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Alexander Payne does not live in Nebraska. In fact, the 43-year-old filmmaker hasn’t lived there since he was 18, although he did keep an apartment in Omaha for six years while he made his first three features, 1996’s Citizen Ruth, 1999’s Election, and 2002’s About Schmidt.
“I’m happy to be out of Omaha,” says the tall, dark-haired director, who comes across as amiable and even humble—although he’s also quick to dismiss questions whose premises he rejects. “I never set out to be the Omaha director. It just occurred to me to shoot two or three films there. But I’m happy to move on. I’ll go back to Nebraska. It’ll be fun. But I want to travel and see the world a little bit.”
Actually, Payne has been based in Los Angeles ever since he moved there to attend UCLA. Yet his latest film, Sideways, is his first to be set in California. A somewhat dyspeptic buddy comedy about two pals who take a trip to the wine country around Santa Barbara, the movie was scripted largely in New York with Payne’s longtime co-writer and former L.A. roommate, Jim Taylor.
“We always need to write together,” Payne explains. “We don’t divide and conquer like some collaborators who maybe hash out a structure together and then say, ‘Well you take the first half, I’ll take the second half, then we’ll rewrite together.’ We’re always together in the same room when we write. We have a system with one monitor and two keyboards.”
When they work together, neither writer has a specialty, Payne says, but he adds, “If we’re stuck, it’s often [Taylor] who will come up with a good idea. And then maybe I sit down and find a way to effectuate it. But we both kind of do it all.”
He pauses for a beat. “I think he’s funnier, though.”
Although both he and Taylor can type—or delete—at the same time, Payne says the process doesn’t often lead to conflict or catastrophe. “Our writing goes so slowly that we’re never both typing at the same time. But when we rewrite together, it’s like, ‘Well, how ’bout this?’ Then it helps to have two keyboards. We used to pass it back and forth, but that wasn’t very efficient.”
Payne rebuffs the idea that Sideways is the team’s second film about disillusioned older men after two about driven younger women. “You could argue that Election is more Jim McAllister’s story than Tracy Flick’s story,” he says. “If I think about it, I see it more as three films in a row about men with some degree of middle-age or late-age crisis.”
Whereas the low-key About Schmidt was a switch for star Jack Nicholson, Sideways lead Paul Giamatti is playing a rumpled loser not unlike the ones he embodied in such movies as American Splendor and Storytelling. Payne bristles slightly at the suggestion that the actor might be typecast. “Well, here’s another movie about that cowboy, John Wayne. Well, here’s another movie about that Mafioso, Robert De Niro. Sometimes, actors, I guess, do have a certain connection to a particular quality, which also manages to touch the zeitgeist.
“All I know is that I auditioned the guy,” he continues. “I had the impression he could make even bad dialogue work. And I believed him. I sensed a real human being there. I don’t just see an actor performing. Don’t forget, the guy’s also a romantic lead in Sideways. He gets the girl. And also he really, really carries the movie.”
With Citizen Ruth, Payne became one of few directors to depict the pleasures of huffing solvents and spray paint. Off-screen, however, he’s a wine aficionado, which is one of the reasons he wanted to adapt the Rex Pickett novel that is Sideways’ source. The book provided a demimonde whose tastes and attitudes are unlike anything he’d filmed before.
“It’s fun to do new things,” he says. “I don’t want to keep doing the same goddamn thing over and over again, for Pete’s sake. This novel came my way, and the novelty of the novel really struck me. It was kind of a buddy comedy, and set on a road trip, and a wine movie. And I haven’t seen a wine movie. I mean, I’ve seen a couple of movies that have vineyards and something of a wine theme, but never as fully as this.”
Payne says that the movie’s jazz score, composed by Election and About Schmidt veteran Rolfe Kent, was designed to evoke “Italian comedies of the late ’50s and early ’60s. And French films, too. They used jazz scores, and I miss that. And I thought, also, jazz would go with wine. Better than classical music.”
Yet the music, he notes, is Sideways’ only significant European influence. When Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael were planning the movie’s look, Papamichael brought in Jean-Luc Godard and Bertrand Blier films, but Payne admits to having little interest in either director. Instead, he and Taylor inserted a Euro joke: Giamatti’s oenophile Miles has written an unpublished novel that he compares to the work of French director, screenwriter, and New Novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.
“In the novel Sideways, Miles never describes what his novel’s about,” Payne recalls. “Jim and I thought, We’d like to know what that novel’s about. So we thought, Well, his father and the stroke. And that Miles would be pretentious enough to have very self-conscious structure. Trying for it to be very much like a modern novel, like what ‘modern’ meant 35, 40 years ago. So that’s how we started talking about Robbe-Grillet.
“You don’t hear the name Robbe-Grillet in too many American films these days,” he adds, grinning.
Sideways was inspired mostly by early-’70s Hollywood movies, with their social consciousness, rueful tone, and soft colors. “In some ways, I kind of wanted to make a ’70s movie,” Payne says. “Not an homage to a ’70s movie, but really a movie that you might have seen in 1973 or ’4 or something. Because I was a teenager in that period, and I’m very influenced by those films. I keep returning to them. And I’m constantly amazed by the fact that they have not turned quaint. I see movies, not just from the ’70s, but ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and all I can think is, Wow, look how much we’ve lost. Movies used to be so much better. How come we can’t do that again? Why can’t we have good scripts, and good film craft, and stories about people?”
Despite harboring such seditious thoughts, Payne has no complaints about how the movie biz has treated him. “I’ve had really good luck,” he allows. “Inherent in your question is some disparagement of Hollywood product, which I completely share. But I think things are getting better. And I think the movies I’m able to make, in the Hollywood system—my own career gives me a lot of hope. That it can happen for other people, too.”
While suggesting that his films may be part of a Hollywood renaissance, Payne admits that he doesn’t particularly enjoy watching them. “When I’m finished with a movie, I can’t ever really see it,” he says. “I don’t know what it is….I just have fun making them, and when I watch one of my films, I see a photo album of the experience of making that film. Oh, it was hot that day. Oh, that actress was such a bitch. Oh, we had the hardest time cutting that scene. We barely made that scene work. That kind of stuff.
“Which is not to say I’m not also dissatisfied,” he adds. “Oh, I wish it were a deeper experience. Oh, the timing of that joke could have been a lot funnier. Oh, why did I let that guy talk me into that? Sure, that hits me all the time. But who cares?” He laughs. “It’s just a movie.”
Nonetheless, Payne says, each of his movies is a learning experience. “Every time I make a film, I just think it’s a dry run for the next one,” he explains. “I really never outgrew the mentality of a UCLA film-school student. I happen now to be getting paid to make mistakes and learn how to make a movie. I mean, I’m 43, and I hope in my 50s I’ll be able to make a really good movie.
“Having said that, I think Sideways is kind of OK. You know what it doesn’t have? It doesn’t have a scene where I have to get up and go to the bathroom. Oh, that scene I screwed up is coming. I’ll be right back. And I get up and leave. And then I come back. I know the cue, the line of dialogue that means that terrible scene is over. And then I can go back in. It doesn’t have one of those.”
Payne considers this for a moment. “That’s an improvement,” he announces.