Laura Dern and Alexander Payne: An Actor-Director Marriage Made in Heaven
Laura Dern and Alexander Payne: An Actor-Director Marriage Made in Heaven
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story appears in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Doing some more proofs and edits to the new edition of my Alexander Payne book reacquainted me with this piece I did about the close friendship and great working relationship the filmmaker forged with Laura Dern when making his debut feature Citizen Ruth. The two remain chums 20-plus years later. Payne brought her to Omaha for a Film Streams Feature Event that saw him conversate with her at the Holland Center. She’s come back to Omaha at his invitation a few other times as well. In the interviews I did with Payne and with Dern for this story I probably dug deeper than I ever have before or since in fleshing out the collaborative director-actor dynamic. I share the story with you now. As the story reveals, it turns out Citizen Ruth might have never happened if Dern hadn’t fallen in love with the script and championed the project. What was origially called The Devil Inside was going nowhere until she fought for the part and once she got it she fought for the project. Indeed, Payne credits her for getting it made. In my opinion, her performance is one of the bravest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen by a major female lead and the film remains the most raw and real, if not the best, of Payne’s work.
NOTE: The new edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1. It is the only comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning Payne in print or online. It is a collection of articles and essays I have written about Payne and his work over a 20-year span. I have basically covered him from the start of his filmmaking career through today. The book takes the reader through the arc of his filmmaking journey and puts you deep inside his creative process. There is much from Payne himself in the pages of the book since most of the content is drawn from interviews I have done with him and from observations I have made on his sets. I also have a good amount of material from some of his key collaborators.
I self-pubished the book in late 2012. It has received strong reviews and endorsements. I am releasing a new edition this summer with the help of a boutique press here, River Junction Press, and its publisher Kira Gale. The new edition features major content additions, mostly related to Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing. It will also feature, for the first time, a Discussion Guide and Index, because we believe the book has potential in the education space with film studies programs, instructors, and students. But I want to emphasize that the book is definitely written with the general film fan in mind and it has great appeal to anyone who identifies as a film buff, film lover, film critic, film blogger. It has also been well received by filmmakers,
Kira and I feel hope to put the book in front of the wider cinema community around the world, including producers, directors, screenwriters, festival organizers, art cinema programmers. We feel it will be warmly embraced because Payne is one of the world’s most respected film artists and everyone wants to work with him. People inside and outside the industry want to learn his secrets and insights about the screen trade and about what makes him tick as an artist.
When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne Get Deep About Making Citizen Ruth and Their Shared Cinema Sensibilities
Published in July 10-16, 2008, Vol. 15, 20, issue of The Reader
When Alexander Payne and Laura Dern chat on the Holland Performing Arts Center main stage July 13 for Films Streams’ first annual fundraiser they’ll naturally get around to Citizen Ruth. The 1996 abortion comedy he co-wrote with Jim Taylor marked Payne’s directorial debut and Dern’s portrayal of title character Ruth Stoops earned her critical acclaim.
What the pair may or may not discuss is how pivotal their collaboration proved.
Sixteen years ago Payne was still an aspiring feature filmmaker. His UCLA graduate thesis project from a few years before, The Passion of Martin, turned heads. The newcomer showed enough promise to land a studio development deal, analogous to a college baseball star getting drafted by a major league franchise, inking a fat contract and getting assigned to the high minors.
But he hadn’t broken through yet. He and Taylor did finish their abortion comedy script, then-known as The Devil Inside, that fall. They were trying to get it set up for Payne to direct. The script made the rounds, generating heat, but nobody wanted to finance it. Too risky. Too political. Too controversial. It didn’t help that Payne was untested in features.
Cut to Dern, by then established as an edgy screen actress for bare-her-soul performances in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. She was already Oscar-nominated as the free spirit title character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose, for which her mother, Diane Ladd, was also nominated. Her acting genes extend to her father and fellow Oscar nominee, Bruce Dern.
Reminiscent of a young Barbara Stanwyck in her ability to play innocence and guile, sweetness and toughness, Dern was a catch for any director. Payne was a big fan of her work but never thought of her for messed-up Ruth Stoops. He probably didn’t think he could get her. That changed when, unbeknownst to him, Dern’s then-beau, actor Jeff Goldblum, got ahold of the Devil script and gave it to Laura.
“And I just was obsessed the moment I read it,” she said by phone from the L.A. set of a short film she’s appearing in. “I just forced their hands.”
Shared Cinephile Leanings
What did she respond to so strongly?
“Well, in terms of the material,” she said, “it’s a very unique and hilarious and extremely honest voice about this country and about what happens when you get two opposing sides in America, on any subject frankly. And the idea of putting this not just flawed but impossible protagonist at the middle of it is just completely genius. I felt I had something to bring to it that was unique.
