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Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne play catch up 15 years after ‘Sideways’

Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne play catch up 15 years after ‘Sideways’


©by Leo Adam Biga


The August 25 Film Streams Feature VIII Event brought together two old collaborators and friends in actor Paul Giamatti and writer-director Alexander Payne. They worked together on Payne’s 2004 road trip romantic comedy/buddy pic “Sideways,” in which Giamatti co-starred as nebbish Miles opposite Thomas Haden Church as boorish Jack.

All of Payne’s films to date have been about the search for love. Romantic love. Platonic love. Parental love. Brotherly love. But especially self-love. In “Sideways” Giamatti plays a divorced, failed writer who believes the prospect of new love is no longer in the cards for him.  His buddy Jack is a former soap star turned voice actor. The pals are getting away from it all on the eve of Jack’s impending marriage. Miles is geeked out by the wineries and vintages, Jack is obsessed with banging every woman he meets, When Jack arranges a double date with his latest conquest, Stephanie and her friend Maya, Miles is surprised and more than a little frightened to find love stirring once again as he falls head over heels for Maya. She is a reader and a wine lover who respects that he’s a writer and wine aficionado. As their fledgling relationship heats up, Miles’s friendship with Jack is severely tested by Jack’s outrageous behavior  Then, when Miles is implicated in Jack’s duplicitous tracks, he finds himself on the outs with Maya. only to find redemption and courage to follow his instincts in the end.


During Feature VIII at the Holland Performing Arts Center there was much discussion by Giamatti and Payne about the wonderful scene between Miles and Maya talking about their shared love of wine and grapes when they’re really describing themselves. Giamatti refers to that scenes “as the heart of the film.” and he’s absolutely right. That scene from “Sideways” was one of a few samples of Giamatti’s work screened last night. For an actor with such a deep body of work, it’s hard to represent the breadth of the characters he’s played through a handful of clips, but his versatility shined through.

More than once last night Payne referred to Giamatti, even to his face, as “my favorite actor.” He means it, too. Their conversation was pleasant if not revealing. Payne is a great filmmaker but a rather awkward interviewer. In turn, Giamatti is not so great talking about process or method. Or at least he wasn’t last night. The highlight was his very long, involved and hilarious anecdote about prepping to play former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in the TV movie “Too Big to Fail.” The event might have had the disadvantage of this pair actually knowing each other too well and they’re being a little too comfortable with each other and therefore somewhat uncomfortable sharing themselves with an audience. The Film Streams conversation programs would be better served with a professional moderator who knows how to effectively lead with questions and then followup or press for answers. I nominate myself for the job.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the affair was the amount of money raised – a cool half a million dollars – in support of Film Streams, which is coming off its best year after expanding to two sites and ramping up its educational programming.

Copied below is my Reader story that appeared in advance of the Feature Event. In my phone interview with Giamatti I found him to be the same engaging, quirky guy he was at the Holland. He and Payne both indicate a strong desire to work together again and we can only hope it happens. Payne has a script and a part waiting for him when the timing’s right. Let’s hope it comes about sooner rather than later.


Look for my post of the complete Q&A I did with Giamatti in advance of the Omaha event.


Image result for paul giamatti alexander payne


Kindred spirits Giamatti and Payne to revisit the triumph of ‘Sideways’ and the art of finding truth and profundity in the holy ordinary

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (thereader.com)

Go-to character actor Paul Giamatti brings élan to his screen gallery of nerdy sidekicks and beleaguered Everyman types. It’s rare for someone with his hangdog looks to be a romantic interest. But in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), he melts hearts with earnest desire and neurotic angst as lovelorn Miles.

He’s the sad half of a dysfunctional buddy team with Jack (Thomas Haden Church), whose frivolity masks hurt. Their on-the-road odyssey of regret, self-pity and debauchery is tempered by redeeming love. The Indiewood project surprised its makers by becoming a serious box office success and major awards contender.

Payne’s taking time from trying to get a new feature off the ground to join Giamatti for an August 25 public conversation accented by clips. This eighth iteration of the Film Streams Feature Event fundraiser unspools in the Holland Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m.

Sideways, celebrating its 15th anniversary, remains a highlight of the two men’s respective careers.

“It was a gorgeous experience,” Giamatti said by phone. “It was so much fun. It was joyous. And I think the movie feels that way because we were just making a movie for the love of making a movie – and that’s what was great about it. None of us felt we were making anything anybody would even care about that much. We cared about it. So much of that came from Alexander and his simple joy of being with actors and crew.”

By Sideways, each was a name with an identity – Giamatti’s animated sad-sack persona and Payne’s down-but-not-out milieu of misfits and searchers – that meshed well.

These cinema kindred spirits with a gift for understated wit that segues into broad comedy or high drama found themselves at parallel points in their artistic lives.

Giamatti hit his stride as a supporting player in the late-1990s. Payne made some waves with his debut feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), before fully getting on critics’ radar with Election, a 1999 cult classic enjoying retrospective adulation 20 years later. It’s the film that first brought Payne to Giamatti’s attention.

In Sideways Giamatti believably goes to the dark side of longing. Where childlike Jack is all about immediate gratification, reflective Miles broods over losses and Giamatti digs deep to mine this despair.

Giamatii and Church first met in-person on location in Santa Barbara wine country – after breaking the ice on the phone – where they had several days to bond before production began.

“I cast each independently,” Payne said. “But to have them develop some chemistry – because if no one believes the friendship between those two unlikely men then the film would not work – I had them come to location for two weeks before shooting, so we could rehearse together. But, more important, so they could hang out to play golf, see a movie, eat together. And they did.”

In the film the characters get involved with women they betray. Vain Jack, a former soap star, cheats on his bride-to-be with free-spirit Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who  doesn’t know he’s engaged. Nebbish Miles, a teacher and writer reeling from a failed marriage and a book not finding a publisher, discovers in sensitive Maya (Virginia Madsen) a love he didn’t think possible anymore.

Church nails the self-absorbed miscreant Jack. Giamatti is dead-on as the yearning, naysaying Miles who wears his funk like a cloak. But, as Giamatti said, it is Miles who “opens up as a person through the movie in a really lovely, believable way.” Payne intuitively gives Giamatti the camera and the actor’s highly praised performance moves one to tears and laughter.

Giamatti’s work in Sideways established him as a character lead who can carry a film.

Producer Michael London brokered a package deal for the project. He optioned the film rights for the Rex Pickett novel. Payne and Jim Taylor wrote the script on spec. John Jackson cast for fit, not box-office .”Then,” Payne said, “we approached the studios and said. ‘Here is the screenplay, the director, the cast, and the budget – in or out?’ A couple studios said, ‘Why can’t you have bigger stars?’ Fox Searchlight rolled the dice and won.”

Giamatti is grateful Payne didn’t budge.

“He went back to the studio to tell them he wanted me and I think he anticipated he’d get a fight about that and he did get fights. But he stuck by it – me and Tom and Virginia and Sandra. These are the people he wanted.”

The ensemble made magic.

“Fifteen years later that movie is present in people’s minds as if it just came out last year,” Giamatti said. “It’s got amazing power.”

It marked a peak for Giamatti.

“I felt like if I couldn’t act again for some reason, my acting life would have been fulfilled having done this movie because it was such a purely pleasurable experience. Alexander’s a true filmmaker and that’s what makes him special.”

Payne’s admiration of Giamatti, whom he calls “my favorite actor,” runs deep.

“He’s just the perfect actor. He knows all of his dialogue backwards and forwards and can do it any which way – each take truthful, each take different. He could make bad dialogue work. When he read for me, I remember thinking he was the very first actor reading the lines almost exactly how I’d heard them in my head while writing them — and better.”

“He’s just a lovely guy and extremely well-read.”

Giamatti gushes over Payne’s directing methodology..

“He has the exceptional skill of being able to talk to each actor the way they need to be talked to,” he said. “Everybody has different needs or approaches and he is an incredibly sensitive human being to know what each person needs to get out of them what he wants.

“He’s a benevolent dictator as well. He’s in complete and utter control of everything going on, but you’d never know it he’s such a sweet and laid-back guy on the set.”

Then there’s the way Payne engages others.

“What I feel made a huge difference and sets him apart from any other director I’ve worked with,” Giamatti said, “is his choice to not use a video monitor during takes.”

Both men dislike the isolation of actors and crew working in one area while director, cinematographer and producers huddle around a video assist in another area.

Giamatti said Payne “doesn’t have a hierarchal way of thinking.” Thus, everyone’s “on the same playing field.”

“To him, everybody is important, everybody’s a part of the experience. It’s unique. But that’s him.”

It helps, Giamatti said, that Payne “likes actors.”

“I can tell you the experience of being directed by him is amazing because he’s there with you. There’s a lot of stuff where I’m alone in a room in that movie. He would stand there, watch me, and talk to me. The connection I developed with him I’ve never experienced again with a film director. As great as a lot of the people I’ve worked with are, nobody’s ever done anything like that.

“The connection you feel because of that is unbelievable. I love him, I really do.”

The actor’s eager to visit Payne’s home turf and muse.

“Indeed, yeah, I’m very curious to see Omaha and how it has informed Alexander and vice versa.”

Payne may just wing it with him here, saying, “We get along so well, I may not prepare that much. We could go out on stage and just start talking.”

Surprisingly, Sideways is the only time they’ve worked together. They nearly re-teamed in 2008 when Payne first tried setting up Downsizing. He cast Giamatti as the lead, Paul. But the free-fall economic recession put the high-concept comedy on hold. By the time Payne sought financing again the suits insisted on a marquee name to hedge their big-budget risk. Enter Matt Damon.

This Omaha reunion will not be the last time the actor and director collaborate if they have their way.

“I wish we could find an opportunity to work again,” Giamatti said.

“We definitely will,” said Payne, who has a script and part in mind for him.

“I know there is something. but I fear it may not work out. It’s all timing,” Giamatti said, sounding just like Miles.

Film Streams is screening a repertory series of Giamatti’s feature work at the Dundee Theater. On August 26 and 28 Sideways shows at the north downtown Ruth Sokolof Theater. There’s also a second repertory series of favorite Giamatti films not his own.

Visit filmstreams.org for schedules and tickets.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.


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