Masters David O. Russell and Alexander Payne matched wits at Film Streams Feature VI event
©by Leo Adam Biga
NOTE: My story about the parralel careers of Payne and Russell that appeared in advance of Feature VI can be found on this blog.
The smart banter between David O. Russell and Alexander Payne at last night’s Film Streams Feature VI event in Omaha gave a glimpse into why these two cinema masters have enjoyed a long friendship. They are both brilliant in their own way. Highly educated and well-read, yet deeply in touch with gut instincts. They both come from ethnic American backgrounds. The both had lengthy experiences abroad. They’re both steeped in classic cinema. As good as they are at creating images, the written word is everything for them. They both extract great performances from their actors.
They are both urbane men with dry wits. But where Payne seems a bit more guarded or stiff, at least in public settings like these, Russell seems somewhat looser. Where Payne is a very well grounded and considered person, Russell comes off as more idiosyncratic and certainly more neurotic, almost as a virile variant of the middle-aged Woody Allen.
Their nearly parallel careers give them a certain relationship by proximity since each emerged in the mid-1990s as new filmmakers to be watched and each has experienced similar fast ascents, followed by uneasy hiatuses, giving way to recent strong runs that have cemented their places in the top ranks of writer-directors. As they discussed in their conversation last night and as is readily evident in their work, each is a humanistic storyteller. What wasn’t discussed and what is also clearly seen in their work is that time and time again each returns to themes of people in conflict with society or their family or the group. Their protagonists are all at war with someone or something and on a search for meaning or redemption or revenge or getting-what’s-mine. Even with their careers on a major roll, they seem to think they’ve just figured out who they are as filmmakers and to suggest that the best is yet to come, though they also acknowledge that nothing is guaranteed in the fickle business of making films.
Of all the Film Streams Feature events (I’ve seen five of the six), this was the most spontaneous of these annual gatherings when Payne or sometimes Kurt Andersen engages a special film guest in conversation before a live audience at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Much of the spontaneity this time had to do with the fact that Payne, as he indicated in his opening remarks, did no preparation for the event. That’s because he and Russell go back 15 years or so and they do know each other and their work well enough to just be real and go with the flow up on stage. Part of it was just two old friends ccomparing notes. Payne asked probing questions about Russell’s motivations, inspirations, methodologies, and the like. Sometimes Russell returned the favor to ask Payne questions. Before Payne could even get to any of his questions though Russell, as he did several times about various things on his mind, went off on a riff about Omaha and Payne’s “secret tunnel to Omaha,” where he said Payne is “like a super cinema hero.” Russell described how his appearance in Omaha came to be. It seems that Russell was being badgered by the organizer of the Capri Film Festival in Italy to appear there. He’d been a guest at Capri before but he neither had the time nor inclination to go again, and so he thought Payne might be a good fill-in for him. Russell said he broached the option with Payne but Payne said he was no more interested in Capri than Russell. Then Payne switched everything around by asking Russell to be the guest of honor at Feature VI. One favor had been replaced by another. Russell said upon arriving here he observed all “the levels of plaids and pastels” and “kind-faced Midwestern people,” prompting him to tell Payne, “I felt like I was in one of your movies.” In a short but intense series of stops around the city Russell got to see the home of Omaha Steaks, which it turns out was a kick for him because he said he’s been ordering steaks from there for years for his father and now that Russell has discovered the company’s products extend well beyond steaks he’s going to ply his old man with seafood and desserts. “I bet he won’t see that coming,” he deadpanned. Then he went off on a weird but hilarious description of visitng the offices of husband-and-wife architects Michael and Laura Alley, the co-chairs for the event, and how at one point the Alleys and the Simons from Omaha Steaks were sitting, posed-like, in a glass booth that reminded him of sculptures in an “art installation.”
Russell also referred to Payne’s apartment at the Paxton Manor as “your very flat, very spacious prairie home.”
Last but not least he opined about his instant romance with the Jackson St. Books store in the Old Market, where he said he knew upon entering the place “I’m going to do some damage in there.” He said he picked up several things for friends and then he turned to Payne to say, “And I got you something. I’m going to save it for the end, because that’s showmanship.”
There was an extended discussion about, as Payne put it, “How do we search for ourselves through the films we make?” Russell, who earlier said, “I have a very childlike nature,” answered that he’s come to realize, “I’m a romantic.” He said amidst the every day anguish and horror of life being lived he must find meaning in the journey and discover passion for the pleasures of life, whether true love or fine wine or good food or engaging conversation or interesting people. “Existential despair is a privilege. I’ve learned that lesson.” He asserted his interest in making movies, not films, that touch people’s hearts. “I’ll carry that Frank Capra banner all the way.”
He referred to the one misstep in his filmography, I Heart Huckabees, which has actually become a cult classic, as variously “my mid-life crisis movie” and “the train wreck movie.” He said he made it at a time when he was too analytical in his approach to his art. “You can overthink something. That’s not a good thing. I just think I overthought it.” He said now that he’s in his 50s he’s in a better place then he had been for a while. “I realized more who I was at 17 than when I was 40.” He said at age 40 he was in a kind of “captivity.” Now that he’s rediscovered himself in his 50s, he said, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything – the wisdom.”
