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Director series: Alexander Payne

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By Mary Ann SkweresFor the hilarious buddy picture Sideways, writer/director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) chose less obvious actors—Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden (Jack)—to star as two friends questioning their lives and loves while on a weeklong binge through Northern California’s wine country. Exploring the bonds of male friendship, Payne and his writing collaborator Jim Taylor focused on personality, creating fully developed characters with humor and pathos. As for crew, the director chose many of the same people he’s worked with in the past. The set was relaxed, contributing to the film’s easygoing comedy.Below the Line: How much of your vision is written into the script?Alexander Payne: Everything I’ve been thinking about is in the script. I’ll note how locations appear, describe characters. You’re telling the actor and the technical person the same thing. “Such and such a person arrives at the shabby, run-down house, climbs the rickety wooden stairs, he’s wearing so and so…” The actor, the location manager, the production designer and the costume designer are all seeing the movie and all getting clues from the screenplay. We’re painting the scene.BTL: Jane Ann Stewart has been production designer on all of your films. What does she bring to the creative process?AP: Jane was production designer on some Playboy Channel stuff that I did. Destiny thrust her upon me. I never interviewed another production designer. She combines compassion and understanding for characters and a fairly brutal sense of humor about them. We don’t have exactly the same sense of humor, but the way our two senses of humor meet is very pleasing to both of us. Jane and I talk a lot about class, the class of our characters.BTL: Your work with costume designer, Wendy Chuck goes back to Election. How did you come to work together? AP: It’s funny how things work. I had a wonderful costume designer, Tom McKinley, on Citizen Ruth. I begged him to do Election, but he had taken a TV series. Wendy came in and did a great job, so I’ve begun a continuum with her.BTL: This is your first collaboration with director of photography Phedon Papamichael [ASC]. What’s your criterion in bringing new crew members into the family?AP: When you meet these wonderfully creative people, they show you their portfolio. I don’t hire or not hire someone based on a portfolio. It’s more just a feeling. I’ve come to trust my intuition both with hiring technical people and in casting. All I have as a director is my intuition. I have to have a feeling that I’m going to enjoy working with that person. That’s the most important thing. Also, the main component of a good collaboration is the quality of questions that you ask each other. That’s the key. The film is the questions that you ask each other.BTL: How did you and Papamichael decide on the look of the film?AP: We spent a lot of time looking at films. We’d watch five minutes of one, 45 minutes of another. We talked about movies we liked. We both liked the soft moodiness of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. I wanted a soft pastel sense of color, like the human movies of the ’70s. The way Phedon shoots, there’s a softness about the color, very natural but in a lovely, poetic way. I wanted a very poetically photographed, realistic look to the film. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t usually like Steadicam. I like the tripod, dolly and handheld. A major player for Phedon is his gaffer, Rafael Sanchez. He is really a director of photography in his own right. He has such command of the lighting. Together they give me the feeling I want.BTL: Do you block out scenes with your cinematographer?AP: I’ve always worked that way because I write it. You block it in your mind. Then you look for locations that work but also locations that suggest shots. I love locations. I’ve worked with my location manager John Latenser on all four pictures. Though due to a conflict, Jeremy Alter did half the scouting on this one.You can’t write about my process without discussing George Parra, my first AD, who is now also my line producer. He watches my back. He knows how I work. He is very specific about what we can do in a day. We also created a new job on this film: factotum. It’s a Latin word that means “he who does all.” I’ve been so frustrated about how compartmentalized film sets are. A grip touches that which is in front of the light, but you have to have an electrician to touch the light. [Tracy Boyd, Payne’s assistant on About Schmidt, is credited as “general factotum” on Sideways.] BTL: Editor Kevin Tent is another crew member who has worked on all your pictures.AP: When I was doing Citizen Ruth I called editor Carole Kravetz and said, “You’re too busy and too expensive for me. Can you recommend an editor?” She recommended Kevin. I spend the most time with Kevin. We work very closely together. He is very instinctual. Unlike some editors, he doesn’t mind one-frame trims. On this we had a high shooting ratio, over a half million feet of film from multiple cameras. Kevin is good at finding stuff in the dailies.BTL: Where did the idea for split screens come from?AP: We talked about them during Citizen Ruth, but we never had a way to use them. We both like the Thomas Crown Affair. It comes back to production design. It was very important to capture a sense of place.BTL: What do you look for from sound designer Frank Gaeta?AP: I want in the sound the same reality as I want in the image. A reality based on what you see and hear in real life. I don’t have anything against stylizing—all film is stylized, even what I do. But it’s all about choices. What I’m looking for is that it rings true. Frank hits the reality I want and is able to handle sequences that are more designed. He goes to the exact locations where I shot to get sounds. The on-location sound mixer gets a lot of that too, but we always need to beef it up or we want something more specific within it. Frank went up to the wine area, hit all the wineries where we shot and recorded sounds. I even want the birds to be accurate. I want to make sure those are birds you actually hear, not sound-effects library bird tracks. We had three Saabs. I told George Parra, “Put one of those Saabs away because we’re going to need it for sound.” We stored one so that Frank could use it for the sounds.Patrick Cyccone, my sound mixer, knows that I don’t like to use surround speakers very much. I like it on the stereo side of mono. I want things to come from the screen. I want my films to feel very human, not so much like a “big” movie.BTL: How do you collaborate with music editor, Richard Ford?AP: I met Richard on Election. He is with Kevin and me doing a temp score for the film before Rolfe [Kent, composer] even gets involved. Then once we’ve done the score, we have other songs that we’re going to use in the film. I have a week alone with Richard. We move the music around. He has a great sense of how music works with film. Even when we disagree, we have great respect for how the other feels. He’s a great and sensitive man.BTL: Any other crew regulars?AP: Dondi Batone, music supervisor; he did a terrific job on Election and Sideways. Prop master Jeffrey O’Brien; my casting directors John Jackson and Lisa Beach. I even use the same video transfer person, Mike Soua at Laser Pacific. BTL: What effect does working with so many regular collaborators have on your filmmaking process?AP: When I start a new picture it’s like bringing family together. The most fun is the increasing richness of our collaboration. The joy of my working with these people over and over again is the shorthand that we have developed over the years. We developed together, not just a way of working, but an esthetic.

Written by Mary Ann Skwe
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