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Il Cinema Ritrovato: Alexander Payne Talks Influential Films, Cinephilia, Screenwriting and More

Festivals
by Meredith Brody
July 1, 2013 12:35 PM
1 Comment
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"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"
What was the first profession you wanted to do?

First I wanted to be a projectionist.  Then I figured out that somebody makes these movies.  I studied history and language at university, and I thought about going to film school -- or the Columbia Graduate School of journalism.  My parents wanted me to go to law school.  I got into UCLA film school -- it took me six years to do a program that could have been finished in three, because I spent most of my time watching movies, instead of being upstairs editing.  UCLA was still then showing nitrate prints.

Talk about the difference…

Between nitrate and acetate.  Nitrate glows, there's a shimmer and gleam - I remember from "Morocco." I think there are three theaters that can still shoe nitrate.

I think FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives) had its last nitrate show in 2000.  Film prints versus digital...

Maybe flicker is superior to glow -- there's something hypnotic in the flicker.

Tell us some influential films.

When I was ten, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." [editorial note: happy coincidence] Twenty, in Spain, "Viridiana," being shown in Spain in the 80s for the first time, after the death of Franco -- I didn't know that film could be that ferocious.  When I was 22, at the Castro Theatre, "The Seven Samurai," which cemented my desire to go to film school -- I could never climb a mountain that high, but what a nice mountain to be on.

As a teenager, a lot of Italian films -- "The Garden of the Finiz-Continis," "Amarcord," "The Night Porter." There was a cineclub at Stanford, where I went, that showed movies in 16mm -- "Ugetsu," "Ikiru," "Bicycle Thief." In my twenties I would see everything -- first I was a Kurosawa completist, and then Ozu.  I would see old Japanese films at the Kokusai theater in LA, now gone.  In my thirties I turned more towards Italy -- both are infinite.

I can tell from your films you love Antonioni.

I do, but I'm surprised you get that from my films.  For "Sideways," I thought of "Big Deal on Madonna Street," for the music -- I wanted lightness of tone.  I discovered Luciano Emmer eight years ago with Dave Kehr in Torino.  I'm in love with editing, still.  If I hadn't become a director, I might have pursued editing.

Who were your teachers?

At UCLA, a lot of Eastern Europeans -- Czechs and Poles who had left in the 60s.

Jerzy Antczak, a Polish directing teacher.  And a Czech director who became a friend, [ed. note: I couldn't make out name -- sounded like Jerry Weiss], who died in 2004.  Karlovy Vary is doing his centenary celebration right now. Bologna should do something. David Raksin, the composer of "Laura," was a teacher.

You made shorts at UCLA?

I've made six features, and I have friends who still think my thesis film, "The Passion of Martin," is my most honest film.  My shorts were funny. "Martin" is a loose adaptation of an Argentine short novel.  It's 50 minutes long.  I entered it in film festivals -- it showed in Torino, among other places, and i still have a relationship with them today. It attracted agents and producers in L.A..  In '90--'91, I wrote a first draft of what turned out to be "About Schmidt." In 1995, I got to make "Citizen Ruth," somewhat inspired by "Ace in the Hole."  It was a failure -- not critically, financially.  In those days, though, it was very hard to make your first film, but once you had, you could make another feature.  Today it seems that anybody can make a first film, but it's harder to make a second film.

What is your greatest financial success?

"The Descendants."  It had a big star.  The last three films have gone up in level.

You write your own screenplays, often.

I feel that I write out of desperation -- to have something to direct.  We don't have Robert Towne and Waldo Salt anymore.  Screenwriting is not really writing, it's imagining a film.  I just directed a screenplay I did not write.  I love Zavattini, who wrote a very good autobiography. Pierre Rissient goes immediately to the screenwriter.  I love Anthony Mann -- at once moral and brutal, with a sense of place, that's important, always a sense of place in the background.

His end as a director was tragic.  The noirs, the Westens, but then the big commercial films --- most people think Ford is the only Western director.

Ford I have an evolving relationship with.  As a kid I liked him. Later I found him cornball, sentimental, maybe misogynist.  Then I preferred Mann and Peckinpah. Now in my 50s I'm finding other Fords -- I just saw "Prisoner of Shark Island," very strong.  And how different he was with every DP he worked with -- pictorially very interesting.  The son of Bert Glennon, one of his favorites, shot my first three movies, so I got the stories, working with Jack.

How did you work with Jack Nicholson?

I called Mike Nichols, who'd worked with him on three pictures, and asked him for advice.  "Tell him the truth," he said. "Tell him exactly what you feel."  That's the best way to work with actors in general. I try to cast people I can talk with truthfully.  Not with tricks.  Jack is so good of an actor -- it's kind of like driving a Maserati, with tight steering.  He made me a better director.  I told him at the beginning, I need you to play a small man.  And he understood.  He's studied Huston and Polanski and Antonioni and Kubrick and worked with them all. ["And Minnelli," Dave whispers to me. I hesitate for a moment, and then "On A Clear Day" swims into view. "With Streisand!," I say.] For many years he had been doing commercial films, but he'd just done a great performance in Sean Penn's "The Pledge."  I'm so tired of people asking me "Why are you interested in flawed protagonists?"  It's the most idiotic question!  It sounds pretentious to say "How about Chaplin? He was homeless!"

How do you work together with your co-screenwriter, Jim Taylor?

We wrote the first four of my six films, and, starting in January, the next one.  We're in the same room and try to make each other laugh. Now isn't it time to see some movies?  Chaplin? De Sica?

Now von Bagh opens to questions -- I ask the first one -- I guess you have partially just answered this, but what are you excited about seeing in Bologna?

