Archive for December 6, 2011

From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film After the cutting room floor

December 6, 2011 14 comments



From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film after the cutting room floor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly


Ever since Omaha native Alexander Payne wrapped shooting on About Schmidt, the hometown movie whose star, Jack Nicholson, caused a summer sensation, the filmmaker has been editing the New Line Cinema pic in obscurity back in Los Angeles.

That’s the way Hollywood works. During production, a movie is a glitzy traveling circus causing heads to turn wherever its caravan of trailers and trucks go and its parade of headliners pitch their tents to perform their magic. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Then, once the show disbands, the performers pack up and the circus slips silently out of town. Meanwhile, the ringmaster, a.k.a. the director, holes himself up in an editing suite out of sight to begin the long, unglamorous process of piecing the film together from all the high wire moments captured on celluloid to try and create a dramatically coherent whole.

Whether Schmidt is the breakout film that elevates Payne into the upper echelon of American directors remains to be seen, but it is clearly a project with the requisite star power, studio backing and artistic pedigree to position him into the big time.

An indication of the prestige with which New Line execs regard the movie is their anticipated submission of it to the Cannes Film Festival. Coming fast-on-the-heels of Election, Payne’s critically acclaimed 1999 film that earned he and writing partner Jim Taylor Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Schmidt will be closely watched by Hollywood insiders to see how the director has fared with a bona fide superstar and a mid-major budget at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens, Payne’s unrepentant iconoclasm will probably keep him on the fringe of major studio moviemaking, where he feels more secure anyway. As editing continues on Schmidt, slated for a September 2002 release, Payne is nearing his final cut. The film has already been test previewed on the coast and now it’s just a matter of trimming for time and impact.

While in town over Thanksgiving Payne discussed what kind of film is emerging, his approach to cutting, the shooting process, working with Nicholson and other matters during a conversation at a mid-town coffeehouse, Caffeine Dreams. He arrived fashionably late, out of breath and damp after running eight blocks in a steady drizzle from the brownstone apartment he keeps year-round.

He and editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all of Payne’s features, have been editing since June. They and a small staff work out of a converted house in back of a dentist’s office on Larchmont Street in Los Angeles. Payne and Tent work 10 -hour days, six days a week.

“As with any good creative relationship we have a basic shared sensibility,” Payne said of the collaboration, “but we’re not afraid to disagree, and there’s no ego involved in a disagreement. We’re like partners in the editing phase. He’ll urge me to let go of stuff and to be disciplined.”

By now, Payne has gone over individual takes, scenes and sequences hundreds of times, making successive cuts along the way. What has emerged is essentially the film he set out to make, only with different tempos and tones than he first imagined.

“Rhythmically, it’s come out a little slower than I would have wanted it,” he said. “I think it’s been something hard for me and for those I work with to accept that because of it’s subject matter and for whatever ineffable reason this is a very different film in pacing and feel than the very kinetic and funny Election, which got so much praise. It has, I think, the same sensibility and humor as Election but it’s slower and it lets the drama and emotion play more often than going for the laugh. I think it just called for that. With this one, we don’t go for the snappy edit.”

Even before Schmidt, Payne eschewed the kind of MTV-style of extreme cutting that can detract from story, mood, performance.

“Things are over-covered and over-edited these days for my tastes. There’s many exceptions, of course, but the norm seems to be to cut even though you don’t need to. And, in fact, not only don’t filmmakers need to, their cuts are disruptive to watching performance and getting the story. I like watching performance. My stuff is about getting performance. I like holding within a take as long as possible until you have to cut.”


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

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.




Alexander Payne, ©photo Jeff Beiermann, The World-Herald


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From the Archives: Alexander Payne discusses “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson, working with the iconic actor, past projects and future plans

December 6, 2011 14 comments



From the Archives: Alexander Payne discusses “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson

Working with the iconic actor, past projects and future plans

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly


Citizen Ruth announced him as someone to watch on the independent film scene. Election netted him and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. The commercial success of Meet the Parents, whose script he and Taylor contributed to, led to another high profile hired gun job — a rewrite of Jurassic Park III.

