Tuesday, May 11, 2010

'Every day I'm not directing, I feel like a die a little'-Alexander Payne

Where Alexander Payne was somewhat frazzled after Sideways hit big and the attendant fallout put on a strain on his life at a time when he was dealing with a lot of other things, he was soon back to his old self again. This story, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), charts how Payne came out of his Sideways funk to attend to a series of projects that engaged him in film but that also delayed him from making a followup feature.  He didn’t know then it would be another three or four years before he finally got everything together to make that follow up feature, which was meant to be Downsizing but has ended up being The Descendants.
Here, Payne is at his witty, analytical best.
‘Every day I’m not directing, I feel like I die a little’ -Alexander Payne
After a Year of Largely Producing-Writing Other People’s Projects, He Sets His Sights on His Next Film
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in a 2006 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Appearing calmer than he did in 2005, when still in the exhausting grip of Sideways mania and the fallout of his divorce from Sandra Oh, a relaxed Alexander Payne was back in Omaha the past couple weeks, eager to resume work. For those curious about what’s he been up to since Sideways, he answers, “I got busy.” It’s why he’s been out of touch so long. “It’s not just a line, I’ve been busy,” he reiterates. True enough, but aside from a short film project he did in Paris he’s largely been embroiled in work not his own. And that drives him crazy.
He’s helped produce two feature films out this year. The Savages stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. The King of California stars Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood. Payne’s a close friend of the filmmakers. He’s an executive producer on Savages, written-directed by Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills), the wife of Payne’s writing partner Jim Taylor. He’s a full producer on King, whose writer-director Michael Cahill was a film school buddy of Payne’s at UCLA.
Payne’s been collaborating on the script of Taylor’s first directing job, The Lost Cause. The pair also did a rewrite on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry before Adam Sandler signed on opposite Kevin James and “brought in his own people” to, as Payne put it, “Sandlerize it and, quite frankly, dumb it up.”
The real news is the Omaha native has finally fixed on what his next film will be and it turns out it’ll bring him back home, perhaps by the fall of 2008. He won’t say much else other than he and Taylor are well along on the script, a first draft of which they hope to complete this year. The idea for it is one he’s kicked around a while but it was only last year he “began to think of it in a new way” that made it click. In the past he’s referred to the concept as a vehicle for expressing his dismay and disgust with American attitudes and policies. He won’t go as far to call it politically charged, but he gives the impression it will be a pointed satire.
“All I know is I hope it will be funny,” he said in what’s become his stock answer to queries about his works in progress. “The only thing I’ll tell you is what’s new about it for Jim and me is it has a little bit of a science fiction premise, which functions more as a metaphor than a…anyway, that’s all,” he said, catching himself in mid-teaser lest he reveal too much of the still fragile script.
Also new is that “Omaha figures a lot in this one,” he said. “As we have it currently configured about a third of the film would shoot here, but it’s a much longer film than any I’ve made before, so even a third of the film is a good hunk.” He would never consider covering Omaha somewhere else. “I believe in place,” he said.
Payne’s growing place in the industry, which avidly awaits his next film, was made tangible a couple years ago when he, Taylor and producer Jim Burke formed the production-development company Ad Hominem. In the process they struck a first-look deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures that gives the studio first dibs on any projects the filmmakers develop. A producer on Election, Burke was brought in to manage the Santa Monica-officed Hominem’s small staff. Taylor also has a support person in New York, where he lives. Fox Searchlight did such a good job handling Sideways that Payne inked the studio pact, a move he’d avoided doing until now.
“We’d been talking about it for a while,” Payne said, “but it wasn’t until after Sideways we decided to take the possibility more seriously. Actually, Jim (Taylor) is the one who kind of spearheaded it. I’ve never wanted to have one of these deals before because you never know whom you’re dealing with exactly and I’ve never had as harmonious a filmmaking experience as I had with Sideways and Fox Searchlight. We’d be happy to make another movie with them. They were great. Jim really thought it (the deal) would be a good idea and he was right.
“A first look deal is where a studio just kind of pays for some overhead and you have people working for you in an office and in exchange they (Fox) get first right of negotiation…first crack at anything we do. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to make it, but they get a short window of time in which to decide if they want to do it and, if not, it’s in effect a free ball. And it just kind of formalizes good will and relationship between filmmakers and studio. Besides..the company allows Jim and me to have extra eyes and ears out there reading books or accepting scripts, taking phone calls. Otherwise, we’re doing it all ourselves and not getting our work done. It’s just sort of there to facilitate us.”
Hominem serves another purpose, one taking more and more of Payne’s time, namely to help nudge friends’ projects from limbo to realization. He said the company gives he and Taylor a framework to “on a very selective basis help, enable or foster…those films getting made. And we’ve done one so far, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages…She was having a very hard time getting that film off the ground, even with the wonderful cast of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So, finally our agreeing to come on as executive producers helped it reach the tipping point to getting it made.”
