Things I’ve Learned: Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne’s bittersweet take on humanity’s foibles have etched their way to the center of our idea of modern America–the way we see ourselves. The past two decades have seen the writer-director go from 1996’s Citizen Ruth to 2011’s The Descendents and his latest, Nebraska, executing his brand of sorrowful comedy (or perhaps joyous tragedy) to perfection.

Nebraska was released by Paramount on Blu-ray and DVD yesterday, and its six nods at this weekend’s Academy Awards makes it the nomination leader across Payne’s career (to wit: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Original Screenplay). Starring Bruce Dern as old Woody Grant (whose major failing is his belief in what people tell him), Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk as his concerned but ineffective sons, and June Squibb as his spitfire wife, the film is brought to life by its cast of genuine Midwesterners in all their salt-of-the-earth, drawling, squabbling glory. (Shout out to an underrated Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner-come-bully.)

Payne’s gift for bringing out the best in his actors remains one of his most evident strengths. The following 13 rules demonstrate his others.

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1.  Read the last chapter of John Huston’s An Open Book, and Kazan on Kazan by Michel Ciment: They contain the whole diatribe of “Travel, live, fall in love, get your heart broken,” and say it better than I can.

2.  There’s no prescription—everyone’s path is different. D.W. Griffith did not go to school. What’s important is to make film.

3.  Utilize the availability of digital cameras, and the huge amount of filmmaking knowledge available in books and on DVD extras. It used to be that if you liked Casablanca in 1943, you never saw it again. You just had to remember it for the rest of your life. Now you can watch it over and over again. It’s miraculous!

4.  Study the great films and consider why they’re great. Memorize your favorite film shot by shot: when the music comes in, when it goes away, how long a look it held before cutting away to create emotion, and the dialogue. You won’t then go make that film yourself, but you’ll develop a mental spice rack over time.

5.  The last thing you want is a brilliant DP who’s an asshole—that’s asking for trouble.

6.  The beauty of collaboration is the quality and questions that you ask each other. I don’t bark out orders to be executed. The different department heads of a film deduce the film from me, and I from them.

7.  Within the type of two-hour narrative cinema we generally talk about, all components are important (a bad score can sink a movie, for example). But of primary importance are screenplay and casting. Those are also the two elements that generate the most problems in the editing room. You don’t have problems because you used a 50mm lens over a 35mm lens for a shot. You have problems because your screenplay is unsound or your casting is wrong.

8.  I arrive at a set before the actor and sometimes before the DP, and I act out the scene for myself on location. That way I have some idea of what the actors are going through, and can guide them more thoughtfully.

9.  One of the oldest, best pieces of advice is, “Always get your entrances and exits.” When shooting a close-up, make sure the actor can enter and leave the shot.

10.  You get more with honey than with vinegar. Because I have more fun making films than doing anything else in life, I’ve found that the fun I have is infectious.

11.  It’s hard to say what comedy is. I have no idea—I know it when I see it.

12.  They try and try to change your mind, and in the moment you change your mind, they lose respect for you.

13.  You have more power than you think. MM

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Paul W.S. Anderson, McG, Ethan HawkeGavin HoodJohn SaylesMike NewellBarry SonnenfeldWilliam FrakerRobert RodriguezJoe EszterhasSeth MacFarlaneMarc Forster,  Billy Bob ThorntonErrol MorrisBrian De PalmaJulie TaymorKevin SmithChris WeitzDanny BoyleSteve BuscemiJim JarmuschZack Snyder, Gus Van SantNeil JordanJohn WatersEli RothNeal McDonoughRandall Emmett and Wim Wenders.

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