Home > Alexander Payne, Books, Film, Hollywood, Movies, Nebraskans in Film, Oscar Winners, Screenwriting, Writing > “Every day I’m not directing, I feel like I die a little,” – Alexander Payne: after a period largely producing-writing other people’s projects, the filmmaker sets his sights on his next feature

“Every day I’m not directing, I feel like I die a little,” – Alexander Payne: after a period largely producing-writing other people’s projects, the filmmaker sets his sights on his next feature

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“Every day I’m not directing, I feel like I die a little” – Alexander Payne:

After a period largely producing-writing other people’s projects, the filmmaker sets his sights on his next feature

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2006 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Appearing calmer than he did in 2005, when still in the exhausting grip of Sideways mania and the fallout of his divorce from Sandra Oh, a relaxed Alexander Payne was back in Omaha the past couple weeks, eager to resume work. For those curious about what’s he been up to since Sideways, he answers, “I got busy.” It’s why he’s been out of touch so long. “It’s not just a line, I’ve been busy,” he reiterates. True enough, but aside from a short film project he did in Paris he’s largely been embroiled in work not his own. And that drives him crazy.

He’s helped produce two feature films out this year. The Savages stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. The King of California stars Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood. Payne’s a close friend of the filmmakers. He’s an executive producer on Savages, written-directed by Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills), the wife of Payne’s writing partner Jim Taylor. He’s a full producer on King, whose writer-director Michael Cahill was a film school buddy of Payne’s at UCLA.

Payne’s been collaborating on the script of Taylor’s first directing job, The Lost Cause. The pair also did a rewrite on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry before Adam Sandler signed on opposite Kevin James and “brought in his own people” to, as Payne put it, “Sandlerize it and, quite frankly, dumb it up.”

The real news is the Omaha native has finally fixed on what his next film will be and it turns out it’ll bring him back home, perhaps by the fall of 2008. He won’t say much else other than he and Taylor are well along on the script, a first draft of which they hope to complete this year. The idea for it is one he’s kicked around a while but it was only last year he “began to think of it in a new way” that made it click. In the past he’s referred to the concept as a vehicle for expressing his dismay and disgust with American attitudes and policies. He won’t go as far to call it politically charged, but he gives the impression it will be a pointed satire.

“All I know is I hope it will be funny,” he said in what’s become his stock answer to queries about his works in progress. “The only thing I’ll tell you is what’s new about it for Jim and me is it has a little bit of a science fiction premise, which functions more as a metaphor than a…anyway, that’s all,” he said, catching himself in mid-teaser lest he reveal too much of the still fragile script.

Also new is that “Omaha figures a lot in this one,” he said. “As we have it currently configured about a third of the film would shoot here, but it’s a much longer film than any I’ve made before, so even a third of the film is a good hunk.” He would never consider covering Omaha somewhere else. “I believe in place,” he said.

Payne’s growing place in the industry, which avidly awaits his next film, was made tangible a couple years ago when he, Taylor and producer Jim Burke formed the production-development company Ad Hominem. In the process they struck a first-look deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures that gives the studio first dibs on any projects the filmmakers develop. A producer on ElectionBurke was brought in to manage the Santa Monica-officed Hominem’s small staff. Taylor also has a support person in New York, where he lives. Fox Searchlight did such a good job handling Sideways that Payne inked the studio pact, a move he’d avoided doing until now.

“We’d been talking about it for a while,” Payne said, “but it wasn’t until after Sideways we decided to take the possibility more seriously. Actually, Jim (Taylor) is the one who kind of spearheaded it. I’ve never wanted to have one of these deals before because you never know whom you’re dealing with exactly and I’ve never had as harmonious a filmmaking experience as I had with Sideways and Fox Searchlight. We’d be happy to make another movie with them. They were great. Jim really thought it (the deal) would be a good idea and he was right.

“A first look deal is where a studio just kind of pays for some overhead and you have people working for you in an office and in exchange they (Fox) get first right of negotiation…first crack at anything we do. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to make it, but they get a short window of time in which to decide if they want to do it and, if not, it’s in effect a free ball. And it just kind of formalizes good will and relationship between filmmakers and studio. Besides..the company allows Jim and me to have extra eyes and ears out there reading books or accepting scripts, taking phone calls. Otherwise, we’re doing it all ourselves and not getting our work done. It’s just sort of there to facilitate us.”

Hominem serves another purpose, one taking more and more of Payne’s time, namely to help nudge friends’ projects from limbo to realization. He said the company gives he and Taylor a framework to “on a very selective basis help, enable or foster…those films getting made. And we’ve done one so far, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages…She was having a very hard time getting that film off the ground, even with the wonderful cast of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So, finally our agreeing to come on as executive producers helped it reach the tipping point to getting it made.”

He said the resulting film, shot mainly in New York and a bit in Sun City, Az.,  is “ultimately funny and sad and real. Great performances. They’re very human.”

Sporting a Hydra-head of overflowing locks, Payne broke his long silence to sit down for an exclusive interview with The Reader at M’s Pub in the Old Market. It felt like catching up with someone returned from an odyssey. That’s how removed he’s been from the media these past several months. It’s not that he disappeared in the wake of Sideways, the little picture that blew up bigger than anyone expected and deservedly won Payne and Taylor Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. But after the barrage of press junkets, film festivals, awards shows and requests came at him faster and heavier than for any of his earlier films, he did retreat inward, largely avoiding any public life.

Two summers ago he spoke of “trying to get away from letting myself be trapped by the demands of others on my time.” This time, he said, “I’m trying to be a private citizen.” He’s managed to avoid the tabloids but he’s had mixed success with the bit about getting back to work.


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.



Tamara Jenkins



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