Few directors are as critically acclaimed as unique visionary Alexander Payne, who has defied Hollywood by making character-driven films that are sharply observed satires on modern America. His latest, Sideways, is already predicting Oscars for this acerbic, wry comedy/drama about two close friends embarking on a road trip prior to one’s wedding, and en route discover wine, infidelity and tentative romance. It was appropriate that I met Payne, not at a stuffy LA hotel, but at a luxurious hotel spa, the Bacara. Dressed as if were in Hawaii, the director talked about the film he insisted on making without the interference of Hollywood’s big wigs.
Question: In the scheme of things of a small movie, you went out and didn’t ask for big names, you weren’t pressured to. But you know if it had have been anybody other than Alexander Payne, the studio would probably have thought, Paul Giamatti in a leading role? Nah, sorry. You’ve got to go with somebody else.
Answer: Well I did get that from other studios.
Question: Why was it so important for you to stick with your guns like that?
Answer: Because I could. The nice thing that Michael London, the producer, and I did in going about this movie, was casting it on our own. Together, we bought the rights to the book, then Jim Taylor and I wrote the screenplay on spec, and then Michael London and I put our hands in our pockets and made a kitty, opened up a casting office, cast the movie and then it came the studios, and said, thank you here’s a screen play, budget, director, producer, preferred cast, in or out. What do you think? Then we began doing a little horse trading with the studios who bit and the one who gave us everything we wanted, within reason, was Fox Searchlight, and had a good marketing track record to boot, with pictures like this. I could’ve had more money with which to make this film had I cast more famous actors but I was not interested in that.
Question: Yet you did that with About Schmidt, so what was different?
Answer: Well, he’s appropriate. I met both the famous and unfamous, for Sideways and in the event of a tie where a more famous person would have won, just because it makes everyone breathe easier, but I wanted these guys.
Question: I asked Paul in Toronto why he excelled at playing every man type character. He didn’t really know. What do you think?
Answer: Well a good actor, a great actor, are many people inside one person. The kind of infinite geometric shape of people and they can find the right face of that geometric shape to do that character. I don’t know, there’s something so intensely human about him and how he acts. And something so believable, he’s so believable in everything he does. I noticed in the audition which he approached cold, he hadn’t prepared for the audition. He would just always find a way to make the dialogue work. Even the bad dialogue, and as a director, if I can find an actor that makes bad dialogue good, I’m just so thankful.
Question: What do you mean about bad dialogue? I thought this was one of the most perfectly
Answer: Yeah, that’s because he made it work. When you start a film, you know that basically your dialogue is working but you never know if it’s going to be quirky. It’s just nice to have actors who make it work in each take, make it a little bit different. What he does with dialogue.
Question: Is there a dramatic consistency in your work? There are parallels between the two Schmidts which I get because they’re both about self-discovery and human beings at crossroads in their lives. Do you think that’s something that’s of interest to you?
Answer: I would think so. It’s not necessarily for me to point them out but I wouldn’t deny their existence. That’s one of the reasons why I read critics to see what they see, so I can say, oh is that what I’m doing, oh that’s interesting. It’s not, it’s intuitive. I don’t wish to make the same movie over and over again.
Question: But you resisted making movies that are, shall we say, conservative or fake, or totally mainstream. These are movies about characters. …
Answer: These movies were mainstream in the 70’s.
Question: Do you think you’re a 70’s director ?
Answer: It’s the time, when American movies entered a certain modern vernacular in the late ’60s, early ’70s, when you could have nudity and say fuck, and show people how you really are, instead of a certain stylization in movies, so from that moment to now in the age of gold making, it was only in that first decade where with them that new closer relationship between real reality and movie reality, where the stories were more generally life-like, with real human characters, ambiguous endings, the whole discussion, sympathetic, apathetic, was it like me, none of it, well maybe it was talked about but it was dealt with differently. But that’s the decade, I’ve always been a big movie buff but I was a teenager than.
Question: Studios have changed so much in the past 25-30 years, certainly their attitudes towards film makers and film makers in general. Is that a frustration for you? Do you still find that?
Answer: To a degree but look at my career. I can’t be too frustrated if I’m getting to make the movies I want to make this way. So my own career served as an example to me, that there’s hope and I hope my example can also help other film makers. I want Sideways which has no movie stars in it, and a movie for which I had final cut, to make money, not just for my own career but for other film makers so that film makers and studios can point, if I didn’t have stars to make money, Sideways didn’t have a gun or a chase even though that made money, we have to be changing our cinema, little by little and have more human films. But the only way it’s going to happen is there are examples they can point to, where they made money. It was just like that in the late 60’s and 70’s. Look, Easy Rider made money, The Graduate made money, Midnight Cowboy made money, and we should make more movies like those. That’s what we need.
Question: And those movies were made without stars at the time.
Question: You also revisited some actors in this movie that we don’t see very much. Virginia Madsen had a very up and down career, undeservedly and Thomas Church is not somebody that a lot of contemporary movie goers know. Why did you go after those?
Answer: I auditioned them. And after auditioning, I thought they were great, and then I cast them. I just met a lot of actors for all the parts.
Question: You had so much freedom with this film. Is that something that you’re going to endeavour to do, try to do the same thing? Tie up the package?
Answer: Yes, there are many famous actors I want to work with. Many actors I want to work with. But I don’t want to have to distinguish between famous and unfamous. I just want access to all of them.
Paul: What is that cinema that developed your own passion for being a film maker?
Answer: You just keep finding, just as turning on Turner Classic Movies or going to the Beverly Cinemas, in terms of American movies, you just keep returning to movies of the 70’s. And it does, so much has been written about it; it’s a really inspiring time in American movies for human cinema.
Question: After such a personal intimate character study, are you working anything similar?
Answer: I will be, I’m still in the middle of promoting this, and I haven’t begun writing, Jim Taylor and I will co-write, start writing again in a couple of months.
Question: What are you hoping audiences get out of Sideways?
Answer: Well, when I’m asked that after any film, I give the same answer. I hope that they feel they’ve seen a good movie where they feel the film makers put a lot into the movie. That’s my main hope. Like dramatically, character-wise, I mean I don’t know. It depends on what each person brings to an experience as well. I just hope to provide good solid entertainment.
Question: That’s a good line.
Answer: It’s true though. I want people to have a good time, and maybe have a glass of wine