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Film: Sideways

Alexander Payne
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; 2:00 PM

Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Alexander Payne has earned critical acclaim for such films as "Election" and "About Schmidt." His upcoming film "Sideways" stars Paul Giamatti as an unpublished novelist who takes a soon-to-be married friend (Thomas Haden Church) on a whirlwind trip through California wine country.

Payne will be online Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the film and his career.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church star in Alexander Payne's "Sideways." (Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Payne was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for the "Election" screenplay, which he co-wrote with Jim Taylor. The pair also co-wrote "About Schmidt" and "Sideways," all three of which were directed by Payne.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


East Greenwich, R.I.: Hey! I loved "Election" and "About Schmidt" and can't wait to see "Sideways." Where do you get your inspiration for such quirky, intelligent and overwhelmingly HUMAN characters?

Alexander Payne: In a general sense, I get inspiration from the many movies I've seen, which have in turn inspired me. Invariably, those films, no matter the genre, have a great deal of humanity at their core. In a specific sense, a lot of the inspiration specifically for example with "Election" and my newest film, "Sideways," comes from novels, since they are both adaptations of novels. And I chose to adapt these novels specifically because I responded to the human element contained within.


Washington, D.C.: Alexander - Just saw "Sideways" at a screening and LOVED it. I'm a female, though, and it seems that this movie was really a deconstruction of the male psyche, something maybe most women wouldn't understand. Did you write this with males specifically in mind as your target audience?

Alexander Payne: No. And I never write with target audiences in mind, other than myself and my friends. As for deconstructing the male psyche, perhaps that is there. But for me what was more important was revealing human qualities, regardless of gender. In this case, though, as you note, the key protagonists happen to be male.


Hudson, Ohio: I know that in "Sideways," much of the film revolves around wine. Is wine-tasting and vineyard-visiting a hobby of yours?

Alexander Payne: It is now. Until making "Sideways" I had liked wine and collected a little bit, and known somethng about wine. But my knowledge had plateaued. Making "Sideways" has given me a lot more education about wine in general, and California wine, particularly those in Santa Barbara County, in particular.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm debating checking out "Sideways" when it comes out. I've seen the trailer so many times before "Garden State" that my interest is piqued. Anything you can say to finish the job of convincing me I should see it?

Alexander Payne: No.


Washington, D.C.: Hi. I went to high school in Omaha (Bellevue East), and thought that you aptly captured some of the "spirit" of Nebraska in your films. (I think that is where you grew up, no?) "About Schmidt" had a beautiful crescendo.

With you, how does the idea for a movie manifest? Some screenwriters say it starts with a moment, a scene, and builds from there. Others say that they have a character and let that character take the story where it goes. What's your process?

Alexander Payne: That is such a complex question. The desire to make a film can stem from any of the things you mention. A line of dialogue, a building you wish to photograph, a character moment, any of these can compel you to construct a film which would contain those elements. In the case of "Election," the scene that really made me want to make the entire film was when Mr. McAllister washes his genitals in a motel bathtub while anticipating his adulterous date.


Rocvkville, Md.: Was "About Schmidt" written with Jack Nicholson in mind. Did it take much convincing to get him to play this "un-Nicholson-like" part?

Alexander Payne: When my co-writer, Jim Taylor, and I began writing "About Schmidt," we knew that Jack Nicholson would be the first actor to read the script. Yet because we had no assurance that he would accept the part, we did not write with him in mind at all. Mr. Nicholson accepted the part immediately upon reading the script, so there was little cajoling to be done.


Ridgewood, N.J.: Alexander - Just saw the movie and was really intrigued by it. I think I was most intrigued by how real and honest the characters were, and how unafraid you were as a screenwriter and director to portray them in all their misery and confusion. Did you write yourself into any of the characters? It must have been a very cathartic experience to write this script.

Alexander Payne: (Laugh}
Unfortunately, creative work scratches the itch that might lead to personal catharsis, yet never achieves catharsis. My cowriter and I write a lot of ourselves and our sense of human experience into our screenplays. So perhaps we are all of the characters and none of them simultaneously. Certainly the films as a whole reflect the type of shared sense of humor that we have toward life. By the way, I heard a nice definition for a comedy today at lunch, which is, "Comedy is tragedy in disguise."


Bellevue, WA: Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church aren't what most people would call your typical leading men. How did you decide on them as your main characters? Was the script written with anyone in mind?

Alexander Payne: First of all, Jim Taylor, my cowriter, is from Bellevue, Wash. Perhaps you knew that.
We never write our scripts with any actors in mind. My process of selecting Mssrs. Giamatti and Church was a simple one. I auditioned many actors for each part, and chose the ones who seemed most appropriate. Inspired by American films of the 1970s as I am, I remember a time when leading men resembled ordinary men, much more than they do now. Think of Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, even Jack Nicholson. All of them are a far cry from Cary Grant or Ben Affleck.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Was it difficult for you to break into the business and did you have to deal with several "passes" from agents and production companies when you first began? Any advice you'd give to aspiring screenwriters? Also, I usually am averse to sequels, but would love to see "The Further Adventures of Tracy Enid Flick," if it had the same tone of the original. That was one of the best films of the 1990s.

