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Two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

February 10, 2012 12 comments

UPDATE: Alexander Payne has added to his growing legendaric status by picking up his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  He, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash shared the Academy Award for their work on The Descendants.  Payne shared the same award with Jim Taylor for their Sideways script.  It seems only a matter of time before Payne is recognized with a Best Director Oscar.

Here’s a capsule take on Alexander Payne and The Descendants, the latest in the filmmaker’s seriocomic forays into the existential angst, folly, fragility, and yearning of the human condition.  If you’re a fan of Payne, the film, or of cinema in general, then check out the batch of stories on this blog about about him, this picture, his other movies, and a slew of other films and filmmakers from cinema’s past and present.

Alexander Payne In this handout photo provided by NBC, (L-R) producers Jim Taylor, Jim Burke and writer/director Alexander Payne, accept the award for Best Motion Picture - Drama 'The Descendants' onstage during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Jim Taylor, Jim Burks and Alexander Payne accepting Best Picture Golden Globe

 

 

Two-yime Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Until The Descendants opened to golden reviews last fall, seven years elapsed between feature films for its celebrated writer-director Alexander Payne.

The Omaha native and Creighton Prep grad came of age as a film buff here. He made his first three features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) in his hometown, each moving him up the ranks of elite moviemakers. His surprise 2004 hit, Sideways, took him to Southern California’s wine country. The combination road-buddy picture and unconventional love story confirmed Payne as a film industry leading light, earning him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

He then busied himself writing-producing films for other directors. When he couldn’t find financing for his own pet project, Downsizing, he made The Descendants. Before shooting it in late 2010 the only directing he did in this period was a segment of Paris, I Love You and the pilot for HBO’s Hung.

The Golden Globes won by Descendants star George Clooney for best dramatic actor and by Payne and producing partners Jim Burke and Jim Taylor for best drama harbors well heading into the Oscars, where the film will be well-represented with five nominations (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Actor). The three friends share their own production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, which produced the picture for Fox Searchlight, with whom Ad Hominem has a first-look deal. The pic’s strong showing with critics and award shows is reminiscent of Sideways. Like that film, this one took Payne far from the Midwest – to Hawaii. A decade after working with iconic Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt, Payne teamed with another icon, Clooney.

As land baron attorney Matt King, Clooney is a man in crisis. His wife Liz lies in a coma after a boating accident. After years of indifferent parenting he’s suddenly in charge of his two girls. He’s burdened, too, by the valuable land entrusted to his care by ancestors. When his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) reveals her mother’s infidelity, Matt sets off on a journey that begins in retribution but ends in forgiveness. Payne says “two acts of love” are what drew him to adapt the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel.

The story shares in common with Schmidt and Sideways and Payne’s forthcoming Nebraska a beleaguered protagonist trying to mend an unraveling life.

“It’s just the comic archetype Jim Taylor (his producing partner and former co-writer) and I came up with and I’m continuing of the middle-aged guy who’s really unconscious and has a bunch of anguish and frustration in life,” says Payne. “It’s a guy with good intentions but who’s bought the wrong package. I think it’s funny.”

Extracting equal amounts pathos and humor from human folly is what Payne does.

“I’m just always drawn to material that remains human. You don’t need guns and spaceships and great contrivance to have a movie and a meaningful one. I don’t think those elements are necessarily bad – I like movies of every genre, but what I’m drawn to is trying to somehow explore and express and mock the human heart.”

Descendants is being called Payne’s most fully realized work. “I hope so,” he says, adding that any new maturity reflects his more accrued life experience at age 50 and his evolving film craft. Some observers note he seems more comfortable letting tender emotions play out on screen.”Well, that’s what this story called for,” he says. “I mean, it could be a new vein of filmmaking in me or could just be I was serving this particular story as a professional, workman-like director. I have no idea.”