Payne described how he was already an admirer of Russell’s work in Flirting with Disaster but then was astonished by what Russell achieved in Three Kings, when Russell moved from the intimate family comedy-dramas of his first two films to the large scale, epic masculine action of an adventure movie set amidst desert warfare. Russell said, “There’s kind of a beauty to making a movie on location.” Payne inquired if Russell was intimidated taking on such a big, sprawling project, and Russell replied, “I think all good endeavors are frightening.”
Payne said he was blown away again when Russell made the leap from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Payne said that at the time of The Fighter’s release he actually ran into Russell and told him, “Since when did you become a master filmmaker?” Payne spoke with admiration for the “very aggressive and sophisticated” way Russell uses hand-held cameras in-tight to create intimacy and immediacy with his characters and for the way he captures the visceral sense of movement and action in his films. Russell said it took time for him to arrive at how he wanted to use Steadicam and to achieve great depth of focus. He acknowledged that much of his maturation as a filmmaker is because he never stops learning or striving to be better. “It’s a great thing to learn your craft,” he said.
Russell described what he’s after in making his storytelling urgent for audiences: “I want you to be propelled and grabbed by the throat.”
He referred to going through a “ponderous period” of filmmaking when his shooting schedules were longer and his decision-making process was more protracted. After gaining more clarity he said, “I became very lean. Thirty-three days on The Fighter.” The same for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Payne expressed envy at how fast and effective Russell can work. Russell said he now has the mind set for his work as – “I approach it like a gun is at my head and that this is the last chance I have to get it right. We must feel grateful for the privilege of what we get to do.”
Russell also spoke candidly about the diffcult period he went through in that six-year hiatus between Huckabees and The Fighter. His personal life was full of challenges then and professionally he coulnd’t get a project off the ground. He sort of lost himself then and had to find himself again. His confidence, too. His ego took a hit as he went from the top of studios’ lists to mid-way down those same lists. “I was at my lowest time. I had been humbled. That can happen quickly in Hollywood. I don’t need to learn that lesson again.” He described how Mark Wahlberg, whom he helped make a star, returned the favor when he asked Russell to direct The Fighter after Darren Aronofsky left the project.
Payne observed how much Russell loves his characters and actors. He asked if Russell ever writes specificially for certain actors and Russell said he didn’t used to but that he increasingly does, especially as he’s come to work with a company of actors from film to film to film, acknowledging that Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale have become muses whose gifts he loves to explore and push to new levels. “I do feel a kinship and a connection to them.” He said the rich canvas of life these actors flesh out in his films is all around us in the people we encounter every day. “”Simply being in love with a character is almost enough reason to make a movie.” He said his own colorful Italian-Russian extended family of people who love each other and hate each other “is a gold mine I haven’t even begin to draw from” but that he clearly intends to mine.
Payne said, “Making a film is an extension of my life. Once we’re shooting our raw material is human behavior.” Truth in behavior and speech is what Payne and Russell go after and are very good at getting right.
Russell flipped it around and asked Payne, “What about you?” (meaning, does Payne write for certain actors) and Payne said, “Rarely, I write more literary characters,” adding though that he wrote with Jack Nicholson in mind for About Schmidt and George Clooney in mind for The Descendants.
In taking some questions audience members wrote out, Russell responded how he feels about remakes, saying, “I’m allergic to remakes.” As to whether there are any films he wished he had made, he promptly answered, “The Godfather,” adding, “The best pornography to me is to watch The Godfather and pretend that I made it.”
Nesr the end of the program Russell, clearly eager to unveil to us, the audience, and to Payne, his host and friend, the surprises he had in store, asked for stagehands to bring out a newly pressed album with music from American Hustle and a phonograph to play it on. “It’s a like the Letterman show now,” he cracked, as Payne undid the plastic sheathing around the album and placed the disc ona turntable and set the needle on the Duke Ellington and Electic Light Orchestra tracks, respectively. “Now it’s entertaining,” Russell observed. “Look how sexy it is,” he said, referring to the vinyl he and Payne help up at one point . Later, when the charactersitc scratches sounded, Russell said, “That’s psrt of the fun – that sound. That’s the fun of a record.”
Then Russell presented Payne with two books, one an early edition of the Sinclair Lewis satire, Babbit, and the other a Phelps County (Neb.) History in two volumes.
The evening wrapped by Payne asking Russell what we can expect next from him and the filmmaker mentioned the project Joy, a true story to star Jennifer Lawrence that is to get underway in late 2015 and a family story he’s developing as well. ” And for you Mr. Payne?” Russell asked. Payne confirmed what was recently reported in the media – that he is “an exploratory period for Downsizing, his big budget “science-fictiony” project with Matt Damon slated to be the lead, at least on a handshake deal, and with Alec Baldwin on board in a part as well. But as Payne cautioned, nothing is greenlit and there are dozens of more parts to cast and much more financing to secure. If it should come together, Payne would make Downsizing in late 2016, and the locations are yet to be finalized, too. You can bet that Payne will want to shoot at least part of it in Neb., but as he stated while he’s been ‘victorious so far” in getting the four films he wanted to make here made here “I may not be”in the future. Russell practically chided state legislators here for not offering tax credits to make it more attractive for Hollywood to make projects here . He said in no uncertain terms that film production “does create jobs for truck drivers and for carpenters and it does provide added business for restaurants and hotels.” It is a fight Payne has been waging for years in his home state.
Payne thanked Russell for being his guest and the gracious Russell offered, “It was a gift to me.”