BY STEVE CHAGOLLAN
Photographed by Brian Davis
Ever since his UCLA student thesis film, The Passion of Martin, caused a sensation at a campus screening in 1990, leading to a job at Universal barely a month later, expectations for the next Alexander Payne film have been high. Although the Universal deal didn't result in a film for the studio, it allowed Payne to draft the foundation of what would become About Schmidt a dozen years later.
But first there was Citizen Ruth (1996), which established Payne's trademark tightrope walk between pathos and farce. His output—including Election (1999), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013)—has earned an aggregate score of 88.8 on Rotten Tomatoes, with most of his titles turning a profit. It's as solid a track record in a risky business as they come.
In her review of About Schmidt, then Los Angeles Times critic Manohla Dargis, who now writes for The New York Times, called Payne "the most gifted social satirist to hit our movies since Preston Sturges." The Omaha-born, two-time Oscar winner's films are populated not with glam characters in fantasy jobs who live in idealized apartments or Town & Country homes but everyman protagonists whose ordinary lives are spiraling out of control. The beauty is often in the details: the scowl of a janitor bent on revenge for a minor slight in Election; a bickering couple who disagree about having people over in The Descendants; a living room full of Midwesterners with their eyes glued to the television in Nebraska. And although his upcoming feature, Downsizing—with its sci-fi premise and reliance on special effects—at least on the surface marks a departure from his inimitable brand of dark comedy grounded in real life, Payne assures it's still his "sense of humor and sensibilities."
Payne spoke to DGA Quarterly while in the midst of cutting the film in an office on the corner of Melrose and Larchmont in Los Angeles, a stone's throw from Paramount Pictures, which is distributing the film at Christmastime in 2017. The following is an edited, condensed version of our conversations.
Your fellow directors expect a certain sort of adult sensibility from your movies—a sense of humor that's grounded in reality.
I'm 55 years old; I was a teenager in the '70s where the protagonists of films were more like normal people. Suddenly the standard was how much does our cinema approximate real life, as opposed to provide an antidote to it somehow. So those were always the films I wanted to make. My films aspire to have some sense of realism, at times naturalism, within the commercial American vernacular.
I watched a documentary the other day about Sidney Lumet called By Sidney Lumet. Very lovely. He could make Murder on the Orient Express in one way. But then when he made Dog Day Afternoon, he said he aspired not to realism, as he had done in so many of his fine films, but naturalism. He even told his production designer and costume designer, "no color palette. Don't think about designing this film at all; it all has to be accidental—exactly like the real life of the real story. So have all the actors and all extras wear their own clothes; we're not going to paint any of the walls. Nothing. We're just going to go out and make it." And that's a lovely direction to give his creative team.
Can real life—in all of its spontaneous beauty, and wit, and messiness, and large and small moments, and the richness you get out of living it—be done justice in a narrative feature?
One nice thing about being a narrative filmmaker is that with experience and trying to remain connected, one can increasingly discern less difference between real life and the life you're re-creating on screen. What's beautiful about being a filmmaker is that our clay is actual human behavior.
What was very beautiful about '70s movies was that the life on film was more than ever reflecting life as lived by the citizens of the country. The quality of the films was judged by the proximity to real life, not the distance from real life.
I'd like to address your first feature, Citizen Ruth. Talk about a risky project. I mean, you've got a protagonist who sniffs everything from glue to brake fluid, has abandoned her kids and she's pregnant on top of all that…
Yes, it was a comedy.
Was it tough selling that story?
The lesson is that when you meet with financiers about the screenplay and they say, "Your protagonist is so unsympathetic," the response is, "We haven't cast it yet." It's really up to the actor. You want an unsympathetic character? Try Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
What was the most important element of moving Citizen Ruth forward?
Two things: It was Laura Dern's involvement. She helped bring the financing and was extremely enthusiastic about the screenplay and wanting to play that part. That's more good advice for filmmakers trying to get their first films made: Write a great part for a lead actor or actress.
And then Cary Woods, who finally got involved as a producer; he had a deal at Miramax at the time. So between Cary Woods believing in the film and Laura Dern, I was able finally to get it made, for $2.3 million, something like that, which went a long way in those days. For $2.3 million I shot 41 days, six or seven months in post. That would be unheard of today. A lot of filmmakers today are expected to make a film in 24 days, and they're lucky if they get 35 days.
Your films seem to be populated by protagonists who are disaffected or unfulfilled—people who have lost control of their lives. Why is that?
