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With About Schmidt, filmmaking’s foremost social satirist Alexander Payne makes a moving, reflective and ultimately very personal film. Scott Macaulay talks with the writer-director.

Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. PHOTOS: CLAUDETTE BARIUS.

With three films — Citizen Ruth, Election and now About Schmidt — Alexander Payne has become perhaps American cinema’s most perceptive and engaging social satirist. His debut feature, Citizen Ruth, was a wildly funny black comedy set against the politics of reproductive rights. Election, masquerading as a teen farce, was something more subtle. While ostensibly sending up high school cliques and the teenage socialization process, it was actually a ruthless commentary on a specifically American breed of Type A personality and how our system breeds, indulges and derives its power from these driven people.

But with his new film, his most emotionally moving, the object of Payne’s satire is not so easily located. Writing with his frequent collaborator, Jim Taylor, Payne has come up with a meditation on American society’s awkward inability to deal with such inevitabilities as loss, aging and death. Jack Nicholson plays Schmidt, a recently retired insurance actuarian recovering from the loss of his overbearing wife. Deciding to intervene in what seems to be to both Schmidt and the audience the disastrous wedding of his daughter to a real loser, Schmidt sets off across Omaha in a giant motor home, all the while sending letters to a Tanzanian boy he supports with monthly checks.

It’s the film’s great achievement that its comedy of Middle America is both intelligent and loving, an approach summed up by Schmidt’s attitude toward his wife’s collection of Hummel figurines. While they appear to him during her life as annoying kitsch, after her death they are transformed into resonant emotional totems — each with, as Payne is quick to point out, “its own original certificate of authenticity!”About Schmidt will be released by Fine Line in December 2003.

Kathy Bates and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt.

Filmmaker: Dialogue traditionally is used to advance plot and detail character, and in some screenplays, that’s all it does. But in your films, dialogue has another dimension — it reflects and comments on broader attitudes and behaviors in society. I was struck by the scene in the movie in which Schmidt is visited by his neighbor after his wife has died.

Alexander Payne: The scene in which those people say, “We’re going to miss Helen so much; she was such a nice lady. If you need anything at all, you call us, okay?” We all know he’s never going to call!

Filmmaker: Exactly. The neighbor’s extremely banal dialogue says a lot about the way our society has a hard time dealing with grief and death, and it’s also very funny. Could you talk about your process of writing dialogue and thinking about what dialogue means in your films?

Payne: That’s a hard question, because you are asking me to somehow come to an awareness of and describe an intuitive process. When Jim and I are writing together and one of us comes up with a line of dialogue that sounds as though it’s something we’ve heard before, that it rings true, we both kind of light up. One piece of dialogue in Schmidt that I’m particularly proud of is when Schmidt arrives in Denver at Kathy Bates’s house, and she tells him about her hysterectomy and all of that. She argues with her ex-husband in the kitchen, and then the kids come over. And here is a recently widowed man and a girl, his daughter, who has recently lost her mother. They haven’t seen each other in many weeks, and she says, “How was your trip?” And he says: “Well, it was fine, but I saw a lot of traffic coming into town today. You know, I came in on the 20,” and they get into a discussion about traffic and the best routes to take when you’re in Denver. I don’t know what to say other than there’s something really true about it, and funny. People talk about the most banal things in situations [where] dramaturgy would call for something much more heightened.

Filmmaker: When you and Jim write together, what is your process?

Payne: We are always together when we write. It’s difficult, though, because he lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles. And it was a little bit easier when we didn’t have women in our lives. Now we have women in our lives, so it’s a little bit harder for us to just pick up and go to the other place and write for a long time. He just left after 10 days here. In 10 days I’m about to go spend three weeks there. But we’re always together. Often we use one monitor and two keyboards.

Filmmaker: Two keyboards going into the same document?

Payne: Yeah.

Filmmaker: That sounds very tricky.

Payne: No, because we don’t write so fast that one would be conflicting with the other. And sometimes one of us will say, “Let me do the grunt work.” We’ll discuss what we’re going to do, and then I or he will take 15 or 20 minutes and type a page, and then the other comes over and we rewrite it together. But more often, we write together line by line — throwing ideas around and building on each other’s ideas until we’re both satisfied. We’re midwifing each other’s ideas, and we have enough shared sensibilities that our styles meld into one in a very nice way. We’re not great planners in screenwriting. And when you haven’t planned, and you have to write every day, it’s really miserable, and our company helps reduce that misery.