“My love for finding empathy and voice in untenable human territory made me determined to force myself on them. I could love nothing more as an actor than one specific challenge, which is finding an empathetic place for a character we would ordinarily have disdain for, and Alexander happens to love that, too. Alexander, Jim (Taylor) and I have the same sensibility and that’s a very rare thing to find.”
Studio execs often express dismay at Payne’s unsympathetic protagonists. “My response is always, ‘It hasn’t been cast yet.’ I think it’s the actor who brings the humanity and the sympathy to that part,” he said. “Yeah, of course, how the film is directed and the tone contribute also, but that’s the actor’s job – to bring us a really full human person, and I’d like to think that truth is always sympathetic.”
“And the goal probably isn’t finding the sympathy, the goal is finding a multi-dimensional authentic person,” Dern said. “Everyone is filled with their own dark and light places.”
She said the sensibility she and Payne share derives from their cinema weaning.
“Alexander and I both grew up on the humanist films from the ‘70s. In the ‘70s there was a blossoming of the auteurist view and in the very specific way directors worked with their actors to find a singular voice. I think probably because humanity was the goal. The bottom line is it’s up to your actor to find the humanity in a way that can only happen through behavior. That was the focus those directors had and it seems to be such a focus of Alexander’s work as well.”
Putting Herself On the Line
The only other time Dern’s gone after a role so aggressively, she said, is Rambling Rose. Her commitment to Ruth changed everything.
“Laura’s presence helped finance the film,” Payne said by phone from his Topanga Canyon, Calif. home. Her involvement also lured other cast members. “I know Laura’s presence helped woo Burt Reynolds. These things catch their momentum however they catch their momentum. The script opened doors and then Laura liked the script and then the snowball stated growing.”
Finally, Payne secured the financing, which, he added, “was still hard to get even with Laura attached. This film almost wasn’t made.” He said it was only by the slimmest of margins the money came through.
Few besides Payne and Dern know how close it all came to not happening and how long it took to be realized.
“We finished our first draft in the fall of ‘92 and I wasn’t shooting until fall of ‘95,” he said. “I was so frustrated I left L.A., in a kind of self-imposed exile, wondering, What does it take to get a film made?”
Without Dern the project might have died or at least been delayed and Payne’s dream to direct deferred. When she signed on he recognized his good fortune.
“Yeah, and the exciting thing was that she kind of came after me,” he said. “I had lunch with her and she evinced such enthusiasm for the part and understanding of the role that she was the one.”
To help make the small-budgeted indie pic feasible Dern agreed to work for SAG scale along with everyone else.
“Here she was a big movie star coming to Omaha, Nebraska to play a pregnant drug addict,” he said. “She was getting, I don’t know, four thousand dollars a week or something, so that proved she was there because she wanted to be there. It wasn’t for any other reason than for the pleasure, for the joy of it.”
Said Dern, “We were all there for our passion and it made for an incredibly creative and professional experience for all of us.”
On the set he soon discovered her reputation for putting herself out there, on the line, totally exposed, for her art is well deserved.
“Yeah, that’s where she’s most comfortable,” he said. “She gives one hundred percent to the role.”
A Safe Place
Ruth Stoops is among many roles in which she’s gone to emotional extremes and done provocative scenes. There’s no holding back. No hedging or softening. She lays it all out to see. She clearly enjoys pushing boundaries.
“I mean, for whatever reason it is my favorite thing to do,” said Dern, who won her legal emancipation from her parents at age sixteen in order to pursue her craft full-time. “And I have a feeling that being raised by Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd had something to do with it, both in my film life and in my life. I definitely seek it out.”
Before she can put herself out there she has to feel she’s in good hands. Despite Payne’s inexperience, she felt protected.
“I must say I had implicit trust in him. I never questioned him. I don’t think I ever will. I believed in him and I think like we felt we knew each other, and that’s a bond where you can’t go wrong. That’s some kind of innate knowing. If there was a feeling out process it was really just – What do you like? How do you like to work?
On that level. Just on the day to day things.”
Payne said it’s inevitable a director and a lead actor size each other up.
“Oh yeah, you know I was so happy she was going to be in my movie but still the director thinks, I hope this person doesn’t screw up my movie,” he said. “And the actor might think, Who’s this director who’s going to screw up my performance?”
In their case, he said, it helped that she’d checked his work out.
“She liked The Passion of Martin, my student film, so she did her homework in watching that.”
Still, he was a newbie. He soon found out about her astute grasp of cinema.
“Of course she was justifiably concerned as to who my other partners were going to be – who my cinematographer was, my editor…because that’s the thing, she really understands the filmmaking process and how it’s not just about the actor or the director,” he said, “it’s about everyone involved. It’s such a huge effort. And she really gets all of that.
