Alexander Payne on Finding the Comedy in Crisis

If you’re in the mood to watch a dark comedy, you might want to watch an Alexander Payne movie. The two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker has earned a reputation for making satirical comedy-drama flicks filled with quirky yet very real characters amid a predicament. “I don’t know if it’s a crisis so much as a complex situation,” explains the 61-year-old. 

That’s been a recurring theme for Payne since the beginning of his career. He made his feature directorial debut with 1996’s Citizen Ruth. That movie told the story of the title character, Ruth Stoops, played by Laura Dern, trying to navigate through an unexpected pregnancy and the battle over abortion in America’s heartland.

Alexander Payne: Art Imitates Life

If pressed to specify what I do, I guess I make comedies, but comedies based in real-life situations,” he says. “Too many movies are either dramatic or comedic, but the best movies are [a mix of] both, I think.”

He explains that movies can be similar to music. “Life is not so much a single-note melody but a series of chords. There are a lot of black notes in there, blue notes, too,” says Payne. “And so I think, if you have humor that is heartfelt, not sentimental but emotional, the drama stands out in relief. And vice versa — if something is dramatic, then what is funny can stand out in relief as well.”

Citizen Ruth put Alexander Payne on Hollywood’s radar for his dark and humorous directing style. Since then, his films — Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Downsizing, and Nebraska — have earned eight Golden Globe Award nominations and 19 Academy Award nominations. In addition, Payne has personally won two Academy Awards for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), first for 2004’s Sideways and then for 2011’s dramatic comedy The Descendants. 

Alexander Payne: The Appeal of Conflicting Desires

Another example of the style of conflict that interests Alexander Payne can be found in the latter film. “In The Descendants, [George] Clooney plays a man whose wife has cuckolded him. Clooney’s character wants to kill the guy, but he also thinks, ‘My wife would want him to know that she’s dying so that he can say goodbye,’” says Payne. “I find those conflicting desires very interesting, like trying to love when it is difficult or when you don’t want to. I did not come up with that, it was in the book, but that’s a big reason I chose to adapt that book.”

Birthday Celebrations and Sideways

On Feb. 10, the director celebrated his 61st trip around the sun, shooting The Holdovers in Boston. “I can’t think of anything better to do for a birthday,” he enthuses. Shooting on that dark comedy, which stars Paul Giamatti, is expected to wrap by early April 2022. The Holdovers reunites Payne and Giamatti, who formed mutual respect while filming Sideways. “Working with Paul was a real standout experience. He’s an actor who simply can do anything,” says Payne.

“It was a gorgeous experience,” Giamatti has said. “It was joyous and so much fun. So much of that came from Alexander and his simple joy of being with new actors and crew. And I think the movie feels that way because we were just making a movie for the love of making a movie. None of us felt we were making anything anybody would even care about that much. We cared about it.” 

Sideways is a character-driven feature about a down-on-his-luck recently divorced man, played by Giamatti, who is pressured by a college friend, a washed-up actor, Jack, portrayed by Thomas Haden Church, to go on one last road trip before Jack’s wedding day. 

“I felt like if I couldn’t act again for some reason, my acting life would have been fulfilled having done this movie because it was such a purely pleasurable experience,” enthuses Giamatti. “Alexander’s a true filmmaker, and that’s what makes him special.”

Alexander Payne Is Living His Dream

Having a career in Hollywood spanning more than 25 years is no small feat, and Payne acknowledges, “I am extremely happy and lucky about being able to have a career in filmmaking. 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.”

After having to put filming on pause throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Payne’s excited to be behind the camera once more and utilizing everything he’s learned since the early days of filming Citizen Ruth. “With experience comes knowledge,” he notes. “I can more comfortably, and with less stress, identify problems and find solutions, whether it’s a scheduling problem or if the actor is having a hard time, or I didn’t really come up with the right shot. There is an unanticipated efficiency now to my work, which I am enjoying.”