Home > Alexander Payne, Alexander Payne's "Sideways", Cinema, Film, Movies, Nebraskans in Film, Sideways, Writing > Hollywood Dispatch: On the set with Alexander Payne – A Rare, Intimate, Inside Look at Payne, His Process and the Making of ‘Sideways’

Hollywood Dispatch: On the set with Alexander Payne – A Rare, Intimate, Inside Look at Payne, His Process and the Making of ‘Sideways’


Hollywood Dispatch

On the set with Alexander Payne – A Rare, Intimate, Inside Look at Payne, His Process and the Making of His New Film, Sideways
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Taking Alexander Payne up on his invitation to view the making of Sideways, his first movie made outside Nebraska, my America West early bird special from Omaha to Phoenix, Ariz. the Monday morning of Oct. 27 I  have plenty of time to think. From Phoenix, I catch a commuter flight to Santa Barbara, Calif., the nearest city to the Sideways shoot and the start of wine country.

In this $17 million project lensed for Fox Searchlight Pictures that began filming Sept. 29 and wrapped Dec. 6, Payne is once again exploring the animus of dislocated characters running away from their problems and seeking cures for their pain.

Coming off About Schmidt, the 2002 hit that played more sad than funny for many viewers, but that garnered critical plaudits, a juried Cannes screening, a handful of Oscar nods and the biggest box-office take yet for any of his films – an estimated $106 million worldwide – one might expect Payne to lighten up a bit.

After all, his films have thus far fixed a withering satiric-ironic eye on human frailties.

Citizen RuthElection and About Schmidt  heralded him as an original auteur, a considered observer and a strong voice in the emerging post-modern cinema.

One only has to recall: paint-sniffing Ruth Stoops, the unlikely poster girl for the embattled-exploitative abortion camps, in Citizen Ruth; student election-rigging teacher Jim McAllister acting out his frustrations against the blind ambition of student Tracy Flick in Election; or the existential crisis of Warren Schmidt, an older man undone and yet strangely liberated by his own feelings of failure inSchmidt, a funny film that still felt more like a requiem than a comedy.

While Sideways will never be confused with a Farrelly brothers film, it’s a departure for Payne in its familiar male-bonding structure, its few but priceless slapstick gags and its romantic, albeit dysfunctional, couplings. Its surface contours are that of a classic buddy movie, combined with the conventions of a road pic, yet Sideways still fits neatly within the Payne oeuvre as another story of misfit searchers.

In Sideways, the search revolves around two longtime California friends, the shallow Jack and the intellectual Miles, who ostensibly set off on a fun, weeklong wine-tasting tour in the verdant rolling coastal hills northwest of Santa Barbara. Their trip soon turns into something else, a walkabout, pilgrimage, forced march and purging all in one, as they confront some ugly truths about themselves en route. The buddy pairing is built on a classic opposites-attract formula.

If, as they say, casting is most of a film’s success, then Payne’s home free. After seriously considering filling the rich parts with mega-stars George Clooney (Jack) and Edward Norton (Miles), he went with “the best actors for the roles” and found perfect fits. Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church (best known for the 90s TV series Wings), is the dashing, skirt-chasing extrovert, a former soaps actor reduced to voice-over work. Now in his 40s, he’s about to be married for the first time, and this inveterate womanizer goes on the wine tour not to enjoy the grape but so he can go on one last fling.

As he tells his well-moneyed bride-to-be, “I need my space.”

Code words for philandering.

Miles, essayed by Paul Giamatti (American Splendor), is the smart, neurotic introvert – a failed writer unhappily stuck as a junior high English teacher and still obsessing over the ex-wife he cheated on. Miles concocts the tasting tour as much to indulge his own seemingly perfect passion for wine, which he still manages to corrupt with his excessive drinking, as to treat Jack to some final bachelor debauchery. When Jack announces his intention to get he and Miles laid, it’s clear that as much as the repressed Miles expresses dismay and outrage at Jack’s libidinous behavior, he lives vicariously through his friend. And as much as Jack is irritated by Miles’ depression, often on the verge of, as Jack says, “going to the dark side,” and by Miles’ warnings that he curb his unbridled sexual appetite, Jack understands his friend’s dilemma and appreciates his concern.

