Alexander Payne Interview

07 January 2009

Granted unusual leeway with

Granted unusual leeway with "Election," writer-director still waxes sardonic about Hollywood

"So what up? How may I help you today?" gibes30-ish writer-director Alexander Payne as he straddles into a chair atthe glass dining table in his San Francisco hotel room. "Have youseen my film?"

He's asking about "Election,"his deliriously sardonic and underhanded satire of politics and high schoolculture that follows trepidatious government teacher (Matthew Broderick)through increasingly bizarre attempts to sideline a junior's fanaticalstudent body presidential campaign. The film, which opened locally lastFriday, had just played the night before at the San Francisco InternationalFilm Festival.

"Oh, yes. I liked it," I reply.

"Really?" asks Payne, eyebrows akimbo. "Wow!Thanks, man. Thank you."

His voice has a practiced tinge of cynicism, but he's completelysincere in his gratitude, even though his film has been enjoying some thebest advance buzz of any movie this year not featuring Jedi knights anddroids.

A ruthless, laugh-out-loud roundelay of back-stabbing andvote manipulation, "Election" is a rare breed -- an intelligenthigh school comedy, long on acerbic wit and refreshingly devoid of chiched,cardboard characters. Driving the story is Reese Witherspoon in an award-worthyperformance as star candidate Tracy Flick, an obsessive over-achiever andthe perfect neurotic zealot.

Payne, whose first writing-directing effort was 1996'sabortion debate farce "Citizen Ruth," pours a can of Coke intoa tumbler from the mini-bar and rubs a lime around the lip of the glasswith his narrow hands he will soon be using to mold the air in front ofhim like clay, as if trying to physicalize his thoughts as we talk abouthis sophomore venture behind the camera and his deep dissatisfaction withthe state of American movie-making. How did you get away withmaking an intelligent, dark satire for MTV Films?

Alexander Payne: Can I tell you? I haven't seena single other MTV Films film. They're mostly bad John Hughesspawn -- pathetic, lowest-common-denominator, teenage shash.

Payne: You know what, though? To be fair -- notthat I really care about being fair to anyone, ever -- but to be fair,I'm sure that same ratio of bad films to good probably exists in everystudio. Every production entity these days makes largely bad films andevery once in a while a good one. I'm glad you happen to think "Election"was one of those good ones. But it's just that the whole country is makinggenerally lousy films these days and has been for quite a while. That'sthe big problem that we all have to think about, I mean you guys on thecritical side and me in terms of things I want to make. We have to thinkabout it because we have to change it. It's important. We love our cinematoo much and we also have this cinema with a world-wide influence. Do you think there's more crapnow than there was 50 years ago?

Payne: It's true they always made lousy pictures,but the used to have a higher number of good ones every year than we have.And I don't know where to point the finger. Movies are too expensive thesedays, and that sense of film as software to be used for the TV and theairplane and the foreign, (instead of being) thought about as just, what'sthe story we want to tell and how should it be told? ...Which is another reason forthe question. "Election" feels very much like an independentfilm, not a studio product, yet MTV films and Paramount produced it. Howmuch autonomy did you have?

Payne: A lot. A lot. But I think it's importantto define these days what we mean by independent. Regardless of the sourceof financing -- be it a group of dentists in Akron, Ohio or a major studio-- I think independent should refer to a spirit of filmmaking. (An independentis) a film which tries to do something different, that feels like it comesfrom one person, that has some sense of authorial voice and doesn't seemto be pandering exclusively to commercial exigencies at the time.

I had a lot of people I had to answer to. I had, at onepoint, seven producers on the film, and then all the executives at Paramount.So at times I had a lot of hand holding to do. But, god love 'em, in thefinal analysis they gave me the support and the vote of confidence to dowhat I wanted to do.

You know, Mel Brooks (has a) theory that when you do comedies,they tend to leave you alone a little bit more. Because as long as you're makingsomebody laugh, they're OK. Whereas with a drama there's all kinds of minefieldsas far as the studio is concerned -- can they pimp it for an Oscar? Willthe audience take the actors seriously?

Payne: A pitfall of making a comedy with a studio-- and it's also an American cultural thing -- is that I get tired of beingencouraged to go always for laughs. When you try to make something thatis complex -- "Citizen Ruth" and that sort of thing -- reallyare they comedies? In "Citizen Ruth" there is a serious, highlycritical subtext going on. At least I hope there is.

