“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” a compilation of author-journalist Leo Adam Biga’s decade-and-a-half of reporting on the director and his work, is a comprehensive look at one of cinema’s most important figures. Biga’s stories about Payne have appeared in various publications including The Reader, which recently ran his cover story on Payne’s latest homespun project, “Nebraska.” This new book represents the first time Biga’s Payne stories have been collected in one volume. An excerpt from the first few pages of the book is below.
The collection will be available November 13 from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, as well as for Kindle and other e-reader devices. Go HERE for more info.
I first met Payne in the fall of ‘97, and my first story about him appeared at the start of ‘98. Though I have covered many other filmmakers and film projects since then, my body of Payne work remains unique for its duration, scope, and depth. Early on, I recognized in him an important cinema figure and the fruits of my cultivating that relationship are the stories that comprise this book.
I also saw in Payne an opportunity to write about one of the most significant Nebraskans in film to come along in a while. Many from the state have made major contributions to the film industry either by the prominence or quality or volume of their work….I have interviewed several of the contemporary figures…Payne is the preeminent filmmaker among them all…
Some of the fondest memories I retain from my professional life are the lively, engaging, one-on-one sessions I enjoy with Payne. They are as much conversations and explorations between two film guys as they are interviews between subject and journalist.
Payne, as you would expect, is a superb interview. Highly literate. Thoughtful. Composed. He is rarely less than frank. He can be both profane and flat out funny. He is only politically correct and circumspect when it serves a project. He generally knows what you are looking for but does not necessarily hand it to you on a silver platter, which is to say he will only give as good as he gets. He does so much press now that he does sometimes repeat quotable nuggets or tag lines from interview to interview. The strategic part of him has shown more as his career has exploded. Who can blame him?
Oh, I have my scripted questions at the ready all right, because I always feel I have to be extra prepared, not to mention be on my mental toes with him, certainly more than with most subjects. He is so damned smart that it can be a bit intimidating even now, 15 years into our relationship. I make sure to do my homework when possible. But I am also comfortable enough to go off script and wing it on occasion and to let him take these interludes wherever he wants to go with them. The best material often comes from these asides or addenda anyway, and so I am not about to curtail his digressions or flights of fancy. Or my own for that matter.
In preparing this book I was reminded of the rather comprehensive Payne archive I have been able to compile as a result of doing so many interviews with him over a decade and a half period that roughly covers his entire feature filmmaking career. It is an archive that no other journalist or author has been in a position to acquire. This body of work has accrued because I have persisted in covering him and cultivating our relationship and because he has responded by consistently granting me great access. The often exclusive interviews and unfettered access continue…
Through “Sideways” and for a few years afterward, our interviews were generally longer than they are today. Where a single session would go a full hour or sometimes two in the past, his more time-pressed life today allows for maybe half that when really busy; though there are exceptions when he still accommodates an hour or two, such as when he first got back to the mainland after completing “The Descendants,” his much feted movie shot in Hawaii.
Some who know about my long-tenured coverage of Payne assume that he and I are friends or buddies. Not exactly. I mean, we are certainly friendly with each other. But we do not hang out together. Ours is definitely a closer relationship than most journalists have with a subject, but it is by no means a rare or unprecedented one. We never speak about it, but my sense is that he and I feel the same in that while it is fine we have this thing together, we do not push it so far that it compels him to meddle in my work or tempts me to compromise my journalistic integrity.
In other words, we do not cross certain lines. That includes not probing too deeply into our personal lives. I only rarely mention his life away from film in my stories. He has no financial stake in or editorial control over this book. He never interferes with what I write, just as I never think about censoring my work to please him. We both want it this way. It’s the right thing to do and it avoids weird conflicts of interest.
Because I am in the unique position of having covered him for so long and in such an in-depth manner, this book uses the interviews and stories I have done to chart the arc of his filmmaking career.
On a story-by-story basis, starting with the aftermath of “Citizen Ruth” and the making of “Election,” through “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and “The Descendants,” you will follow the development of Payne as an auteur…His incremental progress and growing confidence become apparent from the early stories to the later stories, though he was always mature beyond his years as well as always articulate and insightful in discussing his work. His journey as a filmmaker and the increased traction he and his work enjoy among critics and audiences alike are revealed in these pages in roughly the chronology in which these things unfolded.
You will read, too, about some detours along the way: directing his installment for the “Paris, I Love You” omnibus project; acting in Wes Craven’s own “Paris” installment; doing for-hire rewrite jobs with longtime screenwriting partner Jim Taylor on several commercial features; directing the pilot for HBO’s Hung; and producing a handful of films directed by others.