It's relatable and it's funny.
"What's beautiful about being a filmmaker is that our clay
is actual human behavior."
Is it grounded in anything else?
For some reason, [writer] Jim [Taylor] and I early in our careers have been attracted to a protagonist who somewhat resembles this archetype you're suggesting, and for us it's a comic figure. [But] I don't wish to be pigeonholed as to the types of stories that I'm interested in.
These are people with a lot of tragic flaws, whose foibles can add up to either an epiphany or a sense of defeat.
What great literary character doesn't have tragic flaws, or human beings who don't have flaws which may turn tragic? I don't know if all of our characters have had epiphanies. If they have, they're not necessarily equipped to do anything with them. People have known for years that they should stop smoking, but do they?
Some critics have suggested that you can be a bit condescending to your characters.
I know from time to time accusations have come from whom I feel are the most arrogant or the most condescending of critics.
On Election, I was struck by the fact that it is told from four points of view.
That was kind of a leap. It came soon after Goodfellas and Casino, both of which had multiple voiceover. I've always liked voiceover in films.
A lot of people have issues with voiceover for some reason in the movies. They feel like it's uncinematic or too literary…
I feel those people are handicapped. It's ridiculous to make a blanket declaration about any single tool of film language. "Don't zoom. Don't have voiceover." And they will point out the ways in which those devices have been used badly instead of the many ways in which they've been used well. And voiceover, of course, we have only to look at Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, lots and lots and lots of films.
How do you prepare your actors in the weeks leading up to the shoot?
Every film is different, and mostly I've had lower budgets and shot on location, which means that we didn't have the budget to bring in the actors very long in advance and pay that extra hotel and per diem. But it's nice to have at least a week of rehearsal. On Sideways I had two weeks with those two guys [Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church], because they had never met before, and if the audience didn't believe their friendship, there would not have been a film. And when I say rehearsal, I'm not like Lumet or Kubrick or Coppola, who really meet formally and rehearse it like a play. At least if you can get together with the actors for three or four hours a day and read through scenes, ideally take them to locations so that they can feel that that's their house... Another important thing for me is to have a read-through of the entire cast. Not that the script is going to change, but it's good for the day players to meet the stars so they're not freaked out on the day of shooting.
What about when you work with actors who've also directed?
It's fantastic, because they know the director's problems. And they're not precious about what they do, and they offer helpful suggestions. It's wrong to think, "Oh, this actor who has directed is going to try to take over from me or give unwanted advice and try to interfere." That has not been my experience at all. On the contrary, the director ideally wants everybody around him or her to be thinking like a director.
Even some actors who've never directed know a lot more than I do about filmmaking. When I direct a film, I'm the least experienced person there. I make a film every three years, but these guys might make three films a year for years.
You've referred to the "holy trinity" as the cinematographer, the key grip and the gaffer. Can you elaborate on that?
The director never works alone. He or she is only, as I see it, first among equals. Certainly in screenwriting I have a partner [Jim
Taylor]. In deciding what the film's going to look like, I have a partner in the production designer. During production, my No. 1 partner is the cinematographer—what's this film going to look like exactly? And what coverage are we getting? Obviously in post I have a very strong partner in my editor, Kevin Tent. In deciding the music, I have a partner in Rolfe Kent.
In my collaboration with Phedon Papamichael, the cinematographer of my last four features, he brings with him a wonderful gaffer and a wonderful key grip. And they work on many, many other films together. So in my experience, that partnership, when I'm working with Phedon, I also feel my partnership with Rafael Sánchez and Ray Garcia, in terms of the cinematography.
Now as far as ownership, I mean, do I operate the camera? No, I'd fuck it up, unless it's a lock-off. We're shooting digital now, but I never cared about keeping up with all the film stocks anyway, since they changed every six months. But lens choice and shot design are absolutely my bailiwick, in partnership with the cinematographer.
What are some of the other technical things that you think are just must-know for a director if they're going to take themselves seriously?
Well, in my own experience, it started at UCLA with just simply the mechanics of writing, the mechanics of directing and the mechanics of editing. The more experience a director has technically, if he or she has cut soundtracks, produced sound effects, edited—then, you know what the possibilities are, what the capabilities are, how it's done, and can better direct those technicians and artists with whom you work professionally. You can tell them more specifically to go in a certain direction. I don't really understand a director who doesn't spend time in the editing room, and doesn't understand it, because that's where your film is.
