Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Payne:
An unexpected congruence
Been revisiting the work of the late Stanley Kubrick. While I’ve always regarded him as a true master and genius of cinema, my appreciation for just how far ahead he was of his times is deeper than before. He may be the boldest independent filmmaker to ever come out of America. When the Hollywood studio system still had an iron grip on the industry, as an outlier totally outside that appratus he went ahead and taught himself filmmaking, got his work distributed and within a few years Hollywood came knocking at his door. He did this long before John Cassavettes. He did it long before there were film schools. He forced himself into the world cinema ranks without the benefit of having come up through the studio system or having a mentor or working in television or theater. He just made himself into a filmmaker through sheer will and talent. He eventually entered a longterm contract with Warner Brothers that gave him remarkable freedom to make fllms on his terms with little or no interference from the suits. It’s the same kind of arrangment Woody Allen later struck and still enoys today. But what got Kubrick noticed by the studios in the first place were doc projects he audaciously made on his own, “The Day of the Fight” and “The Flying Padre,”followed by two narrative features he also made on his own, “Fear and Desire” and “Killer’s Kiss,” thus proving he could produce and direct as good a B picture as any of the studios. Whereas making commercially viable films outside the system is fairly routine today, doing so in the late 1940s-early 1950s as he did was unheard of. It helped that this once prodigy still photographer had done photo essays for Look Magazine. He was a brilliant visualist and storyteller and an astute cinephile, He learned pracitically everything he needed to know to be a filmmaker through his photography work and watching movies Of course, someone like Kubrick or Alexander Payne doesn’t just watch a film, at least a compelling one, they analyze and absorb it. Their insatiable intellects make a study of everything that falls in their gaze.
In his early 20s, Kubrick rented a motion picture camera and shot those two documentary shorts with it, both of which he sold. Then came the two indie features. Neither is very good but each shows the filmmaker’s great eye for composing beautifully lit and evocative shots and for handling complext movements and actions. An indie distributor saw the first feature and got it seen in art houses. United Artists took interest in the second and offered Kubrick a deal to make a feature for them, which became “The Killing,” his inventive and effective racetrack heist picture that marked him as a serious talent. That led to his first masterpiece, the brilliant anti-war film “Paths of Glory.” It marked his first time working outside the U.S. and with a major star, Kirk Douglas. “Killing” and “Paths” displayed his sardonic sensibilies, visual poetry, precise compositions and facility for authenticity, all of which became trademarks for his subsequent work. Kubrick’s first full foray into big Hollywood studio filmmaking came when Douglas asked him to helm “Spartacus” after firing veteran A-list director Anthony Mann following the first few days of production. It was Kirk’s project. Just as Douglas clashed with Mann, he did with Kubrick, who hated being a director for hire without final say – a position he vowed never to be in again and he wasn’t – though the well received project did boost his standing in the industry as a bankable artist. His next two projects, “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove,” were completely different than any American films of that era in their incredibly frank, intelligent and satiric treatment of very sensitive subjects that in less hands would have fallen flat or rang dishonest or been ridiculous.
And then he changed the face of cinema for evermore by making his most ambitious film to date, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Before “2001” the best sci-fi film was “Forbidden Planet,” a very serious, big-budget project that I adore but that when compared to Kubrick’s work is a naive and simplistic cartoon. Outside the U.S. Fritz Lang made a German masterwork in “Metropolis,” but we’re confining this discussion to American films. Kubrick raised the genre to heights never before seen or imagined and arguably never since surpassed. It is a work of art unfraid to tackle the biggest questions concerning life on Earth, the universe and eternity. Which brings me to Alexander Payne and a certain congruence between his work and the work of Kubrick.