Filmmaker: In some ways, About Schmidt has some classic tropes of the American indie movie. It feels personal; it’s a character-driven road movie. So I was surprised to learn that it was a project actually brought to you to direct by the producer, Harry Gittes. Can you tell us how this project was developed?

Payne: When I first got out of UCLA grad film school, I wrote the first draft of a movie then called The Coward. And the studio I wrote it for had no interest in making it whatsoever! So I went and made Citizen Ruth and Election. As I was cutting Election, Harry Gittes sent me [Louis] Begley’s book About Schmidt. I read it, and of course had written a previous unfilmed script about a retiring fellow [The Coward], and I realized I hadn’t gotten that theme of retirement out of my system. So I signed on. Harry is Jack Nicholson’s very old friend and worked as a producer on both Drive, He Said and Goin’ South.

Filmmaker: Is his name a coincidence?

Payne: No, it’s no coincidence, because they were all buddies with Robert Towne, so when Towne wrote Chinatown, he called [the protagonist] Jake Gittes. But the more Jim and I started adapting that book by Mr. Begley, the more we started appropriating from my previous screenplay, to the point where it’s really a rewrite of my previous screenplay, with structural devices taken from Mr. Begley’s novel. And, of course, the title of the film and the man’s name.

Filmmaker: What was the story of The Coward?

Payne: Same thing. There are things word for word the same: the retirement dinner at the beginning, the letters to the Tanzanian boy in Dugu, that he leaves his home and goes on a quest across the state of Nebraska. Jim and I together introduced the mobile home, and from Begley’s book we took the idea that he has a single daughter who is to be married to a jerk with an overbearing mother, and that the protagonist’s wife dies. The book helped solve some narrative problems that I never really solved, and I’m happy it was made now and not 10 years ago.

Filmmaker: You’ve made three features that are all extremely idiosyncratic, that evidence a real personal style, and they’ve all been made, in varying degrees, “within the system.” How have you managed to do that?

Payne: I’m really lucky! I don’t think there’s any reason why, by definition, the source of the funding of the movie has to taint the content of the film. It often does, which is what you’re alluding to. Ninety-nine percent of the time it does — [a film’s] content is nudged in every possible way toward what is perceived as the most commercial choice. And commercial considerations always have, almost ideologically, a precedent over personal choice or the filmmaker’s taste. But I believe 100 percent in film as a medium of personal creative expression. People in Hollywood admonish you, “Well, it’s not called show show; it’s called show business.” Well, for me, it’s an art form, first and foremost — a commercial art form.

But I don’t know how I fell into it, quite frankly. I guess because I ended up going to film school in Los Angeles, not New York. I happened to get a lot of attention from my student film, so immediately I got those phone calls. I wound up getting a Hollywood agent and a studio deal, and “We’ll give you $100,000.” That’s what I was paid for The Coward when I first got out of film school. It gave me money to live on for four years. And then, I don’t know, I just somehow have been able to do it.

In that documentary Scorsese made [A Personal History with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies], Scorsese presents the model of the American director as a “smuggler.” You have to work within genres — westerns, gangster pictures, musical comedies, whatever — and “smuggle” your ideas. Thankfully I’ve always been able to cull myself to comedies. Later they see them and go, “Well, it wasn’t entirely a comedy.” Especially with this one!

Filmmaker: But on a practical level, is there a secret to maintaining this vision within the studio development context? Something on a day-to-day, practical level?

Payne: It’s not that conscious. From picture to picture, all I’m thinking about is what is the movie I’d like to see. What’s going on inside of me and what would I like to make. And there is one thing I’m very happy about: Of my first three features, About Schmidt, which cost $32 million, is the most personal. I’d love to make a big commercial film someday if I found the subject matter interesting, but the better part of me wants to use whatever “power” I have from accruing films behind me to make increasingly more personal films, not increasingly impersonal ones.

Filmmaker: Do you think the personal answers you found while making About Schmidt were different ones than if you had made The Coward 10 years ago?

