First published on 20 Feb 2012. Updated on 20 Feb 2012.
When a movie by Alexander Payne comes out – lately, that’s not as frequent as we’d like; it’s been seven years – certain expectations are raised. A leading actor will plunge deeply into Payne’s distinct vein of comic frustration, and if they’re not already one of the all-time greats (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, say), they will emerge as one: Election’s Reese Witherspoon or Sideways’ Paul Giamatti. Only five features into his career, Payne has become a dependable forger of prestige performances; his studios know this, and to watch the TV spot for the director’s latest, The Descendants, in which George Clooney dashes around in his Hawaiian flip-flops while a voiceover declares that the Oscar race is on, is to see the awards albatross slung around his neck. He hates it.
“One thing I abhor now—” Payne is just getting started— “are the people coming up to me and saying, ‘You have a lot of competition this year.’ I just want to deck them. Because there is no competition in film. I would love to have a film of mine come out during a year in which there are many wonderful American films. I want there to be great American films, always.” The director, a self-described geek who needs no prodding to go broad, can sometimes speak in pronouncements. (He once published a manifesto in Variety calling for “cinema that is intelligent, uplifting and human”,)
The funny thing is that you warm to Payne’s professorial manner, one that might draw him back to UCLA, his alma mater, to teach in 2013 (or so he hopes) – and, indeed, to write many characters who have been lovable if slightly fatuous teachers. Payne’s comedies are the opposite of didactic. The Descendants, starring Clooney as a cuckolded Honolulu lawyer trying to mend bonds with his two daughters, brings a new element of randomness to the formula: the messiness of life.
“You’re out there in the elements trying to put something together,” Payne says of a movie set, the place he most loves being, “and you have this beautiful singularity of purpose, which is missing from the chaos of the rest of my life. Many people who work in film, the rest of their lives are a shambles.” Has he said too much? (There’s been a divorce and some developmental dead ends since 2004’s Sideways.) “No, I’m exaggerating for comic effect,” Payne insists. “One always feels between films just like Martin Sheen at the beginning ofApocalypse Now, hanging out in that hotel room doing naked tai chi and waiting for the next assignment. You meet old directors in Hollywood and all they say is, ‘I can’t get a film made now.’ ” Payne pauses for a joke: “Parentheses, ‘you fucker.’ ”
Still, you have to wonder about those seven years and the quietly intense man that’s emerged from them. “Look, my first four pictures came in pretty fast succession – four films in eight years,” Payne explains. “Then I just got stuck writing another screenplay with Jim [Taylor, his scripting partner] that took two and a half years.” (Of that legendary sci-fi project, Downsizing, Payne says, “It’s currently aging in an oak cask.”)
Payne kept busy with producing and says it was Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel that really drew him back into the feature game, inspiring him to write his first solo draft since film school. (Earlier passes on the material were scrapped.) “The economy had just tanked, so it’s as though the Hawaiian gods were somehow saying, ‘Come unto us', ” Payne recalls. “Could I really find my own way into it? It’s a deceptively good read. Her writing style is simple and nonemphatic, just as I want my film style to be, which is accessible and classical. But the more I read it, the more I saw what was going on.”
Only a handful of months after Payne finished his Descendants script in 2009, the cameras were rolling and the passion was flowing. “Now, thank god, I have my next two features lined up, so I’m going to swing from film to film like a monkey from branch to branch,” he says. Those films are the tentatively titled Nebraska, an arty-sounding b&w father-son road movie for which Payne has improbably secured funding, and a Daniel Clowes graphic-novel adaptation, Wilson.
“I like being a disciplined filmmaker,” Payne says. “It forces me to be more precise.” Yet he also knows how the game is played: “I’ve now done three projects in a row that have come in under budget, and you don’t get a medal for it. You can’t sacrifice quality just to be Mr. Good Boy.” Oscars or no, that hardly seems likely.
The Descendants screens from Thu 12 Jan 2012.