Saturday, November 18, 2000

Interview w/ Alexander Payne


Moderator:    Casey Spiegel
November 12, 2013
7:30 p.m. EST

Casey Spiegel:       Hi.  My name is Casey.  I’m with Paramount.  I have Alexander Payne on the line.

Alexander Payne:  Hi, everybody.

Female:                  Hey.

Male:                     Hi.

Casey Spiegel:       So like my colleague, Chris, mentioned, we’re just going to go down our list.  Everybody will have the opportunity to ask a question.  Make sure that you do have other questions lined up in case your question gets asked.  And we will try to accommodate everyone, but as a reminder, the call is 30 minutes.  So we’re just going to do the best we can.

                              And with that, we’ll go ahead and start with U.S.C, (Rex) (Inaudible)?

Alexander Payne:  Hello, (Rex).

Rex Lindeman:     Hi there, Alex.  How are you doing? 

Alexander Payne:  Good, good, good.  Thanks, man.

Rex Lindeman:     Absolutely.  First I’d like to preface by saying on behalf of all of us, thank you very much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to speak with us about your film coming out.  And it really does mean a lot to every single one of us. 

Alexander Payne:  You know Michelangelo Antonioni, when he was doing his press tour for “Zabriskie Point” in 1969 only spoke to college press. 

Rex Lindeman:     Oh, really.

Alexander Payne:  Yes, he said I don’t want to talk to any mainstream press, only college press.

Rex Lindeman:     Whoa.  We definitely feel very privileged to have you do that.  So once again, thank you very much.

                              Anyways, so the question that I would like to ask – nowadays that we have generations being raised on color television, color movies, and especially cartoons, is that a widely-released film that is depicted in black and white is seen as a deviation from the norm, when back in the early days of film that was expected.

                              So I would like to know what is the stylistic choice behind setting “Nebraska” in monochrome?  Was that something that was decided in the beginning or was “Nebraska” something that was shot in color and then it was decided in post-production to put it in black and white?

Alexander Payne:  Yes.  When I first read the script nine years ago, I imagined it only in black and white.  The very austere nature of the screenplay to me suggested a visual style in black and white.

                              Now, and then briefly I shot digitally.  I shot using the ALEXA camera, which records all of the visual information, including all of the colors.  But the film was designed entirely for black and white, in terms of the tonalities and the shadings and how we used production design and costume design.

                              As far as audiences being used only to color, that’s true, but still, people know black and white exists.  Black and white never left commercial – I’m sorry, never left fine art photography.  You can’t imagine Ansel Adams and today’s SebastiĆ£o Salgado – you can’t imagine those dudes working in color.

Rex Lindeman:     Right.

Alexander Payne:  It’s a beautiful form and I don’t think you’re seeing – younger people who have only seen color TVs haven’t seen black and white movies and don’t know that our great film heritage is largely in black and white.

                              The other thing is it might be a format which is so old that it’s actually new again and kind of exciting.

Casey Spiegel:       Great.  All right, we’ll move onto our next question.

Rex Lindeman:     OK, thank you.

Alexander Payne:  Thanks, (Rex).

Rex Lindeman:     Absolutely.

Casey Spiegel:       Patrick Wilkinson at Cal State Northridge?  Fire away.

Patrick Wilkinson: Hello, Mr. Payne.

Alexander Payne:  Yes, (Patrick), I can barely hear you so speak up.

Patrick Wilkinson: I’m sorry.  Can you hear me now?

Alexander Payne:  Yes, sir.

Patrick Wilkinson: OK.  My question is, I’m curious, do you have any particular rituals that you sort of perform to get you into a particular mindset when you direct?

Alexander Payne:  I anoint my entire body with olive oil.  It also keeps me warm.

Patrick Wilkinson: That’s pretty funny. 

Alexander Payne:  Yes, no, what did you mean by rituals to get me in the mentality to direct?