I don't think the proper question is really about technique. Increasingly, I think the most important trait for directors is to love people and to love his or her characters. If it's a 50 or 75 millimeter lens, or if it's done with montage, or mise-en-scène, OK, sure, it makes a difference. But what comes through to the audience is the feeling the director has for the world and for people.
In terms of physical location, one of the things that struck me about The Descendants was the way you captured Hawaii, particularly those suburbs around Honolulu. How much time did you spend there before you started shooting?
About six months. Because I knew that was the job, and I knew I had to get it right. And that's what I'm interested in. I try to have a documentary approach to feature fiction filmmaking. And not just the right locations and the right costumes and the right extras, which is huge. [The film] has to have the right rhythms of the location where it's being made.
You eventually managed to be granted final cut on your films.
On About Schmidt.
How important is that?
I don't know who has final cut and who doesn't. I also know that for a studio, for a financier, it's a lot of work to take over a film. Nobody wants to do it. Maybe it was just pretentiousness that made me begin to ask for it. I've said this in other interviews, but final cut to me is an unloaded gun with the safety on, in a locked box. But I want it under my bed. Nobody ever wants to see the gun.
And by the way, these final cut things usually come with provisos against going over budget and the running time of the picture. It's not so clean and simple.
How has being a member of the Guild benefited your career and helped you make a living out of filmmaking?
Other than the obvious benefit of insurance, which is super-fantastic, and union protections, directors work alone. We have our creative collaborators on our specific projects, but we often don't fraternize with other directors. We exist in our own individual fiefdoms. And it is endlessly delightful to me to feel the part of a larger brother- and sisterhood.
I very much look forward to DGA events where we rub elbows and compare notes. And when you meet directors from around the world, you meet and give one another the secret handshake and you see that you're all part of the same whole. It's merely that you parachuted into different countries when you were born. So I adore the brother- and sisterhood of filmmakers, and I'm very proud of what the DGA does and what it stands for.
Regarding process, some directors are very planned out. Kubrick would be an extreme example. Scorsese was known early on for storyboarding all of his scenes and having actors hit their marks. How do you stand on that?
I never storyboard, although I had to storyboard somewhat for Downsizing because of visual effects and planning for many things. I've probably said this before, but as you see in the [documentary] Mystery of Picasso, he simply says, "I'm going to make a painting now," puts the brush in the paint and starts painting, and something emerges. On the other hand, you have Edward Hopper, who toward the end of his life would spend months conceiving a painting, doing some sketches and then finally executing his painting.
I'm somewhere in the middle. It sure calms the nerves if you're prepared. You walk onto the set with a little spring in your step and tell everyone, "This is what we're doing today." On the other hand, I wish every day on the set in its own way to be as spontaneous as a day of writing or a day of painting, so that it's alive and you discover new things. And not just in writing and not just in directing, but even now in editing, putting two pieces of film together I never could have imagined.
And then through putting the music, and what [composer] Rolfe [Kent's] going to do with this film, and then even in the mix. And in color timing. Each day brings discovery.
Are you bringing in somebody like Rolfe Kent from the beginning?
It is to both of our benefits to get started early. Sketching out strategy, themes. One of the main reasons I like Rolfe Kent's music is that it provides melodies. I accuse much of contemporary scores of not having melodies. I like melodies that I can hum later. And you don't find that in many scores anymore.
Tell me about what you're working on now, Downsizing.
It imagines what might happen if, as a panacea to overpopulation and climate change, Norwegian scientists discover how to shrink people down to five inches tall, and propose it very earnestly to the world as the only humane, inclusive and practical solution to our biggest problem. The script shows the introduction of the idea to the world and then picks up the story about 15 years later, when it's still early into the idea.
One would assume you're dealing with things you haven't dealt with before, like certain types of special effects. Do you consider this using a new cinematic language for you?
Well, I hope to use some new cinematic language in every film I make. I think every film I make is practicing scales for the ones that follow. [Downsizing] has a science fiction premise, but like a lot of good science fiction, it's merely an excuse to enter a certain world and talk about certain things. Once we get into the world, it's still [co-screenwriter] Jim [Taylor] and my sense of humor and sensibilities, and we're mostly just interested in the people.
Was there a learning curve involved?
Visual effects was something new to me. I mean, I had been using visual effects for years to remove the boom mic from shots, or to speed things up, slow things down, like editors do all the time now. But full-on visual effects were new to me—it's a new set of tools. But it shouldn't freak anybody out.
