Alexander Payne


Interviewed by Adrian Hennigan

“We do make fun of people, but it's with love and also a feeling that we're fairly pathetic in our own ways ”

In the space of three movies, Alexander Payne has established himself as one of America's most distinctive filmmakers. The Reese Witherspoon high school comedy Election (1999) was his calling card, but it was 2003's About Schmidt - featuring an Oscar-nominated turn by Jack Nicholson - that really made audiences sit up and take notice. Now critics worldwide are having kittens over his buddy comedy Sideways, in which two loser fortysomething men - Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church - go on a week-long wine-tasting tour of California.

Why are you attracted to losers in your movies?

I don't know... Me and Jim Taylor - he's my co-writer - maybe we like to find comedy and poignancy in that discrepancy between dreams and aspirations, and reality and limitations, and who we really are. If drama is about obstacles - you know, setting up a goal and having obstacles toward that goal - then maybe we like obstacles which are internal, because I think that's very true to life.

You've said that Withnail & I was one of your references for Sideways...

I admire that film very much, and it's such a classic film, a cult film. I wouldn't call it a real influence on this film, but it was a direct influence on the novelist [Rex Pickett]. When he was turning some version of his own experience into a novel, he was thinking a lot about Withnail & I - that kind of gonzo, two guys constantly drinking on a holiday of some sort. Jim Taylor and I did revisit the film as we were writing, but we didn't get a whole lot out of it that we could use directly.

How much research can you do for a film like this?

Quite a bit... but not a whole lot! We inherited a lot from the novel, but we did some wine research and I knew something about wine that I was able to put into the film. In fact, Virginia Madsen's speech about why she likes wine, and how it's alive... that's very personal to me and how I feel about wine. The research came later before preparing to shoot - research on the wines of the region so that our jargon was correct, and so that physically I was capturing that area and that sense of place.

Sense of place is integral to your movies. How important is it for you to capture the 'real' America?

Very important, but it's not just about the real America, it's about the real planet and wherever I happen to be shooting - which so far has been America. You as an Englishman are seeing an America that you don't often see - at least in current American film - but then, it's an America that we're not seeing in America on film, because we don't have films, really, about Americans. Our culture is suffering as well from the abomination of the commercial American film. You know, we need national cinemas.

How do you make sure that the audience is laughing with your characters and not at them - that you're not being condescending?

About Schmidt was accused by some critics of being condescending to its characters, and I was always sorry that they took that away from the film because I didn't feel that at all. And I sometimes felt - and I don't think it's a defence mechanism - that those critics were condescending to those people by projecting such condescension onto me. Also, the fact that I'm making comedies, well, comedies do require a certain acknowledgement of type so that there's a recognisable truth that is slightly generalised, hopefully not caricaturised - which is too broad a way to depict character. How do I do it? It's just the style and the tone that occurs to me and Jim collectively as a writing team. Yes, we do make fun of people, but it's with a love and also a feeling that we're not any better and we're fairly pathetic in our own ways.

At one point in the movie Paul Giamatti's character talks about modern-day publishers not being interested in books which are a "hard sell". That's something that is equally true of the movies...

The key line there, which is certainly true about movies, is: "It's not about the quality of the books any more, it's about the marketing." And I see it every day in commercial American movies. It's not about the quality of the movies, it's about the presence of marketable elements. Marketing has supplanted story as the primary force behind the worthiness of making a film, and that's a very sad thing. It's film only as a function of consumerism rather than as an important component of our culture, and that's everywhere around the world.

You've worked within the studio system before, writing Meet The Parents and Jurassic Park III...

With Sideways we work within the system. These are all studio movies.

But they leave you alone to do your own thing, they trust you...

Correct, yes, and I'm happy we got those jobs. We wrote the last draft on Meet The Parents, the last draft of Jurassic Park III. Those were interesting jobs, but they were short. One was two weeks, the other one was four weeks. You know, it's like you're paid to take a class. The nice thing about those jobs is they give us a little more confidence that we can actually write quicker than we think we can write, because when we do a script it's about six months. And suddenly, because there's a deadline, it's like you're in school and you have to write an entire script in two and a half, or four weeks - and it's quite refreshing to work on something you don't really care that much about. We care so desperately about what we do, and then you're hired to do a job. These are broken scripts that need a little fixing, and we're ideas guys, that's all we do - come up with ideas. Meet The Parents was a good fit, Jurassic Park was not a good fit.

Why did they approach you for that?

Exactly! You know why? Because we had helped Universal make a lot of money previously with Meet The Parents. We got the call and were like, "What? Jurassic Park III?" But really, why they came to us was character and story, because the dinosaurs aren't the problem in those films, it's the human beings that are the problem. You've got Sam Neill and William H Macy, and they want to have something to act. They didn't have anything to act! So we gave them things to act, and then they took it all out!

You obviously work very closely with Jim Taylor, but what happens when you've finished the script and you start directing?

When we're writing, we are only a writing team. It's not that I'm a director and calling the shots at all. It's one man veto power over anything. However, a last pass of the draft might be me thinking, "Am I going to be comfortable directing this?" So that's when he then does defer to me a bit, just to make it a little easier for me. He's not on the set or in the editing room, but I send him cuts and get his comments. And also, if I'm on the fence between two or three actors, I'll send him a tape and say, "Hey Jim, what do you think?" And he's always exquisite with his comments and his taste; they are impeccable. He remains a constant resource to me. I can't imagine my filmmaking without him. Absolutely. But he was not very involved in the making of Sideways, other than when I would call him up and ask him.

You're working on an ensemble project at the moment. The obvious film that comes to mind is Robert Altman's Nashville...

That's one film we're looking at to get some 'vocabulary' that we can begin talking about. We're not that far with it yet. I just finished this film two months ago and immediately began showing it, and I just haven't stopped doing festival work and promotional work yet.

Sideways is released in UK cinemas on Friday 28th January 2005.