Staying true to his Omaha roots, he attended the movie’s local premiere at Film Streams, where Descendants smashed box office records. Payne enjoys sharing his work at the art cinema whose board he serves on. Before an appreciative crowd of friends and supporters he announced the film was among the highest grossers nationally its first week. By early February its domestic take stands at $66 million-plus, makeing it the top indie flick released in 2011.

Exuding grace and humility, Payne personally greeted audience members before and after the opening night screenings here. In accepting his Golden Globe, Payne deflected praise to cast and crew, to the people of Hawaii and to Hemmings, whose “beautiful gift” of a novel he made his own.

“He made this movie that’s hugely successful and he made sure that success was also Film Streams’ success, and hopefully Omaha’s success,” says Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson. “We had so much fun at the premiere. It was just a blast. I wondered if we should do it at a bigger venue, and he said, ‘We’ve got to do it at our home.’ Getting the exclusive from Fox Searchlight was all him. That was huge for us.”

He’s conquered Cannes, Toronto, New York, Hollywood, but he proves he can come home again. Payne, who keeps a condo here, plans shooting the father-son road pic Nebraska in various Panhandle locales come spring. Home is where the heart is and he’s always happy to return where his cinema dreams were first fired.

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Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants” and how she helped get Hawaii right

January 23, 2012 12 comments

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants and how she helped get Hawaii right

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Alexander Payne‘s turn came to speak in the glow of The Descendants winning best motion picture drama at the Jan. 15 Golden Globes, he made sure to thank the people of Hawaii and author Kaui Hart Hemmings.

He did something few directors do by involving Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, in the adaptation, preproduction and production of the George Clooney-starring film. He’s widely credited her vital role in helping him get a fix on the island state’s particular culture, or as much as a mainlander like himself can attain. For all the time he spent researching, writing, prepping and shooting there, mainly in Honolulu, he never lost sight of being a visitor in need of expert advice.

Of course, the well-received 2007 Hemmings novel is the reason there’s a movie at all. He knows golden material when he sees it and he remained true to the book beyond her expectations.

“I’ve had the privilege of seeing Alexander making this film, from location scouting and casting to directing and filming. His attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions – I felt like I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a good film. Still, I couldn’t prepare myself for how good,” says Hemmings. “It’s a film that sticks with you, teaches you something without being at all didactical. It brings Hawaii to the big screen, something that’s never been done before, in an authentic way. I never insisted on him being faithful to my novel, but he did, and I’m pretty happy about that since it led to results like these.”

His respect for her work and inclusion in his process is why he told a world-wide Globes audience, with some prompting from his Ad Hominem Enterprises producing partner and former co-writer, Jim Taylor, “…thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings – she gave us a beautiful gift.”

“I don’t need the public thank you but…it sure does please the locals. I spent a lot of time with Alexander, the crew and George, so it was just fun times,” says Hemmings. “I’m a big fan of this movie. I have the privilege of feeling like I contributed to it in some way and so it’s nice to be acknowledged.”

In adhering closely to her tale of a good man negotiating personal upheavals, the film’s struck a responsive chord with critics and audiences…

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.

 

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings

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Alexander Payne achieves new heights in “The Descendants”

November 21, 2011 18 comments

 

 

Alexander Payne achieves new heights in “The Descendants”

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

As Alexander Payne‘s new film The Descendants opens in more cities the rest of the fall and into early winter, it will be coming, if it already hasn’t, to a theater near you.  No matter how you feel about his work to date, see this picture.  If you’re not a big fan of his movies, this one may or may not change your mind, but if you’re being fair I think you’ll at least have to admit that it’s a highly accomplished feat of filmmaking.  If you’re already a Payne devotee, then this will be preaching to the choir, but you will see in it his richest, deepest work to this point in his career and further evidence that his maturation as a director is ever growing.

I saw the film for the first time last night (Nov. 20) at Film Streams, the Omaha art cinema whose advisory board he serves on.  Like most in the audience I was not only impressed but moved by The Descendants.  The film confirms Payne is a masterful writer-director whose work continues to ripen from film to film, indicating that his best work may yet be ahead of him.

Below, are some thoughts I intend to bounce off of Payne in a new interview I’m doing with him this week.  I would like to coalesce my thoughts with his comments into a new story before the Oscars.  I will be discussing with him certain aspects of the film, including his striking use of many tight shots, the fluidity of the scenes, his restrained yet glowing treatment of the beautiful Hawaiian environs, his subtle yet emphatic emphasis on the deep currents of ancestry and heritage Matt King feels beholden to, the artful way the dying wife is treated, and the deeply felt performances by George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, and Judy Greer.

Payne seems increasingly comfortable to let emotions play out in extended moments and scenes where early in his career he tended to satirtically deflect or defuse these passages.  He’s also made his scene simpler in the way they are shot.  His transitions from scene to scene are more fluid.  To me, this is evidence of a dawning patience and confidence to let the emotions carry the story and capture the audience rather than to impose some filmic punctuation or comment on the proceedings.

The close-ups that director of photography Phedon Papamichael began getting Payne to use in Sideways are even tighter and more numerous here.  It’s rare for a contemporary film to use extreme close-ups to this extent.  It’s more in line with Old Hollywood.  But it suits this material and Payne and Papamichael and the cast make this stark intimacy pay off with incredibly intimate work that, often wordlessly, conveys deep stirrings of emotion and thought.  There’s no hiding or faking it or throwing it away when the camera’s in that close, and thees moments certify just how good this cast is.  Clooney has never been better.  Woodley is good enough to deserve a Best Supporting Actress nomination.  Forster nearly steals every scene he’s in.  Greer shows many dimensions in a small but telling part.  Everyone is very good.

Then there’s the surprisingly affective performance by Patricia Hastie as Liz,  the comatose wife of King.  The almost entirety of her screen time is confined to lying unresponsive in a hospital bed.  I remember a year and a half ago or so when I first interviewed Payne about the project and his rhapsodic praise for Hastie making her seemingly do nothing part a vital element and her investing everything she had into it.  Until seeing the film I was incredulous to imagine how she could do much to make an impact given the great constraints on her character, but now that I have seen it I understand what Payne meant  and just how present she is in those scenes with characters variously berating her and saying goodbye to her at her bedside.  Hastie took great pains to look like a progressively wasted away human shell who may or may not be able to hear anything being said.

The Descendants is by my estimation and by a lot of people’s estimation Payne’s best film to date.  Critical reception to it is universally positive, and as Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson indicated in some of her remarks last night some of the critical response is flat out ecstatic.  Audience response seems to be the warmest to any Payne film, which is not surprising given its tragic-comic subject matter, but of course it’s the subtle, sure way he and his collaborators have handled the emotionally charged material that is eliciting this overwhelming response.  As he noted himself last night, the film is off to a remarkable box office showing – 10th this past weekend – considering that it is currently in only 29 theaters compared with thousands of theaters for the other nine pictures on the box office rankings list.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF MY ANALYSIS 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 vailable for pre-ordering.

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Phedon Papamichael, Jim Burke and Shailene Woodley discuss working with Alexander Payne on “The Descendants” and Kaui Hart Hemmings comments on the adaptation of her novel

November 5, 2011 11 comments

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, producer Jim Burke and actress Shailene Woodley discuss working with Alexander Payne on “The Descendants” and Kaui Hart Hemmings comments on the adaptation of her novel

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In his well-reviewed new film The Descendants Alexander Payne reframes the Hawaiian idyll as gritty American terrain where history and culture intersect with human aspirations and failings.

The festival favorite follows a Hawaiian clan set askew by trauma, infidelity, greed and legacy. Feeling the weight of it all is reluctant land baron Matt King,(George Clooney), who tries salvaging what’s left of his family and life by practicing forgiveness and finally growing up. Clooney’s called the film a coming-of-age tale for his 50-year-old character and his estranged 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley.

The Fox Searchlight release has two preview screenings Nov. 20 at Film Streams, where the pic plays exclusively beginning Nov. 23.

For this project that’s put Payne back in the game after a seven-year feature hiatus he reunited with producer Jim Burke, who goes back with him to Election, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who lensed Sideways. Payne and Papamichael use Hawaii’s natural beauty to inform its prevailing island insouciance and to counterpoint its hard realities. Burke is a partner with Payne and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Jim Taylor in Ad Hominem Enterprises, which produced the project. Woodley worked with Payne for the first time on the new film.

Descendants also marks the first time since Election Payne’s worked with two young actors in crucial roles in Woodley and Amara Miller as her younger sister Scottie.

“It’s all about casting,” Payne says of getting kids’ parts right. “Shailene is a total pro. She’s on a TV show (The Secret Life of the American Teenager). She’s going places. She’s excellent. Amara, who turned 10 while we were shooting, had never been in anything. She’s just a complete natural.”

Payne collaborated once again with his longtime casting director, John Jackson (an Omahan).

Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, who authored the novel the film’s based on, closely vetted the script at Payne’s request to ensure authenticity and was on set for the duration. She praises his “attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions,” adding that the adaptation “brings Hawaii to the big screen — something’s that’s never been done before in an authentic way.”

Whether bucolic wine country gone sodden or stolid Omaha’s underside revealed or paradise undone, Payne indelibly places broken characters in their milieu. Rather than Hawaii Five-O gloss or native exotic allure, here he focuses on the mundanity of familial disputes, personal tragedies and inconvenient truths. In the Paynsian scheme, life happens messily everywhere and comedy springs from desperate people making mistakes.

Burke says Payne’s deft sardonic touch has, if anything, ripened.

“My feeling is Alexander has made his finest film. It’s sort of a maturation of filmmaker that is actually beautiful to see. Tonally, it still has many of the hallmarks of Alexander’s previous work but it is a bit more emotionally penetrating. I think the stakes are sort of serious in this picture.”

The stakes are high for Payne, too, after being away so long and failing to get his Downsizing project made. He needed this.

“Well, I mean from a straight kind of careerist point of view it’s important,” says Burke, “but that’s not really what he is, he’s more of an auteur. He’s going to make movies when he’s ready to do that and when he’s ready to work on something he feels a connection to, and sometimes that takes awhile.”

Woodley experienced the warm, laid-back set Payne’s famous for. “He really gives you the freedom to express in whatever way you want to,” she says, “and you don’t feel weird being vulnerable around him because he creates such an accepting and open environment.” She says Clooney was equally comfortable to work with and she now regards the two men as her industry “mentors.”

Papamichael says Payne betrayed extra “nervousness” at the start but soon fell into a rhythm. Despite having worked only once before they quickly hit their stride.

“It was pretty instant. We were able to dive right into it. On Sideways it took about 10 days for me to figure out the way he sees things and understands coverage. Sometimes the camera is not as intimate as I’d like to place it. He’s very much an observer — he likes to stay a little wider, a little distant, and I pushed it a little bit and we got in tighter.

“We’re still exploring our aesthetic as our collaboration continues. It’s all very subjective, all very personal. Everybody sees things a little differently.”

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.

 

 

Kaui Hart Hemmings

Jim Burke

Shailene Woodley

Phedon Papamichael

George Clooney

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Hail, hail “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne’s first feature since “Sideways” a hit with critics, and the George Clooney-starring comedy-drama is sure to be awards contender

September 17, 2011 9 comments

Hail, hail “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne’s first feature since “Sideways” a hit with critics, and the George Clooney-starring comedy-drama is sure to be awards contender

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

However you feel about Alexander Payne’s work you must concede the cinema landscape is richer now that he’s back with his first feature since Sideways. That’s certainly the consensus among reviewers who’ve seen his The Descendants.

The September 10 world premiere of the much anticipated comedy-drama at the Toronto International Film Festival officially launched the George Clooney-starring vehicle as a must-see this fall movie season. The film’s screenings in Toronto, where Payne, Clooney and co-star Shailene Woodley appeared, came just a week after a press sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival.

The next big splash comes in October, when The Descendants is the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival. Payne will be on hand, It’s reminiscent of how his highly lauded Sideways and About Schmidt scored major points at prestige festivals. He will aalso accompany his film at festivals in London, Honolulu, Greece, Turin and Dubai.The Fox Searchlight release opens theatrically Nov. 18. Payne will be at special November screenings of The Descendants at Film Streams. Details coming.

Shot in Hawaii in 2010, the film is Payne’s faithful adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. Clooney’s Matt King is a father-husband forced by circumstance and legacy to face some hard truths, such as his dying wife having cheated on him. This rude awakening propels a journey of revenge and reconciliation.

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.

 

 

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller

 

 

Payne and cast at the Toronto International Film Festival, ©photo from TorontoLife.com


  

 

 

Look for My Reader (www.thereader.com) Story on Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ coming soon to this blog

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Check back mid-week for my inteview with Alexander Payne about his new film ‘The Descendants‘ and the warm reception it’s getting

 

 

 

As some of you may know by now, I’ve been covering Alexander Payne for 15 years, completing dozens of interviews with him over that time and being accorded unprecedented access to his creative process. Keep that in mind as news continues to break about his new film because you will be able to find things here and at http://www.thereader.com that you won’t be able to find anywhere else.

This week I will be posting my Reader (www.thereader.com) story about Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, starring George Clooney. The film is getting strong reviews after a Telluride sneak peak and a Toronto world premiere, and Payne talks about the film and its warm reception in my piece, coming soon to this blog.  In the coming weeks and months they’ll be much more about The Descendants and about Payne’s next planned film after this, which he’ll be launching relatively early in 2012.

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to talk shop at Film Streams Feature Event

February 10, 2011 3 comments

Part of the cast of the 2001 film Ocean's Elev...

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UPDATE: So, I went to the An Evening with Steven Soderbergh event that the following post previewed, and it proved every bit as engaging a program as I expected.  Alexander Payne handled the introductions with low-key aplomb.  Kurt Andersen was his usual studied and witty self as the moderator or interviewer. And special guest Steven Soderbergh was cool, intelligent, frank, and surprisingly self-effacing.  He even confirmed reports that have been circulating for awhile now that he plans retiring from filmmaking in a few years.  If he does indeed go through with walking away from his film career, it would be an unprecedented move considering his A-list status and relatively young age — he’s only 48.  He just completed Contagion and he has a couple more projects in the pipeline that he’s obligated to complete, Liberace and The Man from Uncle, but after those, he said, he has nothing more scheduled  to hold him down. He said he’s been turning down every project offered to him for some time.  His reason for wanting to abandon filmmaking?  He said it’s a case of feeling like he is more and more retreading the same ground and he no longer wants to feel trapped into repeating himself. He didn’t say what he might do in place of making films, though there was an allusion by Andersen to Soderbergh wanting to paint and perhaps write.  Speaking of writing, Soderbergh described one of his best decisions as coming to terms with the fact that his best potential lay not in writing films but in directing them.  He started out writing his own scripts, including the project that first brought him fame — sex, lies and videotape.  But he increasingly turned to other writers to flesh out his ideas.  I also discovered that Soderbergh ahas for some time now acted as his own cinematographer and editor on his films, often using a pseudonym rather than taking screen credit under his own name in those categories.  All in all, it was a night of stimulating conversation and judging by the packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center this fund raiser for Omaha’s art cinema, Film Streams, was a resounding success.

Omaha’s downtown art cinema, Film Streams, is presenting a Feb. 20 program featuring one of cinema’s top directors, Steven Soderbergh, who will be interviewed on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center by author-Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen.  Filmmaker Alexander Payne, a friend of Soderbergh’s, is introducing the program.  The event’s a fund raiser for Film Streams.  I didn’t get the chance to interview Soderbergh, which was a bummer, but  I still had a good time writing the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the filmmaker and his work.  I interviewed Andersen and solicited comments from Payne, from Film Streams founder/director Rachel Jacobson, and from film historian Ton Schatz.  I look forward to attending An Evening with Steven Soderbergh.  This is the third big fund raiser for Film Streams featuring a major cinema figure. Laura Dern was the special guest year one and Debra Winger last year.  Payne interviewed each on stage.  These are the kinds of cinema events that almost never used to happen in Omaha, and now thanks to Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival they happen on a regular basis.

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to talk shop at Film Streams Feature Event

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Steven Soderbergh may not generate the snobby, effete buzz of some name directors, yet he’s arguably the most prolific and accomplished American filmmaker over the past 20 years. As special guest for the Feb. 20 Film Streams Feature Event III, An Evening with Steven Soderbergh, he headlines Omaha’s must-see cinema event of 2011.

Skeptics must concede he has the juice to qualify as an elite director. There are the awards (the Palm d’Or and the Oscar), the glowing reviews, the productive collaborations with mega-stars (George Clooney) and the clout or charisma to get both commercial (Erin Brockovich) and fringe (Che) works produced.

He did one early game-changing film (sex, lies, and videotape) and he’s followed with some prestige mature projects (Traffic). Yes, naysayers point out, but he can’t claim a seminal work like The Godfather or Taxi Driver as his own.

What he does possess is a supple technique he applies to a broad canvas of genres he crosses and bends with equal amounts of restraint and respect and reinvention. He’s not even 50, and his oeuvre may ultimately contain more stand-the-test-of-time credits than any of his flashier contemporaries or senior counterparts.

Yes, but is he an auteur? That may be among the things novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen explores with Soderbergh during their on-stage interview-clip program at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

For now, Andersen ventures while it’s hard to instantly identify a Soderbergh film the way one can a Scorsese or Allen or Tarantino or Coen Brothers film, or for that matter a Tony Scott film, “he is an incredibly ambitious artist, and that’s an interesting combination.”

Count Andersen an admirer.

“He’s done television as well as feature films, he produces (Syriana, Michael Clayton) as well as directs, he does documentaries, he does these big kind of pure entertainment features as well as these very strange little features, and all of that range continues,” he says. “It’s not as though he did these little movies and then graduated to payday movies. That he continues to be as diverse at age 48 as when he was 25-30 is really singular.

“When you look at the body of work and career there’s nobody of his generation who comes close I think in having all of that, as well as the half dozen or whatever master works you can argue about and point to.”

Before the auteur theory messed with cinephiles’ conceptions of where ultimate film authorship lies, name-above-the-title directors were rare. Today, even hacks are accorded that once privileged status. Soderbergh is anything but a hack. Indeed, Andersen calls him “the anti-hack.”

Alexander Payne, who approached Soderbergh to headline the Film Streams fundraiser and will introduce the program, summed up his fellow artist with:

“I count Steven as a friend and colleague, and I have tremendous respect for his career and his purity — and certainly for his work ethic. He admires the directors of classical Hollywood who honed craft through continuous work, and he has miraculously enabled himself to equal their prodigious output. Some hit, some miss, but craft sharpens and roves. And he supports other filmmakers without question.”

A great filmmaker doesn’t have to also be a screenwriter like Payne. John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock produced great art with recurring personal themes and motifs without scripting a word. Soderbergh has writing credits on a third of his features.

Neither is a clearly defined style a prerequisite for a great director. Witness John Huston and Elia Kazan, whose subtle styles changed from film to film in service of story while their own preoccupations shone through. Soderbergh is in their chameleon tradition.

The fertile mid-1960s through 1970s era saw personal filmmaking flower in and out of Hollywood with Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, et all. In the 1980s this trend retreated in the face of mega pics, sequels and special effects.

Soderbergh is a bridge figure who helped usher in the independent film movement with his 1989 debut feature sex, lies, and videotape. A searching period followed that film’s breakout success. Since the mid-‘90s he’s evolved as a director of high gloss studio projects, including the Oceans series, that win critical and industry praise — and also make money — yet also as the maker of art pieces that exercise other creative muscles.

University of Texas at Austin film scholar Tom Schatz says Soderbergh’s arrival one the scene marked a turning point.

“1989 was perhaps the most important year for Hollywood in the past half-century,” says Schatz. “It was the year of the Time-Warner and Sony-Columbia mergers, which began the trend toward conglomerate control that now defines the movie industry. It was the year of Batman, the first modem blockbuster. And it was the year of sex, lies, and videotape, which ignited an indie-film movement and alongside Batman set a dual trajectory that continues to this day.

“Interestingly enough, Soderbergh is among the very few contemporary Hollywood filmmakers who can move effortlessly and successfully from one of these tracks to the other, segueing from modest, innovative, character-driven films to big-budget franchise blockbusters. In the process he has steadily produced a body of work that is unmatched in contemporary American cinema.”

Andersen says Soderbergh shook things up around the same time the Coens,Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee emerged as a brash new guard.

Andersen wonders how sex, lies, videotape plays to 2011 eyes inured by YouTube, Web cams and reality TV. When the film came out, voyeurism was not the ubiquitous leisure activity it is now.

“It was the germinal moment of a certain era of American films that were strange and singular and idiosyncratic and that everybody was suddenly talking about in a way they hadn’t since the ’70s,” notes Andersen. “What’s so kind of heartening and praiseworthy about Soderbergh’s career is he continues really risky formal experiments.”

Take the director’s choice of revolutionary Che Guevara as the subject of a four-hour-plus, two-part film in Spanish. The sheer length and scope leaves Andersen wondering, “Why do you do that? It’s almost a different thing than a conventional feature film. At one point in the process did he decide this needs to be this epic thing?” He plans to ask Soderbergh that very question.

Andersen’s also fascinated by Soderbergh’s take on the ferment of that time.

“I’ve just written a novel, much of which is set in the ‘60s, and about politics. I’m eager to talk to him about how we’re maybe now just getting far enough away from the ‘60s, with all their power and electricity and iconic resonance, where we can make interesting art about them and talk about them in ways that are not quite so hot and bothered.”

Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson says she appreciates Soderbergh’s “transparent awareness of the commercial pressures that “compromise the art of film” by his jumping back and forth between the two extremes of feature filmmaking.

She adds, “He’s also interested in challenging traditional distribution channels. Both Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience were released On-Demand and on Blu-Ray the same day and date they were released theatrically. His visit is such a terrific match for us as an art house theater dealing with these issues from the other end.”

Film Streams Feature Events I and II guests, Laura Dern and Debra Winger, respectively, discussed acting and offered anecdotes about projects and collaborators. Alexander Payne, who directed Dern in his first feature Citizen Ruth and admired the commitment Winger made to her roles, conducted soft interviews with the stars. This time, with a director in the spotlight and a veteran journalist asking penetrating questions, a different dynamic is in the offing. Both Payne and Andersen serve on the art cinema’s Advisory Board.

“Having had two terrific actors at past Features, I feel like the acclaimed director’s visit is a terrific way to mix things up,” says Jacobson. “Everyone has seen a Soderbergh film but not everyone pays attention to the director. It’s really important to our mission of promoting film as art that people think about the artist with the vision behind the work, the decisions that go into every shot, and the talent it takes to create a good movie.

“We’re thrilled that Kurt is coming to do the interview this year.”

The balancing act of Soderbergh, who’s publicly bemoaned the unwieldy, antiquated system for getting films made and released, intrigues Andersen. He says he’s eager to ask “how he convinced-persuaded the money guys to let him do what he wanted to do” in that limbo period following sex, when the perceived failures of Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath and the TV series Fallen Angels seemed to signal a fall to irrelevance.

Then came five films that made Soderbergh not only relevant again but gave him cachet: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. From then till now Soderbergh’s moved from obscure projects like Solaris and The Good German to star-vehicles like The Informant and the forthcoming Haywire.

As Andersen says, “there’s talent and luck and then there’s the personality-temperament things that allow you to make that Hollywood ATM machine cough up the money.” Andersen’s curious to kknow how artists like Soderbergh “actually manage to have other people pay for the courage” of their “private, quirky convictions.”

 

 

Even when Soderbergh has played it “safe” with forays into genre themes and variations, whether the caper buddy pic (Oceans) or the romantic suspense flick (Out of Sight) or the revenge story (The Limey) or the underdog-against-all-odds chestnut (Brockovich), he’s made the conventions his own.

“He’s broad enough in his vision of interesting material that he can take something that’s been seen a thousand times and make it a memorable thing,” says Andersen.

The Good German finds Soderbergh taking the duplicity and intrigue and look of Casablanca or The Third Man and at once remaining true to it and tweaking it. His black and white milieu and mis en scene boast mystique with a modern edge.

“You see him setting up a particular kind of obstacle course for himself. He’s doing not just a modern version of a film noir,” says Andersen, “but he’s actually trying to do it in a virtual simulation way — to try and figure out how movies were made then in ways that we don’t now, and yet trying to make it work as a film that comes out in 2006.

“It’s interesting to me to talk to an artist about the kinds of puzzles he sets for himself.”

Andersen admits to being a sucker for spy stories anyway and he says Soderbergh’s riffs with the well-worn form made it a must-see for him.

“That’s interesting in a personal way for me,” says Andersen. “I’m fascinated by the intelligence agencies. In this new novel of mine the serious research I had to do was about how the intelligence business works, so I actually was thinking about The Good German. I rewatched that film in anticipation of talking to Soderbergh.”

Traffic is another example of an overused, often cliched subject — illegal drug trafficking — that in the hands of an imaginative filmmaker becomes a kind of elegiac opus about human greed and frailty told in overlapping storylines.

“A really interesting film,” says Andersen. “It’s the kind of movie that in description could be such a hack work thing. If in a blind taste test that film was simply described to you, you’d think, Yeah, maybe, but you’d expect it to be mediocre. But again with this kind of genre material he brings both this interesting, complicated structure — TV-like in a way because of course it’s an adaptation of a television series — and turns this pulp material into something so much better. Into a work of art.”

Andersen says The Informant portrays business management’s “moral ambiguity” and “murkiness” in a way “that fiction and film seldom do. It’s so unpigeonholable. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? What is it?” He likes too the improvisational and enigmatic qualities of The Girlfriend Experience.

In the end, Andersen says, Soderbergh distinguishes his work above the fray.

“There’s so many like big tent pole movies that get made just because the deal was made,” he says. “He’s s one who clearly takes seriously the fact that somebody’s going to pay 10 bucks and spend two hours of their life, and so I better try to entertain them. He kind of gives more than necessary. When any artist over-delivers in what they’re strictly required to do, it makes for a great artist and for a career that really lasts.

“You never get the sense he’s phoning it in in any sense, which isn’t to say it always works. I mean, he has lesser movies and greater movies, but he’s always trying. His work never goes off the rails. There’s always a sense of rigor about it.”

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. concert hall interview are $35 and available by calling 933-0259 or visiting www.filmstreams.org. A post-party and private reception cost extra.

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