His latest film, "The Descendants," tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a land baron in Hawaii who also is a distant descendant of King Kamehameha. Matt finds himself tasked with raising his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after his wife has a boating accident that places her in an irreversible coma. The film is full of complex and fascinating people, from his wife's angry father (Robert Forster) to her secret lover (Matthew Lillard) to his kind but clueless wife (Judy Greer). Even characters with only a few lines create fully realized individuals, thanks to the writing by Payne, Jim Rash, and Nat Faxon. And somehow Payne, a nice Midwestern boy from Omaha, Neb., understands the culture and lifestyle of Hawaii well enough to make the state its own character onscreen.
There's a reason actors line up to work with Payne, who has gotten career-making performances from greats such as Reese Witherspoon ("Election") and Paul Giamatti ("Sideways"). As Lillard told Back Stage, "To speak to the talent of Alexander Payne real quick: This is a movie about a guy, his wife is dying, he's left with two kids, and [he's dealing with] indigenous land rights in Hawaii. There's not a studio in the world that would make that, except for Fox Searchlight. And Alexander Payne made it so that it's funny and touching."
Back Stage: All your films have been such critical successes; do you feel the pressure to continue that winning streak?
Alexander Payne: The pressure I have is internal, to make what I think is a good film. The person whose opinion I'm most interested in is my own, in a way. I'm at once humble enough and pretentious enough to say that I'm looking forward to making something really good in the future. These are fine little films that I feel I'm still cutting my teeth on and learning how to make a film and what a film is. I'm 50 now, and I hope this decade I can try and make one really good one.
Back Stage: How do you alleviate that pressure for yourself?
Payne: I'm always going to have that pressure in my life, because I want all my films to be good. But I want to work with the freedom that I could also be making a failure, as well. I used to be friends with an old Czech film director, and when I said goodbye to him as I was going off to make "Citizen Ruth," he said, "Oh, and one more thing." And I turned at the door, and he said, "Make a failure." Which means: Be free. Be free to just make what comes out; don't think about if it's good or bad; just go.
Back Stage: Were there different stakes on this film, coming off an Oscar-winning picture?
Payne: Actually, the pressure I felt in this one was about making a film in Hawaii—which is a very unique, complex, sometimes intimidating culture that has a very strong sense of "this is our culture, you're from outside, who is this mainlander coming out here to tell our story." All those traps you can fall into out there, I was very aware of that. And I knew that I wasn't telling a story about Hawaii but about this one little corner, this self-styled aristocracy. Still, whatever's happening in Hawaii in the background had to be right. The rhythms had to be right; it's not just the right locations and costumes. I'm reading some of these reviews now, and they say, "Oh, Payne has a certain languorous rhythm." I would say it's not me. That's Hawaii, coming through the film. Things just kind of slide this way and that, a little bit. This is all a long-winded way of saying I did feel internal pressure, within me, to get it right.
Back Stage: Obviously you had the Kaui Hart Hemmings book as a source, but how did you get to know the culture so well?
Payne: I read a lot of history, talked to a lot of people—I was the frequent victim of the coconut wireless. On the other hand, I became friends with Gavan Daws, who wrote that book "Shoal of Time," which is still the best single-volume historical survey of Hawaii. He's an Aussie who's been there since '58. He knows more about the history of Hawaii than any other single living human. And even he said, "I've been there for 50 years, and it's more of a mystery than ever to me." So I can't purport to have mastered anything; I just had to get enough right so that the film rang true. Another thing I was proud of was the music in the film. I made the decision to use 100 percent preexisting Hawaiian music.
Back Stage: You originally met with George Clooney when you were casting "Sideways"—he was interested in the role that ultimately went to Thomas Haden Church. Is that where you first started thinking of him for "The Descendants"?
Payne: In retrospect, yes. But when I was making "Sideways," I had no idea that "The Descendants" was coming my way. But it did spark in me an interest to work with Clooney. I really dig him as an actor and a star—he's so appealing and so interesting in what he does. Look at the range he's got, from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"—which is an extreme comic part—to his deadly sobriety in "Michael Clayton," and his compelling charm in the "Ocean's" movies. He's always good; you always look at him. People tell me, "A half an hour into the film, I'm able to forget it's Clooney. He seems so Everymanish." But still, you look at him, as opposed to other people in the frame.
Back Stage: Did you have him in mind when you were writing the script?
Payne: Yeah, I did.
