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.