Patrick Wilkinson: Well, just – well, I don’t know, just anything in particular.  I think Darren Aronofsky, I think he sort of grows out his beard for the duration of the film and then shaves it off once everything has been completed.  I’m just curious if you have any sort of – like it’s a ritual or something

Alexander Payne:  No, I actually have a guy who works with me, (Tracy Boyd).  He works kind of as a very close creative assistant.  He shaves his hair on the first day of production and lets it grow out. 

Patrick Wilkinson: Oh, OK.

Alexander Payne:  Yes, but I personally don’t, no.

Patrick Wilkinson: OK.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  And our next question is going to be from (Mohammed) at NYU.

Alexander Payne:  Hello, (Mohammed). 

Mohamed Hassan:      Hi, Alexander.  I just wanted to know what the thought process was with picking the cast.  Because it seems like a very diverse cast.

Alexander Payne:  Have you seen – have you all seen the film, by the way?

Mohamed Hassan:      No.

Male:                     No.

Female:                  No.

Alexander Payne:  Oh, no one has seen it.  OK. 

Tyler Stevens:       I’ve seen it.

Alexander Payne:  Who’s that?

Tyler Stevens:       I’m Tyler from

Alexander Payne:  Oh, very good, OK.  So in terms of – repeat the question again, (Mohammed).

Mohamed Hassan:      I wanted to know what your thought process was with getting the cast together because it seems like a very diverse cast. 

Alexander Payne:  What do you mean by diverse?

Mohamed Hassan:      Just like I guess a (bunch of) people, I would say, special skills, I guess, that just aren’t really too similar.  Like, how do I say that? 

Alexander Payne:  You mean the fact that you have Bruce Dern, who’s an old seasoned professional, together with Will Forte, who comes from “Saturday Night Live,” and then together with people who have never been in a movie before, just hired off the farm in Nebraska?  You mean like that?

Mohamed Hassan:      Yes. 

Alexander Payne:  OK, good.  Listen, man, I pretty much rely on auditions for everyone, even from the leads and of course down to the smaller performers.

                              But my movies combine, typically, three groups of actors.  One group is the highly seasoned professionals.  The other is non-professional actors, maybe people from community theater and commercials.  And then another, the third group, is non-actors.  That is to say, people who have never acted in their lives before, but who bring a certain level of reality to a movie.

                              So working with my casting director, we have somewhat similar but also different techniques to find actors we want in those three groups and then making sure that in the resulting film it’s as though they’re all part of the same movie, that you can’t tell too much difference between who’s a seasoned professional, who’s a non-actor and who’s a non-actor, that they’re all part of the same tapestry.

                              And to explain how we do that would take too much time.  But that’s the basic idea. 

                              And unlike other directors, I rarely have actors concretely in mind when I start a movie.  I really, really rely on auditions.

                              In “Sideways,” for example, Thomas Haden Church, Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen – I met them all on auditions. 

                              “The Descendants,” same thing.  Shailene Woodley, who’s now having a huge career in “Divergent” and “The Spectacular Now” and all this stuff, she’s becoming a big star.  She got her start in “The Descendants.”  I met her on an audition.  I thought, oh, this gal’s got some talent.

                              So those are some thoughts on casting.

Mohamed Hassan:      Thank you again.

Alexander Payne:  Yes.

Casey Spiegel:       Our next question is from Samantha at Northwestern.

Alexander Payne:  Hi, Samantha.

Samantha Rose:    Hi.  I have a question about in the past, for a majority of your projects, you’ve either written the script or were heavily involved in the screenwriting process.  So how did this impact filming “Nebraska” in retrospect as opposed to other films you made in the past?

Alexander Payne:  You mean the fact that I didn’t write it?

Samantha Rose:    Yes, because as a film student, a lot of times you see when you give the script to a director that hasn’t necessarily written it, they kind of bring it a different vision to the scrip versus when you have a director-screenwriter?  And for most of the films that I’ve seen of yours, you’re director-screenwriter.

Alexander Payne:  Correct. 