Then there is the production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, he formed with Taylor and “Election” and “Descendants” co-producer Jim Burke.
Not to be ignored are the projects he wanted to make but didn’t, most notably “Downsizing.” That aborted feature came in the midst of a several year interval between “Sideways” premiering and “The Descendants” shooting. There was a picture he talked about making that I completely forgot about until reading a reference to it in one of these stories: an adaptation of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” set in Hollywood.
At one point he began research on a Spanish-language film examining the lives of Hispanic migrants in sometimes hostile small towns whose packing plants draw the newcomers and pump much-needed revenue into rural coffers even as some locals work to limit the migrants’ rights and to make life miserable for them.
He has pined to make a Western for a long time, though until recently I had not heard him talk about it for a while. And from time to time he has floated the idea of making films in Greece and Spain, countries he has deep ties to by virtue of heritage and scholarship, respectively. He’s traveled to each numerous times…
The Payne I first met in 1997 is the same man today. A little wiser, a little more gray. But remarkably unaffected by his steady rise to celebrated international filmmaker. Strip away all the artifice and fame around him and he is the same decent, humble person he has always been. He embodies the best of us. I am proud to call him a fellow creative and Nebraskan.
The book’s title, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” speaks to him assiduously refining and expressing a particular cinema sensibility and to still being in the prime of his career. There is presumably much more to come from him, and therefore this or any other work about him at this point in time is far from the final or definitive word about him.
The title deliberately refers to his being on a path that is, by its very nature, progressive. Like many artists, his ambitious subject matter is nothing less than the human condition. Viewed at a micro level, he is concerned with what people do when by choice or circumstance they find themselves at a crossroads—morally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Once committed to go one way or the other, there is no turning back. They tumble past the tipping point, and gravity or momentum hurtles them down the rabbit hole. As the storyteller, Payne has us go through the ensuing crucible with the poor bastard.
But what makes Payne’s work so rich and full is that the landscape his protagonists tread is never all black or white, instead various shades of gray. Yes, decisions are made and actions taken, and they may bear unpleasant consequences, but very little in his world is completely irrevocable or unsalvageable, just as his characters are never unredeemable. Not that he even implies his characters need saving. They are who they are, warts and all. No excuses or apologies necessary. No judgments made. Indeed, he finds a certain beauty and strength in their flaws. The good, the bad, the ugly are all one and the same.. Because all these qualities reside and intermingle in the same space, in the same heart and soul, in the same mind and life, they cannot be separated or parsed out. He wouldn’t want to anyway.
This combination holistic, realistic, poetic look at how life works and how people behave is his essential gift to the film canon. He is a truth-seeker of the first order. He is not the first to tread this terrain and he is not necessarily the best, but the consistency and precision with which he does look at the most mundane, moving, and mendacious human traits is notable. The fact that he makes his characters at once funny, poignant, revealing, lovable, and revolting is a rare thing. His films touch raw nerves and deep currents in us all. They are the most unerringly human of films, and therefore the most timeless, even as they perfectly capture the nuances of the times in which they are made and set.
Informing Payne’s humanist world view, too, I suspect is the ever-seeking and compassionate Jesuit philosophies he was imbued with at Omaha Creighton Preparatory School, better known as Creighton Prep. Like most Society of Jesus–run educational institutions, the all-male school has taken as its motto the Jesuit mantra of “educating men for others” or variously calling each student to be “a man for others.”
One can witness this merciful, graceful, inclusive attitude in his work, where he extends a loving embrace to virtually all his characters, even when they screw up and don’t necessarily deserve it. That forgiving and generous attitude, I can attest, extends to how he conducts himself on and off the set, treating people with dignity and respect, once even giving me the coat off his back.
Talent and persistence only take one so far in any industry. Therefore, I have to believe Payne got to where he is and more so stays there as much for how he relates to people as for how brilliant and dogged he is. As his collaborators are quick to point out, he makes the work joyful. As all good directors must be, he is a charismatic leader in all the small ways and large ways that getting a picture mounted and finished requires. He is also the consummate professional who very much leads by example…
Because Payne is that seeker personality who delves ever deeper and wider into the human experience, his cinema journey promises to remain intensely personal and intimate even as he inevitably explores different, perhaps larger terrains. His long stated goal of making genre films should not change him; indeed it should only fix his interests in interesting new contexts. I, for one, look forward to the ride.
