With only four features to his credit, writer-director Alexander Payne has established himself as one of the most reliable auteurs in American comedy, drawing comparisons to Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder for his crackling dialogue and acerbic social commentary. Originally from Nebraska, Payne returned to his hometown of Omaha for his first three comedies, which depict the Midwest without the golden gloss that plagues Hollywood films about life between the coasts. In different ways, 1996's Citizen Ruth and 1999's Election satirized the political process—the former in the tug-of-war that pro-life and pro-choice activists wage over a pregnant junkie (Laura Dern), and the latter in a story about a ruthlessly ambitious teenager (Reese Witherspoon) who runs for student-council president.
Payne's ambivalence over Midwestern life got its fullest treatment in 2002's About Schmidt, a painfully funny portrait of a retired middle manager (Jack Nicholson) who comes to terms with his wife's death and his daughter's marriage. Payne's latest comedy, Sideways, switches the milieu to California wine country, where middle-aged divorcé Paul Giamatti takes a weeklong excursion with soon-to-be-married college buddy Thomas Haden Church. Their adventures lead to romantic entanglements with a couple of attractive locals, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. Payne recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Jim Taylor (who co-wrote all of Payne's films), modern comedies, the Midwest, unfaithful adaptations, independent cinema, and signs of a return to the director-driven films of the '70s.
The Onion: In an interview, Sideways author Rex Pickett said that novelists should never adapt their own books, because they're too close to the material. Do you think adaptations need to be processed through a sensibility other than the writer's?
Alexander Payne: Well, I can't make a categorical statement like that.
O: Well, what about your sensibility when you adapt a book?
AP: I know that Jim Taylor and I have to write it, because I find it really hard to get connected to a piece of material unless I'm involved in the writing. To us, it's not about the broad strokes of the story. It's really about the little details that Jim and I put in, and that's what I've been able to connect to. We always include something that we find delightful—though we don't know if anyone else will—on every page. It really has to come from us, from the writing. So, yeah, on one hand, I feel that I have to be involved in the writing. I'm connected to it, so that I feel it's coming from something personal. And in a general sense, to convert any short story, novel, play, or opera into a movie, you have to re-rig it. Even though they're all narratives over time, they're very different forms.
O: Another school of thought says, "We have to be faithful to the book to do justice to it." But your films do drift away. They seem to have the spirit of the source material, but not the content, at least to the letter.
AP: The obvious point is this: A book is a book, but a movie is a movie. The more faithful you are, the more you'll come up with Harry Potter #1 and #2, which are like filmed books on tape. They're so petrified of turning off the readers that they make no concessions to the fact that they're trying to make a piece of cinema. I haven't seen Alfonso Cuarón's [Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban], but I'm sure it's far more cinematic, because he's a real director. That [Chris] Columbus guy isn't such a great director. But you have to change things. The better a novel is, in literary terms, the more you can't be faithful. The novel succeeds on terms exclusive to literature. A good film succeeds on terms exclusive to the cinema. That's why so many bad novels can become good movies, like Jaws or The Godfather.
O: What's the nature of your collaboration with Jim Taylor? How do you work together?
AP: We have to schedule our time together because he lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles. Some writing teams split up the tasks: They'll outline together, then one writes the first half, the other writes the second half, and then they rewrite. We do it all together. We have a system with one monitor and two keyboards.
O: You were roommates, right? How did you develop similar sensibilities?
AP: It just grew. It just so happened that he took this extra room in this apartment I had in the late '80s, and we just started hanging out as roommates, and became friends. We took some tentative steps at screenwriting together with two shorts in 1991, then again a year later with Citizen Ruth, and it's grown from there. I don't think either of us anticipated having a co-writer in life.
O: What are his strengths? What in your work can be credited to him?
AP: We don't really divide up our tasks that much. We both do it all: structure, ideas, dialogue sculpting, everything. But I think he's funnier than I am. He's really funny.
O: Did you have total autonomy in the casting choices for Sideways?
AP: I did. I assumed it because we paid for casting ourselves. We didn't get connected with any studio until after we had cast the movie. Michael London and I optioned the book, Jim and I wrote the screenplay on spec, and Michael and I paid for casting. We rented an office and hired a casting director, hung out a shingle, and said, "Hey, we're casting a movie!" Then we approached the studios later and said, "Okay, here we are. Here's a script, a director, a producer, a budget, and a preferred cast."
O: But if you had taken it to a studio at an earlier point…
AP: Then I would have had to play the name game much more and fended off pressure to hire the most famous possible people.
O: Do you normally go about things this way?
AP: Actually, this is the first film since Citizen Ruth that I've cast without being attached to the studio during the casting period. With Citizen Ruth, even after we got connected with Miramax, they still started the name game with some of the supporting parts. It all worked out fine. But this is one where I really just wanted to cast whoever I thought was most appropriate, top to bottom. They could have been famous people, but I didn't find any that I thought were better. Fortunately, the ones I picked were all available.
O: How difficult has it become to find financing for the sort of modestly budgeted comedy you seem to specialize in?
AP: Well, people say it's hard, but for me, it's grown easier. I won't say easier, but less hard. Each one of my movies becomes easier to get off the ground. This one was $16 million, which is not very much by Hollywood standards. I have to think that if it could go like that for me, then it certainly could for other people.
O: Maybe it's that there aren't a lot of these sorts of films being made.
AP: No, there aren't. There aren't enough.