Back Stage: I've been told that's dangerous to do, but I guess there aren't many actors you can't get. Does anyone say no to you?
Payne: Early on, on "Citizen Ruth," I had some noes. I don't think I've had a no since then.
Back Stage: It seems every actor wants to work with you—
Payne: Oh good, that means they can take less money and I can keep my budgets low, which I need to do. [Laughs.]
Back Stage: You've said that you like actors who can act "fast" can you elaborate on that?
Payne: A movie needs to be zippy. Kurosawa used to say of Mifune: "He can express in three gestures what it takes other actors seven." Film is a constant search for economy, so you want actors to act quickly.
Back Stage: So you don't necessarily mean talking fast, just communicating things in a short amount of time?
Payne: Yes. I am impressed by how quickly and effectively they can communicate what needs to be communicated.
Back Stage: Matthew Lillard said that when he went into his audition, he was surrounded by muscular pretty boys. Were you originally looking for a different type for his role?
Payne: I didn't know what I was looking for. Come one, come all.
Back Stage: So you really are open to anything in some instances?
Payne: Absolutely. That's the best. It's very limiting if a director has something in mind super specific for a part; that could be great, but it could also be that the director is the one who is going to suffer the most from the burden of that limited vision. Not always, but it can be so. You have to have your eyes open to what the gods bring you that you never in a million years could have imagined. That's what's beautiful about filmmaking: these beautiful, weird things that the gods bring you.
Back Stage: Do you make your decisions pretty quickly? A lot of your cast of "The Descendants" only had one audition.
Payne: Yes. I believe Judy only had one audition. Lillard had only one audition. Shailene went on tape and sent it in; then I met her. I only need once. I get it. I know what the hell it is.
Back Stage: Have you ever been wrong?
Payne: Rarely. Sometimes they're one-line parts. I've screwed up a couple one-line day players—one, in particular, on "About Schmidt." But no, I'm pretty right, and I have a great casting director [John Jackson]. I give myself few compliments in filmmaking, but I cast well. Because that's your movie. I'm just trying to find the movie that I myself would want to see. That's my job. Even on the set when the actors are doing it and I have my camera, watching their performance, I'm watching them, but it's like it's going in and it's being projected on a movie screen in my brain. So I'm the only one on set actually sitting in the theater, watching the movie. And everybody else has their own little niche—the actors, the photographers, the gaffers, the dolly grip—but I'm the only one who's just there sitting in the movie theater, popcorn in hand, watching the movie. Saying, "Oh, it should be a little bit more to the left. No, that's a little slow; it should be a little faster." That's all it is. It's easy. Anybody could do it.
Back Stage: Judy has praised her role in the film as being one of the most fully written characters she's played, even in just three scenes. Do you write with as much attention to detail for every role, not just the leads?
Payne: You have to. And for actors, it's tough for bit players or smaller character parts. They have it hardest on a film, because they have to suggest an entire human being in one or two or three scenes. It's easier on leads, because they have the landscape of the whole film to build and suggest that character. But I learned that from Giamatti. He said, "It's much easier to play a lead than a character part."
Back Stage: You've said you have to cast the right actor for the part; are you in the fortunate position that money doesn't enter the equation? There's no pressure to cast a name?
Payne: I mean, if I cast stars in parts, I get more money to make the movie with, typically. But at least I have enough of a reputation that it seems if I keep my budget on the low side, which I always have to date, then I have much greater leeway in casting. "Sideways" was the first movie, my fourth feature, where I didn't have to have a star to get any financing at all. I finally had enough reputation on my own to cast who I wanted.
Back Stage: Is there anything you want actors to know if they're fortunate enough to audition for you?
Payne: Take it easy, there are no mistakes, and I don't expect a performance at all. It's really a glorified meeting. But what are we going to talk about? We might as well read the words from the script. And it gives me a vague idea of how sounds sound coming out of your head. Another analogy I've used: It's a pencil sketch on a cocktail napkin for what later is going to be a great oil painting. And we might even throw that sketch away. I don't care. Give me some credit as a director to see through the artificiality of an audition. It's really no big deal.
Received his MFA in 1990 from UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Wrote "The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book" with James Zemaitis and "The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life" with frequent co-writer Jim Taylor
Likes to cast Phil Reeves in his movies; Reeves can be seen in a coffee shop in "Sideways," as a minister in "About Schmidt," and as the principal in "Election"