Now, with About Schmidt, which began filming in his hometown of Omaha this week, filmmaker Alexander Payne finds himself playing in a $30 million sandbox in his own backyard and sharing the fun with one of the biggest movie stars ever  — Jack Nicholson. It is the culmination of Payne’s steady climb up the Hollywood film ladder the past seven years. It has been quite a journey already for this amiable writer-director with the sharp wit and the killer good looks. And the best still appears ahead of him.

During an exclusive interview he granted to the Omaha Weekly at La Buvette one recent Sunday afternoon in the Old Market (fresh from seeing off his girlfriend at the airport) Payne discussed the genesis and the theme of his new film, his collaboration with Jack, his take on being a rising young filmmaker, his insider views on working in the American movie industry and his past and future projects.

Although About Schmidt gets its title from the 1997 Louis Begley novel, it turns out Payne’s film is only partly inspired by the book and is actually more closely  adapted from an earlier, unproduced Payne screenplay called The Coward.

As he explained, “When I first got out of film school 10 years ago I wrote a script for Universal that had the exact same themes as About Schmidt…a guy retiring from a professional career and facing a crisis of alienation and emptiness. Universal didn’t want to make it. I was going to rewrite it and come back to Omaha and try and get it made, and then Jim Taylor and I stumbled on the idea of Citizen Ruth, so I pursued that and put this on the back burner. Then, about three years ago, producers Harry Gittes and Michael Besman sent me the Begley book, which has similar themes, although set in a very different milieu.”

Nicholson, who had read the book, was already interested. Payne first commissioned another writer to adapt the novel but that didn’t pan out. “I didn’t relate very much ultimately to the adaptation and then I turned to Jim Taylor and said, ‘You know that thing I was writing 10 years ago? How would you like to rewrite that with me under the guise of an adaptation for this thing.’” Taylor agreed, and the film About Schmidt was set in motion, with Gittes and Besman as producers.

Taking elements from both the earlier script and the Begley book, the character of Schmidt is now a a retired Woodmen of the World actuary struggling to come to terms with the death of his longtime wife, the uneasy gulf between he and his daughter, his dislike of his daughter’s fiance and the sense that everything he’s built his life around is somehow false. Full of regret and disillusionment, he sees that perhaps life has passed him by. To try and get his head straight, he embarks on a road trip across Nebraska that becomes a funny, existential journey of self-discovery. A kind of Five Easy Pieces meets a geriatric Easy Rider.

“What interested me originally was the idea of taking all of the man’s institutions away from him,” Payne said. “Career. Marriage. Daughter. It’s about him realizing his mistakes and not being able to do anything about them and also seeing his structures stripped away. It’s about suddenly learning that everything you believe is wrong — everything. It asks, ‘Who is a man? Who are we, really?’”

Typical of Payne, he doesn’t offer easy resolutions to the dilemmas and questions he poses, but instead uses these devices (as he used abortion politics and improper student-teacher activities in his first two films) as springboards to thoughtfully and hopefully, humorously explore issues. “I don’t even have the answers to that stuff, nor does the film really, at least ostensibly. But, oh, it’s a total comedy. I hope…you know?”

For Payne, who derives much of his aesthetic from the gutsy, electric cinema of the 1970s, having Nicholson, whose work dominated that decade, anchor the film is priceless. “One thing I like about him appearing in this film is that part of his voice in the ‘70s kind of captured alienation in a way. And this is very much using that icon of alienation, but not as someone who is by nature a rebel, but rather now someone who has played by the rules and is now questioning whether he should have. So, for me, it’s using that iconography of alienation, which is really cool.”

Beyond the cantankerous image he brings, Nicholson bears a larger-than-life mystique born of his dominant position in American cinema these past 30-odd years. “He has done a body of film work,” Payne said. “Certainly, his work in the ‘70s is as cohesive a body of work as any film director’s. He’s been lucky enough to have been offered and been smart enough to have chosen roles that allow him to express his voice as a human being and as an artist. He’s always been attracted to risky parts where he has to expose certain vulnerabilities.”


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

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.




Alexander Payne directing About Schmidt


Star and director working out a moment in the retirement party scene



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