caste system at home and a reactionary military-industrial pariah overseas. That still seems to be the general direction he’s leaning, although there’s no single core idea for a film that’s coalesced yet with he and Taylor.
He’s aware of the expectation to make large-scale, star-heavy pics now that he’s in demand and in line to get them made, but that’s the farthest thing from his mind.
“Often, in superficial interviews, people ask, ‘So, are you going to make your big movie now?’ Well, what does that mean? That’s such an American question. As if these little films don’t really exist other than as a stepping stone toward ultimately making big budget, very commercial films,” he said. “And, I guess, I could make one of those films in the way they mean, but the final consideration for me is always — what’s the story? I mean, if I had gotten into this for the money, I wouldn’t have gotten into this. I would have gone to law school or gone into another field because certainly success in film is most unassured. It’s nice to know it’s out there if you come up with a story that needs a lot of money behind it. Who wouldn’t like to say, Action, and see a bunch of people on horses come over a hill? That might be fun. What is it Orson Welles said? A movie set is the greatest electric train set a kid ever had. On the other hand, it gets back to — what’s the story?”
Clearly, whatever he decides to make his next film, will evolve organically, not as some take-the-money-and-run career move.
“I remain very inner-directed. There’s the films you choose and the ideas that choose you,” he said, “and, anymore, I believe ideas really choose me. I’ll be thinking about one thing and suddenly this other idea comes and I’m like, ‘Oh…go away…ugh,” he said, clasped hands mimicking an idea grabbing him by the throat.
Meeting up with the right idea is a state of mind. “You have to be open, and that’s really what I’ve set out as my task these months — being open,” he said, adding that discovery is at the core of cinema. “Making a film is not the execution of an idea, it’s a process of discovering what that film is. And, so, you just discover day by day. In screenwriting, Jim and I don’t outline. Every day, it’s — What is this film going to be? When making a film you have two questions boomeranging in your mind. One is, What is a film? And the other is, What is this film? You remain open to what ideas come to you in your sleep or that a P.A. brings you on the set.”
In that discovery, his collaboration with creative department heads is key. Payne’s working relationships with Taylor, art director Jane Ann Stewart, editor Kevin Tent, composer Rolfe Kent and producer George Parra go back to the early ‘90s.
“We elicit the film from one another, and it’s all due to the quality of questions we ask each other. Often, we don’t have to say anything. We have a shorthand. We’re a team. We feel like family. When there’s love on the set and not just professional associations, it makes a difference,” he said. “We look forward to each new film so we can spend more time together.”
Payne said the way he and Taylor apprehend the world is why their films are the way they are. “The films are very much an expression of how we occur together and hang out. The critics talked a lot about how Sideways successfully mixes comedy and pathos or makes some hairpin turns in tone, which we’re not necessarily aware of when writing it. It’s just all what we like, without prejudice. We’re like, Oh, that’s funny…that’s meaningful, whether looking at other people or at the pathetic aspects of our own lives. That’s the type of stuff we talk about.”
More and more, his process resonates with something author Gabriel Garcia Marquez said — that creation is memory. Whether drawn from memory, a book, a play or an article, Payne feels whatever film story he writes is an original, whereas Taylor feels every story is an adaptation. In any event, Payne said, “we write a script based on our memory” of the source material, thereby making it their own.
Until further notice, Payne’s being a receptacle for ideas, one or two of which he hopes triggers that instinctual response, “Oh, that’s a comedy.” He wouldn’t mind a great script “dropping in his lap” either. However it happens, he’ll soon enough don his scuba gear for another dive into the filmmaking depths.
Meanwhile, he’s got the shards of a life to pick up and reassemble. Truth be told, it’s all a distraction until his muse fixes him up with his next exploration of flawed, unscripted lives going off track. Then it’s magic time again, when he and his movie family reunite to find the discoveries that go into making cinema art.
“I’ve got to get back to work…and have a vacation.”