Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Alexander Payne

State of Cinema

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Alexander Payne Movies on DVD

How's this for strange? I meet with director and screenwriter Alexander Payne, the man behind one of 1999's best movies, Election, and the first thing we talk about is how bad most movies are today.

Q: How did you get away with making an intelligent dark satire for MTV Films?

AP: Specifically with respect to MTV films? Can I tell you I haven't seen a single one of them? I've never seen a single MTV film.

Q: They're mostly bad John Hughes spawn.

AP: You know what, though? To be fair... not that I care about being fair to anyone, ever. But to be fair, I'm sure that same percentage of bad films to good is probably... That same ratio exists in every production entity, every studio. Every producing entity makes largely, these days, bad films. And every once in a while, a good one. And I'm glad you happen to think that Election was maybe one of those good ones. But, it's just the whole country is making generally lousy films, these days, and has been for quite a while. It's a big problem that we all have to think about. You on the critical side, and me in terms of things I want to make. So that we can change it. We have to change it. Movies are too important. We love our cinema too much. We also have this cinema with a worldwide influence.

Q: Do you think there's more crap now than 50 years ago?

AP: It's true they've always made lousy pictures. But they had a higher number of good ones every year.

Q: I think they're making more movies now, and more of them are bad.

AP: I don't know where to point the finger. Movies are too expensive these days. And that sense of film as software; to be used for TV, and airplane, and foreign, not: what's the story we want to tell and how should it be told. Software. And the disappearance of owner-operators at studios. They're now all owned by corporations, and everyone answers to and answers to and answers to. See? Except like Harvey Weinstein, like or dislike, or Bob Shea from New Line. Those guys get personally involved with their products.

Q: The big houses are bean counters. This feels like an indie film, not a studio product. How much freedom did you have?

AP: A lot. The important thing to define these days is: what do we mean by independent? And regardless of the source of financing, be it a group of dentists in Akron, Ohio, or a major studio, I think independent should really refer to what you're saying: spirit of filmmaking. A film which tries to do something different, that feels like it comes from one person somehow -- that has some sense of authorial voice. And doesn't seem to be pandering to, or exclusively to, commerical exegenses of the time.

Q: The director had some autonomy.

AP: That's what I'm saying. Authorial voice. Which means the director has some autonomy. I had a lot of people I had to answer to. I had, at one point, seven producers on the film. And then all the executives at Paramount. And they all say things. So I had, at times, a lot of hand holding to do. But, God love Ćem, in the final analysis they gave me the support and the vote of confidence to do what I wanted to do.

It's funny. There's a really good book called Show People by Kenneth Tynan. Check it out from the library sometime. It may not worth buying. Actually, it's worth buying to keep as a toilet book. My toilet books are generally there for three and a half to four weeks each, and then I move to another toilet book. Just something you can dip in and out of. It's a good one. And it's Kenneth Tynan's very intelligent profiles of people, done for New Yorker magazine. It was during the 70's. And he's profiling Mel Brooks in one of them. And it, Mel Brooks explains his theory that when you do comedies -- I don't know if this is true, but somehow it's been true for me -- when you do comedies, they tend to leave you alone a little bit more. Because they somehow perceive it as something a little... special. That's hard to tamper with. People somehow think comedy is difficult to do. Like, everyone can sort of come in on a drama, because there's no control people laughing.

The pitfall of making a comedy with a studio, it's probably an American cultural thing, but I get tired of being encouraged to always go for laughs. When you're trying to make something complex... even in Citizen Ruth, there's a very serious, highly critical subtext going on. Like in Election when you're dealing with pathetic characters, like some guy who's just making all the wrong and really pathetic choices and being a total loser in his life, or Tammy with her fragile sense of first love and this wonder that she's feeling and that huge disappointment of losing first love. When you're going for poignancy, patheticness, there can be forces pulling you to go for laughs, and to abort the serious moments. And that's something that I have had to be on guard against. The apothosis of that of course is Woody Allen, going completely into serious films and that cliche of saying, 'we miss your earlier funny ones.' I agree with both. Now having made two comedies, I really see the desire for making serious films, not that comedy can't be a serious form.

