Omaha filmmaker Alexander Payne was running late Wednesday evening when we caught up with him by phone in Los Angeles. Everybody wants a piece of the Oscar-winning director-screenwriter's time as award-season buzz builds for his first movie in seven years.
Tuesday night's Hollywood premiere of "The Descendants," about a Hawaiian family in crisis, earned new praise for Payne and the movie's star, George Clooney.
Payne returned to the United States last weekend after showing his movie at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece, where his father's family has its roots, and attending a friend's wedding in Israel.
He sounded anything but jet-lagged: articulate, intelligent, warm and thoughtful as he called back three times, answering every question before heading to Omaha for tonight's preview screenings of "The Descendants" at Film Streams.
Q. How did last night's Los Angeles premiere go?
A. Unless they're shielding me from the criticism, which is likely at an event like that, it went very well. It seemed to play well with the audience. But of course that's the nature of a premiere. They say nice things.
Q. Do you enjoy these events on a personal level, or are they more part of the business end of making movies?
A. It's both. What was nice last night was it wasn't just industry people. It was also the bedrock of my community in L.A., old friends from film school. I had a guest list of about 60, and it was lovely to party with them afterward. Friends like that are my most strident supporters, and also the best critics.
Q. What's the part you dread?
A. It's always a little nerve-racking to go up in front of a lot of people and show your work, to show a film you put so much work into. You feel quite vulnerable. But by now I know how ("The Descendants") functions in front of an audience. It's like live theater. Half the experience is the actors. The other half is the receptivity of the audience.
Q. You're about to show "The Descendants" in your hometown. Have your parents seen it?
A. They watched an early cut around a year ago. I'm excited to have it seen in Omaha. I'll have friends and family at both screenings. And I'm really excited to show it at Film Streams, a place that's so close to my heart.
Q. How would you describe response to screenings so far?
A. In general, very positive. Afterward, I get asked a lot about the combination of drama and comedy. It's been described that there are hairpin turns in tone from the dramatic to something very funny. That seems to be what they respond to. Also to a movie about a family. So many movies we cherish are about families, from "Terms of Endearment" to "The Godfather" and more.
Q. What's key to making those emotional transitions from funny to painful work on film?
A. I don't really think in terms of this is dramatic, this is funny. I have certain things I hope will get laughs. But as long as all of it's truthful, that's the comb that works through all of it, that combs out all the different strands of tone — this basic truth going through it. People say it feels honest, doesn't pull punches. Whether you're seeking a laugh or playing straight, that has to be a constant.
Q. Any meaningful bits of feedback you've gotten from names we might recognize?
A. I was very touched when Jack Nicholson called a few weeks ago after having seen it. He paid me some nice compliments. It was nice to hear from him. Since we worked together on "About Schmidt" (2002), I count him as a trusted friend.
Q. You've sat through a number of screenings by now. How is the movie wearing with you?
A. It's OK. I appreciate when the audience likes things. But I'm looking at all the cuts I think should be different. There are currently about 10 cuts I'd like to change. But it's too late. There's an old adage in filmmaking that movies are never finished. They're just abandoned.
Q. Do you ever rank your movies against each other?
A. No. They're all snapshots of my ability at that point in time, given that story. I can't compare them. My thesis film is more primitive than "Citizen Ruth" (1996), which is more primitive than "Election" (1999). I put my all into each one, so each has its own merit, given where I was in life at the time.
Q. Movie writers often point out things they think your movies have in common: comedy that comes from desperate mistakes, a sardonic sense of humor and so on. What might you say your films have in common?
A. This is maybe obvious, but I see a sense of humor. Even this movie, by far the most dramatic I've done, has at its base a sense of humor. It's not for me to say what the common themes are, things like the protagonists are all men who have reached a crisis in life and the rug is pulled out from under them. I want to keep working intuitively. I also hope, from film to film, I'm concerned with good film craft. I hope I'm getting better at that. I still read that "Election" is someone's favorite film, so what can you do? That was four films ago.
