Alexander Payne, the director of Sideways, spoke at screenings of his Citizen Ruth and Election on the third day of the Golden State Film Festival.
Monday, March 23, 2009
He's a dead ringer for British actor Steve Coogan. He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and shot three of his four feature films there. He directed Election, purportedly Barack Obama's favorite film on politics.
These were just a few insights of filmdom obtained at director/writer Alexander Payne's appearance at the Golden State Film Festival this past Sunday. Onstage before a crowd of enthusiastic festival-goers, Payne fielded questions from the audience and festival co-organizer Steve Leiber—in an easy-going but deliberate manner—on everything from film theory to casting stories to technical details and more.
His first film screened was the uncompromising and raw satire Citizen Ruth, starring Laura Dern as an alcoholic and a huffer (of glue and aerosols) down on her luck and doing little to change it. After having four children taken away by the state, she's pregnant and penniless when she gets arrested for the 16th time. After bailing out of jail, she's taken in by a Christian family of anti-abortionists, and later by lesbian pro-choice activists and their Vietnam vet security man. It mixes political commentary, human drama and deadpan satire, but maintains an impartial stance on the whole matter.
After the film (and after enthusiastic applause) Payne spoke to and with the festival audience.
“How did you know Laura Dern would do such a good job in the role?” an audience member asked him.
“She's been doing good work all along,” replied Payne. “She was terrific in the David Lynch film...um...it'll come to me.”
“Blue Velvet!” shouted someone.
“Wild at Heart!” shouted another.
“No,” said Payne. “A recent one.”
“Inland Empire,” replied Payne, in one of several exchanges that turned the Q&A into a townhall-style conversation. He recalled that the script found Dern through her then-boyfriend Jeff Goldblum. “Then I started hearing from her people.”
More insider insights: “I had a good experience [at Harvey Weinstein's Miramax]. Others have had a tricky experience there, with final cut. I had little interference. But at Sundance I had to put a title card at the end that hinted that [Laura Dern's character] had a good life. The audience applause came right before that...Harvey said, 'You don't need the title card.'”
“Liberal critics said I should have favored the pro-choice side—said it was a cop-out. [New York Times film critic]A.O. Scott recently did a “Hey, remember this film?” pick—it's now considered bold. It's aged well.”
On getting actors: “Before landing Laura Dern, I though the best actress for [Citizen Ruth] was Mare Winningham.” At this the audience sighed approvingly. “At one time I had George Clooney and Ed Norton for the leads in Sideways. It took me four films to be able to get the power to make the film the star,” he said, on securing financing.
“In Citizen Ruth, all the actors made scale. Even Laura Dern. She made—what was it?--$2,100 a week? But it happens all the time in Hollywood. An actor will make a big, blockbuster film, then they can afford to do the films they care about. Look at that pretty, blond South African woman...”
From the crowd: “Charlize Theron!”
“She won the Oscar for Monster,” said Payne. “Halle Berry—Monster's Ball.”
When asked how he got the cast for Citizen Ruth, he replied succinctly: “The script did it.” Did the actors adlib? “[The movie] is the script, word for word.”
On the process of filmmaking: “I'm not able to multi-task. For me it's: write, look for financing, direct, edit, rest. Write, look for financing, direct, edit, rest.” In response to a rambling, convoluted “question” about inspiration and energy from a self-described CSUMB film student, Payne turns to wit: “Can truth be obtained through reason?” It cracks up the theater crowd.Then he entertains the proposition.
“The flash of an idea can give you momentum for a few years,” he says. “In interviews, saying the same thing 500 times in a row—it's a nice problem to have. I've always got my antenna a-quiver.”
An audience member asks Payne about some subtle symbolism in the film's abortion clinic scene concerning a vacuum cleaner and Payne queries him back: “Did you catch the coat hangers?”
He says, good-naturedly, that the movie Juno “stole” a bit of background symbolism from his Citizen Ruth. He follows it up by pointing out how averse Juno was to the subject of abortion, unlike his Citizen Ruth.
He gives the audience a heads-up on another bit of symbolism in the next film to be screened, Election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.
“People are constantly throwing things away. It's a theme.”
Maybe as a sign that he's enjoying the audience's presence as much as they are enjoying his, at the end of his post-Citizen Ruth chat, he asks: “Want to talk about Election? You guys staying for Election?”
Cheers answer him most affirmatively. And like that, he decides to stay with the crowd of film lovers, to talk more after his second film, to share in the mutual respect and adoration for one of the most popular and accessible art forms around. It's a medium that touches everyone—even presidents. After recounting that President Barack Obama divulged that Election is his favorite political film, Payne mitigates the high praise: “He probably says that to all the directors.”
Payne drops more film lore and behind-the-scenes dispatches after the screening for Election. Some highlights:
“They tell you in screenwriting class to avoid [voice-overs], but I like it...the discrepancy between an unreliable narrator and what you're seeing.”
Someone in the audience referred to his film school thesis film; a reference so obscure that Payne offered to talk with that person privately after his Q&A.
When asked which Hollywood film best replicates the real Hollywood, Payne offers Robert Altman's The Player. Then adds, “Truffaut's Day for Night, and Living in Oblivion is about filmmaking and pretty damned accurate.”
“Orson Welles said any reasonably intelligent person can learn to make a film in 10 minutes. A dumb person—45 minutes.”
When asked, prior to leaving the theater to catch a flight back to L.A., if, as a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures, he had voted for his own Oscar-nominated film Sideways, he responded: “No way! That would be too weird.”