Alexander Payne


Movies that precocious teenagers from Omaha were enjoying during the seventies:
The Sting
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Movies that precocious teenagers from Omaha did not enjoy quite as much:
Star Wars
The Exorcist
Five Easy Pieces

Alexander Payne makes films with an eye for incidental details. He circles his characters when they are at their most fragile and vulnerable. In Citizen Ruth, a pregnant Ruth Stoops plunges down a flight of stairs. In Election, Mr. McAllister washes his genitals in a hotel bathtub before an adulterous affair. In About Schmidt, Warren Schmidt loads up on Percodan and plunges into a hot tub with his future in-law. In Sideways, Miles Raymond accidentally encounters a waitress and her flabby boyfriend having wild sex to a televised (and muted) Donald Rumsfeld. With a sense of ease, he shares with us those perfectly perverse and uncomfortable moments that nevertheless make us laugh. In doing so, he helps his audiences reconnect and reflect on what it is to be human.

When talking to Payne, he is easily distracted. But when the subject is steered towards his love of film or his hometown of Omaha, he can talk on and on endlessly. He speaks five languages, plays piano, digs cats, and knows a bit about wine. Just don’t ask him one of the following questions about his latest film, Sideways: “Where did you get the idea?” “Why did you decide on this cast?” And that dark, inevitable question, “If you were a wine, which wine would you be?”

Payne has just returned from a monthlong tour of the Mediterranean, where he presented Sideways at film festivals in Turin, Thessaloniki, and Marrakesh. He’s now back in Los Angeles, where he is attempting to soothe his circadian rhythms, juggle award nominations, and visit with a fellow Midwest-erner. This conversation took place in two parts. The first, in a telephone call to Alexander’s home in Los Angeles, and the second, several days later, when he picked up an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

—Kate Donnelly


THE BELIEVER: Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese have recently chosen to make big-budget films. Do you feel an obligation to dabble in the mainstream?

ALEXANDER PAYNE: I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s not just a matter of how much money you spend on a film. I mean, are my films mainstream? They have always been financed by studios. This will be the third film in a row that makes a profit. This will be my third film in a row nominated for an Oscar. Am I a mainstream director? I don’t know. I don’t use any label. I’m just a filmmaker. I’ll take the money wherever it comes from, as long as I have creative control. I make movies for studios that turn a profit and are nominated for Oscars, which sounds fairly mainstream to me. Yet I’m referred to as an indie director. Maybe that just means I make personal films, or that the degree of creative control, which I’m lucky enough to enjoy, is evident.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Kate Donnelly is a writer living in New York. She is currently at work on her first novel, about an underachiever. This is her first interview for the Believer.

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