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Il Cinema Ritrovato: Alexander Payne Talks Influential Films, Cinephilia, Screenwriting and More

Il Cinema Ritrovato: Alexander Payne Talks Influential Films, Cinephilia, Screenwriting and More

I blush to admit that, last night, I skimmed the portable printed
program for the festival and felt disenchanted. After looking forward to returning to Bologna all year long, I decided
that this year’s program was not as well-suited to me as last year’s had
been, that I would be hard-pressed to
put together a full day’s worth of screenings for each of the next eight days,
and that I had flown over 6000 miles on a fool’s errand.

What a difference a day makes.  

The good news is that, miracle dictu, I eventually went to
bed after seeing the excellent “Vera Cruz” in the cool Pizza Maggiore
on the huge screen and slept for a solid unbroken 8 1/2 hours.  The bad news is that I missed breakfast. 

But I had the rest of the morning to relax and peruse the
program at my leisure.  I wasn’t
completely seduced, but it began to open up to me.  There were at least 16 different programs,
including retrospectives devoted to Allan Dwan, Vittorio de Sica, and Chris
Marker; the nine newly-restored Hitchcock silents (five of which I’d just seen
in San Francisco, the rest to be caught up with at the Pacific Film Archive in
August); newly-restored Chaplin shorts; and a film a day from 1938-9 under the
rubric “War is Near”. 

Early Japanese talkies from the 30s, including
films by the relatively unknown-to-me Kimura, Tomioko, and  Yamamoto, as well as a few more familiar Naruse
and Ozu titles. Czech films from the
60s. An hommage to Burt Lancaster, introduced by his daughter Joanna. A series
devoted to European films in Cinemascope. A tribute to Humphrey Jennings, the English documentarian. Daily
programs of wildly-assorted short films from the year 1913.  Movies from a heretofore unheard-of Russian
pair, Ol’ga [sic] Preobrazenskaja and Ivan Pravov (deeper into movies).

And, of course, the cherry on a sundae, a free open-air
screening of a choice restored film for several thousand people to cap every
night at 10 p.m.

I started getting punch-drunk.  Far from having trouble putting together a
schedule for a day, I was seriously torn about what movie or event to begin the
first full day of screenings at 2:30 p.m.: my heart wanted very much to see
“Il Signor Max,” a 1937 film by Mario Camerini starring Vittorio de
Sica.  The curious cinephile was
attracted to both a program of the 1913 shorts that included 30
newly-discovered minutes of a 1915 Italian diva film, “Tragico Convegno.”  

And, even though I’d already seen Vera Chytilova’s
“Daisies,” that was decades ago — and even though the film hasn’t
changed, I have. I decide to begin with a conversation rather than a movie,
between Peter von Bagh, the extraordinary artistic director of both Il Cinema
Ritrovato and the round-the-clock Midnight Sun Festival
in Finland, and
Alexander Payne, who I admire both for his work as a director and his own
rampant cinephilia.

I immediately run into Philippe Garnier, the
author of excellent books on David Goodis and Andre de Toth, among others.  He immediately winces when I tell him I’m
going to hear Payne and then see a 1936 German comedy called “Lucky
Kids,” followed by, I think, Dave Kehr’s introduction to some Allen Dwan
shorts. He makes me feel like a wimp. He’s headed to the de Sica, and then
Francesco Rosi’s “Lucky Luciano,” which of course both sound
enormously tempting. 

Dave Kehr and Pierre Rissient join me at the von Bragh/Payne conversation,
which goes something like this (all conversation paraphrased):

Von Bragh:  What was the first movie you remember seeing?

Payne: I don’t remember that, but I do remember the first
film I asked to see: “A Boy Ten Feet Tall,” by Alexander Mackendrick,
aka “Sammy Going South.” I was three years old, and I
literally wanted to see a boy that was ten feet tall!  My mother took me to the big theater across
from the restaurant my family owned, and I was disappointed.  My mother was a great filmgoer, and her
mother was a great filmgoer.  We would go
in at any time — that’s where the phrase “this is where we came in”
came from.  Three of my four grandparents
immigrated from Greece.  My parents met
in D.C. during WWII, and he brought her to Nebraska.  I became a regular 8mm film collector — my
father got an 8mm film projector as a bonus from Kraft — he used a lot of their
products in his restaurant.  I still have
it!  I would order somewhat obsessively
from Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa — they sold 8mm, super 8, and 16mm
prints of old films.  David Shepard has
written about them.

