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October 2004
Sideways: An Interview with Alexander Payne

Sideways: An Interview with Alexander Payne

By Wilson Morales

Alexander Payne has directed films that have taken place outside a big city and with currently film, not only does he focus on the outskirts of San Francisco, mainly the valley, but the focus is on wine and relationships and how time tends to heals old wounds. The film is called "Sideways" and stars Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Payne goes over the reasons he chose the actors and working with his longtime composer, Rolfe Kent.

What was it about the book that made you want to adapt it?

Payne: I've had that question a few times and here's what I've been saying: Oh, I like the humanity of the characters and the comic set pieces and the wine aspect because I like wine, and those gals, and it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to make. But I'll add another big reason is that it didn't seem like the adaptation would be very hard because, I don't know if you've glanced at the novel or anything, but it's pretty much laid out. Jim and my adaptation was very very faithful. I mean, you always have to spend a lot of time on it to shape it into a movie and add and subtract and all that, but I thought, gosh this wouldn't be a terribly difficult adaptation.

So it was easy.

Payne: Not easy, but less hard. Typically our scripts are six months for a first draft. This one was four. That's a savings of two months - nothing to sneeze at.

Was there less pressure working on a film that didn't feature someone as famous and storied as Jack Nicholson?

Payne: The problem working with Jack Nicholson isn't Jack Nicholson, it's other people's attitudes towards Jack Nicholson. Anything that was kind of heavy or context laden - less fleet - about the process of working with Nicholson, and he was fine and cooperative with everything except that he can't shoot before 11 in the morning. And that was fine by us. That turned out great! But as soon as he walks on the set everyone is deferential and quiet, but he's just a guy. I noticed that difference on this film - the actors are no Jack Nicholsons. There are no big movie stars. The actors are just hanging out and wouldn't freak out the crew, so filming was lighter and fast.

You do some great casting, and in this film you have Thomas Haden Church who is just fantastic in the role. What made you choose him?

Payne: Just instinct really. I had never seen him act. I still haven't seen him act in anything else.

You've never seen Wings?

Payne: Well, I've seen Wings once, since shooting. And only about fifteen minutes when I was surfing by. "Oh look, it's him, it's Tom!"

I had auditioned him already for Election and About Schmidt. My then-casting director, Lisa Beech, had always loved him. He makes a big impression, he's always kind of on, he's an actor guy, but with a really big personality. I always thought of him, and here I thought he might be right. I was always hoping to cast him one day.

That's another thing - I'll audition people and obviously I can't cast them all, but I remember them and sometimes I write it down too. Someone like Melora Walters. I've auditioned Melora Walters like three times and I think, "God, have to cast her, she's great." I remember her. And Tom's someone who always stuck in my mind, plus the fact that he is the veteran of a couple of TV series and he had kind of relinquished to a certain degree a certain segment of his career and had been working on his ranch in Texas, it fit really well with the character of Jack, and I always like that kind of mirroring.

Paul Giamatti is really great here as well. Was it his role in American Splendor as Harvey Pekar that made you want to cast him?

Payne: I hadn't seen that - you know, I just go off of auditions. I'm pretty old fashioned that way. I spent a week in New York auditioning folks here then I went back but I really wanted to cast Giamatti. But I had to see some other people, so I couldn't announce my decision yet, and then during that week or two following there was a screening of American Splendor and I went to it. I was late for it, my wife made me late, and it was fine, he was great in the movie, but it didn't affect my decision. I just said, oh he's good in everything.

Speaking of your wife (Sandra Oh) , we were wondering where she was today. She had been announced to be appearing at this junket.

Payne: Oh, she's on a new ABC TV series called Gray's Anatomy, a mid-season replacement. So she's working.

How is it directing her?

Payne: It's fine. I don't think there's much difference between if we did not know each other. Well, other than that I was fucking her. But no, she really didn't work that much, she only worked like eight or nine days on the film, so it wasn't like a deep director-actress relationship.

Did Virginia Madsen also come to the picture through auditioning?

Payne: Pretty close to what I was saying about Thomas Haden Church - I really haven't seen her that much. You know, most of the actors I have worked with except Jack Nicholson I just haven't seen that much.

What was it about her that spoke to you?

Payne: There's something, and you know what, it was even present in her eight by ten photo, there's something present in her eyes which - it's that she looks at you and she listens and then she thinks and she speaks. Not a lot of people do that. Plus there was something where just looking at her she communicates some life experience. I like that because honestly cinema is often about the close-up. Even if the actor is a retard inside if the face says something, that's a cinematic performance. That's why you have so many lousy actors as movie stars, because their faces have something. She's got that.

