Alexander Payne: “People will happily teach you and train you”

It’s ridiculously simple, but arriving on time is the single greatest trick to getting and keeping a job on a movie set. People will happily teach you and train you, but the moment you show up late, you’re sunk. Fortunately, I’m pathologically punctual. I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time to be late. As […]

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It’s ridiculously simple, but arriving on time is the single greatest trick to getting and keeping a job on a movie set. People will happily teach you and train you, but the moment you show up late, you’re sunk. Fortunately, I’m pathologically punctual. I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time to be late.


As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alexander Payne.

Alexander Payne is a two-time Oscar-winning writer-director whose films to date are “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” and “Downsizing.” His movies have been nominated for a total of 19 Oscars and have won twice for Best Adapted Screenplay. A lifelong film buff, he serves on the boards of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Telluride Film Festival and on the creative committee of the Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna, Italy.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the “backstory” of how you grew up?

I’m a second-generation Greek-American from Omaha, Nebraska, and am the son and grandson of restaurant owners. I fell in love with movies around age five, and a couple of years later, my dad brought home an 8mm projector he’d received as a gift from Kraft Foods, I guess for buying so much cheese. I started collecting silent films with my allowance money and projecting them for my friends, watching them over and over. Then, at age 12, I got a Super 8 camera and was hooked.

My parents were big believers in education and sent me to Stanford, where I majored in history, but I couldn’t bring myself to apply to law school, as they were hammering me to do. Instead, I applied to film school, knowing that I couldn’t die without having at least tried it. I wound up going to UCLA and found that my love of watching movies indeed translated into a love of making them as well. I also had to go to film school to see whether I had any talent, and, although many peers there were more talented, I had at least enough to build on. Plus, I make comedies, which I had not known was rare.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I think most filmmakers have a key film or two that struck them like a thunderbolt and cemented their desire to make films. I’ve seen a ton of movies, but Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” which I’ve seen countless times since I was five, inspired me early on to want to make comedies with emotion. Later, as a college junior still trying to figure out my career path, I saw Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” When it ended, I couldn’t get out of my seat. “I’ll never climb the mountain that high,” I told myself, “but I want to be on that mountain.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I’m still amazed that “Sideways” had a big impact on the wine market — and due to one single line of dialogue. When pinot-loving Miles (Paul Giamatti) is told to be open to drinking Merlot on a double-date, he says, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f — -ing Merlot!” It was just a silly joke, but somehow it caught on, and sales of Merlot plummeted. When Clark Gable removed his shirt in 1934’s “It Happened One Night” and showed his bare chest, sales of men’s undershirts famously nosedived. I could have never guessed something similar would happen in my experience.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to meet many interesting people both inside and outside of the film world, but I’ll steer your question to the fact that I’m still asked all the time what it was like to work with Jack Nicholson. Before directing him in “About Schmidt,” I’d heard wildly different stories about how “easy” or “difficult” he was to work with, so I sought advice from the great Mike Nichols, who’d directed him three times. “Oh, that’s simple, my boy,” Nichols told me. “Just tell him the truth. He’s going to smell it on you anyway.”

And so it was; whether the directions I gave were brilliant or stupid, they were always honest, and Nicholson couldn’t have been nicer to or more supportive of me. He’s also so magnificent an actor and so precise that he forced me to become a better director. He’s like a Ferrari with tight steering; move the wheel one millimeter, and that’s where the car goes. Sometimes, I’d offer a direction, and during the take, he’d do exactly that. Then I’d have to say, “I’m sorry, Jack, but I think I misspoke on that last direction. What I really meant to say was this.” It was a great life experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been blessed with great teachers and mentors, going all the way back to junior high. You can’t get by without them — at least I can’t — and it means the world when someone you look up to looks back and says you can do it. During film school, I met two pivotal mentors. As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

