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Sideways - Alexander Payne Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

IN THE space of four films, Alexander Payne has announced himself as one of the most witty and articulate of a new generation of American filmmakers.

Combining indie cool and mainstream appeal his work has tackled serious themes, from abortion issues in Citizen Ruth, to the satire on high school politics Election, and the touching character comedy-drama About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson.

Sideways, co-scripted with long time writing partner Jim Taylor, is adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel.

It’s the story of Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) who embark on a life changing, life affirming tour of California’s finest vineyards in the week before Jack’s wedding. Already the winner of several critics’ awards, the film has also garnered seven Golden Globe nominations.

Q. Was Sideways a tough project to pitch to a studio?
A.
I didn’t pitch it. My producer, Michael London, and I bought the rights to the book. Then Jim 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 meet actors.
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.

Q. The film acts as a primer on the world of wine – were either of your leading men knowledgeable in this area?
A.
I don’t think either of them drinks very much, and certainly neither of them knows very much about wine. Including Paul Giamatti, who was simply acting the part.

Q. What did you use as a substitute for wine on screen?
A.
They were drinking concoctions of grape juice, and other juices to match the colour of the wines. I didn’t care what they were drinking as long as the Syrah looked like Syrah and the Cabernet looked like Cabernet.

Q. These kind of wine tours are big business in the States, aren’t they?
A.
They are. And even as you see it depicted in Santa Barbara County in this film, they’re following the lead of what’s existed for a while up north in Napa and Sonoma, the famous wine regions which have large, tourist-friendly wineries.
You can taste the wines and buy the memorabilia, just like you see in what we call Frass Canyon.
But I think Australia and New Zealand are doing the same. You can do it in Bordeaux and Burgundy as well. It’s not quite so middle brow as you might think.

Q. Paul Giamatti is an increasingly recognisable actor for audiences, is this a good point to have got him, so soon after his success in American Splendour isn’t it?
A.
But even that was not a big mainstream hit. He is not an actor who can get a film financed as the lead. Really it’s the first time I’ve been able to get financing for a film because of me, I didn’t need an A list movie star to get the money. But I still feel extraordinarily lucky that I got him. I always feel lucky for the actors that I get in my films.

Q. Chemistry is crucial in a buddy movie like this, did Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church know each other before?
A.
They didn’t. And nor did I audition them together to test the chemistry or anything like that.
I brought them together two weeks before we began shooting, ostensibly for rehearsal but really to give them time to go and hang out together.
They went and drank wine together, ate together and played golf together because as professionals they know they have to have that chemistry. But it turned out to be really easy, because they ended up getting along so well.

Q. What did you see Thomas Haden Church in that made you cast him?
A.
Nothing, and I’ve still seen him in nothing. I had caught about five minutes of him in this popular TV show back home called Wings while I was channel surfing. So I really only knew him from auditions. But that’s usually the case with me.
When I cast Reese Witherspoon in Election I’d only seen her in Man In The Moon, which she had made when she was 14. I don’t really care to see everything they’ve done. I just get a feeling about them in an audition. And I’m there to help out.

Q. Wasn’t there an interest in one or other of these roles from some big name stars?
A.
I got calls from representatives of quite famous people for both parts.

Q. Wasn’t there a temptation, or a pressure, for you to go with a ‘name’?
A.
I don’t succumb to that kind of pressure. In the event of a tie, when I’m choosing the actors the more famous person would have won, because it just makes everybody feel better.
But when you go to make a comedy you can’t fool around. You can’t just slap famous people in there for the sake of it. 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.

Q. Were the California wineries you depict especially keen about being shown in the best possible light?
A.
Yes, but that’s always the case. It’s not exclusive to vineyards, it’s the same with any location.
A lot of my job as a film director is about diplomacy, about meeting location owners. I like to use real things. The hardest bit of diplomacy on this one was not the wineries it was the Armenian Church.
To get the blessing from the archbishop, the prelate of the Armenian Church of North America, that the most holy cathedral in the Americas would not be disgraced and would be shown in a respectful way. And then to get 150 Armenian extras to stick around for 12 hours, that was the hard part.

Q. But your choice of an inferior winery, Frass Canyon, was presumably fictional wasn’t it?
A.
That’s actually the winery owned by Fess Parker, who is best known for playing Davy Crockett. And it is big and touristy like that but they actually do make very respectable wine.
We needed to be able to trash a wine for comic purposes, so we re-named it Frass Canyon. Frass is an arcane English word meaning the excrement or droppings of insects. It’s a word exterminators use.

Q. On this of all films was there a particular opportunity to bond over a nice glass of red wine?
A.
You know that happened every night we shot at the location called The Hitching Post. 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. But that’s true in all my shoots, any time you shoot in or near a bar. When you wrap for the day everyone goes to the bar, and I do too.

Q. Film-makers like you, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze, seem to be flying the flag for independent, and independent-minded, American cinema. Does this bring any sort of pressure for you?
A.
I don’t feel pressure, though I certainly feel responsibility. And that’s from myself, to make the best possible movies I can. 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 far afield. I can’t easily make a Theo Angelopoulos film within the American film industry.
I make comedies, and that keeps me afloat, at least I can always sell them to the studios as comedies.

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