"I don't think about the home where my films will land," says Alexander Payne, free-range in a film culture fenced off into art house and multiplex, to the detriment of both. He describes the audience that he writes for as "my best friends and myself . . . Then your luck in your career is that what occurs to you and your best friends as entertaining and interesting also occurs to a significant amount of others that way."
Payne is very, very lucky. The trajectory of his career has been an ongoing parallel rise in box-office success, critical estimation, and final-cut clout, from abortion satire Citizen Ruth (1996) to Election (1999) — much-cited in the 2008 Democratic primaries for its main character's not entirely flattering resemblance to Hillary Clinton — to the twin watersheds of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004). With the first, Jack Nicholson's participation made Payne a star; by the second, Payne could do the same for Paul Giamatti.
Sitting across the table at La Buvette, a wine store and restaurant in hometown Omaha's Old Market neighborhood, Payne, a trim, well-turned-out 50, the owner of two Federico Fellini sketches "given to me by an Italian Princess who lives in Hawaii," the hometown boy who can go home again, seems a success by any measure. Success has not, though, been his topic.
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Payne grew up comfortably in Omaha's Dundee neighborhood, where his parents still live, four blocks away from Warren Buffett, who of course still lives there too. About Schmidt, however, is concerned with another Warren, one unfulfilled, with Future Business Leaders of America pedigree and deferred dreams of entrepreneurship. And though Payne has had a career that most artists would sacrifice their firstborn for, Sideways follows an unpublished novelist whose manuscript receives its terminal rejection as he's touring Santa Ynez Valley wine country. ("It was kind of slight for my tastes," says Payne, happy to denigrate his own accomplishments.)
The Descendants, which opens this week in theaters, features the most prosperous protagonist of Payne's career. Matt King is Hawaiian-landed gentry, the great-great-grandson of native royalty and colonizing bluebloods who now manages the family trust and is currently faced with disposing of 25,000 acres of undeveloped paradise on Kauai to the profit of himself and a coterie of cousins. (The dilemma is how much richer to get.) King is played by George Clooney, who had previously expressed interest in the role of Jack in Sideways, a part that eventually went to Thomas Hayden Church. "I wouldn't believe the most handsome and successful movie actor playing the most washed-up TV actor," says Payne. "I didn't want that to be the joke."
Now Payne has finally cast Clooney — as a handsome, successful failure. As the film begins, King's free-spirit wife lies in a coma after a boating accident. He learns that she will not wake up, that her will stipulates pulling the plug, and that he must actively deal with two daughters for whom he has previously only been the "backup parent," a pushy 10-year-old (Amara Miller) and a wild 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley), brought back from the boarding school gulag.
"Both Schmidt and The Descendants have a protagonist who's reached a point in life who says 'I've done my job, I've been a good provider' and doesn't realize how distant he's been from others and from himself," says Payne, himself divorced with no kids. Both men are also made madly jealous upon learning of indiscretions by wives now past blame. On the recurrence of infidelity in his work, Payne is tight-lipped: "It seems pretty common, pretty dramatic. Maybe I felt some jealousy early in life, and that's made a mark. Maybe."
The Descendants draws a network of generational masculine rivalries around King — between King and his wife's goading father (Robert Forster); between King and his daughter's tagalong boyfriend (Nick Krause). The viewer sees these men at first as King does: just more burden to bear. Eventually we come to realize, through Clooney's artfully withholding reaction shots, that they are people with private fortitude and sadness all their own.
"To say something bad about someone, to caricaturize someone, but then to go, 'Yeah, but God love 'em,' that might be something particularly Midwestern," Payne says. The harsh initial judgment, followed by the recall of the same judgment, is a signature of Payne's films; my own relationship with his work went through the same recoil and reconsideration.
Where Payne's craftsmanship was always obvious, his warmth seemed more elusive; my Damascus moment was Payne's contribution to 2005 omnibus movie Paris Je T'Aime. Margo Martindale plays Carol, a husky middle-aged Denver letter carrier in tapered khakis and fanny pack, viewed on a vacation to Paris that she narrates in clomping French, as if before an adult education class. There is fun had at Carol's clumsiness — she confuses Simone de Beauvoir with Simón Bolívar, eats at bad restaurants, talks about her dogs in that way that suggests a life of profound lack — but by the time the film concludes, flat caricature has become character. While Carol sits in the Parc Montsouris, her voiceover expresses inchoate feelings within — "at the same time joy and sadness" — conveying a breadth of spirit that we're all certain we have and yet are quick to deny to others.
"If I could say I'm proud of any of my films, I would say that one," says Payne. "I think it does everything in six minutes . . . it's a little line drawing." This proved the key to unlocking Payne's work for me: Whereas once the closing shot of a teary Nicholson in About Schmidt had seemed like money-shot sentimentality, now it felt like the last stroke in that rare portrait to acknowledge its subject's ignoble and sublime aspects, with neither overriding the other.