                              On this one, no, I didn’t write the screenplay originally, although I rewrote it before shooting.  Not enough to want to seek screen credit.  Because I kept the fellow’s basic vision.  The fellow meaning Bob Nelson, the writer, his basic vision and structure intact.  And I was just helping that, adding lines of dialogue, subtracting things, all of which just to make it more directable by me and also more personal to me.

                              But in general, Samantha, to answer your question, it was a very similar process to when I adapt novels, which I’ve done with “Election,” “Sideways,” and “The Descendants,” which is to take a world, a story and a world suggested by someone else, and turn it into a movie with my sensibility, but also respecting the source material.

                              Having a dialogue, if you will, with that source material.  So I felt that that was quite similar.  And the script was already far enough along and within my wheelhouse, I would say, that even though the changes I made were less than an adaptation of a novel, for example, it still felt like something I might have written from the get-go.

Samantha Rose:    OK, thank you so much.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  And our next question is going to be from (Katherine) at the University of North Texas

Katherine Martinez:    Hi.

Alexander Payne:  Hi there.

Katherine Martinez:    So you had previously mentioned that you had read the script nine years ago. 

Alexander Payne:  Right.

Katherine Martinez:    What did it – has it changed as far as like in your mind?  And what took so long to make it (inaudible) (a film that you would be happy with)?

Alexander Payne:  Yes, it’s not a terribly profound answer I’m going to give you.  The only reason I didn’t make it nine years ago is that I was just finishing “Sideways,” and that’s a road movie, two guys in a car.  And this movie is two guys in a car.  And I didn’t want to make two road trip movies right in a row. 

                              I thought, well, let me make something else and then I’ll circle around to “Nebraska.”  I just didn’t know it was going to take so damn long between “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”

                              But so it was.  It took those five or six years.  And as soon as I was done with “The Descendants” film, I jumped on this thing.  So I’ve made two in a row quite quickly. 

Katherine Martinez:    Yes, absolutely, well thank you. 

Alexander Payne:  You bet.  Thanks for the question.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  Our next question is going to be from (Isaiah) at the University of Houston).

Alexander Payne:  Hi, (Isaiah).

(Isaiah Pena):        Hi, Alex.  Again, thanks for listening on this call.  My question for you is – my question is more specifically towards the music.  Like did you have any influence in what you wanted the movie to be in the film and why you went with a Tin Hat member?

Alexander Payne:  Usually – well, in this movie, like my first four, I was fully anticipating to hire the composer Rolfe Kent to score the film. 

                              However, when you’re editing a movie, you may know that before the composer gets involved, the editor and director start putting music into the film from – maybe taken from other movies or from records, found music.  We call it temp, temporary music, temp music, as kind of placeholders to suggest the future rhythm and tone that we want the final score to be, to possess.

                              But once in a while there’s a syndrome called temp love – you fall in love with your temp music.  And you become averse to the idea of hiring a composer to improve it because it seems unimprovable.  That had never happened to me before, but it happened on this one.  And the more we started using this temp music, the more it felt like a perfect fit.

                              And I had to call my composer and say forgive me, but I’m not going to hire you on this one after all.  I explained the situation.

                              And we contacted Mark Orton of Tin Hat.  He lives up in Portland.  And we told him what we were doing and he was only too delighted to drop what he was doing and help us tailor his music for the film and compose some new tracks.  So that’s how it worked out. 

(Isaiah Pena):        Oh, interesting, thank you.

Alexander Payne:  Yes, you bet.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  And next is Tyler from

Alexander Payne:  Hello, Tyler.

Tyler Stevens:       Hi.  Hi, thank you. 

Alexander Payne:  You’re the only one who’s seen the film?

Tyler Stevens:       Yes.  I saw the film last (week).

Alexander Payne:  Where did you see it?

Tyler Stevens:       I saw it at the Laemmle in North Hollywood.  In Los Angeles.

Alexander Payne:  Very good.