Eventually the two hook up with a pair of eager women whose presence upsets the balance in the buddies’ relationship and redirects the tour. Jack loses his mind over Stephanie, a hottie party girl of a wine pourer played by Sandra Oh, a darling of indie cinema. Longtime companions, Payne and Oh were married in January. Miles tentatively feels things out with Maya, a nurturing waitress and fellow wine buff portrayed by Virginia Madsen, a veteran of features and television.

In classic road picture fashion, the foursome traverse a string of wineries, diners, motels and assundry other stops on the highways and byways in and around Santa Barbara, Los Olivos, Solvang and Buellton. Along the way, relations heat up with the gals before a reckoning – or is it bad karma? – causes things to come crashing down on the guys. Each has his own cathartic rude awakening. A pathetic, repentant Jack goes through with the wedding. A wizened Miles, perhaps finally outgrowing Jack and exorcising his own demons, takes a hopeful detour at the end.

I was about to take my own detour.

During a brief layover in the Phoenix airport, where faux southwestern themes dominate inside and tantalizing glimpses of real-life mesas tease me outside, my fellow travelers and I are reminded of the raging California wildfires when flights to Monterey are postponed due to poor visibility. On the hop from Sun City to Santa Barbara, sheets of smoke roll below us and billowing plumes rise from ridges on the far horizon beyond us.

I’ve arranged for the Super Ride shuttle to take me to Solvang, the historic Danish community I’ll be staying in the next six nights. At the wheel of the Lincoln Town car is James, a former merchant mariner who describes the Marine Layer that drifts in from the Pacific, which along with moderate temps and transverse valleys, makes the area prime ground for its many vineyards.

We cut over onto U.S. 154 and then into Buellton, home of Anderson’s Split Pea Soup, passing an apple orchard and ostrich farm en route to the kitschy, friendly tourist trap of Solvang and its gingerbread architecture. Everything is Danish, except the Latino help. Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch is nor far from here and I’m told the veiled pop star is a familiar sight in town. After settling into a low-rent motel where most of the crew stays, I unwind with a walk through the commercial district, ending on the outskirts of town, where a mini-park overlooks the Alisal River Course below and oak tree-studded hillsides beyond. The brushed, velvety blue-green hills resemble a Bouguereau painting of French wine country. All that’s missing are the peasant grape-pickers. Wildfire smoke filters a screen of sunlight across the hills, obscuring outlying ridge lines in a ragged gray silhouette.

After a Danish repast in the afternoon and a burger-malt combo at night, I make last minute preps in my room for tomorrow, my first day on the set.

Not for this scene, but for others, I stood right behind or beside Payne while he directed
On the Set
It breaks a sun-baked Monday. As I soon learn, mornings start chilly, afternoons heat up and nights cool down again out here. On what becomes my daily ritual, I take a morning constitutional walk to the overlook.At 8:30, the publicist assigned to escort me, Erik Bright, arrives. He sports the cool, casual, hip vibe and ambitious animus of a Hollywood PR functionary, a sort of modern equivalent of the hungry press agent Tony Curtis plays in Sweet Smell of Success. He’s eager to please.We drive directly to the set, the location of which these first two days is the nearby River Course. Once parked, Bright commandeers a golf cart to transport us on set, where a semi-circle of crew and cast is arrayed on a fairway, not unlike painters considering subjects in a park. As we approached at a whisper, a take unfolded. After intoning “Cut” in a businesslike tone, Payne’s band of grips, gaffers, ADs and PAs busily attended to setting up the next take of this scene.Seeing me out of the corner of his eye, Payne halts what he’s doing to come over and greet me. “Welcome,” he says, shaking my hand, before excusing himself to resume work. It’s the official seal of approval for me, the outsider. He seems totally in his element, directing with calm acuity. The closest he comes to raising his voice is when he politely asks the set to be quieted, explaining, “I’ve got to focus here.”

Nearing middle-age, he certainly looks the part of the legendary artist with his intense gaze, his piercing intelligence, his shock of black hair, now peppered with gray, his lithe body, his grace under fire and his immersion in every aspect of the process, from fiddling with props to getting on camera. Then, there is the relaxed Mediterranean way he has about him, indulging his huge appetites for life and film. He burns with boundless curiosity and energy and embodies a generous La Dolce Vita spirit that makes work seem like play. Clearly the journey for him is the joy.