Payne: No, the movie had kind of the same meaning to me then and now. And if you were to ask me in what way it was personal, I would have to say I don’t really know. Honestly, it’s just something I feel. But I think About Schmidt captures more of a sense of Omaha. You are always striving to catch that allusive sense of place — I like to be in a certain place that pushes childhood buttons. Citizen Ruth — I really failed at having a sense of genuine Omaha in it. Election was a little bit better, but it was a suburban Omaha that wasn’t really true to my own childhood because I grew up in the middle of the city. But About Schmidt is shot pretty much all in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I got great overcast skies and leafless trees. The faces of the extras in the retirement scene that opens the film state that feeling of Omaha, much more even than the various shots of Omaha which open the film.

Filmmaker: I’d like to ask you about the last scene, in which Schmidt reads the letter from the nun about the Tanzanian boy. You can read his expression as some kind of joy, that he’s perhaps connected in some real way with this African boy. Or, you could question whether the letter is even real. Perhaps it’s some kind of phony form letter, and his tears are ones of sorrow, of feeling that his goodwill has been abused.

Payne: It’s not a form letter. That nun really wrote it.

Filmmaker: You think so?

Payne: Absolutely, you hear her voice. The letter was intended to be real, but how he reacts, and what the film says about that, should remain open to the viewers. Some people may see it as uplifting. Some people may see it as very pessimistic — the only person with whom he can have any connection is someone he will never meet. You can see that as either odd and miraculous, or hideous and kind of tragic. It’s funny; the studio was saying, “Oh, you should have a much more uplifting ending. This is a downer.” And then I showed it at Cannes and I read a couple of reviews that said, “Oh, the schmaltz of the Hollywood ending!” So go figure.

Filmmaker: Filmmaker is a magazine devoted to independent filmmaking. But it’s struck me in recent years that if I were to ask our readers which current directors they are most interested in, they would say Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Sam Mendes, David Fincher and you. And you all make films, more or less, within the studio system.

Payne: And I say hazah! That’s fantastic!

Filmmaker: It’s not meant as a critique. But what do you think the circumstances are that have allowed this group to work in Hollywood and preserve real original voices?

Payne: The trick is sticking to your guns! There was an article in Variety or Hollywood Reporter a couple of months ago about exactly that — why Soderbergh, Fincher, Jonze, Russell, Mendes and myself, I guess, don’t have the same cantankerous relationship with studios as the people we admired in the ’70s did. How they’d yell and scream and all that kind of stuff.

Filmmaker: The Easy Rider, Raging Bull mythology.

Payne: Right. But [the director] Rod Lurie was describing one of his two movies — I can’t remember which — and he said, “Oh, I had this vision that I was going to desaturate the color and handhold and all this stuff. Well, three days into it, the studio saw the dailies and asked me to change it. And [Dreamworks’] Walter Parkes, well, he knows what a commercial movie is, so I changed it and went to a classical style.” I think that’s abhorrent! I mean, to abandon your own idea about what would make something good exclusively because of commercial concerns, that’s being a sellout. Now, maybe he doesn’t feel he’s betraying himself, and I’m sure maybe he’s a very nice guy and I shouldn’t be talking about him publicly like this. But it made a strong impression on me. When you are working for a studio, they do try to tell you things. It’s their job to pull the filmmaker, let’s say, as far to the right as possible. In a certain moment the filmmaker says, “Okay, enough, so I’ll cut 20 minutes out of it, fine. It won’t be quite as ponderous, but I can live with that.” But at a certain point, if you keep yielding and yielding, then you’re a sellout, and your whole work is in danger of being soulless. The best movies sometimes have the most indulgent moments or awkward dead spots.

Filmmaker: But in terms of contrasting this new generation of studio auteurs with those of the ’70s, there does seem to be a group of people who are working within the system in a different way than they did back then.

Payne: Here’s the thing: Because films are expensive, it’s like under communism. At a certain point you have to become a party member! You just do. And then you try to smuggle your ideas. It doesn’t matter what you really think, you just get the card and say you’re a party member, but then you do what you do. You know, all of us who love Fellini and personal films, we also love Wyler and Wellman and all of the Hollywood directors who were working under a very enforced studio system. You can make a good movie under any system. [It’s the movies] that are just not very intelligent these days.


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