Alexander Payne: Having made a hit student film at UCLA graduate film school, I found early on a foothold in to the film business. Yet it took me five years to get my first feature off the ground precisely because I wanted to make films of a peculiar sort. "Citizen Ruth" was my first feature and was declined by every studio and production company until finally, finally, Miramax agreed to finance it at a very low rate. Miramax, by the way, had already passed on it twice before. It's only because of the dilligence of the producer of "Citizen Ruth" that the film ever saw light. Indeed, "About Schmidt" is based on a script I had written even before "Citizen Ruth" and was basically laughed at by the studio for whom it had been written. Advice is always difficult to give, especially in such an awkward form as an online chat in which I am dictating the answers over a telephone from my hotel room. So at the risk of being too simple, I will say write only what you care about, not what you think will sell. And be persistent. Those are the only things that will lead toward getting a film made sooner or later. And third, I also adore Tracy Enid Flick, and I meet versions of her consistently. Yet I have never conceived of a sequel to that or to any of my films. But thank you for the sentiment.


Morristown, N.J.: I have no question, just a comment: I thought "About Schmidt" was absolutely brilliant -- touching, funny and ultimately uplifting. A beautiful film, it is the modern day version of "It's A Wonderful Life". My wife and I left the theater shocked and happily surprised that a movie with such a simple message could be made in Hollywood these days. Thank you so much!

Alexander Payne: Thank you so much for the kind words.


Cap Hill Manager, Washington, D.C.: Greetings. I have enjoyed all of your films so far. I was curious as to the casting of Virginia Madsen. I remember when I was in high school in the 80's she was tauted as the next "It" girl when "Slam Dance" came out, always thought that she was pretty good but never made a big mark. Why was she chosen and how was she to work with? Thanks!

Alexander Payne: I auditioned many actresses for the part of Maya in "Sideways," but there was something about Virginia that told me almost immediately that she was to be the one. There is something in her eyes that suggests she has had a lot of life experience, and I liked that. Furthermore, I believed that despite how beautiful she is, she could still be a waitress. She has a lovely simplicity to her acting. She hits her marks, she recites her dialogue exactly as written with sincerity and conviction, and she looks directly at her interlocutor. I liked her particularly in the past in "Candy Man" and "The Rainmaker."


San Antonio, Tex.: ""Comedy is tragedy in disguise."

Have you read the poet Kahlil Gibran, specifically "The Prophet?" Or the Greeks?

Alexander Payne: I have read a lot of "The Prophet" and certainly his sayings are reproduced ad infinitum on greeting cards. But no, really, I cannot claim to know his work well. Why do you ask?


Bethesda, Md.: Hello. I was a big fan of "About Schmidt" and have always been curious about something. Some critics expressed concern when the film came out that it was making fun of regular, middle America folks. I personally didn't see it that way, but I was wondering how you felt about it. Were you surprised that some people took it that way, or was well-meaning mockery your intention? Thanks.

Alexander Payne: I did not mean to mock anyone in "About Schmidt," and I found consistently that those who accused the film of mocking its Midwestern characters were not from the Midwest. Or perhaps had rarely visited there, if ever.


Detroit, Mich.: How important is it for you to win an Oscar? (Somewhat? Very?)

Alexander Payne: Not at all. My cowriter and I were nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay of "Election," and we had a ball at the Oscars. It was so over-the-top and Vegasy and elegant and trashy, that we loved every minute of it. But I find deplorable that anything in the arts can be singled out as better than anything else in the arts. So I value the recognition that an Oscar nomination can bring to a film or a filmmaker, yet a nomination is enough. Yet I would not decline one, but I would still recognize the things I have just said, and I find execrable the campaigning for awards that goes on. I know it is largely financially motivated, but I see nothing but ignominy in asking for an award.


Harrisburg, Pa.: "Election" and "About Schmidt" were both excellent movies. Your films offer realistic comedies in dramatic settings, which is difficult to achieve, yet you have done a great job mixing the two. Is this film similar: A drama with comedic overtones? How would you describe your latest movie?

Alexander Payne: Yes, I wuld agree that the film is very much in the same vein as "Election" and "About Schmidt" though people are telling me that in "Sideways," I seem to be more inside of the characters instead of looking at them. And that the film seems more heartfelt and less satirical than those previous films.


Washington, D.C.: Russ Meyer is dead! Heaven or hell?

Alexander Payne: Heaven. Although I deplored the violence in "Supervixens," still, no film is quite as sublime in its own way as "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" And who can't love a movie in which the protagonist is called Varla?


Arlington, Va.: With all the praise for "About Schmidt" I feel compelled to add my kudos for "Election." It was dead-on in so many ways. Great movie!

Alexander Payne: Thank you.


Definition of comedy...: Or, as Woody Allen wrote in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" - "Comedy is tragedy plus time."
Have you ever received "notes" from producers that have made you scratch your head in wonder?

Alexander Payne: Yes, I have. Both from producers and studio executives. Yet they've never bothered me. What is most important to them is to feel acknowledged and listened to. I have received many off the mark comments, yet I have also derived good ideas from some of their comments.
Thanks for all of your questions. I've enjoyed this and I'm sorry I can't continue. And by the way, I saw a wonderful film at the Toronto Film Festival called "My Summer of Love." I think Universal Focus acquired it, so watch for it in a few months.


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