O: How connected do you feel to the American independent scene, if there is such a thing?
AP: Independent means one thing to me: It means that regardless of the source of financing, the director's voice is extremely present. It's such a pretentious term, but it's auteurist cinema. Director-driven, personal, auteurist… Whatever word you want. It's where you feel the director, not a machine, at work. It doesn't matter where the money comes from. It matters how much freedom the director has to work with his or her team. That's how I personally define independent movies.
O: Has it ever been defined any other way?
AP: Well, a lot of people get stuck, like, "Oh, if it's made by a studio, it can't be independent." Often they link it to the source of financing, or how it's distributed, but I don't really know how you can. A filmmaker will take his money from anywhere. It doesn't matter. I wrote an article about the state of American independent cinema for Variety. My lead-in to the article was that whenever I'm asked about independent cinema, I think of what Fidel Castro said during the Cold War about the league of non-aligned nations. He said that really, there were only two non-aligned nations: the U.S. and the USSR. The rest of us have to be aligned somewhere. I said similarly, in a way, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros. are the only true independents, because they're the only ones who can do whatever they want and have distribution for their films built in.
You asked me about what I want American independent cinema to be now. I want studios to be financing director-driven, auteurist cinema, as they did in the '70s. I think it's starting to happen now. You have the usual suspects, these young guys like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, myself, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, and whoever else you want to mention, getting our financing from studios. Then you have really great, strong directors like Sam Raimi and Alfonso Cuarón and Steven Soderbergh doing more franchise films, like Harry Potter and Spider-Man and Ocean's 11. Those are great directors doing strong work. And it's great that they have a great deal of control at that end. This year, Mike Nichols has a film coming out, James Brooks, Woody Allen. I think it's a really good year for movies. Plus, because of how our world has changed politically, I think audiences are demanding more realism. We need to have more stuff in our culture about what is really going on right now.
O: Do you think filmmakers, apart from documentarians, have responded on a political level as strongly as they could?
AP: You have to remember that films take time. Jon Stewart can do a show in a day. Satire—which is flourishing and in a way is our greatest form right now—is immediate. A lot of documentaries have been made very quickly, but I think they're like frogs in an ecosystem: They're harbingers. Film is always two or three years behind, because it takes so long to write a script, get financing, and get it made. It just takes a while. But I think it's coming. It has to.
O: You've been talking about the auteurist cinema of the '70s. Some of those films are very strongly political.
AP: Yes, but the thing is, right now the films don't need to be overtly political to be about our times. We also need films that are just human, that are about people. People need that, too. It's like we need to reconnect to what it is to be human. Not just what our political situation is. That's not what I'm thinking about exclusively. Human content is needed again, as it was in the '70s. I think films were more human than they've been since then.
O: Cinema's few depictions of Midwest life seem to describe it as America's Heartland. Do you consider your films a corrective to that?
AP: It's not really my job to say that, because I don't think that way. I think about what movie I would like to see. I don't think of them as a correction or palliative. I certainly am irritated by anything that's shot in the Midwest and filled with these noble people. "Oh, they're so good, and they're so honest…" I'm not interested in that. I just think of what's right for a movie.
O: What do you like to emphasize? What do you feel needs to be captured about the region?
AP: Well, again, not just about my films, but in general, I think the complexity. I think about what I want to shoot in Nebraska again, and one thing that most comes to mind is to make a film about Mexicans. The Midwest is crawling with Mexicans now. It's very interesting. In Omaha, there's a Mexican consulate because of the large numbers of people who work all over the state in slaughterhouses and packing houses. They're the current wave of Catholics who come from another country and take the lowest job. I think that's interesting, for example. You say the Midwest: Well, what is Detroit? Black, ghettoized Detroit? That's the Midwest. The south side of Chicago is the Midwest. North Omaha is the Midwest. To say it's all noble white people is such bullshit. I think anything that communicates a monolithic point of view about anything is wrong, certainly about a region.
O: Your movies are rich in a lot of incidental details, particularly in the production design. But production-design awards usually go to some frilly period piece. Do you think people are looking closely at the art of production design?
AP: I think my production designer, Jane Stewart, does work that's so good, it's invisible. We spend a lot of time scouting locations, and during those hours together in the car, we're always talking about the class of our characters and how class is reflected in the way they live and what where they live says about them as people. I always hate to say, "Oh, wine is a character in the film." It's not a character. It's a very large part of who the characters are. We're very interested in people in a place. It's not just about being in Omaha or being in wine country. What are we shooting? What's in the foreground? Obviously, the flesh. But what do we put in the background? I'm constantly interested, as a director, visually, in keeping both in focus—the background and the foreground. I admire other directors who have similarly used sets or landscape, however broadly or intimately, in depicting their story or characters. I'm a huge fan of Anthony Mann. He's a master at using landscape to depict what was going on with his characters, but not ever letting the landscape clobber the human story in front of the camera. That's really where you can learn from the masters. Mike Leigh films, I think, are very thorough in that way.
O: Do you ever see yourself moving away from film comedy, or do you think this is the genre through which you work best?
AP: I don't know. I don't know yet.
O: Why comedy, then?
AP: Because it's so fun. I love comedies. Jim and I take comedy very seriously as a form. It's a serious form, involving a certain way of looking at life, specifically the painful aspects of life. I get asked, "How can you have such failures in your films?" Well, what else is life about? There's some sense of constant failure in something. Humor gives you a distance from it.