“Sideways” and Behind: An interview with writer/director Alexander Payne

Riding the critical acclaim of “About Schmidt,” director and co-writer Alexander Payne took the cynical road through Southern California’s wine country in his new film “Sideways.” Starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, this venture demonstrated that he is more than a satirist but one also drenched in pinot noir expertise.

Hatchet: Where did the inspiration to direct “Sideways” come from?

Alexander Payne: Well, I’m a director. This novel came my way and I adapted the screenplay.

H: Did you develop an extensive interest in wine?

P: I knew something about wine before I wrote the screenplay, but it was a major part of the story so it helps to know what the hell you’re talking about. There’s a lot of wine talk in the book and not a lot in the movie because you can’t have too much wine talk in a movie. As the incumbent screenwriter, I needed to make sure the wine related to the characters.

H: Was this role written for Paul Giamatti?

P: No. It just came down to good casting. Like in a lot of good movies, I mean, “Sunset Boulevard” without Gloria Swanson, who was not the first choice for the role.

H: It seems like the same scenario as “About Schmidt.” Was Jack Nicholson just right for the role?

P: Right, it worked the same way. Directing and casting developed the actor’s character.

H: This was your first movie not filmed predominantly in Nebraska, how would you describe the drastic change in scenery by filming in Southern California?

P: It’s not really a function of where I am shooting, it’s more a function of where I am in filmmaking. I always consider myself a film student and since UCLA I still consider myself a student. The lovely landscape went with a nice coming together of people; I think it had less to do with where I was shooting.

H: Do you now prefer a place like Southern California?

P: Nope, I’ll shoot anywhere. I always have fun with it. This is just where the story really took place.

H: How was working with Paul Giamatti and the other actors again?

P: They were all fun-loving and relaxed, which made it a great experience. I have a lot of fun while making movies and I want the people and the actors around me to share that experience.

H: You’ve been considered someone who makes generally dark comedies. Was this a conscious departure from those themes?

P: How aware was I? Not very. Just seemed like a good thing to do. I never think about the type of movie I’m looking to make.

H: So you don’t think of yourself as someone pegged to a particular genre?

P: I’d say they’re all comedies but “Citizen Ruth” is very different from “About Schmidt.” I was called a satirist but in today’s film climate it seems like dark just translates to being real. Whatever comes natural to me and my co-writer James Taylor, we just write whatever we find as funny. It isn’t something that you can force.

H: With “Sideways” the production company is Fox Searchlight. How has using a different studio for each of your last three films affected your work?

P: I burn bridges… no not really. It is not really a selection to do each of these movies. For “Election” I was hired to direct. The last two were sort of loose balls to see which studio wants to work with you. By now I have
enough reputation to get interest from studios.

H: What kind of response are you looking to receive from “Sideways?”

P: It premiered at the Toronto film festival where I received some of the best reviews I’ve ever received for any film I’ve made. And I’m not a self-hyping person, it’s just reporting what happens. Sometimes I find critics enjoy films more than I do.

H: Which directors have inspired you most?

P: I’ve been watching films for many many years but to pinpoint my favorite directors, I’d say Chaplin, Kurosawa, Bunioelle, Kubrick, John Huston, De Sica, Leone, I like Leone a lot. The last 10 years I’ve returned to a lot of great Italian directors, spaghetti westerns. You’re influenced by everything you see and experience in art. I mean, I’ve stolen ideas from super 8 films that are really bad but inspiration comes from everywhere.

H: You stated you’re a follower of Kubrick, do you find that you’ve taken some of the dark comedy themes from his influence?

P: “Election” is a Ron Howard movie compared to “A Clockwork Orange.”

H: Where are you living now?

P: Currently I’m living in Hollywood and Omaha.

H: Does that keep you planted from where you are from?

P: Yeah I think so, I mostly live in California now.

H: I’ve heard of other artists staying in Omaha but living in another major city like Conor Oberst. Any reason for that?

P: Well he seems to keep himself there for about half the year, I tend to come and go. We just like Omaha. He’s reached out to me a few times to direct a video for him or to use his music in my films.

H: Would you consider working with him?

P: I’ve never done a [music] video. I’m not really interested…actually, I’m not interested. I have nothing against videos, you see wonderful work by Michael Cunningham and Michel Gondry, whose DVDs are out. But today there is no more Roger Corman, there are no more B-movies, so where are young directors supposed to learn? I guess they can go to rock videos and film school or just make a 16mm like Kevin Smith did. I think it’s bad for film that there B-movies around where directors can learn craft. Just like “Spiderman” is a brilliantly expensive B-movie. Girls with big tits running into the camera is just a different kind of B-movie. But I do love “Spiderman.”

H: Do you feel like a growing indie-film community compensates for any of this?

P: I guess, but it’s just not the same. It’s more about a director’s grasp of craft, not so much in the auteur sense. John Huston and Frank Capra would direct hundreds of films in their twenties. Here, I’m lucky if I can make a film every two or three years.

P: Yes, I have one in mind now. It’s different because I write and co-write my own stuff. There’s something about screenwriting that lends itself to collaborating, like all the great Italian directors.

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