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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



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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