The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life Of Alexander Payne

Feb 24, 2012
Originally published on February 24, 2012 7:51 am

Alexander Payne watches a movie every day — or tries to, anyway. Lately, the writer and director of The Descendants has been busy going to nomination and awards dinners, in advance of Sunday's Oscar night — when the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay prizes could be his.

On a recent morning, we joined Payne at his house, up a wriggling canyon road in the Santa Monica Mountains, to see how he was spending this "in between time" — the release of a well-regarded film, the waiting until Oscar night. He was about to go hiking in the canyon, past a family of bats who don't seem to care that he is a Big Deal in Hollywood, and have taken up residence in the eaves of his house.

Payne recently installed two bat houses "to try to talk them out of staying in my house and living more comfortably in the bat house, but they haven't seen fit to move yet," he says.

At 7:00 a.m., the morning air smells of ocean, chaparral, sage and fruit trees — Payne points out one called a jabuticaba. "I planted it largely because it's fun to say jabuticaba," he admits.

Payne has just a few hours before he needs to leave for a luncheon at the American Film Institute. "Between now and about 10:30 I'll have to begin changing, beautifying myself," he says with a laugh.

It shouldn't take much. At 51, he's almost movie-star handsome, with dark attentive eyes and a listening face. Post-hike, over a warm cup of tea, he talks about his earlier films — Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. In 2005, Sideways, which he also directed, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Like all his films, Sideways has no special effects or cinematic dazzle — just real, solid storytelling.

In Payne's latest film, The Descendants, George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian land baron with two recalcitrant daughters and a comatose wife. She's on life support after a boating accident. With her in the hospital, he learns she's been cheating on him, and then learns several other lessons: the tough realities of selling family land; how to manage his difficult daughters.

In the film's powerful final scene, the 10-year-old daughter watches TV on the couch, wrapped in a quilt. Her father enters with two bowls of ice cream. He sits, and pulls the quilt over to cover his legs, too. The older daughter wanders in, and Dad moves over for her, covers her with the quilt, and hands her the ice cream as the credits begin. It's a coda, Payne calls it, a landing strip, to bring the film in.

"When writing the screenplay, I thought rhythmically the film would need one more scene," Payne says. "I had no idea if it would work or not."

Payne wasn't sure until they actually shot the scene — but it does work. In this almost wordless, two-minute scene, you finally see them become a family through the most ordinary gestures — adjusting a quilt, passing bowls of strawberry and mocha chip ice cream.

"Well, that's what life is — this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments," Payne says. "We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is."

Around 9:00 a.m., Payne spends some ordinary moments running errands: to the post office, and to the local farmers market for lettuce, carrots, apples — and 12 pounds of beef which he puts into his trunk. He likes to cook. His Greek grandfather and father ran a restaurant in Omaha, where Payne still lives most of the time.

His last stop is the dry cleaners to pick up some pre-Oscar gear — eight tuxedo shirts. Then it's time to go back to the house to get "beautified" for the luncheon. He's spent this part of his "in between time" making rounds that all of us make — except he says they could always have meaning.

"If you were falling in love and you could go back in time and relive a day and see the banal things you did that you'd forgotten about, you'd weep, looking at that day," Payne says. "Somewhat dramatic things happen, and you don't even always notice them — that's what life is."

Those moments, unless you write them down or photograph them, drift off and away. They just go by. But movies — mindful ones — can make us stop for a while and notice what happens.

In a jacket and just-cleaned shirt, the writer-director heads toward a waiting town car (no big black limo — where's the glamour!?). He's off to lunch in town and later, a film critics' banquet. So is this a typical day for him?

"In my life? No," he says. "Of this week? Yes."

Once awards season ends, Payne has two screenplays lined up to shoot. He wants to move quickly now, from film to film. And if Sunday brings Oscars, the pace will only accelerate.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alexander Payne watches a movie every day or at least tries to. Lately, the writer and director of "The Descendants" has been busy going to nomination and awards dinners, in advance of Sunday's Academy Awards when the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay prizes could be his.

In Southern California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg spent a pre-Oscar morning with Payne.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Alexander Payne has bats in his belfry.

ALEXANDER PAYNE: And I recently put two bat houses for them, to try to talk them out of staying in my house and living in more comfortably living in the bat house, but they haven't seen fit to move yet.

STAMBERG: Payne's house is up a wriggling canyon road in the Santa Monica Mountains. The air there smells of ocean, chaparral and sage, plus fruit trees.

PAYNE: And that one is a jabuticaba. And I planted it largely because it's fun to say jabuticaba.

