Alexander Payne
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Alexander Payne: “I was far from the most talented”

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Short Profile

Name: Constantine Alexander Payne
DOB: 10 February 1961
Place of Birth: Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Occupation: Director

Mr. Payne, do you get upset when you see a bad movie in the theater?

Well, I don’t go to see bad movies. (Laughs) I remember being upset when I saw the movie Con Air years ago. That was a completely amoral film.

Film has an unparalleled power to influence culture. Does it bother you to see that power abused?

Yes. Film has such an enormous power to set an example and to influence people that it just appalls me how that power is abused to make money, to show irresponsible violent acts and essentially give the people the Roman circus for 10 dollars in a movie theater.

So do you see it as a responsibility?

No, I mean anybody can do anything they want. But its power, as we saw from Leni Riefenstahl, is great – its power to move, its power to serve as a mirror for our society, its power to spread a sense of humanity and make people laugh. Chaplin made the whole world laugh for the very first time at the same things and with no words. It’s truly the universal language. Like so many things, I wish it were used more as a weapon of beauty rather than a weapon of ugliness and self-aggrandizement, monetary self-aggrandizement.

“One does not know the dedication it requires and how fucking time consuming it is to make a movie until you do it.”

Have you always wanted to be a director?

I’ve been a film buff genuinely about as long as I can remember. From the age of four or five I’ve been a film buff and just crazy about movies. And then I was at Stanford and was considering what graduate school to apply to and I wasn’t even thinking, “Oh, I want to be a film director,” I was thinking, “I want to go to film school.” I just wanted to see what that was and see if my love of watching films would translate into loving making them.

Which it clearly did…

It did. And I had the patience for it. One does not know the dedication it requires and how fucking time consuming it is to make a movie until you do it. And I liked it and I found I had – while being far from the most talented of my comrades – just enough talent to be able to build on.

Scene from Sideways (2004), directed by Alexander Payne, featuring Paul Giamatti.

You were 35 when you made your first feature film. Does it necessarily take a long time to become a director?

Not for everybody, but for me it did. I was 35, but that’s a fairly standard average age at which to make a first feature. Kurosawa was 32 or 33 when he made his first feature. Yeah. I mean the old guys in the teens and ’20s would often start in their 20s.

But back then everybody started working earlier, too.

Yeah, motherfuckers. Buñuel did not direct his first feature until he was 48…

Asked another way: can a 25 year old handle a 20 million dollar budget?

But you also don’t need 20 million dollars nowadays. We live in an age where there are no more excuses. The means of production are readily accessible. You can make a feature with your fucking telephone (picks up his iPhone 4). It’s amazing the age we live in. You have a movie camera in your pocket. With sync-sound! It’s unbelievable. If something amazing is happening, you just point your phone at it. We have all this shit that’s far beyond anything you would have believed in a James Bond movie 20 years ago. I don’t know… Soderbergh started early. Fassbinder was dead by 38 after making 600 films.

Well, he was exceptional.

Fueled on cocaine.

What prepared you best for being a director?

I think a lifetime of watching movies is the best preparation. Going to film school helped, being around other people who are like me, people who are living, breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping film for five years straight.

You also studied history and literature as an undergraduate. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of The Lives of Others, is another director that studied something quite academic before getting into filmmaking…

You mean the guy who did The Tourist? (Laughs)

Yeah, exactly. (Laughs) But my question is, do you think that your academic education is beneficial to you now as a director?

I do have to credit my education in literature and history, the human story. What people do and trying to get at why they do those things, a sense of narrative. History is narrative; literature is obviously narrative. Presenting characters, selecting events from their lives, and getting at motivations. The best historians write with the same urgency and flourish as great novelists. The great historians have as fluid and compelling a prose style as novelists.

Do you prefer adaptation or writing original material?

Original is good if you have the right idea and the right characters in mind. An adaptation is lovely because it suggests a world and a story that I myself could never have thought of in a million years – like with The Descendants. I never could have thought of any of that shit.

The trailer to Election (1999), directed by Alexander Payne.

How do you decide when an idea is worth making into an entire film?

Did you ever see my film Election? It’s set in a high school with Matthew Broderick. I basically made that whole film for two reasons. One was that I liked the formal challenge of having multiple voiceovers – it has four people telling you the plot of the film in voiceover. But secondly, it has this one shot, and that shot so cracked me up that I wanted to have a whole film just for it.

And the shot was?

Spoiler alert. There’s a guy who’s preparing to have an illicit affair in a cheap motel and he goes to that motel to make everything just right. He puts some champagne in the sink with ice from the ice machine and he puts out Russell Stover chocolates. And then there’s the shot where he gets into the bathtub and he washes his ass and his balls and his dick. He’s squatted over in the bathtub washing himself. The whole film was pretty much just for that shot.

I don’t know if that’s exactly what I was asking, but I’m happy that you told me that.

I rarely recommend my own films, but that’s still the film I get the most compliments on. You should see it.