The Producers
By the time I meet the film’s producer Michael London and co-producer/first AD George Parra, a few takes are in the can. The elegant London, often seen on his cell phone, takes a laissez-faire approach to this project. The strapping Parra, often in radio contact with crew, acts as Payne’s right-hand man and gentle enforcer.

“OK, AP, we’re ready, sir. Let’s go. Rolling.” That’s Parra talking, overseeing the production’s moment-by-moment organization, efficiency and schedule. Because time is big money in film, his job boils down to “keeping Alexander on track.”

“What stands out for me is how much he loves the actual day-to-day process of filmmaking,” said Sideways producer Michael London (Forty Days and Forty Nights), “and how much he loves the camaraderie with people on the set. Filmmaking has become this kind of process to be endured. And it’s the opposite with Alexander. He actually loves the details. It’s wonderful – his enthusiasm and appreciation and work ethic. He’s so happy when he’s in his element, and the pleasure he takes out of it is so palpable to everybody. This is kind of what he was born to do.”

Amid the disaffected posturings, digital imaginings and non-linear narratives employed by so many hip young filmmakers, Payne is something of a throwback. Steeped in film history and classical technique, he eschews neo-genre stylistics to storytelling. Rather than bury a scene in sharp camera moves or extreme angles, special effects and draw-attention-to-itself editing, he’s confident enough in his screenplay and in his direction to often let a scene play out, interrupted by few cutaways or inserts. It’s an apt style for someone attuned to capturing the real rhythms and ritualistic minutiae of everyday life.

It’s all part of the aesthetic he’s developed. “Alexander has an evolving philosophy he’s begun to articulate a lot more clearly in the wake of About Schmidt, which is that contemporary movies have begun to focus more and more on extraordinary characters and situations,” London said, “and that filmmakers have lost touch with their ability to tell stories about real daily life, real people, real issues, real feelings, real moments.

“Where most filmmakers would run screaming from anything that reminds people of every day life, he loves the fact you can film every day life and have people take a look at themselves in a different context than what they’re accustomed to. And I think it’s really important and admirable. It’s also a very humble skill.

“Instead of trying to imagine and exaggerate, it’s really just observing. It’s a more writerly craft and a more European sensibility. I think it’s an underrated gift. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to create that kind of verisimilitude on screen. That’s why he’s always at war with all the conventions of the movie world aimed at glamorizing people.”

Lights, Camera…Harvesting

Upon casually saying “Action,” Payne watches takes with quiet intensity, afterwards huddling with actors to add a “Let’s try it faster” comment here or a “Why don’t we try it this way?” suggestion there and listening to any insights they may impart. Reacting with bemused delight to a performance, he says, “That’s funny” or flashes a smile at no one in particular. After announcing “Cut,” he typically says “Good” or “Excellent” if pleased or “Let’s try one more” if not. Takes, which can be spoiled by anything from planes flying overhead and car engines firing in the background to missed cues and flubbed lines to the film running out or a camera motor breaking down, are also opportunities to refine a scene. As the takes mount, Payne remains calm. As he likes saying, “Filming is just all about harvesting shots for editing.”Payne speaks with the actors about a moment when they confront other golfers, going over various physical actions.

“Let’s see how real that feels,” he tells Haden Church, who carries the brunt of the action. “Now, knowing all these options, just follow your instinct. You’re a Medieval knight. Be big.”

“Be bold,” Haden Church replies, before screaming profanities and brandishing his club.

Several times during the two-day golf shoot, stretching from early morning through late afternoon and encompassing several set-ups, the PanaVision-Panaflex cameras are reloaded after their film magazines run out, often spoiling takes. A film magazine has 1,000 feet or 10 to 11 minutes of film. At one point Payne asks for “Camera reports?” and when none are forthcoming calls for “a little tighter” shot. The camera dollies are moved closer. Payne later tells me the shoot was “slightly more unbridled” than normal for him, meaning he shot more coverage than usual.

By afternoon, the sun and heat grow fierce. With little or no natural shade, people seek protection in golf carts or under various flags and screens used to bounce light off actors. Sun screen is liberally applied, and bottled water greedily consumed. Heat-related or not, a camera’s motor gives out, rendering it inoperable. A replacement is ordered.

Payne, who enjoys a sardonic give-and-take with director of photography Phedon Papamichael, says, “I brought you this far, now make it brilliant.”

