Alexander Payne on his life at the movies
NEW YORK -- Alexander Payne is equal parts filmmaker and film buff.
The Omaha-born filmmaker, for example, found time while premiering his latest, "Nebraska," at the Cannes Film Festival to see 10 other films (including the four-hour "Cleopatra" restoration). And he chased that with a five-day movie-going binge in Paris.
Payne, 52, who has an elegant manner to match his refined tastes, frequents film festivals. He habitually programs repertory theaters. He filled a recent sleepless night with F.W. Munrau's silent classic "Nosferatu," which he hadn't seen. ("We all have gaps," he says.)
With the release Friday of his black-and-white, father-son road trip "Nebraska," the director reflects on his life at the movies.
Q. Where did your love for movies begin?
A. Growing up in Omaha in the '60s and '70s, we could see foreign films all the time. ... Then when we were teenagers, because it was in my neighborhood, we could walk to the university and see 16mm prints of second-run foreign films on Friday nights. At 16, we were watching "The Night Porter" and "Amarcord" and "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." I was always in search of silent film.
Q. Why is that?
A. Because they're so good. Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd are like Da Vinci, Giotto, Michelangelo. The first comedy that really knocked me out was "Modern Times."
Q. Where did the satire come in for you?
A. I could intellectualize it and say comedy is a wonderful device for distance that allows us to look at what we're talking about with some degree of distance and hopefully with a bit more perspective and honesty. With many exceptions, a movie with no jokes is far less appealing to me.
Q. Some critics have questioned whether there's sometimes an ironic distance between you and your characters.
A. Not in my heart. I find often, not always, that those who accuse me of making fun of the characters are themselves the most arrogant. Not always, but often.
Q. In your short for the 2006 anthology film "Paris je t'aime," with Margo Martindale as an American tourist in Paris, you went from caricature to an emotional epiphany in minutes. She has a sudden feeling of both joy and melancholy, which makes her feel alive.
A. That little short is my style in a nutshell. I'm proud of that little short. I was just in Greece only to be reminded that my forebears had those two masks: one laughing and the other crying. They're not two separate things.
Q. Was film school a joyful time for you?
A. Totally. I was six years in film school, so by the time I graduated, I had been in film school for a fifth of my life. To this day, my closest friends in LA are my film school friends and they remain the first audience to see my films during post. That was a very formative time for me. Plus, not only was I making movies, but I had constant access to the UCLA Film and Television archive. The main reason it took me six years to get out of film school was that I spent so much time in the auditorium watching movies.
Q. Do you watch films with your crew while prepping a film?
A. During pre-production, I have movie night at my house. We start about 10 or 12 weeks out with just a few of us, and by a week or two before shooting, my house is jammed packed with crew members. It's pizza, salad, wine and beer. And that's it. Sometimes during post, I do Friday night movie night with martinis.
Q. How do you consider this era? Many have pointed this year to Steven Spielberg saying Hollywood's blockbuster-heavy business is headed for "implosion."
A. If that's true that some of the old growth forest, the big, big trees, are toppling over, well, too bad for them. But on the other hand, maybe some new growth can sprout up. I'm all for -- this is my mantra -- the $20 to $25 million adult comedy and adult drama that has a generous amount of shooting days to make a good film.
Q. When "The Descendants" came out, you regretted that you weren't making films quicker. "Nebraska" is coming out two years later, which is an improvement.
A. The thing is, I can make them relatively quickly if I just have the screenplay. The only holdup is the screenplay. I want to be making two movies a year. I'm exaggerating, but certainly one every year, year-and-a-half. On the other hand, I want to speak only when I have something to say.