In rewatching Payne’s work to prepare for the release of the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” I realized that they are twinned satirists who insistently tweak, challenge, subvert and decry the worst in humankind yet offer a glimmer of hope in the end, though Kubrick’s endings are decidedly less hopeful and more pessimistic. But these artists’ work definitely shares an affinity for the ambiguous, complex and dual natures of people. They both dislike authority, exploitation, manipulation and dishonesty. Their films seamlessly juggle mulitple storylines. Their films also share the keen sense of observation that comes from analytical and intuitive minds that place us as viewers at a distance that keep us intellectually and emotionally involved without indicating too much what we are to feel. They each respect us enough to let us glean what we will without beating us over the head with cues. Visually. Payne is not at Kubrick’s level, at least not yet, though his compositions, cutting and visuals have become more and more cinematic, rhythmic and poetic. And where Kubrick was making and in many cases reinventing highly evolved genre films right from the start (“Day of the Fight” is a boxing film, “Fear and Desire” is a war story, “Killer’s Kiss” is a suspense film, “The Killing” is a heist pic, “Paths of Glory” is a war story, “Spartacus” is a historical epic, et cetera),
Payne has not worked in hard and fast genres, except he calls everything he makes a comedy. “Citizen Ruth” is a social satire about abortion and a lot of other things. “Election” is a high school comedy about blind ambition and mid-life crisis. “About Schmidt” is a personal dramedy about identity crisis. “Sideways” is at once a buddy pic, road flick and love story. “The Descendants” is a family dramedy about infedlity, loss and love. “Nebraska” is an elegaic tone poem about aging, family and community. The film he still has in production “Downsizing” is, whether he agrees or not, a sci fi film that not unlike “2001” takes on major social, politcal, cultural, philosophical and spiritual topics. It’s also a love story. Payne has always talked about wanting to work in genres and this may be his first venture there, though this is a terrestrial story, not an extratereistrial tale. No spaceships or monoloths or Star Child or self-aware Hal compiuter here. However, the entire plot does hinge on speciulative new technology that makes it possible for humans to downsize or miniaturize themselves to a few inches tall and much of the story unfolds in the hypothesized Small World. There’s yet another fictional world depicted, this one akin to a Middle Earth, that also has a major role in what reads like a post-modernist fable. I am not suggesting that Payne’s “Downsizing” will be the cinematic landmark that “2001 was but then again, maybe, just maybe, it might be. I, for one, can’t wait to see.
Of course, Kubrick considered more big ideas in his subsequent genre films “A Clockwork Orange” (sci-fi), “Barry Lyndon” (historical epic), “The Shining” (horror), “Full Metal Jacket” (war) and “Eyes Wide Shut” (love/relationships). Perhaps Payne will get around to that Western he’s long talked about and, who knows, maybe he’ll try his hand at a war film or an historical drama. Whatever he does, you can be sure it will be done with ultimate care, rigor and agility. Just as Kubrick’s body work by his seventh film already made him a world cinema giant, Payne is at that same point, too. In fact, Payne’s first two features were far stronger than Kubrick’s. You might argue that Kubrick’s next few films on through “Strangelove” were somewhat more impressive than Payne’s work from “About Schmidt” on through “Nebraska.” By that mean, Kubrick’s work was also visionary and unconventional and groundbreaking. I can’t say that for Payne’s works, although within the conventions he works in his work is unmatched. And then Kubrick went to a whole other level with “2001.” Something tells me Payne will do the same thing with “Downsizing.”
NOTE: My Alexander Payne book releases Sept. 1 but now through August 27 it can be purchased at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street in Omaha’s Old Market. It lists for $25.95. Or you can pre-order a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.
Do any Alexander Payne films rate among 100 Greatest American films ever made?
