Over the last eighteen years writer-director Alexander Payne has gradually established himself as an expert in reflecting his American milieu, drawing unlikely comedy from touching small-town drama. Although a screenwriter in his own right, Payne has excelled in bringing novels to the screen, winning Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for Sideways and The Descendants.
Payne was born Constantine Alexander Payne to parents of Greek descent in 1961. His birthplace of Omaha, Nebraska, would later provide the setting for many of his films. After graduating high school in 1979 Payne majored in both Spanish and History at Stanford University.
Payne graduated from UCLA’s film programme in 1990, triumphantly receiving around 40 calls from industry pros impressed with his student short, The Passion of Martin. His first step into professional filmmaking was a writing deal with Universal Pictures, but his first full-length screenplay, an early version of About Schmidt, was rejected. Looking back this seems a small blip in the smooth trajectory of Payne’s career since.
Although he’s lived abroad in Colombia and Spain, each of Payne’s features to date take place on US turf. His Omaha-set debut, Citizen Ruth (1996), is in Payne’s own words an ‘abortion comedy’ co-written with Jim Taylor, who has collaborated with Payne on Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. Inspired by the true story of an American Indian woman addicted to spray paint and pregnant with her seventh child, Payne and Taylor created fiery aerosol addict Ruth Stoops.
In the film’s opening Ruth is arrested by cops who know her face better than their own, and shortly after learns she is pregnant. The promising premise of Ruth’s entrapment within a heated debate between anti-abortion and pro-choice campaign groups, both of whom want to use her as an example, never quite finds its wings. Despite a physically and vocally energetic lead performance from Laura Dern – whose father Payne later cast in Nebraska – Citizen Ruth disappoints due to lacklustre supporting performances. Reviewers had mixed opinions, but as his career progressed Payne’s critical fortunes have only increased.
Payne’s second feature, 1999’s Election, heralded his first Oscar nomination. This comedy centres on the embittered race for student government presidency at an Omaha high school, led by manipulative over-achiever Tracy (Reese Witherspoon). Election is sometimes credited with making Witherspoon a star, though Payne has modestly claimed that he merely saw potential in her which would have been fulfilled with or without his direction. Utilising voiceover, a technique characteristic of Payne’s films, Election’s story is variously narrated from the perspectives of connected characters including Tracy, competing president hopefuls and teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick).
Payne’s films often focus on turning points in their protagonists’ lives; Ruth Stoops is given the chance to make a fresh start, and the chaotic election of Payne’s follow up wreaks lasting changes on Jim’s life. This pattern continues with the long-gestating About Schmidt (2002), which introduces protagonist Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) on the day of his retirement, which is closely followed by the death of his devoted wife (June Squibb).
What follows is at times mundane to the point of tedium, yet Nicholson offers a masterclass in understated performance. The emotions under his impassive appearance are revealed through another voiceover technique popular with critics and Payne enthusiasts. Schmidt sponsors a child, Ndugu, from Tanzania, and on the charity’s suggestion that he send a letter Schmidt begins regularly updating Ndugu on his life. In a humorous and endearing touch, Schmidt fails to consider the limited vocabulary of a 6 year-old and the kinds of information appropriate to impart to someone so young.
In 2004’s Sideways Payne presents Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), two man-boys embarking on a tour of California’s vineyards before Jack is due to get married. This witty gem succeeds due to the detailed characterisation of its spare cast, including Virginia Madsen and Payne’s then-wife Sandra Oh. As well as a Best Adapted Screenplay Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar, Sideways was awarded Best Motion Picture in the Comedy or Musical category at the Golden Globes, and scored a host of nominations for its actors and Payne’s directing.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Payne’s next feature, an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings novel The Descendants, hit the silver screen. But it was surely worth the wait for this heartstring-tugging tale of Matt King (a cross-cast George Clooney), a father reconnecting with his daughters as his wife lies in a coma. The casting is fantastic, particularly of Shailene Woodley in her breakout performance as Matt’s rebellious teenage daughter. This sweeping character drama embodies the nature of born-and-bred Hawaiians and perfects Payne’s signature blend of sombre drama and oddball humour.
Having hoarded Bob Nelson’s script for 9 years, finally last year’s Nebraska saw Payne return to his home state with another extremely funny road movie. The elderly Woody (Bruce Dern) and son David (Will Forte) get to know each other all over again as David indulges his father’s deluded pursuit of a phantom million-dollar prize. Stand out moments include witty set pieces like the loss of Woody’s false teeth and a mix-up concerning a stolen air compressor, and Woody’s teary return to his childhood house. Despite being another critical hit and racking up awards nominations Nebraska was ultimately overshadowed by Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Having speculated both about making a period film and a more technically and visually creative feature, it seems Payne’s not content to let a Best Picture nod pass him by again.
Though there’s been no news since 2012, Payne’s next project is slated to be an adaptation of cult author Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Wilson. Clowes’ books have previously been brought to the screen exclusively by director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World and Art School Confidential), but if anyone’s proved they’re capable of taking over the torch it’s Payne.
Payne succeeds in creating naturalistic cinema, though in his films of the early 2000s his status as one of Hollywood’s only directors enjoying the right of final cut resulted in movies flawed by baggy runtime. With The Descendants and Nebraska Payne has tightened his pacing and stepped up his filmmaking.
Top 5 Alexander Payne films:
Election (1999): An intelligently-observed high school flick humorous for its elaborate set up, slick editing, and Reese Witherspoon’s superlative physical comedy.
Sideways (2004): Perhaps Payne’s funniest film, the eccentric Miles (Giamatti) is a triumph; a comically pedantic wine snob, he’s also insecure and uncomfortable with friend Jack’s (Haden Church) less-than-moral compass as the two embark on a wine-guzzling bachelor holiday.
14e Arrondissement(2006): Hailing from the period between Sideways and The Descendants often inaccurately considered a hiatus, Payne’s contribution to the anthology of shorts Paris, Je T’aime relocates Margo Martindale’s typical American to Paris. As her trip plays on screen the unnamed woman describes her holiday to her language class in poorly pronounced French, via voiceover. It’s a simple conceit with real emotive punch.
The Descendants(2011): Payne’s most likeable picture has it all; realism, anguish, wit, and a well-judged soundtrack entirely made up of original Hawaiian music.
Nebraska(2013): One of the best films of last year and further proof of Payne’s uncanny knack for casting. Surely all agree that Bruce Dern, Payne’s first choice for Woody, couldn’t have been bettered. Also featuring a knockout performance from June Squibb, Woody’s shameless wife Kate, reunited with Payne for the first time since her brief appearance in About Schmidt. Unmissable.
Sources: Empire interview, BFI Screen Talk interview, Little White Lies interview