Feature by: Jack Foley
HAVING directed films such as Election and About Schmidt (starring
Jack Nicholson), Alexander Payne has emerged as one of the hottest
young directors of his generation.
His new film, Sideways, is generating some serious Oscar buzz
and led the field at the recent Golden Globe Awards, with seven
nominations, subsequently picking up a best screenplay trophy
for Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor.
But while the writer-director has frequently been credited with
flying the flag for independent cinema, in the same way as David
O Russell and Spike Jonze, Payne plays down any talk of mounting
"I don’t feel it, though I certainly feel responsibility.
And that’s from myself, to make the best possible movies
I can," he admits.
"I don’t compare myself to other current American
films, I watch the really great films and I’m always comparing
myself to those.
"I’m obviously vastly inferior, but I’m trying
to learn about what a movie is, how I can try to use film language
in a new way, while still working within the commercial American
cinema, because that’s where I am. I can’t go too
"I make comedies and that keeps me afloat, at least I can
always sell them to the studios as comedies."
His latest comedy is a funny but poignant tale of two lifelong
friends who embark on a road trip into California's wine region
for a week before one of them gets married.
For struggling writer and best-man Miles (played by Paul Giamatti),
the trip represents an opportunity to get away from his mundane
existence, especially since he is still struggling to come to
terms with his divorce.
But for the happy-go-lucky Jack (Thomas Haden Church), it's the
chance to sow his wild oats one last time and to say farewell
to bachelorhood in style.
Needless to say, their ensuing journey involves much self-discovery
and plenty of women-related tomfoolery - as well as a surprisingly
useful insight into quality wine!
Given the age of its middle-aged protagonists, however, and the
lack of any star names in the cast, did Payne find it a hard sell
to the studios?
"I didn’t pitch it," he replied, when asked.
"My producer, Michael London, and I bought the rights to
the book, then Jim [Taylor] and I wrote the screenplay on spec,
and then Michael and I paid for casting.
"We made a kitty, rented an
office and hired a casting director. I even came to London to
Then we went to studios and presented them with the whole package.
"We came to them with the script, the budget [forecast],
the director and the preferred cast, and asked them if they were
in or out. It was on that basis, dropping that anchor, that discussions
began. And God bless Fox Searchlight for swallowing the whole
thing hook, line and sinker."
And in established character actor Paul Giamatti he knew he had
found the perfect person for Miles, even though he may not seem
like an obvious choice for a male romantic lead.
"When you go to make a comedy you can’t fool around.
You can’t just slap famous people in there for the sake
"I don’t feel I need to use an actor, or want to use
an actor, simply because he or she is famous. I’m a filmmaker.
All I’m thinking about is what’s right for the film,
what’s the right tone.
"And more than anything, your leading actors embody and
encapsulate the tone you’re trying to put across.
"I’ve been fortunate in that the stars I’ve
had previously in my career were also right for those parts. I
can’t do any better than Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates and
Reese Witherspoon – I’m very grateful. I would have
had famous stars in this one too if I thought they were appropriate."
Indeed, one of the strongest features of Sideways is the chemistry
between Giamatti and Haden Church, which has already helped the
film to pick up several acting awards from prominent American
It is ironic, therefore, that the actors only had two weeks to
build their relationship before shooting.
"They went and drank wine together, ate together and played
golf together because, as professionals, they knew they had to
have that chemistry," continued Payne.
"But it turned out to be really easy, because they ended
up getting along so well."
Likewise, the rest of the crew, who readily made the most of
the opportunity to indulge in some of the wine that the region
was famous for.
"It's funny, every night we shot at the location called
The Hitching Post we would go and enjoy a glass of red wine,"
recalled Payne. "They make such good Pinot and the owners
were so cool that we’d wrap, and we were just all there.
"We had about 80 people in the crew, and we’d all
pile to the bar and out came the owners pulling out cases, telling
us about the wine they were serving.
"We had wonderful evenings, and that contributed a lot to
the film," he concluded.