Alexander Payne is batting a 1,000. His previous feature films — the abortion comedy “Citizen Ruth,” the political satire “Election,” and the bittersweet road trip “About Schmidt” — established the writer/director as a skilled storyteller who created showcase roles for actors.
His simple, straightforward style celebrates the seemingly mundane, bringing characters to vivid life without becoming caricatures. He also finds humor in the most odd yet human places: All it takes is hearing Jack Nicholson intone “Dear Ndugu” to invoke an almost Pavlovian response from a viewer.
Payne’s fourth film, “Sideways,” which opens Friday in limited release via Fox Searchlight, centers around Miles, a sad-sack struggling writer, and the week he spends in Central California Wine Country with his childhood friend Jack, an actor who is about to be married. As Miles, Paul Giamatti achieves sublime levels of sorrow as he alternates between self-pity and rage. Thomas Haden Church, best known for his work on the sitcom “Wings,” is an unapologetic but likeable cad in the role of Jack.
Rounding out the cast as the love interests for the twosome are Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, Payne’s real-life wife. The four form a flawless ensemble in a movie that walks a fine line between sweetness and sadness, without ever stumbling.
Actors want to work with PayneThough “Sideways” would be considered low-budget by most standards — it cost $16 million and was shot in 49 days — Payne’s reputation had actors clamoring for the lead roles.
Even though “About Schmidt” featured a surprisingly subtle, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Nicholson, Payne maintains that names don’t matter to him.
“In the event of a tie, I think it would go to the more famous person, because it just makes the studio breathe easier, and maybe I can get a little bit more money with which to make the film,” says the soft-spoken, 43-year-old Omaha, Neb. native. “But I just see them all as one; I try not to distinguish between famous and non-famous when it comes down to making the movie. I just want to meet everyone; I want to meet a lot of people, hear their thoughts, audition them, and think who would be best.”
In a case of positive nepotism, Payne also had the good sense to cast Oh, a born scene-stealer. “It was awkward for about 10 minutes the first day,” he says. “Directors are always grateful when actors make it easy for us. And she is just such a pro and so good at what she does.”
Payne has frequently hired non-actors in roles or discovered new talent, such as Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell in “Election,” citing the freshness and reality they bring to roles.
“I’ve been extremely lucky,” he admits. “Every once in a while somebody will crash and burn, get a little freaked out with the lighting, or smoke too much that morning. But I’ve had really good luck.”
If an actor is fortunate enough to audition for Payne, there’s only one thing he wants you to know. “I don’t need to see anything approaching a finished performance,” he says. “Reading from the sides is OK. You don’t have to have memorized it. I know that what you present is, at best, a pencil sketch of what later will be a great oil painting. So I would encourage actors who read for me to be comfortable simply with who they are.”
A successful partnership“Sideways” was adapted from the novel by Rex Pickett by Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor. This is their third adaptation, following “Election” and “About Schmidt” — the latter of which was only loosely based a book of the same name — and according to Payne, it is their most faithful to the source material.
When it comes to writing the script, he says there’s a slight advantage to adapting an existing story instead of writing a complete original.
“In a book, you’ve had some basic decisions made for you in advance, some basic scenarios and characters,” he observes. “Still, at least when Jim and I go to adapt, we read the book and read the book and read the book, and then we throw it away and never look at it again. Then we go in and write an original.”
According to Payne, any great screenplay has to be original unto itself. He elaborates, “When you’re making a movie, this material has never before been a movie. It’s been a book. It’s a different form; it has different criteria, different standards and manifestations exclusive to prose. Now it has to be a movie, which is way different, if it’s going to succeed on cinematic terms.”
Payne and Taylor are beginning work on their next script, but good luck getting him to reveal anything about the plot.
“It’s about,” he begins, followed by a prolonged sigh. “It’s a secret. But it’s an original. Jim and I will start writing it, probably in November.”
One can probably assume it’s not a road trip movie, as Payne has made two in a row and insists he’s not even a fan of the genre. “I really hate shooting people in cars,” he says.