Alexander Payne has created some of the most captivating, emotionally complex characters in modern cinema. “It is not for me to say that they’re complex or moving. That is for the viewer to decide,” shares the two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Throughout his career, his love of humanist cinema, or cinema that explores the shared human experience, has shone through on the big screen.
“For me, they are simply interesting, unique, flawed human beings. So much like all of us or almost all of us,” says the 61-year-old Nebraska native. That interest is what’s driven Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor to bring some memorable movie characters to life, including Citizen Ruth’s Ruth Stoops, played by Laura Dern, and Election’s Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon.
Alexander Payne on the Appeal of Realistic Characters in Complex Situations
“Appeal comes from truthful and complex characters. I dislike when movie people say, ‘Your lead character has to be sympathetic,’ which for them means ‘likable.’ I don't [care] about ‘liking’ a character. I just want to be interested in them,” says Payne. “You also have to make the distinction between liking the character as a person and liking the character as a character. I mean, I don't know whether I like Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Michael Corleone in The Godfather as people, but I adore them as characters. Besides, ‘liking’ is so subjective anyway. So many American movies of the ’80s and early ’90s bent over backward to make the protagonist ‘likable’ in a completely fraudulent way, and I detested them.”
As writers, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are intrigued by individuals. “We’re not just interested in people but also the complexity of life,” notes Payne. “So yes, I want to make characters and stories that are realistic, surprising, dramatic, and ridiculous all at the same time.”
According to Payne, he and writing partner Taylor accomplish that by creating “real people and then putting these characters in circumstances which elicit a number of complex and often contradictory emotions.” For example, he cites George Clooney’s character in The Descendants. “Clooney plays a man whose wife has cuckolded him, and he wants to kill that guy, but he also thinks he should tell that guy — that his wife would want him to know — that she’s dying, so he could say goodbye,” explains Alexander Payne. “I didn’t come up with that; it was included in the book [written by Kaui Hart Hemmings], but that is what was interesting to me. Trying to love when it is difficult or when you do not want to.”
Next Project: He’s Filming The Holdovers
Payne spent the winter of 2022 filming The Holdovers in Boston with his Sideways star Paul Giamatti in a role he says “was written with Paul in mind. The role is tailor-made for him.” That’s a diversion from normal for the director, who doesn’t usually write scripts with any particular actor in mind. “However, with The Holdovers, I wanted to work with Paul again and forced it because this is the perfect part for him,” says Alexander Payne.
He’s learned a lot throughout his career and collected countless accolades since his debut film, Citizen Ruth, in 1996, but the thing that’s remained the same is that there’s nothing easy about making a movie. “I’ve got some experience and I can’t say that it gets any easier,” admits the director. “At certain times it becomes less hard, but it is always hard to come up with an idea, realize that idea, flesh it out, and then get the financing.”
The most challenging aspect of making a movie, according to Payne, is the screenwriting process. “They take time. For me, screenwriting is the hardest part,” he says. “Taking that first leap from a blank page of nothing to having the first draft is really is the hardest part of filmmaking.”
Alexander Payne’s Screenwriting Process
Of the seven feature films Alexander Payne has directed, five of them were co-written by Jim Taylor. “We’re very lucky to be writing partners. Jim and I have a very specific process,” shares Payne. “The basic rule of thumb is that a screenplay takes about six months to complete, whether it is an original or an adaptation. And then you keep tinkering with it until you shoot — and even during the shooting.”
But before the cameras begin to roll, Payne and Taylor need to get in sync to finalize the script. “When we are writing, we are like two lobes of one brain,” explains Payne. “We are always together in the same room so that we can talk about what is going to happen next. And then one or the other of us will sit at the computer and pour out two or three or four pages before inviting the other to join in. And then we rewrite together.” So what’s the best way to accomplish all of this? “We typically have a Mac with one monitor and two keyboards,” Payne says. “We have a real weakness for realistic, pointed comedy.”
Published by Samantha Brown