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.

"Citizen Ruth"
"Citizen Ruth"

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.