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Alexander Payne’s post-“Sideways” blues


Sideways

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Alexander Payne‘s post-“Sideways” blues

In the Wake of  His Oscar-win the Filmmaker Draws Inward to Reflect on the New Status He Owns and What It May Mean

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from story published in a 2005 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alexander Payne’s Oscar win for Sideways officially anointed him a member of American film royalty. His ascendancy to Hollywood’s ruling class, no matter how short-lived it proves, increased the already intense courting of him that began when the picture morphed from nice little adult comedy to big fat hit. With his coronation complete, everybody wants a piece of him, all of which makes the reflective Payne deliberate ever more carefully about his next move.

On a recent Omaha visit, the filmmaker looked tired describing the deluge of requests, deals, offers and scripts he gets these days. This followed an exhausting awards and festival season that saw him do extensive media. He presided over the A Certain Regard jury at Cannes. As the breakup of his marriage to actress Sandra Oh goes through the courts, he’s in the process of moving. With so much in the offing and at stake, grabbing at just anything would be a mistake.

After all, when the world is offered up on a silver platter, you don’t bite off more than you can chew. As Payne recently put it, “You eat too much birthday cake and you get sick.” With “a whole new level of having to deal with stuff coming at me,” he said, he’s taking a step back to “catch my breath” and to go into “life maintenance” mode before “getting back to work.”

“I’m just surrendering for about four more months. I’m really not doing anything for a feature film, other than thinking and reading some scripts that come in,” he said. “I’m getting a knee operation. I’m moving from one house to another. Dealing with the divorce. I’ve a little more travel to do. After I do this life stuff then I’ll start to think about what my next film is, because once you start a feature film you’re scuba diving under water for two years. The rest of your life goes away, which I prefer. I prefer to be scuba diving.”

He almost forgot to mention an international project he’s part of called Paris, I Love You. This anthology or omnibus film will interweave 20 commissioned shorts, each a rumination on Parisian culture, by some of world cinema’s leading artists, including Payne, into a feature-length tribute to the City of Light. He’ll shoot his five-minute segment there, specifically in the 14th Arrondisement, in September.

“From where I am in my life right now, the idea of making a short film in a distant city sounded appealing,” he said. “And part of the reason is precisely that I don’t know Paris well at all.”

Paris sojourn aside, he’s retreating for the moment to let things die down and sink in before taking the plunge again.

The eminence attending Oscar has vaulted Payne into rarefied company. It began as soon as he accepted his statuette. “People wanted to hold it. It was a little like handing over the ring in Lord of the Rings. Then, other people didn’t want to touch it thinking it would jinx their own chances of winning one day,” he said, “It’s too early to tell whether it has changed my own perception of my worth.” He expressed mixed feelings about what it all confers.

“On the one hand, I think, Oh, I guess I’m a ‘made guy’ now. On the other hand, I think, Oh, I’ve won an Oscar, mainstream seal of approval. What did I do wrong?”

The real question is where does he go from here and how does he remain true to himself amid all the swirl?

This is not entirely new territory for the writer-director. Even with only four features to his credit, he’s enjoyed an exulted position for some time now. He was a previous Academy Award nominee for Election. His About Schmidt was selected for the main competition at Cannes, closed the 2002 New York Film Festival and received several Oscar nominations in addition to grossing more than $100 million. Moreover, Schmidt proved to Hollywood insiders that Payne could shepherd a successful vehicle with a major star — Jack Nicholson — thereby making the filmmaker more packagable. As Payne said, “Anymore, I view success as a commodity to help get the next film made.”

Often overlooked in his rise up the industry ladder is the “sell-out” work he and writing collaborator Jim Taylor, the co-Oscar-winning scenarist of Sideways, do as script doctors. They did rewrites for mega-hits Meet the Parents and Jurassic Park III. They just finished their latest job-for-hire on Universal’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy about a pair of Phillie firefighters who feign being a gay couple, all the way to the altar, to qualify for job health benefits unavailable to single straight men. “We want to rename it Flamers,” Payne said, smiling.

Then there’s what he calls the Sideways “tsunami.” Even though he went through the gauntlet on Schmidt, he was taken aback when Sideways hit. Its success, and all the attention it brought, he said, has been “the most disorienting” experience of his career. Before its general release, he perceived the project as “a nice little movie.” He politely turned down a request from the Cannes Film Festival to submit the pic for competition, explaining to officials, “I don’t think it’s big enough.’” His view was reinforced when it was “turned down for competition” in Venice. So, when the buzz ignited, he was naturally surprised.

“I was caught off guard for the amount of stuff coming at me. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s put me in a highly reactive rather than active mode. Like, much more of my time is spent answering inquiries about using me than doing my work. It’s meant a lot of travel. My number of e-mails has increased vastly. Also the number of requests I get to read scripts and to do things for charity.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great. I’m grateful. I have interesting access to people nowadays. But nothing in life is clean cut. It’s all a mixed bag. Like all these people asking, ‘Will you read my script?’ I don’t even have time to go to the gym. If I say no to being on a charity’s board of directors, does it mean I’m an asshole? When Jim and I started we never hit anybody up for anything. It’s like, not cool.”

An example of the heat surrounding him, even pre-Oscar, came at a University of Nebraska at Omaha symposium he gave in December, when an overflow crowd of students, aspirants and acolytes energized the Eppley Auditorium, charging the air with adulation and fascination. Sure, that was on his home turf, but cut to a scene six months later at the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for a June 3 program kicking off a week-long retrospective of his work. Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio film critic Kenneth Turan interviewed Payne on stage of the Walker cinema before a full crowd every bit as juiced as the one in Omaha. Yes, Payne’s a hot ticket wherever he goes these days.

As his fame grows Payne finds some see him differently. “They see me in a new context. Not everybody. Not close friends. That doesn’t change. But sometimes, I experience the perception of others change more than I change. I’m like, ‘Are you sure it’s me? I mean, I didn’t return your phone calls before.’”

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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