I have a great visual effects supervisor, whom I've instructed to trick me as much as possible into thinking I'm making a real movie. And so he's doing a real good job of it.
Regarding your education, was there a reason you chose the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television over some other film schools that accepted you?
I picked UCLA because the students are freer to make any films they want to make. At USCa student told me, "You should come here, it's just like Hollywood." And at UCLA a student said, "Why would you want to go to USC? It's just like Hollywood." I'm not saying that makes it better or worse, it's just designed that way.
[At UCLA] everyone is trained to be an auteur, where you learn to write, direct and edit. At USC, as at AFI, they separate you or encourage you to choose a discipline within filmmaking, cinematography or production. One of the greatest things for me was having access to the UCLA Film & Television Archive. And one of the reasons it took me six years to get out of film school is that when I should have been editing, I was spending too many hours in 1409, now called the [James] Bridges Theater, watching movies.
Any film student will tell you that, ultimately, no film school is really great, or as great as you hope it is when you're applying to it. What is great about any film school is that you're in a conservatory and surrounded by other people who, like you, are eating, drinking, breathing film—all young people in their 20s who are movie crazy. You all work on each other's films and develop friendships and camaraderie through film. And the other thing is, of course, the old cliché—having access to equipment.
"It's ridiculous to make a blanket declaration about any single tool
of film language."
You mentioned sitting in the editing room with your editor. The same with writing. You choose to be in the same room with Jim Taylor—how does that work?
We talk. We think about what could happen next. One or the other takes a crack at it, a page or two or three. And the other one says, "Here, let's have a look." Then we rewrite together and begin anew.
We're making it out of whole cloth. At least with editing we've got stuff to look at and criticize. Similar processes, but that's an important difference. Writing is starting from nothing. It's difficult and time-consuming.
Since you once aspired to be a journalist, or at least that was a career option that you seriously considered after Stanford, is there a feature documentary in your future?
Yes. For many filmmakers, making documentaries is a steppingstone to making features, and I am feeling the opposite. We spend so much time and money and effort trying to re-create reality on screen when actual reality surrounds us everywhere. After directing any movie, I always think, "Man, documentaries have to be the way to go." The actors know their lines; everything is one take; no hair and makeup; or costume and production design. If I can find my way in and find a great story, I'm really chomping at the bit to approach a documentary.
I know about Kurosawa and Fellini and the silent greats like Chaplin and Keaton who've inspired you, but who are some of the lesser known figures, past and present, whom you admire and maybe in some ways try to emulate?
I'm a big fan of Anthony Mann's. I like the tough approach he took toward his subject matter. And then also how he used locations to reflect and comment on the narrative, while at the same time keeping the protagonist and story in the forefront. He really was a master, and for me his films grow in stature.
At this point in my life, I find myself more influenced by individual films than in a director's body of work, certainly with modern films.
For example, the one great masterpiece I think that this new millennium has produced is Michael Haneke's Amour. That film is a towering achievement.
What is the element of filmmaking that seems the most like drudgery to you, and what part of it is the most joyful?
The most joyful probably is editing. The arduousness of writing is over, and the physical exhaustion of directing is behind you. Editing is where you're sitting on top of the writing and directing and are finally able to put the movie together.
I also very much enjoy prepping a film, the time alone with the production designer and location scout, driving around to look at locations, and talking about the film and what could it be, and thinking how the physical aspects of the film can reflect the story and the characters.
It's also joyous to finish a film and have the script in hand for the next film.
I find the most vexing part the screenplay. What has slowed me down from making more films is the screenplay.
I'm unable to successfully multitask, to be writing a script while editing. I haven't figured it out, or else I'm just lazy. Nor have I read, with the exception of Nebraska, something written by someone else that I've wanted to direct.
I'm in a fortunate place in my career right now where within reason I can get almost anything I want to make made somehow. But procuring the screenplay, either writing it or finding it, is always a time-consuming task.
And what kind of producer do you prefer working with?
In my experience a good producer shares an idea of the film; supports the director in his or her approach; helps grease the wheels with Hollywood in terms of dealing with the studio, the financier and with actors' agents; puts out fires; and remains throughout prep, production and montage a sound and trustworthy sounding board.
I know you're in the midst of post on Downsizing, but can you talk about what's next?
Not really. I'm trying to figure out what to write, and I sure as hell hope some producer or even civilian will think of the right book or screenplay and get it to me pronto. That's my prayer.