Tyler Stevens:       And I loved it when I saw it last week. 

Alexander Payne:  (Thanks).

Tyler Stevens:       When I saw it, I was very struck by the locations.  It’s very unusual.  I live in a big city.  It was just very nice to see.  What was it like filming in kind of very small towns across America?

Alexander Payne:  It was really fun.  And I – most of the shooting was in northeastern Nebraska.  I happen to be from Omaha.  But a lot of Omahans don’t really know the rural rest of the state.  So it was a nice excuse for me to get to know the rest of my state.

                              And it took over a year of scouting.  I put over 20,000 miles on my car scouting Nebraska to find – what I was looking for was a main small town where I can house the crew, around which town orbit very small towns of say between 900 and 1,500 people.  Towns I could use to piece together the mythical town of Hawthorne, Nebraska in the film.

                              So I wound up picking Norfolk, Nebraska, population 25,000, and around it are about 10 or 12 small towns that I used, namely one called Plainview, Nebraska

                              And so it was – but listen, man, when you’re making a – after the screenplay is as good as it can be, the most important thing is then, for me, choosing the locations and choosing the cast.  And for this film, both took well over a year. 

Tyler Stevens:       Thank you very much.

Alexander Payne:  You’re very welcome.

Casey Spiegel:       Just a reminder to make sure your phone’s on mute if it’s not your turn to speak.  I just heard a phone and some breathing.  So remember, you can mute your line by pushing star six, and unmute the same way.

                              Our next question is going to be from (Juan) at Florida International University.

Alexander Payne:  Casey, you’re so (efficient).  Wow.

                              Hi, (Juan), you’re at Florida State?

Juan Barquin:        No, Florida International University.

Alexander Payne:  Oh, Florida International University.  OK.

Juan Barquin:        Not as good, but.

Alexander Payne:  Yes, OK.

Juan Barquin:        You’re a big silent film aficionado.  Like, I read not interviews, but a speech from the (inaudible) film festival, and you talk about how humanistic silent films are.  And I know your films themselves are very humanistic and rich in dialogue and even one-liners and that reflects on the characters a lot.  But would you ever want to try your hand at a silent film, especially with the sort of (rise) in silent films that there have been lately?

Alexander Payne:  I wouldn’t say there’s a rise.  The only commercially released ones, there have been two – “The Artist,” of course, and then “Blancanieves” from Spain.

Juan Barquin:        I was also thinking of (“Taboo”) and (Guy Maddin’s) films.

Alexander Payne:  What’s (“Taboo”)?  Is that a (Guy Maddin) film?

Juan Barquin:        No, it’s – oh, I can’t remember where it’s from, but it was a foreign film from last year. 

Alexander Payne:  OK.  Nevertheless, even including (Guy Maddin), most filmgoers sadly would not know a (Guy Maddin) film. 

                              It’s still a very small output of modern silent films.  But I love the form.  I would love to do it, absolutely.  I just haven’t gotten that far yet.  I don’t know if I’ve ever said that silent films are more particularly humanistic.  I may not have used that word.  But it is a super cool visual form. 

                              And for those of you who don’t know, when talkies came in in the late ’20s, film geeks were kind of appalled because they thought, “Oh, the flowering of visual storytelling is going to wilt and people are just going to have basically filmed plays and rely too damn much on dialogue.”  And if you see silent movies from the very end of that period, 1925, ’26, ’27, ’28, you see really amazing, amazing films. 

                              And the usual line about silent film, which is completely true, is that talkies were inevitable, but they came too soon.  Because silents were really starting to do something spectacular. 

                              Soon enough, though, in the early ’30s, it turned out that talkies weren’t a fad.  Some people actually though talkies were just a fad, like 3D or something.  But no, they were here to stay.  And directors pretty soon enough started to catch up and still incorporate visual language along with just filming people talking. 

