Award-winning director Alexander Payne visited Wheaton College on Thurs. April 5 for an open-to-the-public Q&A session after the screening of his 2004 film, “Sideways.” He chose to show his older Oscar and Academy award winning film rather than his recent release “The Descendents” because he knew Sideways was a movie that most people hadn’t recently seen on the big screen, especially the attending college students who would have been well under the 17 age limit for rated R movies back in 2004.
An adptation of an unpublished novel, the movie featured actor Thomas Hayden-Church, who plays a soon-to-be-married actor, and Paul Giamatti, his depressed friend and wine connoisseur still recovering from his divorce and struggling to get his novel published. The two men take a week long road trip where they golf, go to wine-tastings, attempt to get laid, and explore the depths of their friendship. Payne describes the relationship between Giamatti and Chruch’s characters to be a “really pathetic struggle,” but one that it in the end “earns a kind of genuine sense of a journey.”
A huge film buff since he was about five years old, Payne’s career started in college, which “cemented my desire to go to film school.” In particular, it was the move “The Seven Samurai” that inspired him to begin directing, “it just blew my mind. I didn’t know film could do that.” Subsequently, Payne went to UCLA Film School to get his MFA, created a popular thesis film, and five years later scored his first feature, “Citizen Ruth.” Now, with multiple awards under his belt and a long list of highly regarded movies, Payne is still trying to move American cinema forward. He is currently working on two projects. One is a film about a father-son road trip where the two get sidetracked in the father’s hometown where he has a few scores to settle. The second is an adaptation of the graphic novel “Wilson” by Daniel Clowes. Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor have also taken a few money jobs in the past, the most famous being “Jurassic Park 3,” “Meet the Parents,” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”
When asked about his process transcribing a novel into a screenplay, he says, “to try to convert the literary into cinematic, read the book a few times, take notes, then throw it away and never go back to it.” He rewrites the book in movie-format from memory, creating his own unique story while staying true to the original book. He did admit, however, that while The Descendents was “the only time I’ve done a movie with the book open on the desk half the time.”
Because he does not watch much contemporary American cinema, Payne does not let Hollywood stardom and reputation choose his cast, but instead looks for talented actors who can capture the personality of his characters in a true-to-life fashion. He described his search for actors to be “super intuitive … I really rely on auditions … I look for people that I feel could make bad dialogue work.”
Payne loves movies with open endings and he describes them as being “like dew drops suspended from the endings of leaves.” He recommended a long list of 70s films including “Harold & Maude,” “Annie Hall,” “Pay Day,” “Being There,” “Shampoo,” “Coming Home,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Marathon Man.” For a film with “the finest ending in a movie,” he recommended City Lights. Payne commented that in movie making, “you want to show as little as possible. You tell [the audience] two plus two, you don’t tell them four. Invite the viewer to participate in the story. For me, it’s crucial.”
The films he recommends as well as the films he creates do just that, creating a unique mixture of plot and audience participation and interpretation. He “respects the privacy of the characters” in his films because, as he said, “I want to show truthful things. I think movies too often lie and I don’t like that.”
While Payne tries to stay away from the action-packed, flat films seen in most movie theaters today, he said, “I just like movies that somehow say to me ‘you’re not alone.” A fan of the golden age for film-making, the 1970s, Payne admitted, “I’m still trying to make 70s movies. I haven’t changed. American cinema has.”
Alexander Payne’s visit to Wheaton College brought together the campus and the community, reminding the audience that in an era of over-the-top action movies featuring unnecessary car crashes, explosions, and mindless entertainment through special effects, thought-provoking film and cinematic art still exists as long as you look for it.