He said the resulting film, shot mainly in New York and a bit in Sun City, Az.,  is “ultimately funny and sad and real. Great performances. They’re very human.”
Sporting a Hydra-head of overflowing locks, Payne broke his long silence to sit down for an exclusive interview with The Reader at M’s Pub in the Old Market. It felt like catching up with someone returned from an odyssey. That’s how removed he’s been from the media these past several months. It’s not that he disappeared in the wake of Sideways, the little picture that blew up bigger than anyone expected and deservedly won Payne and Taylor Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. But after the barrage of press junkets, film festivals, awards shows and requests came at him faster and heavier than for any of his earlier films, he did retreat inward, largely avoiding any public life.
Two summers ago he spoke of “trying to get away from letting myself be trapped by the demands of others on my time.” This time, he said, “I’m trying to be a private citizen.” He’s managed to avoid the tabloids but he’s had mixed success with the bit about getting back to work.
There was Paris, j’taime, a made-in-Paris anthology film that commissioned 21 filmmakers from around the world, Payne among them, to ruminate about love as manifested in Old Paree. Payne wrote-directed one of the 21 segments, 14th arrondissement, and portrayed Oscar Wilde wandering in a cemetery in another — director Wes Craven’s Père-Lachaise. He enjoyed the experience if for no other reason than, as he told a Canadian reporter at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where he hosted a screening of the film, “The timing was right, and I never really spent time in Paris, only as a tourist once.”

This time he spent two months there, late August through late October 2005, prepping three or four weeks, filming two days and editing over three or four weeks more. He got to enjoy some of the Parisian milieu, including a celebration marking the restoration of the Le Grand Palais, complete with a light show and the music of Debussy and Ravel. “It was delightful to be in Paris,” he said, adding the best part was being back at work again. “It was really great to make a film. And it turned out pretty well.” His segment is seen last in the anthology.
He wrote 14th arrondissement for actress Margo Martindale (the white trash mom of Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby). She plays a dour Denver letter carrier living out a dream to visit Paris only to be depressed once in the City of Lights. He first noticed her a decade ago in Lorenzo’s Oil. “She’s a wonderful actress,” he said.
The way the French production was set up recalled his old UCLA days. “Making Paris, j’taime was a little like film school, which is at any given time there were two or three directors working and it was literally on one floor of a building in Paris,” he said. With filmmakers, cast and crew around in a communal setting, a director might ask anyone passing by — “‘What are you doing tomorrow?’” — and stick them in front of the camera. That’s how he ended up getting cast for his on-screen gig.
“As I was finishing my segment Wes Craven was about to shoot his and they needed someone to play Oscar Wilde,” he said, “and I got the part the way most actors get parts, which is that three other actors passed. They just saw me in the hall walking from the editing room to the bathroom and they saw my long hair…I didn’t want to do it. I told them I’m a terrible actor, but they didn’t care. So Wes Craven put me in it. It was fun. I acted opposite Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer, a couple of English thesps. It was fine. But I’m really glad I don’t want to be an actor.”
Upon his return to the States he spent late 2005 and early 2006 working on The Lost Cause and I Now Pronounce You and searching for a project to direct. At one point last year he came back to research a pic focusing on the lives and journeys of Latino immigrants who migrate here to work in south-central Nebraska meat packing plants. He audaciously envisioned it as a Spanish-language film.
“I went to Lexington and Schuyler (Neb.) and started to talk to people at UNO and UNL who are studying this phenomenon,” he said. “I like immigrant stories. I don’t think we’ve had one for a while and since I speak Spanish it just makes sense. You know, who are these people? How do they live? And if he likes the part I would offer the lead to Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside)…the greatest European actor of our generation and I would bring him to Nebraska.”
Payne’s put the project aside for the time being, just as he’s done with a road trip comedy he adores called Nebraska that he pledges “I’m still going to do some day.”
Much of his 2006 though was taken up by producing, something he gladly did to help friends out but that he’s also had his fill of for now.
The title “producer” has many variations and meanings. Someone in a full producing capacity pulls projects together, brokers deals, keeps productions on track, troubleshoots, et cetera. An executive producer pulls strings. Some producers are glorified consultants or go-betweens. Payne’s received producing credits before on projects outside his own, most notably his friend Kevin Kennedy’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon, which filmed a scene or two in Omaha.
For Savages, which tells the story of two adult siblings (Hoffman and Linney) obliged to care for the ailing elderly father (Philip Bosco) that never cared for them, the executive producer title Payne assumed fell in the advisory realm. Taylor was also an executive producer on it and Jim Burke one of its assundry other producers.
Savages writer/director Tamara Jenkins said Payne “has really great instincts” when it comes to suggestions for improving the script or refining the edit. She said rather than making conceptual or esoteric comments, his are “utterly practical and very helpful. I like that about Alexander,” she said.
Payne said his “own personal role” on the project has been more “as creative advisor. I read the screenplay very thoroughly and gave notes. I watch all the cuts and give notes. I show up at all the meetings. I’m just sort of there.” He visited the set two or three times. Otherwise, he said, Jim Burke spent the most time on set, dealing with “some difficulties in production that needed the extra care our involvement was able to provide.
