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Size matters: The return of Alexander Payne, not that he was ever gone


 

 

Size matters: The return of Alexander Payne, not that he was ever gone

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Has it really been five years since Sideways? The 2004 film’s success gave its director and Oscar-winning co-writer Alexander Payne the kind of career momentum few filmmakers ever enjoy. What did he do with it? From a crass POV, he squandered the opportunity when instead of leveraging that critical-commercial hit to make some dream project, he chose not to make anything.

Well, not exactly. He did write and direct the short, 14e Arrondissement, for the 2006 omnibus film, Paris, Je T’aime (Paris, I Love You). He and writing partner Jim Taylor took passes at the scripts for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Baby Mama. In 2007 the pair also began work on a script that turned into an unusually arduous process. Payne hopes to direct that script, Downsizing, next year.

Also, Payne helped produce two films, the disappointing King of California and the sublime The Savages. All those commitments kept him busy, which is how he likes it, but they also made it more difficult to launch a new feature of his own.

Besides the Paris short, he’d actually exposed no film for six years from the time  Sideways wrapped in 2003 until last summer, when he shot the pilot episode for the new HBO comedy series Hung. Thomas Jane stars as a typical middle-class American man driven by economic distress to offer his gift to women as a high class escort. The opening episode Payne helmed premiered last Sunday.

Paris notwithstanding, the gap between Sideways and Hung was interminable for this celluloid junkie who once said, “Every day I’m not directing I feel like I die a little.” OK, maybe he was being over-dramatic, but the point is he went a long time not making cinema. He presumably could have had he really wanted. But Payne is nothing if not a considered, deliberate study. Anyone who knows him understands how particular he is when it comes to his work. Everything must be done on his terms. He’ll only shoot after a script’s gone through endless permutations, revisions, vettings, drafts. It must be solid as gold. No question marks, no loose ends.

Given the choice of rushing to follow up Sideways or stepping back to survey his options, he chose the latter course. Thus, the last five years was about regaining his personal/artistic bearings. Things came at him so hard, so fast after Sideways blew up that he lost his equilibrium there for awhile. A breather was in order.

It didn’t help that in the wake of the film taking off he was reeling from his and Sandra Oh’s divorce. Amidst all that, he moved, he had knee surgery, he did a ton of press and he fielded multiple directing offers. He discovered what it’s like to be a hot commodity. It all got to be a bit much and in typical Payne fashion he didn’t want to compromise his principals by just jumping into anything that came along or feeling pressured into a project he really wasn’t passionate about. So, he entered a self-imposed hiatus from shooting. He would only break this pact with himself in the event the right assignment came along at the right time. Paris was such an assignment. He filmed his segment in 2005.

Until last year he hadn’t found anything conducive enough with his sensibilities and schedule to compel him to shoot again. That all changed with Hung. The new HBO series equates America’s desperate new straits to the plight of ex-golden boy Ray Drecker, a one time athletic hero turned high school basketball coach whose life has soured after a run of bad luck that leaves him feeling worthless.

As Payne noted in a recent interview at mid-town’s Caffeine Dreams, this is the first television pilot he said yes to after years of courting by producers. So what made the ever cautious one bite?  “Every May I get a couple offers to direct a pilot and I’ve never done so until now because the scripts weren’t good or at least I didn’t like them, or I was busy. But this time Jim Taylor and I had just finished a draft of Downsizing and I was just so eager to shoot something and maybe let Downsizing simmer before coming back to it to do yet another draft, because the script has been so difficult. I thought, Just go make something short, go shoot some film, go beat up some actors, assemble my team.”

“What interested me,” said Payne, “is that it’s about a guy who loses everything. His house burns down when he’s uninsured, he’s been hit hard in a divorce, and he ends up turning to the only asset he thinks he has left, one that he was born with. And I thought that maybe somehow that was a symbol for America in a way, where so much has been taken away from it that it only has its large member, and however it uses that. So it’s kind of a whacky metaphor but it’s something I could hang my hat on,” he said, smiling wryly, pun fully intended.

The premise may not be Payne’s but given his track record it’s not hard to imagine him envisioning Hung’s scenario. In line with his taste for discerning, critical, original material, Hung explores the nation’s economic, moral downturn through the prism of an All-American male’s experience gone awry. In this downward spiral Ray does what the sorry, wounded protagonists in Payne’s conception of the world do, he acts out. In this case, the beleaguered Ray turns the one endowment he feels he can market into a second career turning tricks.

Is what Ray does really so different than Ruth Stoops playing her pregnancy off the pro-life/pro-abortion camps for cold hard cash (Citizen Ruth)? Or Jim McAllister giving Tracy her comeuppance by rigging the student body’s vote (Election)? Or Warren Schmidt asserting his emancipation by rashly making an RV road trip and assuaging his guilt by supporting an African orphan (About Schmidt)? Or Miles going off on a self-loathing jag and Jack having his last fling (Sideways)?

Payne’s less sure how consistent Hung is with his oeuvre. “I don’t know if it fits into the body of my work or not but it was fun to do and I was certainly able to bring something to it. I’m proud of the work I did on it. I can’t speak for the rest of the show because they just finished shooting it, but I know the pilot. It speaks well for the pilot that the network did select Hung to be a series because part of that decision is the pilot. And it was really great to work with HBO. They’re awesome.”

As he didn’t write the script, he said, “it’s nothing from my soul,” but that he would respond to Hung makes sense as its creators had his tone in mind when conceptualizing the series.

“It’s funny because we recently found our very first notes from our very first session and we had said months before we had Alexander on board that it should be a comedy with ‘a Paynsian sensibility,’” said Burson. “Alexander finds both the humanity and the comedy in every day life. His movies feel very true and yet they’re very funny. It’s comedy that emerges from truth. Comedy without a wink.”

Further, Burson said, when it came time to pitch a director to HBO Payne’s name was at the top of her and Lipkin’s list. “When we met with HBO and they said to us, ‘Who is your dream director?’ we said our number one choice would be Alexander Payne.” To HBO’s credit, she said, the network didn’t blink. “Two days later he had the material and he called us up.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

 

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