Alexander Payne's Philosophy on Filmmaking: Writing Films For Real Life

By Staff Reporter - 30 Jul '21 10:02AM
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  • Alexander Payne's Philosophy on Filmmaking: Writing Films For Real Life
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What does it take to write some of the United States' most enduring films? While Hollywood blockbusters have a place in our Netflix queues, this corporate style of film lacks the soul and wit of smaller, craftier films. In a world starved for original thought and art that imitates life, it's important to understand how filmmakers bring life to stories on the silver screen.

Learn about the brilliant (and often quirky) processes of the writer behind beloved films like "About Schmidt" and "Sideways." Interviewer Kenneth Turan sat down with celebrated American filmmaker Alexander Payne to dig into his artistic influences, experiences writing blockbuster films, and thoughts on the future of the film industry. 

Midwest Roots, Global Influences

Born in 1961 in Omaha, Nebraska, Alexander Payne has used the Midwest as the backdrop for many of his films. In fact, Nebraska is such a staple of Payne's work because he believes that it represents typical American life. "I was and remain tired of seeing American films only set in New York and L.A.," Payne says. 

Alexander Payne believes that many filmmakers feel a need to connect with their roots, especially early on in their career. Payne didn't see Midwesterners in film growing up, which partially inspired him to set his films in Nebraska

Although Payne set his films in the Midwest, he's always had a more global taste in film. He's particularly fond of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who created Payne's favorite film of all time, "Seven Samurai." "I'll never make a film that good, but what nice footsteps to try to follow in," Payne says.

Alexander Payne also subsisted on a diverse diet of films ranging from silent comedies to horror films to gangster movies. The heavy topics in 1970s cinema also spoke to him; Payne loved how 1970s movies mirrored the struggles in society. He adds, "You never know when you're living in a golden era."

On Being a Young Filmmaker

Alexander Payne's father owned a restaurant in downtown Omaha. As part of a promotion, Kraft Cheese sent his father an 8 movie projector, which he gave to his son. At six years old, Payne learned how to thread the projector and film his own movies. At age 14, Payne bought a Super 8 camera, which he still owns to this day. 

Although interested in film at a young age, Payne never dreamed of filmmaking as a career. He was a second-generation immigrant and had to resist his parents' pressure for him to be a lawyer; he even took the LSAT.

Alexander Payne studied liberal arts at Stanford University for his undergraduate degree, but he couldn't resist the idea of film school. Payne had to decide between USC and UCLA.

UCLA Film School

In the mid-1980s, "USC was like the hotshot white guy film school to go to," Payne says. But Payne was quickly disenchanted with USC's expensive tuition and more Hollywood vibe. 

UCLA, however, was a public school, which meant that Payne would have more creative freedom. "You're expected to make a film, and it can be anything you want," he says. Payne realized that students could make interesting films that weren't cookie-cutter.

In 1990, Payne's student film, "The Passion of Martin," was a surprising success. It was a 50-minute film based on an Argentine novel, and it garnered industry attention. "It was one of those dream scenarios for a film student. Within a month, I had an agent and a studio deal," Payne says. 

"You don't need to go to film school anymore, though," Payne adds. Although he doesn't believe that a degree is necessary to get your foot in the door, in his case his student film project helped him enter the world of professional filmmaking and screened at film festivals around the world.

Success and Its Price

"Studio deals can be a velvet coffin," Payne says. It didn't take much time for him to realize that, as a young filmmaker, studio deals were a double-edged sword. "You're going to pitch an idea and be paid for it. But then, they own it, and they can sit on it," he adds. A studio can own your creative work and never act on it, which is a soul-sucking experience." 

Although "The Passion Of Martin" opened up Payne's career, he says, "The most disorienting experience I've had has been the success of 'Sideways.'" Payne quickly realized that he was always worried about the idea, script, and financing for the next film. "When you finish a film and it has some notoriety, there's a short window where people are interested in you," Payne says. He encourages filmmakers to capitalize on opportunities in that window. Otherwise, there's a chance that your next film will never see the light of day. 

