Alexander Payne interview
Sideways director Alexander Payne is quickly making a name for himself as part of the new wave of American directors, that includes such esteemed company as David O. Russell, P.T Anderson and David Fincher. He first rose to fame in 1999, with the black comedy, Election, staring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, for which he and co-writer Jim Taylor garnered an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
This was followed in 2002 with About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates were both nominated for Oscars in the Best Actor and Actress category respectively. Sideways is his 3rd feature film, again another writing-directing project. Payne is also the head Juror on the Un Certain Regard Jury, at The Cannes Film Festival this year. Sideways is released on DVD on the 16th May 2005.
LF: When you were making Election you said that you were interested in films about real people, people with flaws, not just goodies and baddies. That sounds like a good description of Sideways.
AP: I guess that's true. We do like real people. Here's another quote, if I can remember it… Rex Pickett, the novelist of Sideways, during a book-signing said to the audience that he didn't know heroes or noble people. These characters in Sideways are the people that he knows, and I feel the same way.
LF: What attracted you to the novel of Sideways that you found so cinematic?
AP: That's a good question. I know when I got the then unpublished novel of Election, one of the things that excited me, was not just the melancholy comic humanity of the characters and that microcosmic milieu of high-school - I wasn't interested in making a high-school movie at all - but I liked the idea of finding a cinematic equivalent of the literary technique of multiple first-person narrators, which it had.
I like voice-over in film. Rather than as many people think it's uncinematic technique, when well used, it's a greatly cinematic use of talking cinema. Think of Wilder, Kubrick. It's so stupid when people say: 'Don't use voice-over, show don't tell.' I say get lost. Even an omniscient narrator, like in Barry Lyndon, is quite delicious and helps make jumps.
Sideways reads like a film treatment, because of Rex Pickett's background as a screenwriter. He did a lot of interior monologue, which was inspired by Withnail and I. It's a linear story; it's about what the characters say and do.
LF: Sideways reminded me of Robert Altman's California Split, in the sense that it's great fun for the audience just hanging out with these two male characters on their trip
AP: I've never seen that movie! I wasn't thinking when I was making it, whether it would be fun to hang around with Jack and Miles. I was hoping that this is cut tight enough so people don't get bored watching it. I'm always afraid of boring the audience.
Even the scene that people ask me most about, which is where Miles and Maya are talking about wine, and he's talking about comparing himself to Pinot and she's talking about comparing herself to Cabernet. People have said to me that's a seminal scene, it's a small masterpiece. And I'm thinking: 'Oh it is?' It's a little talky for my tastes. I'm glad they like it, but it's not my favourite scene in the movie. Its fine, it's nice, it's revealing, it's the love scene. But I like the scene that precedes it, when they're on the sofa talking about what his novel's about, and he compares it to a Robbe-Grillet mystery without a resolution. That excites me more.
LF: Mike Nichols [of The Graduate, Catch-22 and Closer fame] said film-making was like taking a boat out to sea and only finding out in the middle of the water whether your boat was seaworthy. Can you relate to that description?
AP: I think he felt that on Catch-22, and he's told me so personally. It wasn't until half-way through that he realised that the boat wasn't seaworthy. I hope that experience can help the knowledge of the sea and your equipment. The most apt description I've heard of film-making is 'groping in the dark', which is kind of saying the same thing. You just don't know what's going to happen. There's so much insecurity. A big part of dealing with a career in film-making is the question of insecurity. First of all you think: 'Do I have any real talent?' Then if you still have talent, whether it's any good, or are you completely deluded? I see other things in life where I fuck up, and I think if I'm so deluded about that, what the hell else am I so deluded about! You fear that this is the film that will reveal fully what a fraud you are!
I'm friends with David O.Russell, and when I look at Three Kings, I think: 'How technically did he make that movie?' It's so beautiful and accomplished. I know how he makes Flirting with Disaster and Huckabees. But Three Kings? It doesn't have to be technically complicated. Cinema is so beautiful.
LF: How did the studios that you pitched the film to respond to your casting choices of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church?
AP: When I was approaching studios, the producer Michael London and I already knew the cast we wanted. We had the script, the director, the budget of $16 million and the cast. Four studios bit and commenced discussions. A couple of them baulked at the cast and would let me make the movie but for much less money than that.
Only two, Fox and Paramount, with whom I'd previously made Election, were willing to give the budget I wanted and the cast I wanted. By a hair we went with Fox Searchlight, because they had a little bit better record at marketing films like this. I've been very grateful to Fox Searchlight for giving me the opportunity and giving me the trust and terrific creative control, and the cast I wanted, and now for putting their hands in their pocket and promoting the film.
LF: Do the actors surprise you with what they come up with during the shoot?
AP: Yes of course. It's not so much dialogue, but from take to take how they do it. I feel so lucky as a director that I get to watch actors that way, because it's so thrilling.
It's exhilarating, and I am filled with admiration for film actors. I could not do it . . . If I were an actor I'd be much more comfortable on stage than on film, with that big unblinking cyclops of a camera and trying to keep one's concentration.
On the other hand from a director's point of view, I increasingly see directing as a process of gathering things to edit, even if I give primacy to acting among all other cinematic elements. I'm always thinking about editing. The editor and I are the actor's best friends, we work so hard to make sure we are telling the story we want to tell, but that only the best stuff is on screen.
LF: The editing in Sideways appears very unobtrusive. Is it hard to achieve that unshowiness?
AP: You strive to achieve the sense that the cuts are motivated by the story, just like camera placement. Ideally a cut should only be to tell the story, not because you had to cut away because the next frame the actor sucks.
LF: What was the experience of filming outside your home state of Nebraska?
AP: It was the first film since film school I'd shot outside Nebraska, though parts of Election were shot in Washington D.C. and New York City. The vineyards where we shot Sideways had never really been on film before. The methodology we'd worked up through making those films in Nebraska, we applied that to Santa Barbara County California. It's like being a documentarian. We spend time in a place; we look and observe, and think what will suggest most truthfully this area to serve this story.
Even in choosing extras and directing them, it's a though we're trying to make a documentary. I have to represent what occurs there in reality. That affects my choice of extras, how they're directed, a lot of things. Extras are of such importance to me. We choose all of them. Even the barman who knows Miles is an actor from Canada, who trained at the National Theatre School. We got 150 Armenian extras for the church service and used a real priest and a real deacon and that all took no small amount of diplomacy.
LF: With characters such as Jack and Miles, is there now an expectation for you to be a expert on questions of contemporary masculinity?
AP: I avoid those questions because I don't have anything to say about it. I really don't. I made a movie. If you think it's about American males, well I don't really know… As I said, I just made a movie.
I can tell you that Italian audiences love Jack - he's like Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso/The Easy Life - a really Italian, womanizing, sensualist kind of guy. In Greece they really liked him as well. There's something of the idea that these two characters Miles and jack, like the characters in Zorba the Greek or Il Sorpasso, are two sides of one man, paddling around together. Both of them are in all of us.
LF: What about plans for the future, do you have other projects in the pipeline?
AP: I've really just finished Sideways and I've had to come immediately into travelling with it. I haven't had a break to catch my breath. We're thinking about the next one being a little bit of a long film, maybe two and half hours, two and three quarter hours, a lot of different storylines, about having to do with the times in which we live. That's all about I know. Jim Taylor [co-writer of Sideways] will write it and it will be from the same team who worked on Sideways. My motto is, if it isn't broke, don't fix it.