“You know, it probably kind of formalizes something I probably would have been to a great extent doing anyway as a friend of the project. Jim Taylor, because he’s married to the director, would have got sucked in regardless. But it makes the director feel as though there’s one more official element of protection and makes the studio feel there’s one more official element of expertise involved.”
Jenkins said Payne encouraged Fox Searchlight, which earlier passed on Savages, to reconsider the project. When Jenkins went to pitch Fox again, Payne, Taylor and Burke accompanied her. “Nobody said anything but I did have all these men sitting behind me that were pretty formidable,” Jenkins said. “It certainly made me feel good and it sort of created a sense that somebody should pay a little bit more attention than they were. And I think that’s what happened. It was kind of like walking into a room with back up.”
“Precisely,” King of California director Michael Cahill said of the support and influence Payne provided him. “Alexander has helped me to get things creatively I might not have been able to get just by the force of his imprimatur. At the same time I’ve been able to run things by him, this being my first feature film, to sort of understand how the machine works. He’s helped me with that quite a bit.”
Novelist (A Nixon Man) turned filmmaker Cahill’s King is a story of a mentally ill man (Douglas) who goes on a quest with his daughter (Wood) to find a treasure of gold doubloons he’s convinced lies beneath their suburban neighborhood.
“The film is very much a whimsical comment on how real estate development is killing our planet,” Payne said. “The father and daughter are a little bit like Don Quixote and Sancho with this impossible dream, but using their astrolathe and compass and old charts they end up by Chucky Cheese Pizza or the 24-Hour Fitness. It shows how man’s defecated” on Mother Earth. The King “finds the heart of gold he’s looking for beneath the floor of a Costco.”
As Jenkins found, Cahill couldn’t get his project launched despite a strong script. When Payne read it and loved it he passed it on to Sideways producer Michael London with the recommendation, “You should produce this.” London agreed but on the condition they make it together. Payne balked before giving in. Landing Douglas, Payne said, was a real “coup.” As a full producer, Payne made it on set most days and continues to have a post-production presence.
“I watch cuts and give constant comments and monitor where they are. Go in the cutting room a little bit,” Payne said. “Because I’m an old colleague of the director’s, I can give him comments. I’ve had some liaisons with the financiers. When they see the film and express concerns I‘m kind of the catcher…the interpreter, so I hear what they say and help deliver it to the director in a way that is most helpful for him. At least that’s what I aspire to do.”
Payne’s serving as “a filter” or shield, Cahill said, is “a fantastic advantage…that cannot be overestimated. Everyone should be lucky to have that. That’s huge.”
“You try to be the type of producer you yourself would want,” Payne said. “The best producer though does nothing because the film has been set up so well you just let it go…you just let it run. The thing about producing is, it’s like parenting — it’s not even important what you do, it’s just that you’re there.”
When friends become collaborators it risks straining their relationship. “That can happen,” Payne said, “but if you’re good enough friends with someone then that can weather storms. It doesn’t work with everybody. You’ve got to be careful. But when it works, it works very nicely.” He and Taylor’s partnership is a model for it.
As much as he enjoys helping friends, it’s still a distraction from his own work.
“I mean, all of this is fine, but I don’t want to produce anymore. I didn’t get into film to be a producer. That’s the last thing I want to be. I’m happy to help my friends when I can. I’ve done it and I’ll do it again, but I can’t for a while. Not the way I did it last year, because I need to do my own scuba diving” — his metaphor for immersing himself in his writing-directing — “and be utterly free to do my own thing. Every day I’m not directing I feel like I die a little.”
As he expects to be back here for his new film, Payne’s rented a mid-town Omaha home. He satirically described his relationship with the Big O. “After About Schmidt I was anxious to leave and now I’m anxious to come back and shoot,” he said. “I think one’s relationship with Omaha is like the tide. It comes in, it goes out. It never leaves shore. But after it’s been in for a while it wants to go out. After it’s been out, it wants to come back in.”
He expresses enthusiasm for the “new Omaha in the making. Omaha is changing so much right now. It’s kind of exciting,” he said. He’s most enthralled by the maturation of the cultural scene, with the Qwest Center, the Holland Performing Arts Center, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Film Festival, Lit Fest, the coming Kaneko museum and the emerging riverfront-condo landscape.
A project he’s more than an idle observer of is the Saddle Creek Records build-out in NoDo. To show his support for the Film Streams art cinema that’s a part of it, he sits on the FS board. He’s a fan of FS director Rachel Jacobson. “She’s got it all going on,” he said. The venue gives film buffs what they’ve never had here — a state-of-the-art theater dedicated to art film exhibition and education. “That’s so fantastic that very soon in downtown Omaha you can go see The Seven Samuraiprojected. A huge contribution to the cultural life of the city as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
When all is said and done, Alexander Payne is a film geek. If we’re lucky, Payne will keep blessing us with films we can watch again and again.

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