                              And then, of course, the addition – I mean, silent film always had music.  Wall-to-wall, in a way, silent films was the least silent of films because it’s music all the way through.  But then using techniques like sound effects and voiceover were additions to film language that the silents could never have.

                              But yes, that would be a fun thing to do.  You bet. 

                              Actually years ago I wanted to make – I found this script of “Terminal,” which later became a Steven Spielberg film, a foreign man stuck in an airport.  And I wanted to make that as a silent film.  And I went into Tom Hanks.  I actually met him.  And to the producers and they – well, let’s just say they laughed me out of the office. 

                              I met Tom Hanks years later and we talked about that encounter and I said, “I still stand by it and I’ll bet it might have been a better film.” 

Juan Barquin:        I think it would have.  Well, thank you.

Alexander Payne:  You bet.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  Our next question is going to be from Kevin at Vanderbilt. 

Kevin Flanagan:    Hi. 

Alexander Payne:  Hi, Kevin.

Kevin Flanagan:    First of all, thanks for taking out the time to meet with us over the phone.

Alexander Payne:  Sure.

Kevin Flanagan:    My question has to do with the cinematography.  I noticed that this is one of your first films that is shot on digital camera. 

Alexander Payne:  Very first one.

Kevin Flanagan:    Yes, very first one.  So how is that different from shooting on traditional 35mm or 16mm?

Alexander Payne:  It’s kind of the same.  I mean, my job is technology-proof.  Regardless of film or digital, my job is still what’s the story?  Who are the actors?  Where do the actors stand?  What’s the length of the lens?  What’s the design of the shot?  All of that remains exactly the same. 

                              What I like about digital is that you can go 20 minutes before you reload the camera, and when you do reload, that takes less than a minute, as opposed to the previous amount, 4 minutes or so for a film reload.

                              And I like that you can have a smaller camera in a car.  It’s less bulky.  There are versions of it which are less bulky than a film camera ever could be.

                              What I didn’t like about it was too god damn many cords at my feet.  And you know you try to move the camera, it’s not necessarily quicker to shoot.  So you move the camera from one place to another and here’s some guy scurrying behind you unplugging cords and then plugging them in and there’s just a shitload of cords at your feet. 

                              So I didn’t like that very much.

Kevin Flanagan:    All right.  Thanks for the answer.

Alexander Payne:  You’re very welcome.  Sorry I used bad language there, but it just came out.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  Brianna at Capital University?

Alexander Payne:  Brianna, hello.

(Max):                   Hi.

Casey Spiegel:       Oh, is this (Mark) instead of Brianna?

(Max):                   This is (Max), yes.

Casey Spiegel:       (Max), I’m sorry. 

Alexander Payne:  Get Brianna, I don’t want to talk to (Max). 

(Max):                   So my question was, it was shot during the months of November and December, and was that a part of the script or was that a creative decision? 

Alexander Payne:  That was my decision.  I wanted leafless trees and stubbly cornfields.

(Max):                   OK, cool. 

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  And then next we’ll have Rosa from University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Alexander Payne:  Rosa, (inaudible), how are you?

Rosa Najera:          Yes, hi, I’m good. 

Alexander Payne:  How are things in Omaha today?

Rosa Najera:          It was snowing a little bit for like 20 minutes yesterday. 

Alexander Payne:  Oh my goodness.

Rosa Najera:          Yes, so it should be snowing when you come around here for film screenings. 

Alexander Payne:  Yes, I’ll be there late next week. 

Rosa Najera:          Yes.  Well, my question is more related to location, too.  I heard you – it’s true, I didn’t know where Norfolk was.  I had to Google it. 

Alexander Payne:  Look at that.  She’s from Nebraska.  She didn’t even know where it was.  How about that?

                              It’s only two hours away.

Rosa Najera:          Yes, it’s not too far.  But my question is, some of your earlier films, you’ve come to Omaha or (have been) brought to the area.  What’s the reason for you to keep coming back? 

Alexander Payne:  Because I like it.  I grew up there and so I like to shoot there.  Nobody else is doing it to speak of.

