Archive

Archive for the ‘Citizen Ruth’ Category

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne


No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.

As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.

I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.

NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A.

Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

 

 

<a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> and <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Alexander+Payne&family=editorial&specificpeople=202578 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Alexander Payne</a>, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

 

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne

Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

 

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> attend 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer Jim Taylorattend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

 

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”

Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.

”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”

As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.

”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”

Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.

”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”

Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.

”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”

Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.

Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”

The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”

He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”

Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”

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.

 

 

Director & Co-writer Alexander Payne with Laura Dern

 

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

 

Citizen Stirrings

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.”

 

Citizen Ruth movie scenes Citizen Ruth 1996 IMDb 6 8 Laura Dern Meet Ruth Stoops One Bad Mother A Pro Laugh comedy

Citizen Ruth movie scenes Three Neglected Gems 36 37 38 Citizen Ruth 1996 Lila Says 2004 Tristram Shandy A Cock and Bull Story 2005
Citizen Ruth movie scenes Citizen Ruth

 

 

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.

In Synch

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.

From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a young filmmaker

November 24, 2011 9 comments

 

 

From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a young filmmaker

© by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Darryl Zanuck. Fred Astaire. Henry Fonda. Dorothy McGuire. Montgomery Clift. Marlon Brando. Sandy Dennis. Nick Nolte. Enduring film icons and Nebraskans all. Now add the name of writer-director Alexander Payne, 36, to this list of native sons and daughters who’ve made their mark in cinema. Born and raised in Omaha, Payne made an impressive feature debut with the funky 1996 abortion comedy,Citizen Ruth, and is sure to make waves again with his second feature, Election, which wrapped shooting in Omaha December 15 and is slated for a summer release.

The made-in-Omaha Citizen Ruth netted wide critical praise for its satiric take on the pro life-pro choice debate, revealing Payne to be a keen social observer with an ironic sensibility. Payne, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, is a gifted artist. He’s smart, witty, confident, yet refreshingly grounded. He knows exactly what he’s after and how to get it. He’s also brash and passionate enough to make delightfully subversive films far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Those who know him admire his agile mind, him unmannered sincerity, his barbed humor.

He has the cachet to make films anywhere, but continues coming back here to shoot his quirky independent pictures. Indeed, he remains fiercely loyal to his hometown, whose currents reverberate deeply within him. “I feel so strongly about shooting in Omaha,” he said. “In nursing and nudging Election along, I made it clear I wanted to shoot here, and the producers said, ‘Well, you can shoot this anywhere.’ But I don’t want to fake it. It’s not the same thing. There’s an atmosphere I want to get and be faithful to — about how people are. I want it to be real, I want it be where I’m comfortable and where deep buttons in me are pressed.”

Election co-producer Albert Berger feels Payne is well attuned to Omaha’s Zeitgeist. “I had never been in Omaha before, but interestingly enough I sensed an attitude that was very much Alexander’s,” Berger said. “There’s a sort of courteous, formal presentation or exterior of normality, with a bizarre, eccentric, biting humor just beneath it, and I saw that time and time again…so I’m not surprised Alexander came from Omaha and he’s making the type of movies he is there. I feel he is very much of that place.”

Payne agrees, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of his sardonic streak other than to speculate: “Maybe historically, the fact the weather is so cruel on the Plains that for survival there’s bred a sense of humor about it all.” If nothing else, his humor is informed by Omaha’s small town-bit city schizophrenia. “There’s always this tight-assed conservative element here that’s very irritating,” he said. “That doesn’t think anything is funny except Marmaduke and Family Circus. But then there’s this whole other Omaha I grew up with of really smart, funny, caustic people.”

His cutting humor has no shortage of targets. In Citizen Ruth he lampooned the hypocrisy of pro life-pro choice extremists. In Election he exposes the hollowness of School-Suburbia USA rituals.

The role of satirist seems to fit Payne well, but he feels his career is too young to assign him a signature style just yet: “I don’t like to analyze it too closely,” he said, “because so far this type of stuff is just what comes naturally to me. And I almost fear that analyzing it too much will make me too self-conscious or make me think there’s no rules. You know? I’m still just figuring it out.”