The first was an old Czech director named Jiri Weiss, who literally tapped me on the shoulder in line at a video store. From that improbable moment, we started a conversation that lasted until his death 20 years later, and he taught me a tremendous amount about all facets of filmmaking. The second was my editing teacher at UCLA, who guided and encouraged me on my thesis film. He was the legendary Richard Marks, who had edited “Godfather 2,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Terms of Endearment.” His belief in me — starting then and extending into my professional career — made a huge difference.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think the phrase, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything” is useful for self-examination. When I screw up — which is embarrassingly often — it helps me think about how else I’m screwing up or could avoid doing so.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers that you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Since its inception 120 years ago, film quickly became the world’s most important art form, in large part because we can see ourselves in a mirror — moving, walking, talking — and because we can tell entertaining and powerful stories about who we are and what we do. While watching a movie, we’re easily capable of projecting our own experiences onto people much different from ourselves — movie stars, for example — but it means a lot more when we can see actual versions of our own race, class, gender, or nationality.

Martin Scorsese says that his view on movies changed when he first saw “On the Waterfront,” which featured real longshoremen and people from the street. “Seeing those faces on the screen for the first time,” says Scorsese, “it was as though the people I knew mattered.” This principle extends to all of us, and it’s crucial that we have representative stories from all corners of human existence told by people of widely different backgrounds and experiences. Not only do we all need to feel that we matter by seeing versions of ourselves on screen, but the cinema is also our most important tool to reinforce meaningfully that all human experience is universal. The more diversity we have in film and television storytelling, the more we can unite as a human family.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve been using the pandemic downtime not so much to craft a single new screenplay of my own but to supervise the work of others writing screenplays for me, so that I can soon move quickly from film to film. I’m still locking in financing, but first up will be a period piece set at an Eastern prep school in 1970. After that might be a comedy set in Paris based on the true story of rival antique chair dealers.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or tell a story?

Making movies is the best job in the world, and I’m lucky to be able to do it. The applause of an audience does wonders for the ego, but it’s especially meaningful when someone you meet says a particular movie of yours made a difference in their life. Some viewers have told me that “The Descendants” helped them with their own grieving process, and “Nebraska” has made other viewers want to connect with their fathers. It’s nice when you hear things like that, especially years later when the fanfare has died down.

Okay, super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “five things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It’s ridiculously simple, but arriving on time is the single greatest trick to getting and keeping a job on a movie set. People will happily teach you and train you, but the moment you show up late, you’re sunk. Fortunately, I’m pathologically punctual. I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time to be late.
  2. If you want to be a film director, you have to learn first to write your own screenplays, at least early in your career. And don’t look at screenwriting as “writing.” It’s already filmmaking. You’re not just writing; you’re actually imagining and directing a film in your brain, and a screenplay is the written record of that act of imagination. Sadly, it’s also the hardest part of filmmaking, so at least you get that behind you first.
  3. When you work in professional filmmaking, the financiers and producers often try to change your mind so that you choose what they think is the most commercial option. They think they’re saving the film and saving you, but by sticking to your guns, it’s often you who are saving them from their own worst instincts.
  4. Related to #3, they keep trying to change your mind, but the moment you do change your mind, on some level, they lose respect for you.
  5. Despite #3 and #4, you still never know where a good idea is going to come from! A great idea for your film can come just as easily from a financier or an intern. I feel strongly that the most important aspect of being a filmmaker — or any kind of artist — is remaining open and generous and listening. It’s then your job to discern the good ideas coming your way from the bad. On the other hand, sometimes, you also have to close your ears, since you also have to hear your own voices.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea could trigger. 🙂

I think that, as a film director, I already have access to one of the greatest tools yet invented to engender an increased sense of humanity and empathy both in myself and viewers. I just hope I can use it responsibly.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Two leap to mind, and one is the author Robert Caro, who has written monumental biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. I shook his hand once in a lobby, and I’ve never been more starstruck. The second is Carlos Santana. I think he’s a phenomenal artist and humanitarian.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Ha! They can’t. I don’t have much online presence, apart from Instagram, so I can follow some friends, and even then, I don’t check very often. I have a Facebook account but never use it; for me, it’s just like being listed in the phone book. I’m pretty old fashioned; I use email and call people.

This was very meaningful. Thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thanks for the interest.

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