                              A sarcastic answer that I don’t mean to be sarcastic when reporters ask me that is, well, you never ask Woody Allen why he likes to shoot in New York or Paul Thomas Anderson why he wants to shoot in L.A.  You just accept that.  Why do you have to pester me about why I like to shoot in Nebraska?

                              I’m from there.  You wouldn’t ask William Faulkner why do you continue to write in Oxford, Mississippi?  It’s just where people are from.  And somehow where you’re from has an amazing gravitational pull over your life.  Not for everyone, but for many people. 

                              And I have found myself with that condition.  And I also just like being there.  As you know Omaha is really blossoming into a terrific city.  And I just like being there and being a part of it.

Casey Spiegel:       All right.  And we’ll have our last question from (Jamie) at the University of Michigan

Jamie Birtoll:         Hello.

Alexander Payne:  Hi.

Jamie Birtoll:         So reading your – going through your IMDB, and I noticed that “Nebraska,” if I’m doing my cross-referencing right, is the first major project you worked on that (Jim Taylor) also has not worked on.

Alexander Payne:  Right.

Jamie Birtoll:         So my question is what benefits do you see with working with (Jim Taylor) as a writer and as a filmmaker for so long?  And on the flip side, has his absence changed your process working on this film?

Alexander Payne:  No.  We’re creative partners.  We had a great time writing those first four movies that I directed together.  And we’ve written a total of about 10 feature film scripts.  “Jurassic Park 3.”  We did an uncredited draft of “Meet the Parents,” for example.  So we’ve been at it for a long time.

                              And my next film, unless something else comes down the pipe, will be co-written with him.

                              However, I also enjoyed working without him and seeing what that was like.  I mean I didn’t really need him so much on “Nebraska” because I already had a screenplay and it was just a matter of my tailoring the screenplay so that I could direct it.

                              I still had him read it and he contributed one joke to the film.  And that joke always gets a laugh.  So he’s still around. 

                              But I’ve enjoyed working with him all these years.  I enjoyed, well, having a break and he was busy and I got busy doing other stuff.  He has a young daughter and so it became a little bit hard for us to work together for a couple of years, but now we’re circling back around.

Jamie Birtoll:         OK, thank you.

Alexander Payne:  Yes.  Did we get everyone?

(Ryan Schultz):     Oh, no, you skipped me.

Casey Spiegel:       I’m sorry.  What’s your name?

(Ryan Schultz):     Ryan from Drexel.

Alexander Payne:  Yes, hi, Ryan.

(Ryan Schultz):     Hi.  Big fan. 

Alexander Payne:  Sorry, Ryan, we ran out of time.  You’re out of luck.  No, I’m just kidding.  Go ahead.  Shoot.  What’s up?

(Ryan Schultz):     Oh, OK, great, you’re joking.  OK, so most famous directors are remembered for certain things.  Like Hitchcock is the master of suspense and Scorsese is the master of violence.  Years from now, what do you hope people call you the master of?

Alexander Payne:  I don’t know, man.  Honestly I can come up with sarcastic answers, but a serious one is – that wouldn’t be for me to say.

(Ryan Schultz):     OK.

Alexander Payne:  What do you think I should say?

(Ryan Schultz):     Um, dark humor, self-realization, midlife crisis.

Alexander Payne:  OK.  Well, I hope, though, in maybe future films I will have other attributes as well.  I’ve only made six and I hope to make a lot more that will upset the average a little bit.  Well, anyway, thanks for the question, though.

(Ryan Schultz):     Thank you.

Alexander Payne:  Ryan.

Casey Spiegel:       All right. 

Alexander Payne:  Well, thanks, everybody, and thanks, Casey.  As long as we got everyone, I appreciate the interest and this was fun.

Male:                     Absolutely.  Thank you very much.

Female:                  Thank you.

Female:                  Thank you for your time.

Alexander Payne:  Bye-bye now.  Bye-bye.