Election, which Payne and his Citizen Ruth writing collaborator, Jim Taylor, adapted from the soon-to-be-published novel of the same name by Boston writer Tom Perrotta, promises to be Payne’s breakthrough film. Why? Because the material retains the mordant, mercurial sensibility of his debut feature, but is neither likely to be as difficult for its studio (Paramount) to market nor as hard for audiences to stomach as the earlier film was, with its raw-nerve subject matter. Plus, Election stars two young, appealing crossover actors in Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon who should attract the very demographic the film will surely target (ages 18-34).

The film, like the book, revolves around a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Broderick), who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, acts rashly and rigs a student election, setting in motion a series of seriocomic events that change the lives of everyone involved. Broderick should have just the right innocent deadpan persona (like his idol Buster Keaton) for the part. Much of the script’s sly humor stems from normally upstanding folks behaving badly under pressure. As Payne puts it, “All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it’s not as though any of the characters is bad, they’re just doing it all for the first time. They just don’t know any better.”

For all its strengths, Citizen Ruth never quite fleshed-out the title character, Ruth Stoops. Payne and Taylor used her more as a siphon and symbol to comment on the absurd lengths pro life-pro choice activists go to, rather than develop her as a person with complex emotional shadings. Her escape at the end makes a strong statement, but tells us nothing we don’t already know. While it’s hard to believe anyone with a sense of humor could be offended by Citizen Ruth, the film surely put off some viewers who strongly identify with one side or the other of the abortion issue.

With Election, Payne isn’t shying away from skewering more sacred cows, but is mining a richer vein of Americana than he attempted before. Where Citizen Ruth often settled for broad sketches, Election promises to probe more deeply into the lives of characters and the milieu they inhabit. And, at least as scripted, the new film allows room for its protagonists to grow somewhat through their ordeal.

Payne feels Election, with its fuller palette of colors, should prove to be “ a much stronger film” than his first feature. “Citizen Ruth is particular in it’s having fun with stereotypes,” he said. “It’s funny and interesting, but this is a richer piece of material. It’s got a more complex, nuanced human canvas. There’s nothing schematic about it. I mean, once you figure out what’s going on in Citizen Ruth you still might enjoy the film, but you kind of know where it’s heading. This one, you don’t really know what’s going to happen next.” Ask him what Election is all about and he sighs, wearily weighing your question with one of his own: “How to articulate it? I don’t know…It’s very human and it’s very real, It’s about life. It’s like life — I can’t sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can’t be easily summed up.”

Payne doesn’t pander to audiences. His leading characters don’t neatly conform to Post-Modern Hollywood’s idea of winning protagonists. Instead, they’re whimsically, tragically, unpredictably human. And because they’re so authentic they engage us in ways “nice” characters often don’t. Ruth Stoops is a pregnant inhalant addict who’s made a mess of her life and is unrepentant about it. She’s also street-smart and disarmingly honest. Jim McAllister is a philandering hypocrite who takes his hurt out on one of his students. He’s also hard-working and surprisingly vulnerable.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

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

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Matthew Broderick and Payne on the Election set

Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Payne on the set of Election

Reese Witherspoon as the indomitable Tracy Flick

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy and Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister


Kelly Preston and Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth

From The Passion of Martin

When Laura met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne get deep about collaborating on “Citizen Ruth” and their shared cinema sensibilities

November 20, 2011 14 comments

 

 

When Laura met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne get deep about collaborating on “Citizen Ruth” and their shared cinema sensibilities

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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.”

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 and I have the same sensibility and that’s a very rare thing to find.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

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

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Laura Dern and Mary Kay Place

Payne conferring with Dern on the set of Citizen Ruth
Laura Dern as Citizen Ruth.
Ruth Stoops self-medicating.

Payne interviewing Dern on stage of the Holland Performing Arts Center at Film Streams event

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: