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.
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. For details and tickets, visit–
Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–
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.”
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.”
MAURO FIORE: WRITING WITH LIGHT – Yours truly interviews Oscar-winning cinematographer live on stage at Kaneko
Mauro Fiore is Nebraska’s best-kept secret cinema success story:
The native of Calabria, Italy is one of three Oscar winners residing in Nebraska.
This A-list director of photography is married to an Omaha gal he met on set.
He works with leading Hollywood directors.
He has been the cinematographer for James Cameron on Avatar, Michael Bay on The Island, Joe Carnahan on The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, Peter Berg on The Kingdom and Wayne Wang on The Center of the World.
His collaborations with director Antoine Fuqua extend over five films, beginning with their breakout project, Training Day, followed by Tears of the Sun, The Equalizer, Southpaw and coming this fall – The Magnificent Seven. Their work together is one of the longest-lived and most successful collaborations between a director and cinematographer in contemporary American cinema.
The art and craft of cinematography is the focus of the July 21 program at Kaneko in the Old Market. I will be interviewing Mauro live on stage for this Inside the Actors Studio-style event featuring clips from his stellar body of work.
Mauro’s journey in film encompasses 30 years. It began with a long apprenticeship. He paid his dues on low budget exploitaion films as a key grip, dolly grip, electrician and gaffer. He crewed on some make-wave films in the early 1990s, such as One False Move and Schindler’s List. His move into camera operating led to doing additional photography on a pair of Michael Bay mega-hits, The Rock and Armageddon. That led to Mauro getting the DP job for Bay’s The Island. He has sometimes worked with his close friend, mentor and colleague Janusz Kaminiski.
Mauro will discuss his approach to lighting sets and photographing scenes as an integral part of the storytelling process. He will also touch on his mentors, collaborators and inspirations. My conversation with Mauro will offer a rare, personal, behind-the-scenes look at how films actually get made and at what goes into capturing the arresting images, performances and physical action bits that entertain or move us and that in some cases become imprinted in our memory and imagination.
Link to my 2009 Reader cover story about Mauro at–
Link to a more recent Omaha Magazine piece i did on Mauro and his wife Christine at–
For event tickets, go to–
KANEKO will host Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light on July 21 at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $10 for General Admission and FREE for KANEKO Members.
KANEKO will host Academy Award winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore for an audio-visual presentation exploring his career as a filmmaker. Fiore has worked on numerous films including Training Day, The A-Team, and Avatar, for which he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. A veteran of the Holly film industry, Fiore is recognized for his skill with light and realism. The discussion will be moderated by professional writer and storyteller Leo Adam Biga, author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
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 HERE.
Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson
©by Leo Adam Biga
Drawn from my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
As I wade through the edit on the new edition of my Alexander Payne book, I am coming across some things that I am selectively posting, including this aggregation of quotes and musings in which Payne refers to working with Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt. Getting Nicholson to star in the film, in a part that requires he be on screen for virtually its entire duration, was a huge turning point in Payne’s career trajectory but what really catapulted Payne to the upper echelon of cinema was the great performance he elicited from Nicholson in the lead part of a killer script that Payne co-wrote with Jim Taylor and that Payne brought to the screen as the film’s director. Payne grew up watching Nicholson’s work in that decade of 1970s American film that was so foundational for the filmmaker and his own work as a writer-director. It meant a lot to Payne to have Nicholson deliver the goods in what was Payne’s biggest film, in terms of budget, prestige and risk, up to that point.
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.
Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson
NOTE: These excerpts are from 2001-2002 articles I wrote and that appear in my book
Alexander Payne derives much of his aesthetic from the gutsy, electric cinema of the 1970s and therefore having the actor whose work dominated that decade, Jack Nicholson, anchor his film About Schmidt is priceless.
“One thing I like about him appearing in this film is that part of his voice in the ‘70s kind of captured alienation in a way,” Payne said, “and this is very much using that icon of alienation, but not as someone who is by nature a rebel, but rather now someone who has played by the rules and is now questioning whether he should have. So, for me, it’s using that iconography of alienation, which is really cool.”
Beyond the cantankerous image he brings, Nicholson bears a larger-than-life mystique born of his dominant position in American cinema these past thirty-odd years. “He has done a body of film work,” Payne said. “Certainly, his work in the ‘70s is as cohesive a body of work as any film director’s. He’s been lucky enough to have been offered and been smart enough to have chosen roles that allow him to express his voice as a human being and as an artist. He’s always been attracted to risky parts where he has to expose certain vulnerabilities.”
The film’s title character, Warren Schmidt, is a man adrift in a late life crisis where the underpinnings of his safe world come unhinged, sending him reeling into an on-the-road oblivion that becomes a search for redemption. Because the story is really about a man’s inner journey or state of mind the film is not so much driven by traditional narrative as it is subtext.
“This film isn’t so much about the story because there isn’t really much of a story. It’s about a man and kind of about a way of life,” Payne said. “And it’s a way of life I kind of witnessed in Omaha. Not that it doesn’t exist elsewhere and not that many different lives don’t exist in Omaha. But, from time to time, it has a whiff of something that’s very genuine. It’s just a feeling, and I’d be hard-pressed to describe it beyond that.”
As an artist, Payne does not like limiting himself to expository narrative. He understands how seemingly whimsical, quirky or incidental elements, like the moon serenade in Citizen Ruth or the lesbian romance in Election, have value too.
“One thing Hollywood filmmaking urges you always to do is tell the story. If it’s not germane to the story, then leave it out. And I kind of disagree with that,” he said. “I mean, I like stories. I like seeing movies that tell stories. I like my movies to tell stories. But films don’t operate only on a story level. There’s a quote I like that says, ‘A story exists only as an excuse to enter into the realm of the cinema.’ Films operate on emotions, moods, sub-themes and maybe even poetry, if you’re lucky enough to have a bit of mystery and poetry in your film.”
If the screenplay is any guide, then reading it reveals Schmidt as a man who has built his life around convention and conformity but who, along the way, has lost touch with what he really is and wants. The things in his well-ordered life have become his identity. His actuarial job with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance. His office. His home. His routine. His marriage. When, in short order, he retires, his wife dies and his estranged daughter prepares to marry a man he does not like, he realizes he is alone, at odds, angry and restless to find answers to why his supposedly full life seems so empty.
What makes Schmidt’s dilemma more complex is that he is not a wholly likable man. He is a square, a miser, a malcontent. Payne is drawn to such richly shaded and often unsympathetic characters because they are more interesting, more real, more truthful. Just think of inhalant addict mother-to-be Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth or arrogant, spiteful teacher Jim McAllister in Election. Neither is totally a shit, though. Stoops is brave, outspoken, independent. McAllister is sincere, caring, dedicated. And, so, Schmidt is solicitous, careful, reflective. As he begins defining a new life for himself without a job or wife, he begins behaving in ways that defy family-societal expectations.
In this way, the film is an indictment of the prefabricated mold people are expected to fit. With Schmidt, Nicholson mutely echoes the alienated character (Bobby Dupea) he essayed in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. Just as Dupea turns his back on his classical piano career and blue blood roots to work the oil fields, Schmidt shucks his constraints to embark on a road trip that is as much escape as quest.
Then there’s the whole star power thing Nicholson brings. The clout Nicholson wields. The Player label he wears. The attention he commands. Payne is savvy enough to know that having Nicholson on the project boosts the prestige and the pressure that goes with it. That’s why this production is a little more all-business and a little less laid back than Payne’s previous two. For example, the filmmaker is, for the time being anyway, giving no interviews (outside this one) and the set is closed to reporters.
This limited access all gets back to the Nicholson factor. It means catering to him and shielding him.
Or, as Payne put, “we have a big fish on this one. Everyone knows him. Most everyone is a fan of his. Plus, there’s the Pop stuff of his winning three Academy Awards and having been in very many popular and artistic films. So, he’s a big presence in American culture. And all of us, certainly from me down to the crew, want him to be impressed. We want him to feel protected and supported. We want to feel that we have his approval. And, as director, I’m really bending over backwards to make sure he feels comfortable enough so he will expose vulnerabilities and really dive into the part. So, just because of his stature there is a heightened will among the film company and crew to do a good job.”
Making no bones about what a fan he is of Nicholson, Payne said his star has thus far been a filmmaker’s dream.
“Sometimes, you think about a movie star as being more star than actor, kind of playing some version of themselves. That’s not the case with Mr. Nicholson. He’s all about the character. He really dives into who is that person. He’s a consummate actor. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen so far. And I think watching the character unfold through him is going to be really amazing.”
Instead of full-blown rehearsal periods for the film, Payne, Nicholson and the film’s other name actors, who include June Squibb as nis wife, Hope Davis as the daughter, Dermot Mulroney as the future son-in-law and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as the future in-law, have held script readings. According to Payne, Nicholson is not throwing his weight around, as one might expect, but rather acting as a colleague and collaborator.
“My experience so far is that he expresses his opinions as he sees them and he tries to be helpful to me and to the process. He seems to respect the filmmaker. So far, it’s been a really interesting collaboration. And I also think I have much to learn from him, so I welcome his input.”
Nicholson became attached to the project through the kind of old-boy networking Hollywood thrives on. The actor was given Begley’s book by his old friend, producer Harry Gittes (whose name Nicholson appropriated for the private eye he played in Chinatown). Then, Payne came on board, writing the script with Taylor and being assigned directorial chores as well. All Payne knew was that Nicholson would read the finished script first.
“And, oh, thank God he liked and agreed to do it,” Payne said. On a practical level, Nicholson’s participation has meant a much bigger budget than Payne has worked with before. “It’s around $30 million. Mr. Nicholson’s getting a salary which is larger than actors have gotten in my previous movies. Another factor is that this is a union movie, where my previous two were non-union, so there’s a little added cost there.
“Thirty (million) is actually quite modest – it’s hard to believe, I know – by Hollywood standards. And it’s really amazing this script is getting made with this caliber of star at that budget level, because there’s no gimmicks, no special effects, no guns. It’s just a guy in crisis.”
Nicholson’s presence netted a bigger budget than Payne ever had before, which meant New Line insisted he use sound stages and multiple cameras as safeguards against cost overruns caused by shooting delays.
“Because it’s not a terribly commercial film and because it’s somewhat costly I was urged to not go over budget. I had to make all my days, so in order to do that I shot more on sound stages and I sometimes threw up two or three cameras. I’d used sound stages on a limited basis before because, one, we didn’t have the budget to build sets and, two, I don’t really trust it, I trust what exists. But practical locations, as they’re called, are difficult. They’re tight. You wreck people’s front lawns.
“Building sets and shooting on them poses its own logistical problems, but it also solves a lot of problems. And rather than shoot from one angle and then move in closer, I tried to get both (shots) at once. I like doing it precisely for the reason of not wearing out the actors and saving time.” In the end, Payne did meet his sixty two-day schedule.
Despite the hike in budget, the presence of a superstar and the imposition of union realities, Payne insists the film, which is being made for New Line, remains closer to his first two intimate independent features than to overblown mainstream Hollywood pics.
“The scale of filmmaking is, for me, not that much different than my previous two. A lot of directors, as they get older or have more films under their belt or have more success or whatever, they consistently make bigger, more impersonal films. I am conscious of wanting to make increasingly more personal films.”
Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.
“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”
By design, Nicholson carries the film. He is in virtually every scene. That Payne got him to play the lead in the first place was a coup. That he worked with an artist he’s long admired was cool. In an interview Payne gave the Omaha Weekly only days before shooting began, he said the actor was accommodating in every way, immersing himself in the part and making himself available to the entire process during script readings. Now months removed from the shoot, Payne said Nicholson remained a pro throughout the production and his extraordinary talent provided him as a director with endless choices.
“I had a very excellent experience working with him. He was extremely professional and committed to his part. Jack Nicholson is a movie star and an icon and that’s fine, but in the moment of doing it and really who he is in his heart he’s an actor who gets nervous like other actors and wants to do a good job like other actors and hopes he got it right like other actors and needs reassurance like other actors.
“What was great about directing him was that unlike many situations where you give the direction and hope to God the actor can do it just the way you’d like him to or you hope you’ve thought of the right words that will trigger the right response, with Nicholson I had to be careful with what I told him because not only would he do it, he could do it. He just has an excellent instrument. Sometimes, when I’d impose blocking or I wanted a certain scene a certain way, I’d say, ‘Is that all right with you’ and he’d go, ‘Well, anything you come up with I can find a way to justify it to myself, so, what do you want?’ I was like, ‘Ohhhh…’ He makes every possible choice doable.”
Payne said, “There’s always a bit of nerves between actors and director the first couple weeks as you’re learning to trust one another.” That was true at the start of Schmidt, as Nicholson felt Payne out, but in short time “he made it very easy to direct him. He put a lot of appreciated effort into breaking the ice with those around him. He was very professional and very cool and very kind.”
The crowds of fans that followed the Schmidt traveling all-star band from location to location have long dispersed since production wrapped.
If reaction to the film by preview audiences is any gauge, than Payne may be striking the right chords with this gray, introspective story. He said test cards consistently use words like “real,” “true-to-life,” “genuine,” “naturalistic” and “not funny” to describe it. “And that’s been kind of nice,” said Payne, whose aesthetic is informed by the European and American cinema of the last Golden Age (the 1960s and ‘70s) when the best films were about real life. Payne said the September 11 terrorist attacks “helped cement more than ever my already existing desire to make human films – films which are about people.”