I studied history and literature in college — not math or
science — I’m firmly rooted in the humanities! 
As a child, I read all of Roald Dahl, and then, later, Steinbeck.  I was crazy about film silent comedies — at
age 12, “Big Business,” Laurel and Hardy, was one of my
favorites.  And then to discover at UCLA
that one of my favorite films, “Make Way for Tomorrow,” was by the
same director, Leo McCarey, was great. (N.B.: Payne showed “Make Way for
Tomorrow” with great success as part of his Guest Director program at the
2009 Telluride Film Festival.)  I watched
many movies under the covers on a little TV I’d bring up from the kitchen when
I was supposed to be asleep — Warner Brothers movies were shown at 10:30 at
night, I was crazy about Warner Brothers gangster films.  I was also influenced by my older brothers’
tastes — “King Kong,” Sergio Leone movies.

What was the first profession you wanted to do?

First I wanted to be a projectionist.  Then I figured out that somebody makes these
movies.  I studied history and language
at university, and I thought about going to film school — or the Columbia
Graduate School of journalism.  My
parents wanted me to go to law school.  I
got into UCLA film school — it took me six years to do a program that could
have been finished in three, because I spent most of my time watching movies,
instead of being upstairs editing.  UCLA
was still then showing nitrate prints.

Talk about the difference…

Between nitrate and acetate.  Nitrate glows, there’s a shimmer and gleam –
I remember from “Morocco.” I think there are three theaters that can
still shoe nitrate.

I think FIAF (the International Federation of Film
Archives) had its last nitrate show in 2000.  Film prints versus digital…

Maybe flicker is superior to glow — there’s
something hypnotic in the flicker.

Tell us some influential films.

When I was ten, “The Treasure of the Sierra
Madre.” [editorial note: happy coincidence] Twenty, in Spain,
“Viridiana,” being shown in Spain in the 80s for the first time,
after the death of Franco — I didn’t know that film could be that ferocious.  When I was 22, at the Castro Theatre,
“The Seven Samurai,” which cemented my desire to go to film school —
I could never climb a mountain that high, but what a nice mountain to be on.

As a teenager, a lot of Italian films — “The Garden of
the Finiz-Continis,” “Amarcord,” “The Night Porter.”
There was a cineclub at Stanford, where I went, that showed movies in 16mm —
“Ugetsu,” “Ikiru,” “Bicycle Thief.” In my
twenties I would see everything — first I was a Kurosawa completist, and then
Ozu.  I would see old Japanese films at
the Kokusai theater in LA, now gone.  In
my thirties I turned more towards Italy — both are infinite.

I can tell from your films you love Antonioni.

I do, but I’m surprised you get that from my
films.  For “Sideways,” I
thought of “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” for the music — I wanted
lightness of tone.  I discovered Luciano
 eight years ago with Dave
Kehr in Torino.  I’m in love with
editing, still.  If I hadn’t become a
director, I might have pursued editing.

Who were your teachers?

At UCLA, a lot of Eastern Europeans — Czechs and
Poles who had left in the 60s.

Jerzy Antczak, a Polish directing teacher.  And a Czech director who became a friend, [ed.
note: I couldn’t make out name — sounded like Jerry Weiss], who died in
2004.  Karlovy Vary is doing his
centenary celebration right now. Bologna should do something. David Raksin, the
composer of “Laura,” was a teacher.

You made shorts at UCLA?

I’ve made six features, and I have friends who still
think my thesis film, “The Passion of Martin,” is my most honest
film.  My shorts were funny.
“Martin” is a loose adaptation of an Argentine short novel.  It’s 50 minutes long.  I entered it in film festivals — it showed
in Torino, among other places, and i still have a relationship with them today.
It attracted agents and producers in L.A.. 
In ’90–’91, I wrote a first draft of what turned out to be “About
Schmidt.” In 1995, I got to make “Citizen Ruth,” somewhat
inspired by “Ace in the Hole.” 
It was a failure — not critically, financially.  In those days, though, it was very hard to
make your first film, but once you had, you could make another feature.  Today it seems that anybody can make a first
film, but it’s harder to make a second film.

