Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Alexander Payne's Post-'Sideways' Blues

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 1/2La Dolce VitaThe LeopardL’avventuraLa notteThe Good, the Bad and the UglyOnce 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 ManNashvilleMcCabe 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.”

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