Q. To me, your films always feel truthful and personal. What about "The Descendants" is personal to you, that made the story one you wanted to tell?
A. One main thing that interested me about this story was love when it's difficult — making loving choices when other forces inside you tell you to do something else. That's something I think the world needs a bit more of. Without giving anything away in the film, there are two choices made by two different characters which involve love when it's difficult.
Q. How does your version of the script differ from the one Nat Faxon and Jim Rash originally wrote? Did you collaborate with them on the rewrite?
A. No. Those guys put a lot of work into their draft, and they did a nice job. I needed my own way into the story, and I started from scratch. One difference is that they focused more on the younger daughter. I was much more interested in the older daughter. That's where the key relationship is with Clooney's character. None of the first screenplay is in the movie, except we both took a lot of dialogue from the novel. And the basic trajectory of the story is the same. Jim Taylor (his writing partner on his previous films) did give feedback on my screenplay. And I showed it to Rash and Faxon for their thoughts, too. I also asked Kaui Hemmings (author of the novel on which the movie is based) what she thought. She was my main collaborator this time. I was extremely faithful to the novel. I kept asking her about tweaks I made during the filming process. I wanted to confirm I was on the right path, because Hawaii is her world.
Q. Have you gotten feedback from Hawaiians on how the state is depicted in "The Descendants"?
A. Yeah, the movie was the closing-night selection of the Hawaii Film Festival (Oct. 23). Maybe they shielded me, but I got good comments, including: "We've never seen Hawaii in a film before."
Q. Has Kaui Hart Hemmings talked about that?
A. She's very happy. I just saw her today at a luncheon, and she was at the premiere. Imagine your first novel getting turned into a motion picture with a big star and getting such good reviews. She's really walking on air.
Q. Your cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, spoke of collaborating with you to find the film's aesthetic, and how you never choose a scenic shot over one that reflects the reality of the place. Talk about the Hawaii you wanted to show in this movie.
A. After "About Schmidt," where I thought I was developing a decent skillset for capturing place, I then used that on Santa Barbara County for "Sideways" (2004), again on Paris for "Paris, je t'aime" (2006). Even on Detroit for the pilot for (the HBO series) "Hung" (2009). I've gotten to the point where I mentally audition the place as much as the story when deciding if I want to make a film. I like a certain documentary approach to the place, a very accurate and truthful one. Hawaii required me to have my eyes and ears open to a great extent. It's a unique and weird world out there. It's one narrow little corner of Honolulu, and the rhythms of the island. It's not just photographing it to look like real life. The rhythm of the film is affected. Critics talk about the langorous pace of the film as if I've mellowed. It's not me, it's a reflection of Hawaii.
Q. What were some key influences in forming your sense of humor?
A. Growing up in Omaha, having friends. Funny people in Omaha. Funny Greek people I grew up with. And early on I had a weakness for comedy in film: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers. Later, of course, I discovered Billy Wilder ("The Apartment," "Some Like It Hot"). His movies are great at combining pathos and comedy, or sleaziness and comedy. Some guy tragically careening down the wrong path, yet having a comedic take on it.
Q. Some have said this is George Clooney's best performance ever. What's your approach to directing a veteran actor like Clooney?
A. He's a smart actor, professional, very experienced. From the script and meeting me and seeing my other films, he's readily able to figure out what kind of movie I'm making. I just nudge him a little bit this way or that. Once they've been cast, I trust the actors to be themselves and bring their own creativity and energy to the parts they play. I typically give very little direction the first couple takes. I want to see what they want to do with that moment. Then I'll make suggestions.
Q. How is your approach different with a novice like Amara Miller (Clooney's younger daughter in the film)?
A. Keep her relaxed. Keep an open, fun atmosphere on the set. There has to be a feeling on a film set that there's no such thing as a mistake. That's why God gave us take two, take three. A little girl like her has to remain focused, especially when we do multiple takes.