What is your greatest financial success?

“The Descendants.”  It had a big star.  The last three films have gone up in level.

You write your own screenplays, often.

I feel that I
write out of desperation — to have something to direct.  We don’t have Robert Towne and Waldo Salt
anymore.  Screenwriting is not really
writing, it’s imagining a film.  I just
directed a screenplay I did not write.  I love
Zavattini, who wrote a very good autobiography. Pierre Rissient goes
immediately to the screenwriter.  I love
Anthony Mann — at once moral and brutal, with a sense of place, that’s
important, always a sense of place in the background.

His end as a director was tragic.  The noirs, the Westens, but then the big
commercial films — most people think Ford is the only Western director.

Ford I have an evolving relationship with.  As a kid I liked him. Later I found him
cornball, sentimental, maybe misogynist. 
Then I preferred Mann and Peckinpah. Now in my 50s I’m finding other
Fords — I just saw “Prisoner of Shark Island,” very strong.  And how different he was with every DP he
worked with — pictorially very interesting. 
The son of Bert Glennon, one of his favorites, shot my first three
movies, so I got the stories, working with Jack.

How did you
work with Jack Nicholson?

I called Mike
Nichols, who’d worked with him on three pictures, and asked him for
advice.  “Tell him the truth,”
he said. “Tell him exactly what you feel.”  That’s the best way to work with actors in
general. I try to cast people I can talk with truthfully.  Not with tricks.  Jack is so good of an actor — it’s kind of
like driving a Maserati, with tight steering. 
He made me a better director.  I
told him at the beginning, I need you to play a small man.  And he understood.  He’s studied Huston and Polanski and
Antonioni and Kubrick and worked with them all. [“And Minnelli,” Dave
whispers to me. I hesitate for a moment, and then “On A Clear Day”
swims into view. “With Streisand!,” I say.] For many years he had been
doing commercial films, but he’d just done a great performance in Sean Penn’s
“The Pledge.”  I’m so tired of
people asking me “Why are you interested in flawed
protagonists?”  It’s the most
idiotic question!  It sounds pretentious
to say “How about Chaplin? He was homeless!”

How do you work together with your
co-screenwriter, Jim Taylor?

We wrote the first four of my six films, and,
starting in January, the next one.  We’re
in the same room and try to make each other laugh. Now isn’t it time to see
some movies?  Chaplin? De Sica?

Now von Bagh opens to questions — I ask the first one — I
guess you have partially just answered this, but what are you excited about
seeing in Bologna?

Payne: The WWII films, Sans Lendemain [Ophuls]; Jasny’s film
from ’63 (“The Cassandra Cat”); and the films from 1913, how
wonderful that we can go back in time.

Somebody asks him his inspiration for “The
Descendants,” and he says (as I do, sotto voce) It was a novel, it was set
in Hawaii. 

von Bagh:  Searching
for Elvis…

Payne: Elvis?

von Bagh:  “Blue

Payne: [touches watch]  Isn’t it time to see Chaplin at
4?  Or Lino Brocka at 5?

Another question: What cinematographers would you like to
work with?

Payne:  I can’t
mention that as long as my cinematographer is alive!  You know, the sound mixer can be such divas
— temperamental and filled with ego. I have a good one — I’m
exaggerating!  But cinematographers, they
are some of the nicest people.  The good
ones are equally invested in making the film good.  You know, even Linda Blair in “The
Exorcist” has to feel beautiful. 
Jim Glennon is now deceased. I’m working with a fellow Greek, Phedon

Questioner: I love

Payne: “Election” is my mother’s favorite among my

Questioner: It reminded me of “Breakfast
Club.”  What do you think of John
Hughes’ films?

Payne (takes a deep breath): I can’t say I like or don’t
like John Hughes’ films.  I haven’t seen
them.  I was a film snob at the time they
were coming out.  I’m not very interested
in seeing them now. [Dave and I agree that this is the most controversial thing
Payne has said.]