So, when the American Film Institute (AFI) gets around again to naming the 100 best American movies of all time along with the 100 best American comedies of all time, will any Alexander Payne films make the list? After recently rewatching all his work and putting together the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” I would hazard to guess that enough time may have passed by now for as many as five of his films to crack these lists, though another decade or so may make the case better for some of them. In the Greatest movies category, I can make a great case right now for any or all of the following: “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” though I think the most likely of that group to be so homored is “Sideways.” Personally, I think the most deserving is “Nebraska.” When I review the current AFI Greatest rankings, there are several movies that to my tastes anyway have no business being there, including “Ben-Hur,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Swing Time,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Easy Rider,” “Titanic,” “All About Eve” and well a whole bunch more. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all fine films. But do they rise to Greatest ever heights? Let’s just say that on my Greatest list I would change out about half of the entries in the AFI list for other films I regard as better works. I definitely rate any of the Payne films I nomianted as Greatest candidates above the pictures I singled out here. I see that “The Last Picture Show” is on the AFI list, and while I admire the movie, I don’t think it’s as good as Payne’s “Nebraska,” another black and white, small town elegy story. There are very few comedies on the Greatest list and once again i would rate any of Payne’s comedies, with the exception of “Citizen Ruth,” right there with “The Apartment,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie,” “The Graduate,””Duck Soup,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “City Lights,” “Modern Times” and “The General,” and I am a great admirer of all those films.
Looking over the AFI Greatest Laughs list, any or all of Payne’s films deserve a spot there. For many Payne buffs, his best comedy to date is “Election” and it certainly belonsg among the best screen comedies. Based on sheer fillmMaking and cinema as art consideratons, only a very few on the AFI list can match or exceed his work in my opinion, and that would be “Dr. Strangelove,” the aforementioned Chaplin films, Keaton’s “The General” and “The Navigator,” Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” James L. Brook’s “Broadcast News” and the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo.” If you’re grading purely on comedy or laughs, well then several films may be funnier than Payne’s comedies, such as “The Producers” or “There’s Somtething About Mary” or “Animal House” but of course his movies don’t only operate as comedies. Indeed, they are as much dramas as comedies because he applies a sharp satiric lens to everything he looks at and he focuses that lens on some very tough subjects. Abortion. Addiction. Infidelity. Loneliness. Alienation. Identity crisis. Aging. Death. With his new film “Downsizing” he’s tackling even deeper, darker subjects. For my tastes anyway, his comedies are among the richest and most satisfying ever made for these very reasons. In this sense, he shares much in common with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Frank Capra, Ernest Lubisch and Billy Wilder from the Golden Age of Cinema. Part of the fun of fillm is that everyone sees everything so differently.
NOTE: My Alexander Payne book releases Sept. 1 but now through August 27 it can be purchased at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street in Omaha’s Old Market. It lists for $25.95. Or you can pre-order a copy at email@example.com. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.
Get your copy of the new “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” @ July 21 event
Very pleased to announce the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” releases September 1. You have an early bird opportunity to buy the book and get it signed by me at a film program I am moderating that features Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore on Thursday, July 21 at 7 p.m. at KANEKO.
See details below or link to more info, at–
Strong praise for”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” –Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)
“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” charts the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s rise to the elite ranks of world cinema. Articles and essays take you deep inside the artist’s creative process. It is the most comprehensive look at Payne and his work to be found anywhere. This new edition features significant new content related to “Nebraska” and “Downsizing.” We have also added a Discussion Guide with Index for you film buffs and students. The book is also a great resource for more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine. The book releases September 1 from River Junction Press.
The book sales for $25.95.
For inquiries and pre-orders, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light
Thursday, July 21 @ 7 p.m.
KANEKO, 1111 Jones St.
Tickets $10 General Admission. FREE for KANEKO Members
KANEKO hosts Academy Award winning director of photography Mauro Fiore for an audio-visual presentation exploring his career. Fiore’s filmography as a DP includes “Training Day,” “The A-Team,””Avatar” – for which he won the Oscar for Best Cinematography – and more recently “Real Steel,” “The Equalizer,””The Kingdom” and “Southpaw.” The Hollywood veteran is recognized for his skill with stylized light and realism. He’s collaborated with such major directors as Joe Carnahan, Michael Bay, James Cameron, Peter Berg and Antoine Fuqua. He and Fuqua have teamed on five features, the latest of which is the soon to release remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Fiore very much sees himself as a storyteller working in light and image to fulfill the vision of the writer and director.