The Descendants is Payne's first feature in seven years. "It just happened. '05 was a washout, '06, '07, '08, a lot of that time was spent writing a screenplay with Jim Taylor that we haven't made yet. Late '08 I was so anxious to beat up on actors that I did a pilot [HBO's Hung]. And then in '09, I started work on this. It just happened, I don't know where the time went."
In March, the director returned to what he calls "River City" after a year divided between shooting in Hawaii and editing in L.A.; he's preparing to shoot a new Nebraska-set film, Downsizing, next spring. A cheap flight brought me to Omaha early, two days before my lunch with Payne was scheduled. This gave me ample time to hoof it around the setting of Payne's first three features — and on foot one can still find the grotty Omaha of those films, the city he gladly left behind for Stanford years ago. "At the time, there was a lot less going on in Omaha than there is now, and young people definitely felt a lot more 'Get me out of this cowtown,'" he says. "Now people want to stay, and young people come back, but at the time it was . . . really great to leave."
Omaha's rising fortunes have matched Payne's. The Woodmen Tower where Warren Schmidt wasted his life has been surpassed in height and corporate impersonality by the First National Bank Tower, seen going up in Schmidt. Another recent construction: Film Streams' Ruth Sokolof Theater, the nonprofit repertory/arthouse film space founded in 2007, where Payne sits on the board of directors. He is, in middle age, a shameless booster. When I visit Payne at his downtown apartment, he is enthused at finding frozen guanabana at a newly discovered Peruvian grocery, a first in Omaha, and another testament to the city's burgeoning cosmopolitanism. (Payne is appalled by my previous evening's restaurant choice: "Can you believe that this guy ate at the fucking Bohemian Café?") Later, from his rooftop deck, he traces the geography of Old Omaha over a panoramic view of the New: A block north, there is the site where his grandfather and father operated a restaurant for 50 years; all around, the ghosts of long-ago-razed theaters, some of whose names, recited with pleasure, give a clear sense of moviegoing as Payne's personal universe: "In the old days, that was The World, that was The Moon, and that was The Sun . . . "
Payne's universe expanded exponentially when he left town. From Stanford, he went to UCLA's film school, finishing the education begun in now long-gone movie houses. From here, he could've very easily left Omaha in the rearview — but instead he came back to film it as he saw it. "Jason Reitman came out here to shoot a couple days on Up in the Air — because the character was supposed to be based in Omaha. And he asked me later, 'So what did you think of how I treated your city?' And I said, 'You didn't. I didn't see Omaha in there at all. I heard the name, but I didn't see it.'"
As we're increasingly asked to accept the outskirts of Vancouver or Toronto as Anytown, USA, Payne remains dedicated to pinning down regional particularities. The specificities of his last two source novels — Nebraska is not famous for its pinot — have taken him abroad, but he retains a keen eye for local variants. "I don't know why; I'm very interested somehow in 'a sense of place' . . . I hadn't ever really seen Honolulu in a film, and that was one of the appeals of doing [The Descendants]." This meant Payne's usual process of populating the film with locally sourced non-actors, all toward "getting that very specific, complex, kind of intimidating social fabric out there."
Based on the debut novel by Hawaiian-born Kaui Hart Hemmings, much of the film's humor comes from the antagonism between King, molded by old-money dictums of responsibility and never, ever drawing on his principle and the island's prevailing "hang loose" attitude. Regardless of location, Payne brings certain Midwestern values with him: "By the way, that line where [King] says, 'I agree with my father: You give your kids just enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing'? That's stolen from Warren Buffett. That's an Omaha line."
Although not so confrontational as Election, Payne's latest retains his wicked sense of humor rooted in discord — the friction between different class-based social expectations, between a purposeful past and a aimless present, between intensity of feeling and ridiculousness of expression. Payne pays great attention to the sound in his films, those little subversive elements in the mix that undercut the most dramatic moments with absurdity, like the flap-flap-flap of King's docksides as he sprints out of his house, faced with the fact of his wife's unfaithfulness. "For me, the funniest cut in The Descendants is when Judy Greer goes to the wife's bedside, says 'Hello, I'm Julie, I'm Brian's wife.' And then it cuts to the woman's face" — here Payne tosses his head back, mouth agape, imitating the comatose Mrs. King — "That always makes me laugh. That's a grim cut."
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There is a sense of sad, stoic acceptance at the end of The Descendants that one more closely associates with Japanese than with Western cinema. And throughout his work, Payne returns so consistently to failure that failure seems to be his definition of life itself. In place of triumph, he offers only the possibility of small victories before the final, inevitable loss.
When, over lunch, I observe to Payne that his movies aren't "redemptive," he replies cheerily, "Thank you!" I want him to admit how unique his position is, to have captured such a large audience while expressing such a basically pessimistic worldview. When I press him, though, he always returns with, "Isn't that life?" — as if he can't imagine anyone taking it for anything else. "Look: An elephant dies. All the other elephants stamp" — here he clomps his hands on the table — "and throw dirt around and trumpet" — here he waves his arms to simulate wagging trunks — "and get really depressed." Now he sits still. "And then they move on."