As Payne noted in a 2012 on-stage interview he did with Jane Fonda on behalf of the Film Streams art cinema he supports, he is in the tradition of American filmmakers that Martin Scorsese refers to as “smugglers.” Both Payne and Scorsese mean that they make films within conventional Hollywood norms and genres but smuggle into their work their own particular obsessions, compulsions, concerns, and attitudes.
As you will read here, Payne resolutely calls his films comedies. They are indeed comic takes on the world. But only in part. They are more properly satires about human nature. Social critique is part of the picture too. But what Payne ultimately does is hold up a mirror for each of us to see ourselves in his characters. To the degree that we can laugh at ourselves his films are comedies. To the extent that we can cry for ourselves his films are dramas. Either way, he moves us to consider ourselves from perhaps a different angle or slant than we did before, and that higher purpose is one definition of art.
Welcome to this looking-glass view of an artist who for once is on the other side of the mirror.
Getting to Know You
A couple things worked to my advantage when I first approached Alexander Payne for an interview in 1997. For starters, I made sure he knew I had not only seen his 1991 UCLA thesis film, “The Passion of Martin,” but that I had also screened it at an Omaha art house.
I had become aware of Payne through an item I read about him in the local daily, the Omaha World-Herald. Since I did programming and publicity for the now defunct New Cinema, I filed away his name and the title of his film and when the time was right I prevailed upon my fellow cineastes to allow “The Passion of Martin” on the schedule.
I cannot recall what kind of audience the film by the then-obscure young filmmaker drew. But it’s a good bet no more than a few dozen souls saw it at our makeshift downtown theater in a former storefront we renovated ourselves. If memory serves, the site was once part of the Omaha Film Exchange and included a forbidding walk-in vault where the canisters containing nitrate stock features and short subjects were stored in an earlier era.
I was highly motivated to do a first-rate interview-profile of Payne for The Reader. When he made his first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” in our shared hometown of Omaha in 1995 I was neither covering arts-culture stories on a regular basis nor yet contributing to The Reader. I was mainly freelancing for other publications when a former local television news anchor profiled Payne in The Reader. I thought the piece unworthy of a filmmaker of Payne’s talent. By that time I had seen “Citizen Ruth” and in my eyes that film more than fulfilled the promise The Passion of Martin heralded.
Still, I seem to recall having to pitch hard to convince The Reader’s editors they should turn me, by then only a fledgling contributor, loose on an extensive cover piece about a still somewhat unproven filmmaker they had profiled only two years earlier. My passionate conviction that Payne was a world-class artist-in-the-making got me the green light I sought and I tackled the assignment with vigor.
As a film buff I felt I could connect with Payne, and in a sense speak his language. By that I do not mean talking shop, as I am not a filmmaker and I do not pretend to know its technical side. Rather, I felt my aesthetic appreciation for cinema and my fairly good grounding in cinema history would resonate with him. Indeed, that is exactly what he responded to, along with, I suspect, the genuine enthusiasm I expressed for his work and, hopefully, the considered questions I asked and observations I made during our two-hour talk.
I think he may have also respected me for holding strong opinions about certain films and filmmakers and for not being afraid to challenge some of his own opinions. My having been a film programmer also helped because his own early discovery of cinema had been informed by film programs just like the ones I worked on. In fact, he has often referenced in interviews the film series he frequented at the Joslyn Art Museum (before I was there) and the art film screenings he attended at the Admiral and Dundee theaters, both within walking distance of the mid-town home he grew up in.
That first interview I did with him took place within days of his concluding pre-production on “Election” and starting to shoot the film. As the production got under way I did have one opportunity to visit the set but I was not able to make it. I did do a follow-up interview with Payne by phone, and I also did phoners with one of the producers, Albert Berger, and with the film’s star, Matthew Broderick.
My object with the piece was to take the measure of the up-and-coming writer-director in a serious profile worthy of The New Yorker or The New York Times. I do not claim to have attained that goal, I will leave that for you the reader to discern, but I was satisfied with the results. I do not recall Payne’s specific response to the article but let’s just say he appreciated the effort that went into it, and from the time it was published in early 1998 until now he’s accorded me interview after interview and, in some cases, exclusive access to his sets…
…If there is one thing I do in covering Payne and that perhaps I used to do more of then than now, it is providing a certain context in which to better understand him and his work… It is my hope that this Alexander Payne primer reveals more than the sum of its parts in schooling you about the filmmaker and his work.