Then she just nailed the audition. Right before casting her I had a coffee with her. I had to be sure that she wasn't going to be doing glamourpuss stuff, I needed to make sure that she would be comfortable without any makeup and playing every bit of her age, because that's what the character is. She was totally cool about that and she was such a pro and a trooper.

In fact, she has a close friend, Rusty, they grew up in Chicago together, and she said to me, "You're the first filmmaker to begin to capture the Virginia I've known all my life." That was nice.

This film has a great score from Rolf Kent, who you've worked with before. What is it about him that you like?

Payne: He's the only composer I've worked with since film school. We met on this low rent TV show in 1991, that's where I met him and my production designer. I recently had to write some liner notes for the soundtrack of Sideways, and what I said was, because I'm a huge fan of Italian movie soundtracks - Morricone, this one is like Pierro Umiliani, and Nino Rota - I said I find in Rolf what I find in the Italians, which is the constant presence of melody, which is rare in American soundtracks these days. I like something I can hum, and that's why Carmen is my favorite opera, it has seven tunes I can hum. He also has the ability to communicate an emotion without sentimentality, unusual orchestrations and a great amount of wit. That's what I like about Rolf, and what I found about him very early on. When I was doing Citizen Ruth I had to fight to get him on. Miramax brought me to New York and introduced me to Carter Burwell, who I admire - you can do a lot worse than Carter Burwell - but I was like, "Hi, how are you, Mr. Burwell? Now, about RolfŠ" Because this guy's just got it.

I'm not in love with all of his scores, some of the scores that he does for other films, but there's always something in them that I can get into. And I love his and my process. He allows me in a lot.

Because you have worked with him so often, do you give him notes on what you want or do you just let him design it?

Payne: With this one I was very specific, because as I was writing the script and even driving around and scouting locations, I was listening constantly to this album called Pierro and Chet. It's Umiliani with Chet Baker, and it has a lot of the music from Big Deal on Madonna Street. It's all jazz movie soundtracks from the 50s that Chet Baker played on. Actually, he didn't play on Big Deal on Madonna Street, but he did play on other films in the 50s. So I had in mind a jazz soundtrack for this film. I told him, "I want you to write a jazz score. Long pieces of jazz that arc over two three or four scenes that don't really score anything - they're just there so that if the audience gets bored they'll have something to tap their toes to."

You've got a style that really evokes the Midwest, even in a movie set in California. Recently I got that same feeling from the guy who did Napoleon Dynamite, where his evocation of the Midwest reminded me of your work. Is that a style that came to you because of your upbringing?

Payne: I'm utterly unfamiliar with him. I haven't seen the movie, and I don't really intend on seeing. There's this thing where people talk about the banality of the Midwest - I think no matter where I go, it's how Jim and I work - Jim Taylor, my co-writer - and how Jane Stuart, my production designer and I work. It's always about seeing, no matter how beautiful or banal the scenery, the middle level of existence, no matter what.

Well you have a movie here with two regular guys who are doing this road trip, but there's no big elements to it - they're not changing the world or fighting terrorists or whatever, it's a more personal thing. Is that because of the movies you watched growing up?

Payne: Could be. I grew up in the 70s when movies were like that, they were about regular people and regular human stories. What we see in older films and what we see in foreign films is more about - it's not the ridiculously contrived plots of Hollywood films. It's not about fighting terrorists or Road Trip or any of that bullshit.

The other side of it is I'm fascinated by how fantastic regular life is. I don't need these fucking contrived plots. The whole trip, the whole challenge, is to get uncontrived things. To capture human experience somehow, to get it on film. And that's hard. That's what I look for. That's why I try to have place as accurately presented as I can in films. Not just human emotions and people and a sense of my experience transported into the characters, but also place. Life on this hideous planet.

I have a certain documentarian nature to my filmmaking, both to reporting on the human heart and the physical places I see.

Is there commercial appeal to a movie about wine starring four character actors? What do you think will draw audiences to see this?

Payne: I don't know. We're going to have to see. It's getting good early notices. You know what seems to be the commercial appeal? It's funny? It's real and it's funny and that's what could have kept it from being made, but because not that many films like it are being made, that creates a market for it. My hope is it will open up the market more for other films. And it's good to laugh! In today's troubled times it's good to have a big laugh.

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