Payne: The WWII films, Sans Lendemain [Ophuls]; Jasny's film from '63 ("The Cassandra Cat"); and the films from 1913, how wonderful that we can go back in time.

Somebody asks him his inspiration for "The Descendants," and he says (as I do, sotto voce) It was a novel, it was set in Hawaii. 

von Bagh:  Searching for Elvis…

Payne: Elvis?

von Bagh:  "Blue Hawaii'…

Payne: [touches watch]  Isn't it time to see Chaplin at 4?  Or Lino Brocka at 5?

Another question: What cinematographers would you like to work with?

Payne:  I can't mention that as long as my cinematographer is alive!  You know, the sound mixer can be such divas -- temperamental and filled with ego. I have a good one -- I'm exaggerating!  But cinematographers, they are some of the nicest people.  The good ones are equally invested in making the film good.  You know, even Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" has to feel beautiful.  Jim Glennon is now deceased. I'm working with a fellow Greek, Phedon Papamichael.

Questioner: I love "Election"…

Payne: "Election" is my mother's favorite among my films.

Questioner: It reminded me of "Breakfast Club."  What do you think of John Hughes' films?

Payne (takes a deep breath): I can't say I like or don't like John Hughes' films.  I haven't seen them.  I was a film snob at the time they were coming out.  I'm not very interested in seeing them now. [Dave and I agree that this is the most controversial thing Payne has said.]

Question about working with Bruce Dern on "Nebraska":

Payne: When you go to make a film with an old guy, you're limited by who's left -- no Henry Fonda, Percy Kilbride, Charley Grapewin.  I screened "Nebraska" the other day for Nicholson, his producer Harry Gittes, who was the source of Nicholson's name in "Chinatown," and Dern, and afterwards Gittes said "I feel like I was back at BBS," [the production company behind "Easy Rider" -- as Raybert Productions -- and "Five Easy Pieces," among many other movies], which was lovely.

von Bagh: Desert island movie?

Payne: Can I have two?

von Bagh: Of course.

Payne:  Three.  "City Lights," "Modern Times," "Seven Samurai," "The Wild Bunch."

von Bagh:  That's three!

Exhilerated -- at least I was -- Dave and I got simultaneous-translation ear pieces [a difficult way to enjoy a movie] for the 3:45 p.m. screening of the restored "Gluckskinder," aka "Lucky Kids," a 1936 German movie starring the spiky blonde English actress Lilian Harvey.  I had vague memories of seeing it in a UCLA Film Archive program, decades ago, of generally rather light-hearted films made under the Nazis that were never distributed in the U.S.  

The film is set in New York, and I only clearly remembered a scene in which Harvey and Willy Fritsch go into a typical drugstore on Times Square, sit at the lunch counter on stools, and order sausages and beer.  In the event, the drugstore was not on Times Square, and, after being offered lobster and caviar (apparently sincerely -- the caviar price was $5!), they settled on herring with plenty of onions and beer.  The film was something of an "It Happened One Night" clone, complete with the protagonists sleeping with an improvised "Wall of Jericho" in-between them -- a row of cactus instead of a clothesline-hung sheet.

Afterwards I went to the 5 p.m. Lino Brocka screening that Payne had referenced, prodded by both its presenter, Rissient, and Mr. Kehr.  Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation had sprung for a restoration of Brocka's second feature film, "Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag," ("Manila in the Claws of Light,"), as well as a making-of documentary.  I'd seen many Brocka films over the years when they were presented by David Overbey in Toronto.  I recognized that this one, a primitive but powerful bildingsroman about a naive boy from the country who goes to Manila to find his girlfriend, who's been tricked into prostitution, is a kind of masterpiece. And that if I'd seen it in 1975, when it was made, I wouldn't have been as responsive to it as I was now. I was then a kind of film snob, as Alexander Payne had said, and I would have found it clunky and badly shot. 

I also enjoyed the making-of documentary, especially Brocka's strange obsession with the weight of his actors -- he replaced the original lead "because he has gained weight," and thinks that his lead actress will be one of the Phillipines's best actresses "especially now that she has lost weight."  'Twas ever thus.

I chug a double espresso at 9:30 p.m., which gets me through the inspired 10 p.m. outdoor screening of Cecil B. DeMille's hour-long 1915 "Carmen," played by Geraldine Farrar, paired with Charlie Chaplin's half-hour-long "A Burlesque on Carmen," starring Edna Purviance, also 1915.  I am stunned by the lavish musical accompaniment -- themes from Bizet's "Carmen" scored by Hugo Riesenfeld played by the 40-piece Opera Orchestra of Bologna for the De Mille, and then a lighter pastiche score by Timothy Brock for Chaplin's version, with wittier orchestration, and about twenty musicians.

Returning to the Hotel Roma, I pass Payne on the stairs, who is also returning from the double "Carmen." "Edna Purviance," he says, "was a much better Carmen than Geraldine Farrar."  "Yes," I agree, "and doesn't she remind you of Alice Waters?  Farrar was at least slender -- for an opera star." (I'm as obsessed as Lino Brocka.)  "I've always found Chaplin sexy," I continue, "but tonight he reminded me of Woody Allen, in the way that Diane Keaton wrote about him in her autobiography -- what a great tight little body he had."  "And Purviance was his Keaton," Payne says.

A hard day to top.  But I'll try.

1 Comment

  • Lawrence Chadbourne | July 5, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    Hi Meredith: Charlie Cockey has also sent a glowing report on this year's fest. I hope to join you guys next year, and revisit Bologna, which has a special meaning for my family history.
    The Czech director should be Jiri Weiss

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