Q. Shailene Woodley (Clooney's older daughter in the film) has talked about how relaxed and supportive your set was, and how that helped her go to vulnerable places. How do you create that kind of atmosphere?
A. I think the fact I'm having more fun making a film than any other time in my life is infectious. There's such unity of purpose as you're making a film. What's also beautiful is the uniting of 100 different artists toward a common goal. I have the privilege of interacting with all of them and showing a general direction. That's a privileged position to be in. When I feel good and relaxed, that's infectious.
Q. Director Brett Ratner ("Tower Heist") recently derided rehearsing. How much did you use rehearsal in making "The Descendants"?
A. Actually, not that much. I spend some time with the actors a week or two before shooting so we can develop a shorthand and communication can be efficient once the meter is running during production. We only shoot two or three pages a day, and actors only have to get it right once. I don't do a lot of rehearsing of individual scenes.
Q. How has turning 50 affected the kinds of stories you want to tell?
A. I don't think it's affected that at all. I'm still just always thinking about what would make a great movie.
Q. George Clooney told Entertainment Weekly that you are the real star of "The Descendants." He said, "He's such a talented director, and he's only done four movies. I tell him all the time, 'Make more movies!'" What do you think you need to do differently to get more movies made?
A. Well, one thing is, often it's looking for a story. The screenplay writing process can bog you down. Until now I've co-written all my screenplays. The next two are by others. That helps short-circuit the process.
Q. Your casting seems driven by the character, not box office. Do studio types fight you on this?
A. Not really. I just know I'll have more money to play with if I cast a star. If I'd done that for "Sideways," I might have had more money, but I didn't need more money. Casting is the one thing directors should never compromise on. That's where you get the primary expression of the tone of the film. In the event of a tie, famous people will win. The studio likes them, they're easier to market. The audience likes them too. Even mega-film nerds say, "Who's in it?" Everyone wants to know who the actors are. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church were right for "Sideways." George Clooney is right for this film.
Q. "The Descendants" is getting lots of Oscar buzz. Do you think about award season in the scheme of choosing and making your movies?
A. It doesn't enter in at all. They're completely different things. You don't think for one second about awards when making a film. All that stuff is strictly on the bonus wheel.
Q. Did the recent awards talk surprise you?
A. I was more surprised by the response to "Sideways," which I thought was a nice little comedy. That came out of nowhere for me. I'm not trying to be disingenuous. I've been more surprised before, but its always a pleasant eventuality when people feel so positively about my films. It helps keep me in business. I see all that as a commodity so I can keep making films. That's a filmmaker's No. 1 goal in life. Box office and awards help, so I'm all for them for that reason, so I can keep making films.
Q. Is there a part of you that wants to make a great big blockbuster, as opposed to the profitable but human-scale movies you've chosen to make?
A. We'd have to define blockbuster. In the past that term referred to "Gone With the Wind," "El Cid," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Guns of Navarone" — all terrific movies. Now it means comic-book, special-effects-driven movies with weak scripts that dominate our cinema. It's a much dirtier word than it used to be. If you're referring to large-scale films in the grand old tradition, yes, I'd love to make one of those.
Q. We hear the movie "Nebraska" (about an aging dad and estranged son on a road trip) may start filming as early as May.
A. That's right. It's a script I've been sitting on for years, and now finally we're going to shoot it in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, probably a little in Iowa. In terms of office and crew, it's ideal if we can find locations within spitting distance of Omaha. Whether I make it to shooting by May or not, only the gods know. But that's my plan. It's not cast yet.
Q. The New York Times says you have another movie you want to do soon after "Nebraska."
A. I'll be in Oakland, (Calif.), doing an adaptation of a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. He also wrote the screenplay for "Ghost World." He wrote another called "Wilson," which he adapted. He did a bang-up job. I want to move in quick succession from film to film.
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