The July 21 discussion will be moderated by yours truly. As an author-journalist-blogger I bring years of experience writing and reporting about film to the moderator’s chair.
Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light is a part of the Storytelling season at KANEKO June 3 – August 27. Learn more about the Storytelling exhibitions and programs at–
Hope to see you there.
Alexander Payne’s breakthrough satire Election is one of the entries in the Film Streams series Hollywood Does Politics. Election is also the film that began my association with Payne. As a film programmer in Omaha I had screened his student thesis film The Passion of Martin. His talent was obvious. I next encountered his work as a film consumer when I went to go see his feature debut Citizen Ruth at the Dundee Theatre. But the first time I came to him and his work as a journalist was with Election. I read that he was in pre-production on this comedy set at an Omaha high school and I contacted him and we arranged to meet for an interview. We had a very long conversation at McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe. At some point, I believe before we met for the interview, he also shared the screenplay for the film, which he was then getting ready to shoot. The screenplay by him and Jim Taylor was really smart and funny. Sharp observations throughout. A crazy mix of angst, pathos, crisis, obsession and mendacity that somehow totally worked as comedy. I ended up interviewing Matthew Broderick and missed an opportunity to interview Reese Witherspoon as well. That first long interview with Payne, plus my reading of the script and seeing the finished film became the basis for this first story I wrote about Payne. Also informing the story were my having seen Passion of Martin and Citizen Ruth. Here is that story. It is part of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of that book releases September 1.
That first interview happened in the late summer or early fall of 1996 and that first story appeared at the start of 1998. Many more interviews and stories relating to Payne have followed. Too many to count. All the way up through and including his new film Downsizing. That body of work accrued over 20 years is the basis for my book.
If you’ve never seen Election do yourself a favor and go see it on the big screen at Film Streams. It’s playing July 16, 18 and 20. For showtimes and tickets and for the complete series schedule, visit–
Alexander Payne: Portrait of a Young Filmmaker
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in Jan. 22-28, 1998 issue of The Reader
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, thirty six, to this list of native sons and daughters who have 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.”
The Comedy of Imperfection
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 eighteen to thirty four).
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.
Broderick wanted to do Election because it offered a chance to play “a complicated person, and not a terribly charming one,” he said, adding: “I loved the script. For one thing, it was very literate. A lot of scripts are very hard to get through, but this was a very easy read. It was funny and sad. It made me want to know what was going to happen next. Alexander’s very original, I think. He’s a very careful, detailed director. He’s very intelligent. He’s funny, too.” He also liked Payne’s handling of the material, which in lesser hands could easily have been superficial: “He’s sympathetic to the characters, even when they do stupid things. He doesn’t look down on the characters from some kind of higher moral ground. They’re all very human. He doesn’t categorize people. People aren’t either perfect or evil, smart or stupid, they’re all a mix of things.”
But as Payne well knows, some stodgier segments of Omaha don’t appreciate his irreverent humor. Omaha Public School officials were wary enough to deny him the use of Burke High School for Election. The film’s Neo-Peyton Place school scenes were eventually shot (during normal school hours) at Papillion-LaVista High School. Payne resists any suggestion his comic sensibility is vulgar: “I think, for example, that Citizen Ruth has an amoral protagonist, yet it’s a very moral film. The same thing now with Election. There’s a lot of irresponsible and immoral behavior in the film, but I believe strongly that it’s a very responsible and moral film.”
A Hollywood outsider despite still living in L.A. and getting his financing there (he plans moving to New York City by year’s end), Payne dislikes much of today’s nouveau hip American cinema. “Hollywood, in the last few years, has produced films which take the attitude, ‘Oh, isn’t this cool, we have amoral characters,’” he said. “But in completely unredeeming, nihilistic films that simply anticipate moments of violence, rather than being about people in complex ways, I don’t get much out of nihilism.” He finds most contemporary comedies wanting too. “I’m bored with most American comedies because they’re about nothing. The attitude is, ‘Oh, it’s comedy, it’s just fluff.’ But, in fact, comedy should be about something. It’s just another form of communication about experience and emotion.”
