When a movie by Alexander Payne comes out – lately, that’s not as often as we’d like; it has been seven years – certain expectations are raised. Actors will plunge deep into Payne’s world of comic frustration, and if they’re not already one of the all-time greats (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, say), they will emerge as one: Election’s Reese Witherspoon or Sideways’ Paul Giamatti.
Only five features into his career, Payne has become a dependable forger of prestige performances; studios know this, and to watch the TV spot for the director’s latest, The Descendants, in which George Clooney dashes around in his Hawaiian flip-flops while a voiceover declares that the Oscar race is on, is to see the awards albatross slung around his neck. He hates it.
‘One thing I abhor’ – Payne is just getting started – ‘are the people coming up to me and saying, “You have a lot of competition this year.” I want to deck them. Because there is no competition in film. I would love to have a film of mine come out during a year in which there are many wonderful American films. I want there to be great American films, always.’ The director, a self-described geek who needs no prodding to wax lyrical, can sometimes speak in pronouncements.
The funny thing is that you warm to Payne’s professorial manner, which has often produced characters who have been loveable if slightly fatuous teachers. Payne’s comedies are the opposite of didactic. The Descendants, starring Clooney as a cuckolded Honolulu lawyer trying to mend bonds with his two daughters, brings a new element of randomness to the formula: the messiness of life.
‘You’re out there in the elements trying to put something together,’ Payne says of a movie set, the place he most loves being, ‘and you have this beautiful singularity of purpose, which is missing from the chaos of the rest of my life. Many people in film, their lives are a shambles.’ Has he said too much? (There’s been a divorce and some dead ends since 2004’s Sideways.) 'No, I’m exaggerating for comic effect,’ he insists.
Still, you have to wonder about those seven years and the quietly intense man who has emerged from them. ‘Look, my first four pictures came in pretty fast succession – four films in eight years,’ Payne explains. ‘Then I just got stuck writing another screenplay with Jim [Taylor, his scripting partner] that took two and a half years.’ (Of that legendary sci-fi project, Downsizing, Payne says, ‘It’s currently ageing in an oak cask.’)
Payne kept busy with producing and says it was Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel that really drew him back into the feature game, inspiring him to write his first solo draft since film school. ‘It’s a deceptively good read,’ says Payne. ‘[Hemmings’] writing style is simple and non-emphatic, just as I want my film style to be, which is accessible and classical. But the more I read it, the more I saw what was going on.’
Only a few months after Payne finished his script for The Descendants in 2009, the cameras were rolling and the passion was flowing. He now has two films lined up: one tentatively titled Nebraska, an arty-sounding black-and-white father-son road movie, the other a Daniel Clowes graphic-novel adaptation, Wilson.
‘I like being a disciplined filmmaker,’ Payne says. ‘It forces me to be more precise.’ Yet he also knows how to play the game: ‘I’ve now done three projects in a row that have been under budget, and you don’t get a medal for it. You can’t sacrifice quality just to be Mr Good Boy.’ Oscars or not, that hardly seems likely.
The Descendants opens in cinemas on 26 Jan