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From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a young filmmaker


 

 

From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a young filmmaker

© by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Darryl Zanuck. Fred Astaire. Henry Fonda. Dorothy McGuire. Montgomery Clift. Marlon Brando. Sandy Dennis. Nick Nolte. Enduring film icons and Nebraskans all. Now add the name of writer-director Alexander Payne, 36, to this list of native sons and daughters who’ve made their mark in cinema. Born and raised in Omaha, Payne made an impressive feature debut with the funky 1996 abortion comedy,Citizen Ruth, and is sure to make waves again with his second feature, Election, which wrapped shooting in Omaha December 15 and is slated for a summer release.

The made-in-Omaha Citizen Ruth netted wide critical praise for its satiric take on the pro life-pro choice debate, revealing Payne to be a keen social observer with an ironic sensibility. Payne, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, is a gifted artist. He’s smart, witty, confident, yet refreshingly grounded. He knows exactly what he’s after and how to get it. He’s also brash and passionate enough to make delightfully subversive films far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Those who know him admire his agile mind, him unmannered sincerity, his barbed humor.

He has the cachet to make films anywhere, but continues coming back here to shoot his quirky independent pictures. Indeed, he remains fiercely loyal to his hometown, whose currents reverberate deeply within him. “I feel so strongly about shooting in Omaha,” he said. “In nursing and nudging Election along, I made it clear I wanted to shoot here, and the producers said, ‘Well, you can shoot this anywhere.’ But I don’t want to fake it. It’s not the same thing. There’s an atmosphere I want to get and be faithful to — about how people are. I want it to be real, I want it be where I’m comfortable and where deep buttons in me are pressed.”

Election co-producer Albert Berger feels Payne is well attuned to Omaha’s Zeitgeist. “I had never been in Omaha before, but interestingly enough I sensed an attitude that was very much Alexander’s,” Berger said. “There’s a sort of courteous, formal presentation or exterior of normality, with a bizarre, eccentric, biting humor just beneath it, and I saw that time and time again…so I’m not surprised Alexander came from Omaha and he’s making the type of movies he is there. I feel he is very much of that place.”

Payne agrees, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of his sardonic streak other than to speculate: “Maybe historically, the fact the weather is so cruel on the Plains that for survival there’s bred a sense of humor about it all.” If nothing else, his humor is informed by Omaha’s small town-bit city schizophrenia. “There’s always this tight-assed conservative element here that’s very irritating,” he said. “That doesn’t think anything is funny except Marmaduke and Family Circus. But then there’s this whole other Omaha I grew up with of really smart, funny, caustic people.”

His cutting humor has no shortage of targets. In Citizen Ruth he lampooned the hypocrisy of pro life-pro choice extremists. In Election he exposes the hollowness of School-Suburbia USA rituals.

The role of satirist seems to fit Payne well, but he feels his career is too young to assign him a signature style just yet: “I don’t like to analyze it too closely,” he said, “because so far this type of stuff is just what comes naturally to me. And I almost fear that analyzing it too much will make me too self-conscious or make me think there’s no rules. You know? I’m still just figuring it out.”

Election, which Payne and his Citizen Ruth writing collaborator, Jim Taylor, adapted from the soon-to-be-published novel of the same name by Boston writer Tom Perrotta, promises to be Payne’s breakthrough film. Why? Because the material retains the mordant, mercurial sensibility of his debut feature, but is neither likely to be as difficult for its studio (Paramount) to market nor as hard for audiences to stomach as the earlier film was, with its raw-nerve subject matter. Plus, Election stars two young, appealing crossover actors in Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon who should attract the very demographic the film will surely target (ages 18-34).

The film, like the book, revolves around a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Broderick), who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, acts rashly and rigs a student election, setting in motion a series of seriocomic events that change the lives of everyone involved. Broderick should have just the right innocent deadpan persona (like his idol Buster Keaton) for the part. Much of the script’s sly humor stems from normally upstanding folks behaving badly under pressure. As Payne puts it, “All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it’s not as though any of the characters is bad, they’re just doing it all for the first time. They just don’t know any better.”

For all its strengths, Citizen Ruth never quite fleshed-out the title character, Ruth Stoops. Payne and Taylor used her more as a siphon and symbol to comment on the absurd lengths pro life-pro choice activists go to, rather than develop her as a person with complex emotional shadings. Her escape at the end makes a strong statement, but tells us nothing we don’t already know. While it’s hard to believe anyone with a sense of humor could be offended by Citizen Ruth, the film surely put off some viewers who strongly identify with one side or the other of the abortion issue.

With Election, Payne isn’t shying away from skewering more sacred cows, but is mining a richer vein of Americana than he attempted before. Where Citizen Ruth often settled for broad sketches, Election promises to probe more deeply into the lives of characters and the milieu they inhabit. And, at least as scripted, the new film allows room for its protagonists to grow somewhat through their ordeal.

Payne feels Election, with its fuller palette of colors, should prove to be “ a much stronger film” than his first feature. “Citizen Ruth is particular in it’s having fun with stereotypes,” he said. “It’s funny and interesting, but this is a richer piece of material. It’s got a more complex, nuanced human canvas. There’s nothing schematic about it. I mean, once you figure out what’s going on in Citizen Ruth you still might enjoy the film, but you kind of know where it’s heading. This one, you don’t really know what’s going to happen next.” Ask him what Election is all about and he sighs, wearily weighing your question with one of his own: “How to articulate it? I don’t know…It’s very human and it’s very real, It’s about life. It’s like life — I can’t sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can’t be easily summed up.”

Payne doesn’t pander to audiences. His leading characters don’t neatly conform to Post-Modern Hollywood’s idea of winning protagonists. Instead, they’re whimsically, tragically, unpredictably human. And because they’re so authentic they engage us in ways “nice” characters often don’t. Ruth Stoops is a pregnant inhalant addict who’s made a mess of her life and is unrepentant about it. She’s also street-smart and disarmingly honest. Jim McAllister is a philandering hypocrite who takes his hurt out on one of his students. He’s also hard-working and surprisingly vulnerable.

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.

Matthew Broderick and Payne on the Election set

Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Payne on the set of Election

Reese Witherspoon as the indomitable Tracy Flick

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy and Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister


Kelly Preston and Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth

From The Passion of Martin
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