Although Payne is generations removed from legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder, with whom he’s been compared, he greatly admires the writer-director’s acerbic, irony-laced style. In preparation for Citizen Ruth Payne screened Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (about an unscrupulous reporter exploiting a human tragedy). One of his favorite Wilder films is the 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Apartment, whose story of deceit in the bedrooms and boardrooms of middle-class America echoes that of Election, only Payne is substituting schoolrooms for boardrooms. “I think The Apartment is sooooo good,” he said. “People remember it as a cute film about a guy (Jack Lemmon) giving his apartment to his bosses for their afternoon liaisons, but you see it again and you have to take a shower afterwards. It’s genuinely depressing. People see Billy Wilder’s work as cynical and dark and all that, but it’s really at the same time loving and playful with people.”
It’s precisely the same balance Payne tries striking. In Jim McAllister, Payne gives us an Everyman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A man mired in a rut and desperate for a change. Payne describes him this way: “He’s a very American protagonist, somehow. Optimistic. Boyish. Idealistic. Naive. And tragic, because he’s in denial about real things going on in his life and how he really feels about things, and it kind of leads to his downfall.”
He could be describing Jack Lemmon’s character in The Apartment, so alike are the two figures. How appropriate then that Broderick, who shares Lemmon’s intuitive grasp of tragic-comic roles, and Payne, who shares Wilder’s penchant for subversive satire, should collaborate on a film resonating so strongly with the Lemmon-Wilder canon.
Payne, along with Taylor, found a kindred spirit in Perrotta as well. “We found in his novel a starting place, a springboard for what we do best as writers together. It’s very, very close to us. And also there’s a certain sadness about the novel, and Jim and I like to extract comedy from sadness and pain,” Payne said, laughing devilishly. “What I also liked about the novel, and I think this was maybe true of Citizen Ruth too, is that people compromise themselves through really, really good intentions. They all think they’re doing the right thing, and they end up getting very. very compromised morally. One other thing it has in common thematically with Citizen Ruth…is that idea of people’s personal-psycho-sexual situations being worked out in a public arena, especially a political arena.”
He said one of the ways the movie differs from the book is its humor. “It’s a lot funnier than the novel. The novel has a lot of humor in it, but it’s kind of more ruminative. Jim and I always go for the laughs.” In adapting the book, he and Taylor, who lives in New York City, ended up “dramatizing things Perrotta only mentioned in passing. We ended up writing a ton of new stuff. We changed his characters’ names. We took a lot of liberties. When you go to adapt a novel you have to forget the novel. You owe nothing to the novel, yet you remain entirely faithful to it somehow in spirit,” Payne said.
Perrotta, whose book is due out in March from Putnam Publishing, said of the adaptation, “I think they translated my work into this other medium in just a brilliant way.” Of Payne, whom he had a chance to observe on the set during a late November visit to Omaha, he said, “He’s incredibly smart. He seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and film that he carries around quite gracefully. He’s so focused and sharp. I think he’s one of these people who really knows what he wants.”
Election, while still in manuscript form, was brought to Payne and Taylor in 1996 by Berger and his producing partner Ron Yerxa. Berger had had his eye on Payne since seeing the filmmaker’s 1991 UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin. After agreeing to adapt Election, Payne said he and Taylor read the book several more times, noting lines, characters and incidents they wanted to keep or expand. The pair worked on the script throughout ‘96 and completed their final draft last spring.
