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, is his most accomplished yet. The tale 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.
Though 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. Giamatti never fully believed he had won the lead in the film, even during his first few days on set. "It's an Alexander Payne movie," the actor told Back Stage West, his voice full of reverent awe. "None of it added up, none of it. I thought that he had lost his mind, and they had to be kidding me." In person, Payne hardly cuts an intimidating figure. Casual and soft-spoken, with gentle features that contradict his 43 years, he seems more concerned with making sure his guest has a beverage than with promoting his film. A native of Omaha, Neb., where his previous films have been set and filmed, he's just a good Midwestern boy at heart. Upon hearing Giamatti's praise, he only smiles. "He's the coolest," he enthuses. "He's the best actor."
Payne always looks to use the best actors, regardless of their marquee value. Take the casting of Church, whose film work has heretofore been limited to roles such as the villain in George of the Jungle. Payne admits several more marketable names pursued the role of Jack. "I got a lot of interest, it's true, which is very flattering for me," he notes. "But I wanted this guy." Payne had never seen Wings, but he had come close to casting Church twice before: once in the part that went to Matthew Broderick in Election, and once in the Dermot Mulroney role in About Schmidt. "I always liked him because he's, you know, nuts," Payne deadpans. "Finally I hauled his ass in on this one, and I thought, Maybe this is the one. This is his time."
Even though Payne's last film featured a surprisingly subtle, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Nicholson, he 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," he says. "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 of directing his spouse. "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." According to Oh, working with him was both "easy and hard." She tells Back Stage West, "He's a wonderful director to work with as an actor. As a life partner it's hard to hide things, because they know you best—like a normal bout of insecurity or actor frustration. I was terribly nervous my first two days. Suddenly I had no idea how to act, even though I know that's all I know how to do. But Alexander puts all his actors at ease." Oh was the first actor cast in the film. "He asked me to play Stephanie way before he wrote the script," she reveals. "Thankfully I didn't have to audition."
He is active in the casting process, right down to actors who play shop clerks and waiters. "I'll let my casting director whittle it down, but any speaking part, I get very involved," says Payne, who cast Sideways with John Jackson. "I kind of like the same person to be involved from the top to the bottom, the leads to extras." In the past he has used different casting directors for L.A. and Omaha, but, because this film was set so close to L.A., he and Jackson went to Santa Barbara County to cast locally. "We'd go everywhere," he recalls. "Bars, restaurants—we'd ask people if they would consider reading for a movie, non-actors and local actors." 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 always like to create a documentary sense of the location I'm shooting at," he says. But aren't there dangers in using non-professionals? "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. Know that reading the lines is really just an excuse for us to meet each other. I know that you can do the part, I know I will be there to help you do the part, and it's just a way for me to see what shade of color you are and how you occur in space, so that as I'm thinking about the different colors I can use, I have you in mind."
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. One original scene penned by Payne, and later rewritten by him and Taylor, features Madsen's character delivering a seductive monologue about her love of wine. It's a snippet of tremendous writing, likely to be used by countless actors in future auditions. "Oh, wow, I hadn't thought about that," he says. "That scene took a lot of work to get it just right."
When it comes to writing the script, he admits 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." He adds that adapting a book he's particularly fond of sometimes means being less faithful to the original. "Often, the better the book, the more radically different the movie has to be from it," he says, "because an excellent book succeeds on literary terms, which is its own thing."
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 reveals. "But it turned out fine." A typical understatement from the modest director of one of the best films of the year. BSW