In "Election" you're dealing with pathetic characters,like (Matthew Broderick's teacher) who's just making all the wrong andreally pathetic choices and being a total loser in his life. Or Tammy (oneof Tracy Flick's rival candidates) with her fragile sense of first loveand this wonder that she's feeling then that huge disappointment at losingfirst love, which is something we can all identify with. When there's poignancy,there can be forces pulling you to go for laughs and to abort the seriousmoments, and that's something that I have had to be on guard against. So it wasn't the satire thatdrew you to the material?

Payne: I liked it not because I read it and sawa satire, but because I read it and thought, look at these interestingpeople doing these really pathetic and hilarious things. (It was) justthe human landscape. I mean, I don't really look at the film as being necessarilysatirical. That's something other people have called it. I just see itas this human landscape. Let's talk casting. Reese Witherspoon.Was (her fantastic performance in) "Freeway"the kicker for you? Did you have her in mind?

Payne: I didn't have anyone in mind. It was reallymeeting her that sold me. I didn't have her audition. I just met her andI just knew she could do it. I could believe her as being 17, but as anactress she's a young woman, not a girl. She's just really cute and reallyfunny. She's much more seductive with her humor and her niceness than sheis with her babeliciousness. She's just a delight. Her physical manifestation ofthe character is just remarkable. How much did you two talk about the character?How much of it was her creation and how much of it was what you wrote.

Payne: Well, I like physical humor in films. They'rereally different films and really different performances, but in "CitizenRuth," Laura Dern's performance relies a lot on physicality -- thewalk and everything. Similarly, Reese with Tracy Flick, there's a certainsimilarity between those two characters. I see that. But it's almost a180 degree difference in their physical behavior.

Payne: Correct. But both have unique, kind of comicwalks, ways they hold themselves, how they fight, how the screw up theirfaces. And the nostril-y-ness of her performance. If you ever see the filmagain, watch her nostrils... Oh, I noticed that. I made noteof that!

Payne: It's like they're independently wired witha remote control! It was amazing to me. There weretimes they were so flared it looked like she'd just pulled a couple marblesout of her nose.

Payne: You know when I think she's really good inthe movie is when she's making those (campaign) buttons (on a heavy press).She's very Richard Nixon-like to me, kind of begrudgingly wanting thisimpersonal love of the masses and having no concept of the individual relationship.And how she puts all the long hours in on the yearbook "just to givethem their stinking memories!" It really comes through in her performance,and as she was making those buttons, she kind of over-did the stamping,and it came off like she was just all f---in' pissed off. How much conversation did youand she have about the physical traits of the character?

Payne: Um...I don't remember....Oh, a lot! It allcomes from me! (Laughs.)

I think a lot of it comes from her, but I think I encouragedher and urged her to go further with it and I would be there to tell herwhen it's too much. That's how I like to do it with actors, have them reallygo for it and I'll tell them when it's too much. It's always easier tobring it back then to push it further.

At this point we're interrupted by a publicist tellingme my time is almost up. Even though I wanted to ask him about MatthewBroderick and Payne's choice of unknowns in the rest of the movie's keyroles, I'd apparently gotten him fired up about his deep dissatisfactionwith the state of Hollywood filmmaking, and he returns to that topic inour last few minutes.

Payne: There's a strong tendency right now towardformula. Like this is how a screenplay is written: By page 30 this hasto happen, your Act Two goes to page 90...That's just horse sh--. I thinka badly crafted, great idea for a new film with a ton of spelling mistakesis just 100 times better than a well-crafted stale script.

For example, Scorsese talks not about three acts in a script,but rather five sequences. Or you watch Fellini films -- you watch "Nightsof Cabiria" or "La Dolce Vita" or "8 1/2" -- andyou get a sense not of a three act structure, but of episodes with on charactergoing through all these episodes. Then you get to the end of the film andthere's a sudden realization or a moment that pulls a loose string suddenlytaut through the whole movie you've been watching up until that point.

(We need) different mental models of what a film can be,and if you pay too much attention to these books, by Sid Fields and RobertMcKee and I don't know who else, they're only presenting one cultural paradigm,and that's really, really dangerous to the act of creation and to our cinema,which needs new ideas and new blood now more than ever. Hollywood filmshave become a cesspool of formula and it's up to us to try to change it.

(Suddenly laughs out loud.) I feel like a preacher! The Reverend Payne!

Payne: But it's really true. I feel personally responsiblefor the future of American cinema. Me personally. But so should you. Soanyway. There you have it.


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