STAMBERG: We arrived chez Payne at 7:00 a.m. for a hike, before he left for a 10-Best-Movies Luncheon at the American Film Institute.

PAYNE: Between now and about 10:30, I'll have to begin changing...

STAMBERG: OK.

PAYNE: ...beautify myself.

STAMBERG: Shouldn't take much. At 51, he's almost movie-star handsome, with dark attentive eyes and a listening face.

PAYNE: How about rooibos tea?

STAMBERG: Over warm cups - no sugar, thank you - we talk about earlier Payne films "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways" - he has a best screenplay Oscar for that one which he also directed. No special effects, no cinematic dazzle. Just solid, real storytelling.

I ask about one extremely simple and powerful scene in his latest film, "The Descendants."

PAYNE: Let me think. This is the Hawaiian one, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Yeah. What did you just say?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: I finished it last March. So...

STAMBERG: Yeah, it's the Hawaiian one.

PAYNE: This is the Hawaii one, yeah.

STAMBERG: In "The Descendants," George Clooney plays a wealthy Hawaiian land baron with two recalcitrant daughters, and a comatose wife - she's on life support. He learns she's been cheating on him, learns tough realities about selling family land, learns how to manage his difficult daughters.

With a dribble more of tea, in front of the director's laptop, we watch that powerful final scene of the Hawaiian one.

PAYNE: You want sound or no sound?

STAMBERG: Oh, yeah.

PAYNE: OK.

STAMBERG: The 10-year old daughter watches TV on the couch, wrapped in a quilt. You don't see the television just her looking at us. Her father, Clooney, enters with two bowls of ice cream. He sits, pulls the quilt over, to cover his legs too. The soles of his bare feet stick out. The older, teenage daughter wanders in.

He moves over for her and covers her with the quilt.

PAYNE: Mm-hmm.

STAMBERG: Now he...

PAYNE: Hands her the ice cream and the credits begin.

STAMBERG: The credits are small in the upper right-hand corner. Meantime, father and daughters keep watching TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Taking ice cream from one another, sharing, readjusting themselves onto the couch.

PAYNE: It's a movie ending.

STAMBERG: A coda, Payne calls it, a landing strip to bring the film in.

PAYNE: When writing the screenplay, I thought rhythmically the film would need one more scene. And I had no idea if it would work or not, I just wrote that to see if it would work.

STAMBERG: When did you know it would?

PAYNE: When we were shooting it.

STAMBERG: That was early, around day three of a 50-day shoot, four takes. And in this final, marvelous two-minute scene almost no words, just pictures, you watch them become a family through the most ordinary gestures - adjusting a quilt, passing bowls of strawberry and mocha chip ice cream.

PAYNE: Well, that's what life is, this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments. We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is.

OK, here we go.

STAMBERG: Around nine o'clock, Alexander Payne spends some pre-Oscar ordinary moments running errands - the post office, the local farmer's market for bags of carrots, apples.

PAYNE: What about the lettuces?

STAMBERG: He likes to cook, Greek. His grandfather and father ran a restaurant in Omaha. Payne still lives there most of the time. Also into the trunk, 12 pounds of beef. He likes to cook.

When you walk, go through life, in some ways, are you always casting? I mean, do you see a face and you think that would be wonderful on a big screen?

PAYNE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: It's all about individual faces.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning.

PAYNE: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love this customer. He never complain about anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Last stop, dry cleaners for pre-Oscar gear.

PAYNE: Tuxedo shirts, yes.

STAMBERG: Oh, more than one, eh?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Two, three, four - one more.

STAMBERG: It's getting close to beautification time, so Payne heads back home having made rounds that all of us make. Except, he says, they could always have meaning.

PAYNE: If you were falling in love and you could go back in time and relive a day and see the banal things you did that you'd forgotten about, you'd weep looking at that day. Say, oh look, we walked into that store. We, you know, whatever it was. And somewhat dramatic things happen, and you don't always even always notice them. Yeah, that's what life is.

STAMBERG: Those moments, unless you write them down, or photograph them, drift off and away. They just go by. But movies, mindful ones, can make us stop for a while, make us notice what happens.

In a jacket and just-cleaned shirt, the writer-director heads toward a waiting town car. No big, black limo - where's the glamour? Lunch in town, later a film critics' banquet. Typical day?

PAYNE: In my life? No. Of this week? Yes.

STAMBERG: Once awards seasons ends, Alexander Payne has two screenplays lined up to shoot. He wants to move quickly now from film to film. If Sunday brings Oscars, the pace will accelerate.

PAYNE: Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

STAMBERG: In movie land, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: You hear Susan on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREDITS)

INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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