In his interview with Kenneth Turan, Alexander Payne also opened up about his experience creating "About Schmidt," "Citizen Ruth," "Election," and "Sideways."

"About Schmidt"

Alexander Payne wrote the script that would eventually become "About Schmidt" fresh out of film school. Although the film ended up as his third feature 12 years later, it was the first feature screenplay that he wrote. Inspired by "The Graduate," Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Bergman's "Wild Strawberries," Payne liked the idea of someone reaching a milestone event, like graduation or retirement, and feeling out of place. "Rather than feeling accomplishment, they feel nothing but alienation and loneliness," Payne explains. 

Although Payne wrote the first half of "About Schmidt" years before filming, once it was time for the feature to become a reality, he and co-writer Jim Taylor adapted his original script combined with ideas from Louis Begley's novel of the same name. 

"Citizen Ruth"

Alexander Payne doesn't mince words on why it took so long for him to create "Citizen Ruth." "Who's going to finance an abortion comedy?" he says, laughing. After turning Payne down four times, Miramax begrudgingly agreed to finance the film.

Known for its controversial and wacky plotline, Payne and Taylor based the plot of "Citizen Ruth" on a 1992 New York Times article. He was inspired by a Fargo woman who had eight children and was addicted to drugs. When the woman became pregnant and different groups started offering her money to keep the child, Payne found humor in the situation.

Instead of taking sides in the abortion debate, Payne decided to make fun of both sides in "Citizen Ruth." "Everyone's a target," he explains. "A lot of critics wanted a specific political point of view expressed in the film." In fact, Payne went out of his way to ensure that his personal beliefs didn't influence the film. "People often get more motivated by their own personal agendas more often than by what the thing is actually about," he explains. 

"Election"

"Election" is one of three movies by Payne based on a novel. "I'm just always desperate for a movie idea," Payne explains, which is why many of his films are based on novels, but not well-known novels.. "Screenwriters must feel complete freedom when adapting a book."  Payne doesn't go after wildly popular books for his films, so there's less expectation by an established fan base. 

Once Payne and Taylor adapted "Election" for the screen, he realized that the book's ending didn't quite match the tone of the film. The original ending in the novel was very melancholy, and it didn't test well on film. Payne then shot a more appropriate ending. 

Although the new ending of "Election" felt better to moviegoers, the studio didn't know how to sell it. Payne never saw "Election" as a high school movie, but the marketing department "never got high school movies and MTV films out of their brain." The studio even blocked Payne from attending the marketing meetings for the film. "The two times where they pushed me out of the marketing meetings are the two films which have performed the worst," he recalls. 

"Sideways"

"Sideways" won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, which surprised Payne. "The most disorienting experience I've had has been the success of 'Sideways,'" he says.

Alexander Payne sought out an unknown gem of a novel and pounced on it for his next feature. "We saw a movie in it. There's competition for the good novels, so I'm glad I got something that no one saw," Payne says. Payne wanted to make a film that corresponded with real life. He wanted a realistic mix of sadness and humor, which feels less contrived and more true to human experience. 

Alexander Payne's Approach to Film

Alexander Payne is known for his contrarian approach to filmmaking. European films lean more into personal filmmaking, and Payne tries to bring the same approach to his work. "I like the idea of personal cinema, not corporate cinema," he says. 

So what sets Payne apart from other American filmmakers? It comes down to his love of comedy, co-writing, collaboration, casting choices, music, and "dangerous" subject matter. 

Comedy

Alexander Payne's films definitely fall into the "dark comedy" category because he sees comedy where most people wouldn't find it. "I like satire and comedy based on painful experiences," he says. 

But there's something inherently comedic to be found amid most tragedies or difficult times in life. "Isn't that life, if you have a sense of humor?" Payne asks. His co-writer, Jim Taylor, helps Payne write films that are an extension of their relationship. They both find humor in talking about "the pathetic side of experience," which leads to more realistic films that mimic daily life. 

