Alexander Payne on Good Films, American Cinema 



Two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne shared his passion for film and his thoughts on contemporary American cinema with the audience at the Lumière Film Festival in Lyon where he is premiering his eighth feature film, “The Holdovers,” under the French title “Winter Break,” on October 15th.

In a conversation skilfully led and translated by Los Angeles-based French film journalist Didier Allouch, Payne drew laughs from the Lumière crowd when he explained that the secret to making good films was “keeping your budgets low.”

“John Huston approached Luis Buñuel one day and asked him, ‘How is it that you make these wonderful films, like “Viridiana” and “The Exterminating Angel”?’ And Buñuel replied, ‘How much money do you make and how much money do you think I make?’” said Payne with a smile.

While he made no secret of his distaste for Hollywood blockbusters and said it was still possible to make movies like “Sideways,” which earned him his first Academy Award for best adapted screenplay in 2005, Payne noted the growing absence of what he described as “mid-range films” in American cinema.

“One thing with these lower budget, humanist, anthropocentric – whatever what you want to call them – comedy dramas [they make now], is that I miss the mid-range, more expensive adult dramas with visual scope. 

“Where is “Out of Africa,” where is “The English Patient” today?” he asked, adding: “Of course, the most difficult thing is always the screenplay. We can criticize financiers and studios and distributors for not making those movies anymore, but I criticize [American] directors and writers for not making them.”

During the one-and-a-half-hour conversation, Payne, whose second Oscar was also for best adapted screenplay with “The Descendants” in 2012, repeatedly cited his co-writers, including long-time collaborator Jim Taylor and David Hemingson, his partner on “The Holdovers,” who was in Lyon for the film’s premiere.

“In our screenplays, our barometer is: Could this happen in real life and not just in a movie? We don’t like contrivance and gimmicks in movies. We like to have a very strong sense of place and we like to take a documentary approach to fiction filmmaking, and that starts with the screenplay and with the emotions of the characters,” he explained. 

Asked how he obtained such remarkable performances from his actors, be it Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” Matt Damon in “Downsizing” or George Clooney in “The Descendants,” Payne’s answer was simple.

“Movie stars who, by that time in their career are perceived more as stars than actors, still want to be seen as actors,” he said, adding that he never tailors the character or the role for the movie star, but asks the movie star to come to the character. 

“The most important aspect is casting,” he said, citing the example of “Sideways,” for which he turned down Clooney, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as “they were not right for that movie.”

He added that what he was most proud of was not so much his work with leading actors as directing non-professionals, like the ice-cream woman in “About Schmidt” or the farmers in “Nebraska.”

“It took eight months to find them – it takes time, but it’s really fun!” he exclaimed. “It goes back to trying to have a documentary approach to feature filmmaking, having something approximating the texture of reality.”

Regarding upcoming projects, Payne told a Lyon audience that he is currently working with Hemingson on a long-time dream to make a Western movie.  

“I finally found a creative partner who shares the same zeal that I have for Westerns. [What matters is] a shared sensibility about what makes a good movie, then it’s just a matter of luck about finding the right person, as I have the luck in finding this guy,” he said, pointing to his co-writer among the audience. 

Before taking his leave, Payne the cinephile amused the audience as he ran through the Lumière festival leaflet trying to decide which of the afternoon’s vast choice of screenings he would attend, though he did make time to stay behind, sign autographs and chat with fans at the end of the masterclass.

“The Holdovers” is scheduled for a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on Oct. 27 followed by a nationwide release by Focus Features on Nov. 10.

The Lumière Film Festival runs over Oct. 15–Oct. 22in Lyon, France.


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