Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Size Matters: The Return of Alexander Payne, Not that He was Ever Gone

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.
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.

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