The DP responds, “I want my second camera back.”

When the situation calls for it, Payne maintains a professional, disciplined demeanor. Setting up a shot, he gives precise directions while inviting input from collaborators, especially Papamichael (Identity), a native of Greece with whom he enjoys a lively working relationship. Papamichael says they take turns getting on camera to view set-ups, each prodding the other with ideas and inevitably admitting, “We pretty much end up where we started.” Before the cast arrives on set, Payne often acts out the physical action himself for the benefit of Papamichael and crew. He checks cheat sheets, including his “sides,” a printed copy of the script pages being shot each day, and his “shot list,” a personal breakdown of what he’s after in terms of camera, lighting, movement, motivation and mood.

Before filming, he often has actors run through scenes in rehearsals. Sometimes, surreptiously, he has ADs and PAs shush the throng of crew and extras while signaling the cameras to roll, hoping to pick up more natural, unaffected performances that way.

Payne acknowledges Papamichael’s influence on his visual sense: “I’m working with a DP who calls for that [lush] stuff more easily than my previous crew did. Sometimes, early on, I would say to him, ‘It’s too pretty,’ and he’d go, ‘No, it’s just another side of yourself you’re afraid of.’ So, what the hell, it’s another side of myself and I’m just going with it.”

Papamichael’s also pushed Payne, albeit less successfully, to steer away from his favored high camera angles to more eye-level shots.

“He was accusing me the first couple weeks of always wanting to go high, as though I’m God or something, to look down on characters,” Payne said. “I don’t know, sometimes I get bored looking at people straight-on, so I go higher or lower. It just makes the angle more interesting to me, unless I’m missing something unconscious in myself about some hideous superiority complex.”

Papamichael, a favorite cinematographer of Wim Wenders, is working with Payne for the first time though they’ve known each other for years. The cinematographer said it takes awhile for a director and DP to mesh but that “every picture finds its own language pretty quickly. You can sort of talk about it in theory, but then very often it happens. The picture will sort of tell you what needs to be done. This show has not had the extent of coverage and camera movement we usually have on shows because we’re playing a lot of things in-close and letting the actors operate within that frame. It sort of seems to be playing better with simpler shots.”

During a lull, I learn from London and Payne that the owner of a location slated for use in the film is refusing to honor a signed agreement, thereby trying to hold up the production for more money. London slips off to deal with the problem.

Michael London Picture
Producer Michael London

Lunch break finds cast and crew descending on base camp a few blocks away. Here, the caravan of Sideways trailers and trucks are parked, along with a mobile catering service doling out huge varieties of freshly prepared food. An American Legion post hall serves as the cafeteria, with people sitting and eating at rows of long tables.

After eating very little, Payne said, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my nap,” a daily ritual he’s followed since Election.”

Tuesday is a reprise of Monday’s heat, schedule and location.

Payneful Reality
That night, I interview Payne over dinner at the Los Olivos Cafe, an intimate spot reeking of laid-back California chic and, de rigueur for this region, an extensive wine list. It’s where the film shoots the next three days. As usual, his careful attention to my questions and to his answers is surprising given all that’s on his mind. Like any good director he has the gift for focusing on whomever he’s with and whatever he’s doing at any given time.

Nothing’s too simple or small to escape Payne’s attention, “Well, all I can say is details are everything. I don’t really conceive of broad strokes. If you’re kind of operating from a type of filmmaking that sees art as a mirror of life and film as the most capable and verisimilar mirror, than you’ve got to pay a lot of attention to details, and I kick myself when I miss them.”

For him, it’s a philosophy that informs, at the most basic level, the very nature of his work.

“You want things to ring true to the audience, and you want to inspire in the audience what literature does and what poetry sometimes does, which is the shock of recognition – having something pointed out to you which you’ve lived or intuited or thought on an unconscious level and suddenly the writer brings it to your consciousness. I just love that: the recognition of until this moment, of an articulated truth. I’m not saying my films are doing that on a very profound level, but at least in the minutiae I want those things right. Again, it’s all about the details, and a lot of times story operates within those details. I don’t know if it’s just story, because I’m acting instinctively, but it’s probably all these things – story, character and then the texture of the reality you’re recreating, presenting.”