“By the end, as we’re doing more and more rewrites,” Payne said, “the novel didn’t even exist for us anymore because it (the story) became ours. We can’t even remember anymore what’s in the novel and what we made up.” An important structural element Payne and Taylor kept is the book’s multiple first-person narration (It’s worth noting Wilder used narration to great effect in his films). Much of the film is told from the shifting perspective of four characters (aided by diabolically funny voice-overs), each of whom has a different take on their interwoven imbroglios. Perrotta is delighted the multiple narrative survived the novel-to-screen adaptation: “I was pretty sure when the book got optioned that that particular quality would get lost. But amazingly these guys were able to do this very daring screenplay where they have the voice-overs of different characters that in a way mimics the structure of the book. I think they pulled off a pretty amazing technical feat…and were deeply faithful to the book.”
For Payne, co-opting the novel’s narrative motif “offered a very interesting and fun challenge.” He adds, “The film is covered with voice-over (recorded at Omaha recording studio Pisaurus Productions). I love voice-over in films, and there’s kind of a stigma against it.” That stigma is an artificial one imposed by film executives and by “script experts” like Syd Field. Payne disdains the Syd Field cookie-cutter school of screenwriting: “He’s an idiot. I’m still waiting for that first blockbuster Syd Field film script.”
Making it Real
Ever one to follow his own drummer, Payne dismisses the notion films must look or sound a certain way. It’s why he insisted on making his first two features far away from La-La Land. For Election, he wanted a high school as it really looks, not as Hollywood envisions it.
“The high school movies I’ve seen have all been shot in California. They have Venetian blinds on the windows and really beautiful rays of sunlight coming and all the teachers have really good haircuts and all the students are bright, cheery-faced and look like actors out of Central Casting, and it’s hideous. It’s just fake. In Election all the extras are real students and teachers, even some of the leads. The classrooms, unlike ones in those California-filmed movies, are windowless foundation-blocks with fluorescent light overhead. That’s what schools are and that’s what I wanted to capture – the real thing.” Berger said, “Alexander was sort of relentless in his desire for a truthful, accurate portrayal of high school and of people, with no Hollywood Beverly Hills 90210 bullshit. And he definitely got what he wanted.”
Election production designer Jane Stewart (she also designed Citizen Ruth) said Payne was equally exacting in creating visual cues for each character. To express McAllister’s stuck-in-neutral life, she said, a Dundee-area house was turned into his home. “We tried to reflect older values and an oppressive feeling through things like colors and objects.”
Payne’s search for verisimilitude informs his filmmaking. It’s why he doesn’t adhere to trends.
“I take cues from reality, from observation,” he said, “and not from other movies, even though I watch a lot of movies and I’m a film buff and all that. You have to feel inspired about what you write and what you want to commit to film. When it comes to shoot, all your ideas and what you’re trying to capture has to come from observation. And it becomes a little bit like a fun reportage in that way.”
On Election he immersed himself in the rhythms of Papillion-LaVista High School (Carver High in the film). “After the initial couple of weeks, the teachers and students felt very comfortable seeing us around and we felt very comfortable being there,” he said.
A Journey to Cinema
He loves how filmmaking permits him to explore other realities. “What’s fun about that is that you become like a spy and a witness to all sorts of worlds. Suddenly, you have this excuse to visit a place, but really visit it and really hear people talk about what they do. And if you’re curious about the world and about people, it’s just the greatest job to have.”
Long before becoming a filmmaker, his curiosity led him to Stanford University, where his love for languages spurred an interest in Spanish literature and Latin American history. His studies took him to Spain and Colombia, He’s since returned to Spain again and again. He still keeps in touch with friends he made there in the 1980s. After Election wrapped he vacationed with family in Florida before heading to Spain to “bum around.”
Obsessed with cinema since childhood, Payne collected eight millimeter prints of old movies and shot several short films with a used Super 8 camera. He recalls One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a seminal film in his teens and ironically notes it would probably be difficult to get that picture made today (It was, in fact, a difficult sell then too.) However, Payne didn’t touch a camera again until he was at UCLA, which he attended after graduating from Stanford in 1984. Despite harboring a dream to pursue filmmaking, he didn’t take a single film class at Stanford because he looked upon his undergraduate years as a time “to get an education.”
