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From the Archives: Exclusive interview with Alexander Payne following the success of “Sideways”

From the Archives: Exclusive interview with Alexander Payne following the success of “Sideways”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origiinally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Even before Alexander Payne’s Sideways premiered September 13 to ecstatic reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he soaked up the accolades, it was hailed as a refreshing change from an artist whose previous harsh satires (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) made you squirm as much as laugh.

Sideways, whose national release launched on October 27, marks a departure for Payne in two ways. For the first time in his feature career, he left behind Nebraska’s familiar confines to cast his sardonic gaze elsewhere. Using as a starting point Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel of the same name, Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor found the book’s central California wine country the perfect setting and context for a story about love. Yes, love. Love of wine. Love of self. Platonic love. Brotherly love. Romantic love. Ah, love. It’s something in short supply in Payne’s earlier films, where emotions are savaged and relationships discarded.

After Toronto came the New York Film Festival where Sideways was the official closing night selection on October 17. Payne said he was “very happy” with the prestigious NYFF closing night slot. A darling of the NYFF, where About Schmidt was accorded opening night honors in 2001, Payne is being feted like the star he is in the international film community. In a statement announcing the program, festival chairman and Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Pena said: “Even with now just four films to his credit, Alexander Payne has established himself as a major voice in contemporary American cinema. I can’t think of another filmmaker working today who is able to create characters as complex, as contradictory and as richly human.”

The early warm reception for Sideways, a Fox Searchlight release, bodes well for its commercial potential. The Hollywood buzz says Oscar nods are in store for Payne and star Paul Giamatti. Payne thinks audiences and critics are responding to the evolutionary process he takes with his work. Having returned from the highs of Toronto and New York, he is now preparing to write a new project that promises to be “current and political.”

Humanism and Character-Driven 

Leading film industry trade reviewers Todd McCarthy of Variety and Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter see in Sideways something Payne has strived for — a return to the character-driven movies he cut his teeth on. McCarthy wrote, “Moving away from his native Nebraska for the first time onto what proves to be even more fertile soil … Alexander Payne has single-handedly restored humanism as a force in American films.”

According to Honeycutt, Payne captures in his “hysterically funny yet melancholy comedy … subtle undertones of the great character movies of the 1970s and a delicate though strong finish that fills one with hope for its most forlorn characters.”

“If it’s true, that’s a nice thing for someone to say,” said Payne, whose intimate cinema explores the wreckage of ordinary people doing desperate things to reclaim their lost lives. His films are never just funny or dramatic. They are, like life, a mix.

“I aspire to a certain humanism in my films in that they’re films just about people,” he said. “I don’t need to see a gun. I don’t need to have a chase. I don’t need highly contrived situations. I just want to have situations, which will bare open, in a humorous way but also in a dramatic way, what’s going on in the hearts and souls of people. And they’re comedies. This one get huge laughs. I think, too, people like the emotion in it and the hopeful note at the end. Yet, there’s nothing sentimentalized. If feels earned and felt.

“Also what I hear is that the film is intelligent. Like hopefully my other films, too, it doesn’t talk down to the viewer. It respects the viewer. I mean, I always think an audience is smarter than I am, not dumber. So often, at least in recent American filmmaking, there’s a pressure — however spoken or unspoken — to dilute the intelligence or the sophisticated references or the quality of the jokes or something for a more general audience, and I just don’t like to do that.”

Payne’s comedic sensibilities and instincts have never been sharper. Three scenes in particular stand out, and all involve Giamatti as the lovably neurotic wine junkie Miles. In one, some bad news sends Miles careening for the nearest bottle, which he grabs like a suicide weapon and proceeds to drain while stumbling down a hill side. In another, the idiocy of winery etiquette sets him off and he loses it in a fit sure to join Jack Nicholson’s famous diner rant in Five Easy Pieces. Finally, to help his buddy Jack out of a jam, Miles retrieves some valuables left behind in a house, and nearly gets killed for his trouble.


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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