In pursuit of the real, Payne vigorously resists, or as London puts it, “crusades” against the glam apparatus of the Hollywood Dream Factory. “You have to fight a couple things. One, is the almost ideology – it’s that deeply entrenched – in American filmmaking that things have to be made beautiful … more beautiful than they appear in real life in order to be worthy to be photographed, and I just oppose that,” Payne said. “And you have to really oppose it intensively because there are people around you, hired with the best of intentions … who are trained to brush lint off clothes, straighten hair, erase face blemishes, and I just think, ‘Why?’ And then you have to fight against Kodak film stock – we’re mostly shooting Fuji on this one – and against lenses that make things look too pretty.

“Now, having said that, this film is going to be a lot more beautiful than my previous films have been because of the locales. It’s pretty. And it’s a bit more of a romantic film, at least it’s kind of turning out that way.”

Dailies from the first few weeks of shooting confirm a warm golden hue in interior and exterior colors, which may come as a relief to critics who’ve decried the heretofore dull, flat, washed-out look of his work.

Not to be confused with dramadies, a hybrid form languishing in limbo between lame comedy and pale drama, Payne films resemble more the sublime bittersweet elegies of, say, James L. Brooks and the late Billy Wilder. Like these artists, he does not so much distinguish between comedy and drama as embrace these ingredients as part of the same flavorful stew, the savory blending with the pungent, each accenting the other. With the possible exception of Schmidt, which as London said – in paraphrasing Payne – “defaulted to drama,” Payne films use comedy and drama as intrinsic, complementary lenses on human nature.

“I don’t separate them. It’s all just what it is,” Payne said. “I tend to make comedies based in painful human situations that are filled with ferocious emotions. I find ferocious emotions exciting. The actor and director have to trust the writer that the absurdity or the comedy is there in the writing. You all know it’s there, but you don’t play it.

“Sometimes, I think, in my films I’ve so not wanted to play the comedy of it that it gets too subtle, where then people don’t get that it’s funny. I mean, some do, like my friends. Like I think people tookAbout Schmidt much too seriously sometimes, and I don’t know if it’s because they’re Americans and Americans are literal and non-ironic, or what. I’m also afraid of being too broad … of having caricatures. Not so much on this film, but on previous films.”

It should come as no surprise then that Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor, with whom he adapted the Sideways screenplay from the unpublished Rex Pickett novel of the same name, draw on characters’ angst as the wellspring for their humor since tragedy is just the other side of comedy, and vice versa.

Payne’s finally leaving Nebraska to film was inevitable.

Tempted as he is to go elsewhere, including his ancestral homeland of Greece, he said, “I don’t think I would have been prepared to shoot in California or anywhere had I not first shot in Nebraska.”

Despite proclamations he would not film here again for awhile, he may return as soon as next fall to direct a screenplay set in north-central Nebraska. It, too, is about a journey. It chronicles an old man under the delusion he is a winner in the Ed McMahon sweepstakes. Enlisting his reluctant son as his driver, the man sets off on a quest from his home in Billings, Mont., to claim his “winnings” at the home office in Lincoln, Neb.

Along the way, the two get sidetracked — first, in Rapid City, S.D., and then in rural Nebraska, where the codger revisits the haunts and retraces the paths of his youth, meeting up with a Jaramusch-esque band of eccentric Midwesterners. Payne plans shooting in black-and-white Cinemascope.

“I’m happy to come back to Nebraska,” he said, adding, “You know, I feel like Michael Corleone – every time you try to get out, they just pull you right back in.”

Payne’s clearly here to stay, just as his connection to Nebraska, where he may direct an opera, remains indelible. After dinner he gives me a ride back to my motel in his new white convertible sports car, handling the curves with aplomb.

The Macro and the Micro
There’s an ebb and flow to a working movie crew. Everybody has a job to do, from the Teamsters grips and gaffers to the ADs and PAs to the personal assistants to the heads of wardrobe, makeup, et cetera. As a set-up is prepared, a flurry of activity unfolds on top of each other, each department’s crew attending to its duties at the same time, including dressing the set, rigging lights, changing lenses, loading film, laying track, moving the dolly.Amid all this movement and noise, Payne goes about conferring with actors or discussing the shot with his DP or else squirrels himself away to focus on his shot list. A palpable energy builds  until the time shooting commences, when nonessential personnel pull back to the sidelines and calls for “Quiet” enforce a collective hush and rigid stillness over the proceedings. As the take plays out, an anticipatory buzz charges the air and when “Cut” is heard, the taut cast and crew are released in a paroxysm of relaxation.Chalk it up to his Greek heritage or to some innate humanism, but Payne creates a warm, communal atmosphere around him that, combined with his magnetic, magnanimous “je ne sais quoi” quotient, engenders fierce devotion from staff.Evan Endicott, a personal assistant and aspiring director, said, “I really don’t want to work for anyone else.”

