Alexander Payne is interested in wordless storytelling, which is a bit ironic for a filmmaker who has won two Academy Awards for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). However, it takes strong characters brought to life by talented actors to tell these captivating stories without words. And Payne is proud of all the characters he’s helped create during his career. “I like all of the characters in my films,” he says.
There’s a big difference between what people will tolerate about a character in a movie compared to what they’ll put up with in real life. “You have to make a distinction. If you knew that human being in real life, separate from whether you love this person as a literary character,” says Alexander Payne. “Take, for example, Michael Corleone from The Godfather or Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Would you like them in real life? I don’t know — might be kind of tough. But you do love them as characters.”
Payne has zero desire to solely create sympathetic characters. “I hate when movie people say, ‘Your lead character has to be sympathetic,’ which for them means ‘likable.’ We shouldn’t care about ‘liking’ a character as a person. We have to love them as characters, or at least be fascinated by them.”
A Cast of Characters
Payne says he “has a soft spot for all the characters in my movies, and Tracy Flick was a special one.” He’s referring, of course, to the overly ambitious teenage antagonist of Election. The film, adapted from Tom Perrotta’s book of the same name, premiered on April 23, 1999. It stars Reese Witherspoon as the titular character in the dark, edgy comedy that cemented Payne as a master of satirical storytelling.
“As driven as Tracy Flick was — and her name has entered popular culture as a very driven person, typically a female — I still wanted to give her understanding and depth,” explains the filmmaker. “There’s a scene in the movie where she’s really weeping, and you see how much she’s been manipulated by her mother. Everyone’s got a story.”
In addition to Ms. Flick, these are some of Alexander Payne’s most memorable characters:
— Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth
— Jim McAllister in Election
— Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt
— Miles Raymond in Sideways
— Matt King in The Descendants
— Woody Grant in Nebraska
— Paul Safranek in Downsizing
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with excellent actors throughout my career,” says Payne. Matt Damon is one of them. They worked together on 2016’s Downsizing. “I’m proud of that film,” says the director. “That was the first chance I had to work with Alexander Payne,” Damon said. “He is very sure of himself and the shots he needs to make. I am not saying he is controlling; instead, he knows when he’s got the shot. It makes you feel like you are in the hands of a master director.” Payne felt the same way, noting, “Many of us put a lot of heart, soul, and love into that film. Even though it tanked.”
People who have worked with Payne say that he treats everyone on set with the same care and support. However, he considers the secondary characters to be the real heart and soul of the films. “It is easier on leads because they have the landscape of the entire film to build their characters,” says Alexander Payne. “It is tougher for the bit players or smaller character parts because they have to suggest an entire human being in one or two or three scenes.”
The filmmaker has shot four of his eight films in Nebraska and has a knack for casting locals to help lend a sense of realism to the scene. That tactic paid off while making the 2013 comedy-drama Nebraska. “Bruce Dern’s character’s brothers and their wives have spent their entire lives in rural Nebraska and had never even been in a high school play,” says Payne.
Alexander Payne Makes the Movies He Wants To Watch
Alexander Payne says, “I desperately love movies and am so glad that my love of watching movies as a film geek was able to translate into a career.” Indeed, it’s a dream come true for the 61-year-old, who grew up watching as many movies as he could as a boy in Omaha, Nebraska, and fantasized about being a film projectionist.
Today, he’s content to create quality cinema he hopes will be enjoyed for generations to come. “Of course, I have to make a movie that I feel connected to on some level so that I can feel it. I have to feel what’s going on in the movie to be able to direct it halfway decently,” he says. “I’m just trying to find the movie that I myself would want to see. That’s my job. Even on the set, when the actors are doing it and I have the camera watching their performance, I’m watching them projected on a movie screen in my brain. Of the tens or even hundreds of people on set, only one is actually sitting in the theater, watching the movie.”