Once he decided to study film, he considered both UCLA and USC, the West Coast’s two most prestigious film schools. The story of why, after visiting each campus, he chose UCLA is classic Payne:
“What I found was that USC was extremely Hollywood-oriented. It’s a private institution and structured very much as a Hollywood feeder school. You have to compete for the privilege of making an advanced film. I saw a batch of those advanced films when I was down there, and they were extremely formulaic and banal. Extremely well-crafted and very watchable, like Hollywood films, but they were about nothing.
“I went to UCLA, and found it much more wild there. It’s a public school. It seemed like a place to be freer and just explore and do what you want. Most of their student films are pretty experimental and unwatchable, but there’s the attitude that it’s one person, one film. At UCLA they popped a Super 8 camera in your hands and said, ‘Go shoot something. We’ll teach you technique later, but now, go fuck-up and just shoot from your gut.’ And you work harder, of course, than you ever worked in your life, like you always do in films.
“They know there’s many people like me who haven’t had access to filmmaking before, and they just want you to come with ideas and experiences. That’s the important thing. It’s such a neat philosophy, but it’s changed since then. Everything has gone to the right in our country, including film school.”
There he came under the influence of top-flight editor Richard Marks (whose credits include the current James L. Brooks film As Good As It Gets).
“My editing teacher and in a large degree my film mentor was Richard Marks. He’s someone who taught me a lot about filmmaking and with whom I still keep in contact.”
Payne’s intense fifty-minute UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, played festivals and pegged him as a real “comer” in the industry. It led to a Universal development deal that eventually fizzled. Later, he teamed with Taylor and together they wrote short films for cable TV. Then they hit upon the idea for Citizen Ruth in ‘92 and, after surviving one dead-end producer, they finally saw the project to fruition. Election should once again prove Payne has delivered on his early promise.
Refining and Progressing
Payne is currently in L.A. working with editor Kevin Tent on Election. He’s also supervising some fantasy sequences (involving pictures in a yearbook coming to life) being filmed by a West Coast animation firm.
MTV Films, which is co-producing Election with Berger and Yerxa’s Bona Fide Films and independent producer Keith Samples, has been lobbying Payne with music suggestions. Payne is adamant about not bowing to MTV pressure. “I’ve been telling them, ‘Wait till we get into the editing before you make any record deals. I have a lot of ideas. I don’t want to just put hit songs in there. I don’t want this film to be a commercial for hit tunes. I think that’s really terrible and actually dates the film.”
Payne insists on creative control and has largely gotten it thus far. He feels the reason he’s escaped studio meddling is because film executives consider comedy somewhat mysterious – “that it has to be a certain way or there’s some magic to it.” Then too his budgets have been small enough so as to keep his films “under the radar” of prying producers. Although the Election budget (under ten million dollars) surpassed that of his first feature, Payne said, “My stuff is still considered risky enough that even though Citizen Ruth was a critical success, I’m still not at the point where I’m demanding anything approaching a big budget.”
He’s at an enviable place now in his career. But even as his reputation grows and his projects increase in scale, he remains close to his by-the-seat-of-his-pants roots.
“Every film I’ve made has been bigger than the one before,” he said. “But I’m always surprised at how similar it (the process) is from film to film. You encounter the same basic filmmaker problems: How to get the actors to do what you want them to do. How to bring out their best with the camera. Hoping it doesn’t rain. Hoping it does rain. Hoping it cuts together. Hoping the music works with it.
“I’ve taken a step-by-step progression and I feel a sense of apprenticeship to the craft. I’m learning little by little. And I think as a filmmaker it’s important to somehow keep in mind that even with all those trucks and all those technicians and all that money being spent, that it’s you with a Super 8 camera. And to keep always an intimate relationship between yourself and what you’re shooting. Don’t let any of that other stuff bother you. The moment before saying, ‘Action,’ look around the set, see where the camera is, and just ask yourself in a split second, Is this really, exactly what I want, even if I’m wrong? Yes. ‘Action.’”
Cut. Print It. That’s a wrap.