Co-Writing

Alexander Payne credits his writing success to his co-writer, Jim Taylor, and their writing process. The duo met in 1989 when Payne needed a roommate and Taylor answered the call. "Our collaboration came from the friendship, which came from our living together," Payne says. 

Alexander Payne's scripts might read seamlessly, as if one person wrote them, but it's Payne and Taylor's careful writing process that allows them to write as one mind. Taylor lives in New York, and Payne lives in Omaha and Los Angeles, so they have to schedule a time to get together and write. "We always are together in a room at the same time," Payne says. 

Payne and Taylor don't believe in dividing and conquering-and they don't believe in outlining. They sit at a computer with one monitor and two keyboards, where they write pages separately and rewrite them together. "There is something about screenwriting which lends itself to collaboration," Payne explains. "It makes the writing process less hideous. Because it's always hideous." 

Teamwork and Collaboration

Alexander Payne is also known for working with the same handful of people on most of his films. He says that this is mostly because it's easier to refer to past projects with the same people. "It's so nice to be able to say to (Production Designer) Jane, "Oh yeah, remember that thing?'" Payne says.

Alexander Payne also says that he enjoys collaboration because it leads to better films. "Collaboration has become the most enjoyable and best part of filmmaking. It's all due to the quality of the questions that you ask each other," he explains. 

Casting Choices

Big-name actors are a staple in most Hollywood movies, but Payne often takes a different approach. He uses professional actors and even non-actors, like the Dairy Queen girl in "About Schmidt." "Why bring in an actor to learn how to make a Blizzard?" he shrugs. "Hire people who are playing some version of themselves. Have real cops play cops, real doctors play doctors, and you don't need any technical advisors. They're right there."

But Payne has also worked with his share of well-known actors, like Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt." While Jack Nicholson was great to work with, Payne still makes it clear that he isn't a fan of hiring celebrities. "Studio deals will try to force them down your throat," he says. "They want the biggest name they can get, often with no regard for the correctness of the fit." 

Music and Voiceovers

"It doesn't make you feel good to watch a movie without music," Payne says. He feels so drawn to music in cinema that Payne regularly approaches his movies like silent films, which would normally be set to music. "Can you turn the sound down and still utterly follow the story?" he says. 

Since Payne prefers to work with the same team on his films, it should come as no surprise that he uses Rolfe Kent to compose the music for most of his movies. "I like when I can hum melodies later. I like melody. Rolfe has a wit about his music," Payne explains. 

While critics could get behind Payne's approach to music, his use of voiceovers is more controversial. Many movies use voiceovers poorly, but Payne tries to imitate the greats like Kubrick, Wilder, and Malick. "I think voiceover is one of the greatest benefits of talking movies," Payne explains.

Danger and Restraint

His films cover everything from abortion to stealing from your own mother-and the use of raunchy additions like full-frontal male nudity ("Sideways") certainly gives Payne's films an edge. But what's the line between "just enough" and "too much" danger in a film? Payne prefers to add a little danger in film because it's the antithesis of corporate filmmaking, which wants "movies as readily consumed as McDonald's hamburgers." 

Alexander Payne does add that he goes for "impact through restraint" in his films. He tests his films to know when to turn down the danger. He also adds that a degree of commercial success helps filmmakers push the boundaries. "The nice thing about the success of 'Sideways' is it will give me the opportunity to make things which would otherwise be very difficult to make," Payne said at the time. 

The Future of Film

In Payne's opinion, the 1970s were a crucial period for American filmmaking. But if you go to the movie theater, you tend to see only uniform, cookie-cutter films to please the masses. 

He believes that struggle often leads to innovation in film. "A terrible time for the world can translate into a good time for the cinema," Payne says. After a tumultuous year in the shadow of a pandemic, Payne looks forward to cinema that shines a light on dark experience. Through stories of humor and hope, film will continue to teach us what it means to be human, and filmmakers like Alexander Payne are more necessary than ever to mirror our experiences on the screen. 

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