Q: Can you talk about the idea of working with "unlikable characters"?

I would say that they're all likable, because they're real people.

Q: As opposed to machine-made characters?

I hate those characters. I don't go to see those movies, and when I do... like when you can see that the script and the performance and the music and the editing are being manipulated in such a way for you to like that person, I leave the theater. I can't take that.

Q: Was there any pressure to change the characters in Election?

No. Thank God. And you know, you've just seen a studio picture, a Paramount picture, where the protagonist, pretty much the last time you see the hero of the picture, he's running away from the camera, having just thrown a milkshake at a car, and someone's yelling, ≥you asshole!≤ at him.

Q: How did you go about getting Reese Witherspoon for the role of Tracy Flick?

I didn't have anyone in mind. It was really meeting her that sold me. I didn't have her audition. I just met her, and I just knew that she could do it. She's pretty in her own way, she's not pretty like everybody else is. I could believe her as being 17, but as an actress, she's like a young woman. She's a little thing, and she's just really cute and really funny. She's much more seductive with her humor and her niceness than she is with... her babaliciousness. She's a delightful gal. She's a natural.

I like physical humor. In Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern's performance relies a lot on physicality -- the walk and everything. It's kind of similar with Reese and Tracy Flick. There's a certain odd similarity between those two characters. Both have kind of uniquely kind of comic walks, ways they hold themselves, how they fight...

You know when I think she's really good in the movie, is when she's making those buttons. She's very Richard Nixon-like in terms of kind of begrudgingly wanting this impersonal love of the masses and has no concept of individual relationships. It really comes through in her performance. How she was making those buttons... that's something that she brought to it. She'd just learned that morning. The propmaster told her how the button machine works. [I told her] You have to sit here and make buttons so that it looks like you've been doing it for a long time, so that you're really fast with it. She didn't really understand the machine so she kind of overdid the stamping. In fact you can do it [really lightly]. But somehow she started to do it and it comes off like she's all fucking pissed off.

Most of it comes from her, but I think I encouraged her and urged her to go farther with it. And then I would tell her it's too much. That's what I like to do with actors, have them really go for it and then tell them it's too much. It's always easier reeling it back than to push it further. A lot of actors are timid. Go! Try it! Do it!

Q: What advice would you give up-and-coming filmmakers?

To writers, don't read screenwriting books, and if you do, don't take them too seriously. Don't take screenwriting classes, and if you do, don't take them seriously. There's a strong tendency for formula. ĆThis is how a screenplay is written. By page 30, this has to happen, the inciting incident, and your act 2 goes to page 90... That's just horseshit. I think a badly crafted great idea for a new film with a ton of spelling mistakes is just a hundred times better than a well-crafted stale... I mean if you can do both, like have this well-crafted thing and it's fresh and original, then you'll become a millionaire screenwriter.

For example, Scorsese talks not about three acts in a script, but rather five sequences. You watch Fellini films, like Nights of Cabiria (1957), or La Dolce Vita (1960), or 8 1/2 (1963), you get a sense of not a three act structure, but of episodes with one character going through all these episodes, and then you get to the end of the film and there's a sudden realization or a moment that pulls a loose string suddenly taught through the whole movie you've been watching up until that point.

I have different mental models of what a film can be. And if you pay too much attention to those books by Syd Field and Robert McKee, they're only presenting one cultural paradigm, and that's really really dangerous to the act of creation and to our cinema, which needs new ideas and new blood now more than ever. Hollywood films have become a cesspool of formula, and it's up to us to try to change it. I feel personally responsible for the future of the American cinema, but so should you.

Because of what we do and our generation of young guys on the creative and critical front. There you have it.

April 16, 1999

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