Academy and two-time WGA Award-winner Alexander Payne on his latest release, The Descendants, the origins of his comedic sensibilities, and what he sees as the key to writing a good adaptation.
Written by Denis Faye
For a guy who has made a name for himself with films featuring men struggling to make sense of their environments, Alexander Payne seems remarkably relaxed in his.
While some film-promoting writer-directors pick up the phone, offer a (semi-) polite, “Hello” and then wait awkwardly for the questions to begin, Payne took a different tack when talking to the Writers Guild of America Web site by opening the conversation with a breathy “What are you wearing?”
When presented with the answer – a t-shirt and sweat pants – Payne offered his own outfit for the day, “I’m wearing lycra – but only a shirt.” (Sorry, Fox Searchlight Publicity. He said it. I get to write about it.)
It’s eccentric, funny touches like that that make Payne special. Films such as Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways (all adaptations of novels and all co-penned with Jim Taylor) aren’t rip-snorting yuck-fests. Rather, they tend to be serious contemplations of the difficulties of the human condition. But in the middle of that strife, Payne always finds the humor, be it through Jack Nicholson’s misguided urinary turf-marking, Paul Giamatti’s seething hatred of merlot, or his own inappropriate interview fashion choices.
Fortunately, the conversation headed for higher ground at that point as we discussed his upcoming release The Descendants (this time he shares credit with Nat Faxon & Jim Rash on the adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel) so if you happen know Payne personally, try to remove the mental image and please read on…
You have a gift for subtle humor –
That’s the nicest thing anyone’s told me all day. Call up all the studio’s business affairs offices and tell them that.
Photo: © 2011 Fox Searchlight
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.
Sure. I’ll do that. Is it harder to pull off than broader humor?
I’d like to think I’m not above low humor, but it’s just taste. One’s tone comes from who one is. As the French say, pretentiously, “Le style, c'est l'homme meme.”
That’s my sense of humor. I’d say also that I’m always afraid of audiences being much smarter that I, so I always try to appreciate the film watching and contributory component of a film audience, that they’re going to bring their sense of humor and their perspective to the film. I want to lead them just enough to get the joke and let them supply the rest.
So you write movies for smart people?
Yeah, I assume people are pretty smart. Certainly audiences are. You always say that an audience is however much smarter than an individual. You feel it in the auditorium. It’s true.
What are your comedic influences?
Well, I grew up watching silent comedies in a big way. Chaplin and Keaton mostly, Lloyd was harder to see in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And then Laurel and Hardy silents and some of the others like Roscoe Arbuckle, Ben Turpin and those guys. Marx Brothers too, but those weren’t silent.
Your leads are often isolated people. Is that because, especially Keaton and Chaplin, often played very isolated characters?
It could be. I can’t say for sure, or if it’s just something in literature that often makes for compelling narrative.
It could be something personal. I don’t know. Also, don’t forget the examples we had in the ‘70s, the alienated hero or anti-hero that often Hoffman or Nicholson would play, alienated by society.
That influenced you too?
It could have. I can’t say for sure. Being a teenager in the ‘70s and a filmgoer, that certainly shaped my ideas. The ‘70s shaped my idea of what a viable, commercial film is. But it was bait and switch. I started to make films in the ‘90s and everything had changed. Suddenly, what I considered commercial films were considered art films. “We don’t make those anymore.” So I’m still trying.
But you’re one of those few fortunate writer-directors who gets to make movies the way you want to, and they’re generally not the most commercial choices. How did you achieve that?
A lot of luck, a lot of hard work. Finding some good stories. I won’t say I’m the most talented director, but I have just enough talent to be able to build on – film by film by film. Also, keeping my costs down. My films don’t cost much, and I’m very assiduous about that. I need my films to cost as little as they possibly can so they don’t have to be hits in the hit-crazy Hollywood world. As long as my films make one dollar profit, I can keep making films.
In addition to your subtle humor, your films often feel like character studies. What is the relationship you have with these characters? Schmidt, Miles, Matt King from The Descendants?
Since I’m writing them and then directing them, I have on some level the responsibility to insert myself in their shoes and then go through that story – I’m avoiding the word journey – with them and insert some of my own concerns and reactions. It makes them a little more directable if I agree with how they’re seeing things. And I root for them. I root for them all to grow and wake up, the same way I root for myself to grow and wake up before it’s too late.
Fuck no. Are you crazy? Why do you think I have to make these lousy films?
In my experience as an interviewer, comedy writers tend to have more, um, tormented souls than other writers. Do you find this to be true?
I don’t really hang out with comedy people. I say about myself that I make comedies the way John Ford might have said “I make westerns.” That might be true. That might also be cloaking something. Scorsese in his survey of American cinema, talks about the American director as smuggler. You work within a given genre and smuggle your honest, artistic concerns in those film. John Ford with westerns, Hitchcock with thrillers, Scorsese with gangster pictures. You kind of declare that you make a certain kind of film because that helps them get made, get marketed, makes them more palatable to an American film going public, so I make comedies.
That’s helped me, the fact that I can get laughs in these dramatic films. The fact that I make them funny, charming, keep them nimble, has helped me sell them to financiers and later to audiences and forge a career that way.
Do you think you could write and direct a straight drama?
One reason it’s great to do comedy is that it’s such a rush when the audience laughs. “We love you! We love you!” When you make a drama, the only feedback you get from the audience is no walkouts.
Why are you drawn to novels as source material?
Because they suggest worlds that I never could have thought of in a million years. The film I still get the most compliments about is Election. I never would have come up with any of that crap in a million years! A multiple voiceover film around the shenanigans at a high school? Especially in the ‘90s, the last thing I wanted to do was a high school movie. Completely uninterested in that genre – and they were hot in the ‘90s, as you recall, which is one of the reasons that film got financed, perhaps the main reason. I read the story, and it suggested a world that was just… good. It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it.
Similarly, Sideways. I never could have thought that up in a million years. Two guys who go wine tasting the week before one of them gets married. And really this one, The Descendants, set in the upper class of Hawaii among those fancy families that have been controlling Hawaii for 180 years. I never could have thought of that.
They’re like gifts and then there’s a basic storyline that I can either accept or criticize in my adaptation and keep it or change it. I keep complete liberty while adapting. I would have liked to ask Stanley Kubrick that exact same question. I think 11 of his 13 films were adaptations of novels.
What’s interesting is that these were based on books, but the humor is distinctly yours. Adding humor can shift a story massively, even more than tweaking plot points. How do you go about putting that humor in there and honoring the work at the same time?
I don’t mean this to sound pretentious, but this is the only way a film will succeed. The only voice I’m interested in honoring is my own in a film. I mean that really in the nicest way. You need a strong authorial voice to make a decent film that speaks with authority. I’m interested in my own dialogue with the novel, with that material.
And also, it’s just practical. I need to bend the material so that I can find out how to make it directable. In order for it to be directable, it has to somehow jibe with my sensibility. Also, I do the adaptation – I don’t just direct it – I write it and that’s a further layer of having it all bounce off of my sensibility.