Tracy Boyd, a factotum with feature aspirations, noted, “Alexander always pays attention to the process of the whole family of collaborators that go into making the film. His sets reflect a whole lifestyle.”

My challenge proves staying out of the way while still watching everything going on. The first couple of days, I sense the crew views me as a curiosity to be tolerated. I feel like an interloper. By the end of my stay I feel I blend in as another crewmate, albeit a green one. I become one with the set.

Payne periodically comes up to me, asking, “What do you find interesting?” or “Are you getting what you need?”

I tell him it’s all instructive – the waiting, the setups, the camera moves, the takes – fun, fascinating, exhausting, exhilarating all in one.

Wednesday morning Erik drives us, via the Santa Rosa Road, to the Sanford Winery, a rustic spot nestled among melon fields and wildflower meadows on one side and gentle hills on the other. The landscape has a muted beauty. The small tasting room, with its Old Westy outpost look, and its charismatic pourer, Chris Burroughs, with his shoulder-length hair, Stetson hat and American Indian jewelry, appear in a scene where Miles tries educating Jack about wine etiquette, only to have his buddy commit the unpardonable sin of “tasting” wines while chewing gum.

Sanford is famous for its Pinot Noir, the variety about which Miles is most passionate about.

It was here and at other wineries Payne visited in prepping the film that he, like Pickett before him, discovered California’s wine culture. On our visit, it isn’t long before spirited discussions ensue between Chris and customers on the mystique of wine characteristics, vintages, blends, trends and tastes.

Rejoining the production, I’m deposited in the town of Los Olivos for three days and nights of shooting in and around the Los Olivos Cafe. Space is tight inside the eatery, with crew, cameras, lighting and sound mixer Jose Antonio Garcia’s audio cart crammed around the fixtures. For this sequence, which finds “the boys” meeting two women for a let’s-get-to-know-you dinner and drinks icebreaker, Payne breaks up the shooting into segments – from Jack forcing Miles to screw up his courage to their entrance to joining the girls at the table to the foursome exchanging small talk. Payne later pulls the camera in tight to pick up a series of reaction shots and inserts for his “mosaic” of a montage that will chart the progression of the evening and of Miles’ panic. As this is played without sound, Payne directs the actors as they improvise before the camera, tweaking things along the way. Much attention is paid to the moments when the drunk Miles shambles off to the rest room and, slipping over “to the dark side,” detours to a pay phone to make an ill-advised call to his ex-wife, before arriving back shit-faced.

Like any experience bringing people together in a close, intense way, a film set is replete with affairs and alliances emerging from the shared toil and passion. Cliques form. Asides whispered. Inside jokes exchanged.

Payne and his new bride, Oh, one of Sideways’ two female leads, manage being discreetly frisky. While he shows remarkable equanimity in interacting with everybody, he keeps around him a small stable of trusted aides in whom he confides.

Parra is one. For the soft-spoken Parra, who’s worked with Payne on all his feature projects, Sideways is a golden opportunity toward his ultimate ambition of producing. The two have an easy rapport. Parra said of Payne, “He’s kind of calm, no-nonsense. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s real clear. He thinks things through and figures it out, and I love that, and that’s the way I am, so it works really well. It’s great to facilitate his needs as a director.”

Script supervisor Rebecca Robertson-Szwaja, a Payne regular since Election, said, “I think on the one hand there’s a lot of fun on his shows, yet people are very focused. So, there’s that dual edge of relaxed and playful but absolutely serious. You definitely want to make sure you do your work well because you respect him.”

Set dresser Cynthia Rebman, working with him for the first time, added, “In feature films the director really does set the tone…All the way from Alexander and Michael London to line producer and first AD George Parra, this is an exceptionally well-adjusted,  highly professional crew. Several of the people have worked with Alexander on several projects, which doesn’t surprise me because he instills a certain sense of loyalty just in the way he conducts himself and in the way he treats people.

