Alexander Payne is an award-winning filmmaker. He’s a two-time recipient of an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, first for Sideways in 2005, and then for The Descendants in 2012.
Payne is a talented director and screenwriter, but as a child he imagined himself in a much different role in movies. “Really, the first job I wanted when I grew up was to be a projectionist, because I loved watching movies and threading up projectors. I still do,” he says. “I had a couple of regular 8mm and Super 8mm projectors, and I collected old movies, silent films, from a very early age.”
Payne has indeed been fascinated by films since he was a boy growing up in America’s heartland
. “I fell in love with movies when I was 4 or 5,” he says. “My mother, Peggy, and her family had been big moviegoers, so she was only too happy to take me to the movies all the time.”
Payne says, “It was in Omaha where I fell in love with current films as well as old films. I would read the TV Guide and scour the listings to find old films. Also, our local art museum, from the time I was in second grade to maybe sixth or seventh grade, showed old movies on 16-millimeter projectors every Sunday.” That might just be where his inspiration to be a projectionist was ignited. “I never missed a one,” says Payne. “Well, I missed one. But a lot of my early film education was here in Omaha. I graduated from high school in 1979. So as a teenager, all of my junior high and high school years were spent going to current movies. I saw the movies they now think were a golden age of '70s filmmaking.”
Those films changed the course of his life by giving him a new career goal. “It was those movies that made me want to make movies eventually, even though it was a distant dream,” says Payne, who attended film school at UCLA after studying Spanish and History at Stanford University. “Those are still the movies that I aspire to make. Of course, they're now considered art films, but at the time, they were simply commercial American movies.”
Which film made a big impact on Alexander Payne? “1934’s It Happened One Night — if you have never seen it, run, don’t walk, just watch it because it is a superlative movie,” he states. “I rewatched it the other day. They certainly don't make them like that anymore. Did you know that It Happened One Night was the first movie ever to win the Oscars for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor, best actress?” That wouldn’t happen again until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest cleaned up at the Academy Awards in 1976.
Staying Humble in Hollywood
Alexander Payne recently finished shooting his latest dark comedy, The Holdovers. “We wrapped at the very end of March and had a really beautiful experience. It was great to be with [Sideways star] Paul Giamatti again. I just think he's the finest actor,” says Payne. “Now I will be editing The Holdovers for many months. But because my mother's almost 99 years old, my editor and I have made an arrangement that every other month, we will edit in Omaha.”
To date, his films — Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska, Downsizing, and Sideways — have been nominated for 19 Oscars and eight Golden Globes. However, Payne recognizes that being able to make movies is a privilege. He says, “As a film director
, I have access to one of the greatest tools ever invented to engender an increased sense of humanity and empathy among people, even within myself.” And Payne hopes he “can do it responsibly.”
In his downtime, Payne enjoys reading and watching movies as well as traveling and hiking. “I just started reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
. I have never read it, and I'm tired of people saying, ‘It's the best novel ever written.’ I'm going back and forth between that and a biography of Frank Capra because I will be interviewed for a Frank Capra documentary, and I want to know more about him.”
Alexander Payne Talks Greek Citizenship
Payne's family comes from three areas in Greece: the island of Syros, Livadia, and Aegio. “Just this past February, I was sworn in as a Greek citizen
,” he shares. “I got my Greek citizenship, not so much from a mania to be a Greek, but it will allow me to have European citizenship and be able to make movies in Europe without bureaucratic obstacles.” So does this mean we can expect to see more of his films set in the Mediterranean? “Greece is my Omaha of Europe,” he says.
The filmmaker enjoys traveling there frequently. “What do I love about Greece? Just seeing friends and family — the very simple things,” says Payne. “Friends and family and eating well. Of course, if I happen to be [there] over the summer and go to some island or beachy place, there's nothing more beautiful.”