Question about working with Bruce Dern on

Payne: When you go to make a film with an old guy, you’re
limited by who’s left — no Henry Fonda, Percy Kilbride, Charley Grapewin.  I screened “Nebraska” the other day
for Nicholson, his producer Harry Gittes, who was the source of Nicholson’s
name in “Chinatown,” and Dern, and afterwards Gittes said “I
feel like I was back at BBS,” [the production company behind “Easy
Rider” — as Raybert Productions — and “Five Easy Pieces,”
among many other movies], which was lovely.

von Bagh: Desert island movie?

Payne: Can I have two?

von Bagh: Of course.

Payne:  Three.  “City Lights,” “Modern Times,”
“Seven Samurai,” “The Wild Bunch.”

von Bagh:  That’s

Exhilerated — at least I was — Dave and I got
simultaneous-translation ear pieces [a difficult way to enjoy a movie] for the
3:45 p.m. screening of the restored “Gluckskinder,” aka “Lucky
Kids,” a 1936 German movie starring the spiky blonde English actress
Lilian Harvey.  I had vague memories of
seeing it in a UCLA Film Archive program, decades ago, of generally rather
light-hearted films made under the Nazis that were never distributed in the

The film is set in New York, and I
only clearly remembered a scene in which Harvey and Willy Fritsch go into a
typical drugstore on Times Square, sit at the lunch counter on stools, and
order sausages and beer.  In the event,
the drugstore was not on Times Square, and, after being offered lobster and
caviar (apparently sincerely — the caviar price was $5!), they settled on
herring with plenty of onions and beer. 
The film was something of an “It Happened One Night” clone,
complete with the protagonists sleeping with an improvised “Wall of
Jericho” in-between them — a row of cactus instead of a clothesline-hung

Afterwards I went to the 5 p.m. Lino Brocka screening that Payne had referenced, prodded by both its presenter, Rissient,
and Mr. Kehr.  Scorsese’s World Cinema
Foundation had sprung for a restoration of Brocka’s second feature film,
“Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag,” (“Manila in the Claws of
Light,”), as well as a making-of documentary.  I’d seen many Brocka films over the years
when they were presented by David Overbey in Toronto.  I recognized that this one, a primitive but
powerful bildingsroman about a naive boy from the country who goes to Manila to
find his girlfriend, who’s been tricked into prostitution, is a kind of
masterpiece. And that if I’d seen it in 1975, when it was made, I wouldn’t have
been as responsive to it as I was now. I was then a kind of film snob, as
Alexander Payne had said, and I would have found it clunky and badly shot. 

I also enjoyed the making-of documentary, especially
Brocka’s strange obsession with the weight of his actors — he replaced the
original lead “because he has gained weight,” and thinks that his
lead actress will be one of the Phillipines’s best actresses “especially
now that she has lost weight.” 
‘Twas ever thus.

I chug a double espresso at 9:30 p.m., which gets me through
the inspired 10 p.m. outdoor screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s hour-long 1915
“Carmen,” played by Geraldine Farrar, paired with Charlie Chaplin’s
half-hour-long “A Burlesque on Carmen,” starring Edna Purviance, also
1915.  I am stunned by the lavish musical
accompaniment — themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” scored by Hugo
Riesenfeld played by the 40-piece Opera Orchestra of Bologna for the De Mille,
and then a lighter pastiche score by Timothy Brock for Chaplin’s version, with
wittier orchestration, and about twenty musicians.

Returning to the Hotel Roma, I pass Payne on the
stairs, who is also returning from the double “Carmen.” “Edna
Purviance,” he says, “was a much better Carmen than Geraldine
Farrar.”  “Yes,” I agree,
“and doesn’t she remind you of Alice Waters?  Farrar was at least slender — for an opera
star.” (I’m as obsessed as Lino Brocka.) 
“I’ve always found Chaplin sexy,” I continue, “but
tonight he reminded me of Woody Allen, in the way that Diane Keaton wrote about
him in her autobiography — what a great tight little body he had.”  “And Purviance was his Keaton,”
Payne says.

A hard day to top. 
But I’ll try.

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