“He’s paying attention to every detail in every department and quite often directors don’t bother…even all the way down to introducing himself to the background extras and discussing with them what the scene is about. It’s a genuine pleasure, because then you feel like you’re contributing and your contribution is appreciated.”

Sardonic Tracy Boyd, called “factotum” for his wide-ranging roles, admired how Payne’s process is inclusive of the entire “family of collaborators.”

Earnest young personal assistant Evan Endicott is, like Boyd, an aspiring feature director. He told me one night at dinner why he doesn’t want to work with anyone else besides Payne, “He takes risks. He’s willing to show humanity in a way that few comedy directors do, especially these days. There isn’t a lot of artifice in his work. It’s very hard to be that honest about human beings. Then there’s the control he takes and the attention to detail he gives, whether it’s what sneakers a character is wearing to the location he’s gone and scouted himself to the lines coming out of the actors’ mouths to each camera shot. That takes a lot of commitment and it’s not that common anymore. I came out here to be a writer and he has inspired me now to be a director,” Endicott said with a gleam in his bright eyes.

Building shots and observing takes, Payne’s focus is seemingly everywhere at once. One day, he adjusts bits of business the actors do in a golf sequence and, later, he runs flat-out down a fairway to tweak the placement of a golf cart or the action of an extra. Another day, he obsesses over stemware and wine in a cafe dining scene, making sure the right number of glasses are placed in frame, the correct red or white is poured and the right amount is consumed. Often times, he rearranges extras in the background, even feeding them back stories on the spot, or quickens the pace of line readings. Always he envisions how each moment will meld and cut together with those already filmed and others yet to be shot. Casting his eye wide and narrow at the same time defines directing.

“Yes, always the macro and the micro,” he said between setups at the Los Olivos Cafe in the prosaic town of Los Olivos, whose actual names, along with every place appearing in Sideways, are used in the film. “You’re always holding two things in mind and on a few different planes. It’s like in painting. You’re here looking at the stroke and it’s not just later but simultaneously that you’re looking at its placement in the entire canvas. Even on the technical side, knowing what the sound is doing, what the film stock is doing, but also emotionally … storywise, what’s going on at once in the many vivisected ways that a director has to think about, and also being surrounded by tons of people yet also remaining alone and watching the movie. Because my only job is to SEE the movie. I’m the only one who this entire time is sitting in the theater watching the movie or possible versions of it.”

Unusual for him, he’s also encouraged the Sideways cast to improvise, particularly in a long cafe sequence shot in “little pieces” for “a mosaic” he and editor Kevin Tent will fashion a montage from in post-production this winter.

“I like very controlled shots and really micromanaging performance and camera movement, but it’s also nice to be free and let go and have kind of a documentary approach, too,” he explained.

 

 

The Conductor
My last hours with Sideways are spent watching a Halloween night shoot outside the cafe. A few trick-or-treaters sneak on set. Earlier I said my goodbyes, informing Payne I’ll miss the costume bash he’s throwing Saturday. Like the first two nights here, they won’t wrap until well past midnight.

This is magic time, when everything glows under the glare of movie lights arrayed on rooftops, in a crane’s nest and in the street. The track’s laid. The street barricaded. A phalanx of jacketed crew and extras await cues. Once “Action” sounds, the scene is set in motion. Papamichael, poised over camera, his eye on the viewfinder, is gracefully pushed on the dolly by Tony, the muscular dolly grip, while Don, the focus puller, operates a knob on the side of the camera to keep the image in focus. As the actors make their way from the Saab to the cafe, the whole works move with them, with Payne, the ever-present Parra, Boyd, boom man and script supervisor, scrutinizing the action.

“I always think that when it’s the middle of the night and everyone’s exhausted, that’s when filmmaking is distilled down to its essence,” Boyd said. “All the periphery is removed away, and you’re really just going for it. It’s really quite elegant in a way, even though it’s miserable to get there.”

If there’s a lasting image I take away, it’s Payne, the conductor, orchestrating things with a discipline that invites serendipity.

“Sometimes, I think perfect is the enemy of good,” he told me, invoking a famous saying that encapsulates the story and his approach to it: In going straight-ahead, he’s still prepared to go sideways.

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: