Friday, December 09, 2011

The Auteurs #5: Alexander Payne

Though he wasn’t a filmmaker that broke ground like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino for what was done with independent films. Yet, Alexander Payne did share the same independent spirit of those filmmakers as he would become one of the most interesting voices in American cinema of the past 15 years. While a lot of the films he did were adaptations of books, they all reflected Payne’s interest in the individual struggling to find themselves as they face uncertainty in a world that always pushes them back. With Payne finally set to return after a seven-year hiatus between feature films with The Descendants, the film is an indication of how important he is to American cinema and international cinema at large.

Born on February 10, 1961 to a Greek-American family in Omaha, Nebraska, Payne’s early life was driven by academics as he was able to attend Stanford University studying Spanish and history. During his study for Spanish that led him to study at the University of Salamanca in Spain where he became increasingly interested in film. One of the films that would later inspire one of his own films was Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita as he would later do an introduction for the film for its 2004 DVD release. While continuing with his studies, Payne’s interest in films had him living in Los Angeles where he was able to watch the widely influential Z Channel that showed lots of art films as he would later appear in a 2004 documentary about the channel as he displayed a T-shirt that he got from the channel.

It was during that time that Payne would make his first short called Carmen that was released in 1985. While there’s an excerpt of the shown on YouTube, it would later be released fully on a DVD in the 2000s that collected the shorts of other filmmakers. After finishing his studies in 1990, Payne would work on various projects including a short called The Passion of Martin as well as direct segments for a couple of direct-to-video releases from Playboy. It was during that time that Payne would meet one of his key collaborators in Jim Taylor, who was a student at Tisch School of the Arts from NYU. The two would collaborate on a project that would eventually become Payne’s first full-length feature that brought Payne back home to Nebraska.

The only project that is, so far, Payne’s original work is the story of a spray-paint huffing woman who is caught up in a battle between pro-life and pro-choice factions when she is pregnant. Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the film is a part-satire and part-character study about a woman named Ruth Stoops who gets arrested for her addictions as she learns she’s pregnant. Already having four children in different relationships and with a huge jail sentence happening, a judge tells her that he can reduce her sentence if she has an abortion. This leads to a group of conservative pro-lifers known as the Baby Savers to save Ruth while they deal with a pro-choice group.

The film is a satire of the way both conservative and liberal forces handle things with the one person in the middle being this somewhat dim-witted woman from a very poor background that has no idea what she wants to do. Though she would stumble upon a tape about real estate in her search for cash, Ruth is a far more complex character while being flawed at the same time. All of this is due to Laura Dern’s winning performance as this troubled woman where when a bunch of money is offered, she wants to take it. Yet, the forces that is fighting over the issue of abortion use her as a pawn in this huge debate that goes out of hand.

One of Payne’s success as a filmmaker is crafting an amazing ensemble cast. With Laura Dern In the lead role of Ruth Stoops, there’s Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place as the conservative couple that takes her in while they have Alicia Witt as their rebellious, heavy-metal teenage daughter that just likes to get high with Ruth. On the other corner, there’s Swoosie Kurtz as a supposed friend of the conservative couple who is really a spy for a pro-choice group with Kelly Preston as her lesbian lover. With a cast that includes M.C. Gainey as a sympathetic abortions clinic guard who gives Ruth money just so she can make her own choice. There’s also appearances from Dern’s real-life mother Diane Ladd, Tippi Hedren as a pro-choice leader, and Burt Reynolds in a hilarious performance as the Baby Savers leader who has an adopted son that gives him a massage.

Payne allows both sides of the abortions debate to have some strong points but like any kind of social issue. Things get out of hand where Payne allows these people to really lose insight into the fact that they’re fighting over a woman who is caught in the middle and has no idea what to do. It’s in Dern’s performance that makes the audience feel for Ruth as the conservatives are seen as bland, short-sighted people with a leader who is a total buffoon. The pro-choice group are nothing more than a bunch of unorganized hippies.

The film premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival to great fanfare as it received excellent reviews though a limited release. Yet, the film would prove to be a favorite among indie film goers who saw Payne as a new voice. While it remains his only original feature-film project to date, the film was a fresh outlook into the silliness of political and social debates gone horribly wrong.

For his next feature, Payne and longtime collaborator Jim Taylor chose to adapt Tom Perrotta’s acclaimed 1998 novel Election. The story about an overachieving young student whose ambition to win the school election motivates one of her teachers convinces a popular jock to run against her in order to bring her down. Along the way, things start to unravel in the teacher’s life while he eventually loses his job for what he tried to do. Payne chose to move the location from New Jersey to his native Nebraska as he armed himself with the team of collaborators he had worked with in Citizen Ruth that included editor Kevin Tent, music composer Rolfe Kent, production designer Jane Ann Stewart, art director T.K. Kirkpatrick, and cinematographer James Glennon.

The casting by Lisa Beach proved to be inspiring as she and Payne utilized a cast of mostly small-time actors and newcomers while a lot of the people in the film were essentially from Omaha where the film was set. One of the locals that got to play a big role in the film was Chris Klein as he nabbed the part of the nice-guy jock Paul Metzler. While Thora Birch was initially cast as Paul’s adopted lesbian sister Tammy, she left the film after a few days due to creative differences as she was replaced by a newcomer in Jessica Campbell. For the big parts, Reese Witherspoon nabbed the part as the ambitious yet overachieving student Tracy Flick while Matthew Broderick was cast as Flick’s nemesis in high school teacher Jim McAllister.

In order to maintain a real idea of high school life, Payne chose to have the film set at Papillion-La Vista High School near Omaha during a school year. Using real teachers and real students, Payne was able to maintain a sense of authenticity while his cast were able to fit in as if they were playing their characters. While the production was difficult as Payne didn’t want to disrupt the studies of students, he was able to get things done while managing to shoot in his native Omaha with full support from the city.

Part of Payne’s approach to the film was to give his four principle actors the chance to flesh out their characters and make them seem real. For Chris Klein, he makes Paul Metlzer more than just a nice guy as there’s a real genuine quality to a young kid that is very grateful while stating that not voting for himself seems like the right thing to do. Jessica Campbell’s approach to Tammy adds a real complexity to a girl that just wants to be loved and find some place in the world while she causes a real sense of anarchy during an assembly speech when she says she plans to dismantle the school body government so that no students can attend any more assemblies.

It’s what Payne does best in giving smaller and lesser-known actors the chance to shine while he also gives both Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick career-defining performances. Witherspoon, who was just a young actress on the rise, was able to make Tracy Flick more than what she is by bringing this mix of enthusiasm and cunning determination as a young woman striving to succeed by any means. For the veteran Broderick, the role was a big surprise considering that he was famous more than a decade as the rebellious student Ferris Bueller in John Hughes’ 1986 teen-comedy classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While Broderick was able to make McAllister an earnest though flawed character who makes bad decisions, the film gave Broderick a comeback of sorts following a period of lackluster projects.

Released in the spring of 1999 through Paramount and MTV Films, the film drew rave reviews while doing modest in the box office. Yet, the film became a bigger hit on home video and DVD as it received numerous mentions at year-end polls while giving Reese Witherspooon a nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes while Payne and Taylor both received their first Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film would later be considered to be one of the great comedies and high school films in lists that followed throughout the years as it remains Payne’s most accessible work so far.

The success of Election gave Payne clout in Hollywood as he pondered on what to do next. It was during that time between films that Payne would participate in a couple of projects as a screenwriter as he did an un-credited rewrite for Jay Roach’s Meet the Parents in 2000. In 2001, Payne and Jim Taylor worked with Peter Buchman on a script for the third Jurassic Park film for director Joe Johnston that received mixed reviews. Yet, the work that Payne did with those films allowed him time and money to start developing his third film which was an adaptation of Louis Begley’s 1996 novel About Schmidt.

About Schmidt told the story of a retired man who loses his wife as he goes on a road trip before attending his daughter’s wedding as he tries to stop her from marrying into a family that he doesn’t like. The film would be a continued exploration towards Payne’s fascination with the individual struggling to make a difference. Yet, unlike the dim-witted Ruth Stoop and the conniving Jim McAllister, the character of Warren Schmidt is a man who is facing the final years of his life as he seeks to find some use and meaning into the life he’s lead all of these years.

For the role of Warren Schmidt, the legendary Jack Nicholson cast who had just return a four-year hiatus from acting following his Oscar-award winning performance for 1997’s As Good as It Gets to appear in Sean Penn’s 2001 film The Pledge. While getting Nicholson was a big coup, Payne knew that Nicholson shouldn’t play the exaggerated persona that he’s played for some years. With a bad comb over and sense of humility, Nicholson brings the Schmidt character to life as some critics noted that he’s playing an older yet wearied version of the George Hanson character he played in 1969’s Easy Rider.

With a cast that included Hope Davis as Schmidt’s daughter Jeannie, Dermont Mulroney as Jeanne’s dolt waterbed salesman fiance` Randall, and Kathy Bates as Randall’s mother. The film explores Schmidt’s life as he continually writes a letter to Tanzanian boy named Ndugu for an African child sponsors program. Throughout Schmidt’s letters, he reveals his frustrations and longing for simpler time as well as regrets as he goes into this road trip that becomes existential. Once Schmidt arrives for his daughter’s wedding, he tries to stop Jeannie from marry Randall which he was unable to do. Yet, Schmidt would have some strange yet humorous encounters with Randall’s family including a notorious nude scene where Randall’s mother joins Schmidt in a hot tub.

During the wedding scene, Warren gives a speech at the dinner though he hides his absolute disdain towards Randall and his family which only serves as a turning point as he writes to Ndugu over the fact that he’s accomplished nothing. This would lead to what is certainly one of the most touching yet heartbreaking endings as Warren receives a letter from a nun writing back to Warren about Ndugu who makes a painting for Warren. Warren’s reaction to the painting becomes what is truly the emotional highpoint that makes Schmidt stand out from Payne’s other characters as there’s a bit of hope for this old man.

The film premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim leading to a successful commercial release later that year as Jack Nicholson won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama while Payne and Jim Taylor won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. The film earned two Oscar nominations for Nicholson for Best Actor and Kathy Bates for Best Supporting Actress. Yet, the film would be Payne’s last film to be shot in his native Nebraska as well as his last with cinematographer James Glennon as the two amicably parted ways before Glennon’s death in 2006.

Payne’s fourth film would be a bigger departure from his previous works in terms of location and in tone. Based on Rex Pickett’s novel, Sideways tells the story of two life-long friends who go on a trip to the California vineyard for some wine-tasting and a week of fun before one of them is to get married. Payne once again reached out to his collaborators as Jim Taylor co-wrote the film with Payne while attaining the service of acclaimed cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to shoot the film.

For the casting, Payne chose the acclaimed indie actor Paul Giamatti for the role of Miles Raymond as Giamatti was riding high from his well-received performance as Harvey Pekar in the unconventional bio-pic American Splendor. Payne also brought in his then-wife Sandra Oh for the role of the free-spirited Stephanie while for the roles of Mile’s best friend Jack and Mile’s eventual love-interest Maya would be bigger challenges. The roles were eventually by Thomas Haden Church as Jack and Virginia Madsen as Maya as Payne shot the film largely in the California wine country where the story was set.

Part of Payne’s inspiration for the film came from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as Payne partly modeled the somber Miles from the character of Marcello that Marcello Mastroianni played in La Dolce Vita. The similarities between the two men is that they’re lost in their own despair as Marcello ponders about a life without all of the decadence he’s surrounded by while Miles is dealing with his own failures in his marriage and his attempts to get a novel published. While the film is a small ensemble piece, it’s led by Giamatti’s sympathetic yet heartfelt performance as a man trying to deal with a lot of his life. There’s a great scene where Miles and Jack spend the night at the home of Miles’ mother as they eat dinner with her. It is followed by Miles stealing money from his mother’s drawer as he sadly looks at pictures of himself at a graduation with his late father and a picture of happier time when he got married.

It’s in Giamatti’s face where he just displays a simple act of emotion over the fact that he’s a failure and he knows that he is doing something bad by stealing from his own mother. During his journey to the wine country, Miles and Jack would meet Maya and Stephanie as the engaged Jack would have an affair with Stephanie while Miles and Maya talk about their love for wine and their own failed marriages. It’s in Madsen’s understated performance as she gives a great monologue about wine that is really a moment in the film where it helps give Miles a sense of direction over the despair he’s going through.

While the film has a lot of dramatic elements, there’s also a lot of great humor that includes a hilarious scene where Miles tries to retrieve Jack’s wallet from a waitress and her husband (M.C. Gainey) where the husband runs after Miles stark naked. Other scenes also involve wine where he and Jack are about to have dinner with Maya and Stephanie as Miles says “I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”. Rumors had it that because of that quote and Miles’ love for Pinot Noir that sales for Pinot Noir soared while sales for Merlot went down big.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival that fall to great acclaim as it was released months later to rave reviews and becoming a huge box office success. The film went on to receive a slew of awards including an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay to Payne and Taylor along with acting nods to Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen. While the film helped boosted the fortunes for Giamatti and Oh, it also helped the lagging careers for Church and Madsen as they found themselves in favor again. While it would be Payne’s biggest success, it was also bittersweet as he and Oh split up while he would go into a seven-year hiatus between films.

During Payne’s long-imposed period between films following the success of Sideways, Payne took time to produce films for other filmmakers including King of California that starred Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood and The Savages for Jim Taylor’s filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins that starred Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was in that time that Payne tried to get several projects going including a film that would return him to Nebraska that went through development hell.

In 2006, Payne took part in the anthology film Paris Je T’aime that featured twenty different short films about the city of Paris. Featuring such diverse filmmakers as Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven, Olivier Assayas, Gurinder Chadha, Tom Tykwer, the Coen Brothers, Sylvain Chomet, and many others. Payne chose to be involved in two as he appeared in Wes Craven’s Pere-Lachaise short as Oscar Wilde giving advice to Rufus Sewell’s character who is going through some issues with his fiancée, played by Emily Mortimer. Payne’s own short 14th Arrondissement closed the film as it’s a portrait of an American woman (Margo Martindale) going on a holiday in Paris as she narrates in rough French about her love for the city.

The short is truly a gem that features some of Payne’s traits as he explores a woman in awe of Paris as she expresses all of her feelings in her narration as well as a bit of melancholia as she realize she has to return home. The short was considered to be one of the best of the film as it served as a nice stop-gap release for Payne who would continue to try and develop projects.

One of the projects he was involved in with collaborator Jim Taylor was writing an early version of the comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry that starred Adam Sandler and Kevin James. The project was meant to be a much more serious though humorous film but the film was re-written without Payne’s consent by Sandler and his cohorts that Payne later detached himself from the project. In 2009, Payne would finally direct again as he got involved in producing a TV show for HBO called Hung.

Hung is the story of an unsuccessful high school history teacher and basketball coach whose life is in shambles as he turns to male prostitution. Payne directs the show’s pilot which explores Ray Drecker’s dreary life as he reconnects with an old one-night stand who would become a pimp due to the fact that he has a big penis. The pilot dwells into Payne’s mix of melancholia and humor as he creates a nice set-up for the series that shows Ray Drecker’s life finding meaning again as he later finds himself dealing with two female pimps as he tries to help the lives of friends, his teenage kids, and his ex-wife.

Payne’s long-awaited return to the big screen finally arrives with his fifth feature-length film in an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel The Descendants. The story of a man trying to reconnect with his young daughters while dealing with his wife’s coma and her extramarital affairs along with the pressures to sell the ancestral land that he owns. The film marks another departure for Payne as his longtime co-writer Jim Taylor served as producer while Payne wrote the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for the film.

Shooting the film on location in Hawaii, Payne gets a chance to explore the life of a man that is shaken by his wife’s boating accident that leaves her comatose. Having to take care of his two daughters whom he doesn’t see much as well as 25,000 acres of land that he’s inherited as his relatives plan to sell it. The film is a mix of comedy and drama as it leans largely on the latter where Payne chooses to focus on a man trying to reconnect with his two daughters. The character of Matt King is a lot like the characters Payne has previous explored in terms of their flaws and confusion over the decisions they’ve made.

What makes Matt King standout from Ruth Stoops, Jim McAllister, Warren Schmidt, Miles Raymond, and Ray Drecker is that King is a man that doesn’t have to worry about striving for success or worrying about things except that he’s not much of a father or a husband. Instead, he has land that he’s been trusted for generations dating back to the late 1800s where the family contract is to expire soon. For him, this big piece of land is a big deal as it represents not just the history of family but Hawaiian history and the temptation to sell it for lots of money for himself and his relatives confuse him.

When he has to take care of his two daughters and learn about his wife’s affair with a real estate agent, he wonders what did he do to make his wife go astray as he’s angry over these revelations. Yet, he’s not angry about it as his teenage daughter Alexandra was the one who revealed it to her father as she is consumed with guilt that the last memory of her mother before the accident was an angry one about her mother’s affair.

What makes this film previous from his different work is the relationship between Matt and Alexandra King as they’re respectively played by George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. The two add a dynamic that isn’t seen very much in father-daughter relationships as the two work together to find the man that ruined their lives as they’re facing grief and the fact that they had to tell the youngest sister about her mother’s state. Late towards the film as Matt King and his two daughters face the inevitable, they receive a surprise visit from the woman whose husband had an affair with Matt’s wife. Her appearance is the most heartbreaking which shows Payne playing melodrama without going overboard as Clooney watches Judy Greer vent her sadness and anger towards the woman that ruined her own family life.

The way Payne presents that scene in a very simple manner shows a filmmaker not just taking risks into something like melodrama. It shows a filmmaker maturing in the way he would present something that could’ve been overwrought. Payne’s sense of humor still remains intact with this film in a scene where Alexandra’s boyfriend laughs at Alexandra’s grandmother dementia where he later gets punched by her grandfather. The film is definitely the culmination of what Payne’s done so far as well as the fact that he hasn’t lost his touch.

Through the five feature films he’s already made in his career, Alexander Payne is truly a voice that is unlike anyone out there in cinema. He is always interested in characters who are very human that allows an audience to find something they can relate to. He is also someone that can take an ordinary location seem very beautiful whether it’s somewhere in the middle of a Nebraskan suburb, a California vineyard, or in the islands of Hawaii. There’s not a lot of directors that can do that as he is someone that has a different sensibility of doing things but make it feel natural. If there one American filmmaker right now that exemplify the best of what American cinema can be, it’s Alexander Payne.

© thevoid99 2011

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