“So, yeah, she wanted to know she was going to be placing her hard work in safe hands and I think once she felt that, then she was able to give her all. And once I felt she was going to give me what I wanted and even more, then I felt safe, and then we just skyrocketed.”
Dern had a hand in a key crew member coming on board.
“One thing that worked out really well on the film – it both made her feel safe and it began a friendship and a professional collaboration that lasted through three films – is that she introduced me to Jim Glennon, the cinematographer” he said.
Jim had shot her in Smooth Talk, her kind of star-making film, back in ‘85, and she recommended him. I went to meet him, if nothing else just as a courtesy to Laura, thinking, Well, I’ll be able to tell her I met him but I didn’t like him. And I adored him, and so that was a right move in many ways.”
The late Glennon went on to shoot Payne’s Election and About Schmidt.
Payne and Dern meshed in that way only two artists who respect each other can.
“Look, we worked together extremely well,” he said. “It’s one of the richest collaborations I’ve ever had with an actor and I was so happy it was happening on my first feature film. We really got in tune with each other pretty early on and we really felt a partnership.
“I mean, when you make a film your production designer is your partner and your cinematographer is your partner and your editor is your partner. And it’s nice when the lead actor is your partner in the same way and it’s not somebody you have to handle or manipulate or anything.”
For her part, Dern said, “I consider one of the best moments of my life was working on Ruth with Alexander. I had been acting for sixteen-seventeen years. I’d worked with extraordinary people, for sure. I think that speaks so much to his innate abilities and instincts.”
The comfort level she felt with him and Glennon helped her tap into an aspect of Ruth and women like her she feels deeply about.
“One of the things I always loved about Ruth, why I felt like I understood her so completely, was that Ruth isn’t just a character trying to find her voice but she’s a character who doesn’t now she’s entitled to one, and I long to play women who are in that struggle,” Dern said. “I think Rose in Rambling Rose is similar that way.
“And I know they’re the two that have probably penetrated my heart the most as characters I really love and find really relatable for women in this country. I really crave playing women who are on that discovery.”
Mutual Admiration Society
Payne said Dern’s commitment to craft isn’t a self-absorbed ego trip. She’s not just concerned with her own performance but with contributing to a fully realized film.
“She gives a hundred percent to the role and she also is a good kind of team captain for the entire cast,” he said. “The rest of the cast look to the lead actor – how is he or she feeling about the film…and she always had such great enthusiasm and professionalism.”
Payne couldn’t have asked for anything more. But he got it. When he and Kevin Tent were editing the film he got another glimpse of Dern’s cinema savvy.
“She has such a knack for film acting. I mean, many months later when I was editing I would talk to her by phone or she would come by the cutting room and I’d say we’re cutting a scene a certain way or she’d see how a scene was cutting and she’d say, ‘You know, I think in that shot on take three I did something kind of interesting. You might want to take a look at that.’ She had a prodigious memory for what she did in what scenes and what other actors did.
“I’ve read recently about her performance in Recount. That she would do many scenes three ways – underplayed, over the top and then kind of neutral, so that Jay Roach, the director, would have choices to calibrate her performance in the cutting room. And that’s just like textbook Laura. She understands film to the nth degree. She knows it’s about editing and she gives you choices in editing.”
Payne went on to have the same experience with Jack Nicholson on Schmidt.
“Oh, yeah, that’s the kind of actor you want. Everyone has to understand it’s not about what happens on set, it’s about what you harvest on set to get to the cutting room.”
For Payne, Dern’s enduring gift was the example she set “that one can work the way one wants to, which is with a real sense of partnership with the lead actor,” he said. “That it really can be the way it should be. And have fun. I mean, we all had a really good time making Citizen Ruth. A really good time. She’s a blast. I’d like to think it set a tone for what the rest of my films have been.”
Both would like the opportunity to work together again.
“We’ve definitely talked about,” Dern said.
“I’d love to work with her again but I haven’t had a part for her,” said Payne, who doesn’t know yet whether his upcoming film, Downsizing, may include a role for her. An original screenplay written with Jim Taylor, Downsizing’s described by Payne as “a large-scale, possibly ‘epic’ comedy that uses a science-fiction premise as a way to paint a fairly large satiric mural of today’s world.”
Just as Payne surrounds himself with a family of film artists on project after project, Dern enjoys longstanding collaborations.
“I’m a big believer in it and I feel like I have found a tribe of people I’ve worked with over and over again, someone who gets you, and you feel like you can do your best work with someone who gets you.”
The two know each other so well, he said, he’s not preparing copious-James Lipton notes for the Holland event but rather winging it. “I mean, look, all we have to do is start talking and it’ll all come out.” Maybe he’ll wear his lucky Ruth pants, white jeans whose pants leg was torn by a dog that bit him on a location scout.