English Daily #2
On the evening of July 8, during the presentation of his newest film The Holdovers and the opening of his five-film retrospective at GAIFF, American filmmaker and two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne admitted that the festival and him were in talks for about ten years, but something always came up. Well, now it finally happened and he’s not just here to be honored with a Parajanov Thaler for contribution to cinema, but also to preside over the International Competition jury and decide the winners along with his fellow jurors Peter Scarlet, Alexandria Bombach, Jaime Noguera and Krikor Beledian.
Along with co-writer Jim Taylor, Payne has authored some of the wittiest American comedies of the last decades, He is one of that rare breed of filmmaker, who’s very much an auteur, but with a vision that any type of audience can enjoy. Whatever you say about Payne’s films, you can say about Payne himself. Funny, clever, extremely sharp and never missing the opportunity for a quick joke or a friendly jab, all wrapped up in an undeniably charming and deep love for people and our little idiosyncrasies, our faults and desperate need to find ourselves.

First of all, I’d like to thank you, as around fifteen years ago About Schmidt was probably the first movie that made me cry.
I often cry simply because a movie is so well made. I cry at the beauty of the filmmaking. I had it two times last week. Billy Wilder made a film in 1948 called A Foreign Affair with Marlene Dietrich and Gene Arthur. It was so great that I had to cry at the end, because I couldn't believe I had seen such a good movie. I also had it at a movie I had seen many times throughout my life, but not for many years. And as always with the great films that you've seen, every time you see it, it is to some degree the first time. This was the 1939 Warner Brothers gangster movie with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney called The Roaring Twenties, directed by Raoul Walsh. I saw it first when I was maybe eight years old with the little TV late at night under the covers, so my parents didn’t know I was awake, which is how my early film education was. Another thing to think about too is that we all know of movies that we've seen that make us cry at the end. What are some movies that make us cry at the beginning? Or let's say in the first half hour. I have a short list. Kurosawa’s Ikiru, there's a montage toward the beginning about how his wife died and how he feels about his son and how his son feels about him now, which in a way is echoed in the Pixar movie Up. That montage of his life with his wife and how they couldn't have children is one of the greatest passages in modern cinema.

So I guess I don't have to ask you about your influences.
Film is magnificent. Film is so wonderful. It's so good that they're having a festival… Yesterday, as I was entering the arena for the opening ceremony, these kids came up to me with their little microphones and phones: "Oh can we have an interview? What do you think of Armenia? What do you think of the film festival?” I go: "Leave me alone, I just got here 12 hours ago and I haven't slept." Because you have to fly to Armenia in the middle of the night. But obviously I support any cultural event, cultural festival, but particularly a cinema festival. I mean it's so great that Yerevan has this once a year. The other thing people were asking me last night, "What Armenian directors do you know?" I said: "None." I mean I know the American ones. I know Rouben Mamoulian, Parajanov obviously, and Atom Egoyan. But I forgot to mention Richard Sarafian, who made an American film in 1971 called Vanishing Point. It's a masterpiece. And he made a lot of other stuff too.

Many of your films take place in Nebraska, and you yourself are from Omaha. And this Midwestern American character is a prominent pillar in your movies. Are there any specific childhood experiences that maybe influenced the perfect understanding that you have of these kinds of people like Schmidt or the characters in Election?
You talk about my understanding of those people. I think one of the reasons we make films is that we don't understand. You're trying to figure out a mystery, especially if you shoot where you grew up. You can get the details and the rhythms of it right, but you're still trying to put your finger on questions like: why, and who, and what is my life? Who are these people? What is this planet? And then next, embedded in your question is why do I want to shoot in Omaha or Nebraska? Not exclusively, but many people like to make movies where they're from, where they grew up. I've said this before in interviews. You don't ask Martin Scorsese why he shoots in New York. You don't ask Paul Thomas Anderson why he shoots in LA. It's just that those are big places that you've seen in movies. And then finally to mark on incidents from childhood: not really, but I was finally able to articulate something recently that I hadn't been able to do before. It had to do with The Holdovers and the question of “why 1970?” and “how did you make it look like a movie from 1970?” and all that. Finally I articulated one time: “I remember movies I watched more than I remember my own life”.

So this “watching movies on a small TV under the covers” was a constant thing?
Yeah, because it was the only time we could see old movies, and I was crazy about old movies from an early age. They were beginning to have retrospective screenings in the 60s, particularly comedies, Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin and W.C. Fields. But then TV stations, even local TV stations would show 16mm prints of classic films. So I remember falling in love with Warner Brothers gangster movies and Universal horror movies late at night, watching them under the covers. But I'm not alone. Many film nerds also were under the covers with little TVs. Kids now don't realize what a golden age they're in, that they can see any movie at any time online. And… of course now that marijuana is legal in so many places, and that you can buy it not only to smoke, but in edibles and with predictable effects...

You’re so good at portraying people who are basically in denial. Especially Election. Matthew Broderick’s character’s inner monologue is constantly presenting everything under a different light.
All those characters are so wonderful because they're so blind. And it’s so human. And that’s the great thing about using the voiceover. People call it a literary technique. The unreliable narrator. “Oh, you hear him say one thing, but you see another.” But that's not just a literary device. That's all of us with what we tell ourselves in our head. The worst thing about life is believing lies. Well, the person whose lies I most believe are my own. You keep telling yourself the same lies over and over again. “I'm going to quit smoking, I'm going to do this. I’m going to do that” And then you keep doing it. With the best of intentions, you know, we can't help it. We need art for that, for the same reason some people use therapy or psychoanalysis or meditation or whatever — to look at or to try and constantly to go to that, whatever they call it, super ego or the you behind the you. The eternal you. To look at what the fuck you're doing in this current life. But hopefully, film does that too. And this gets back to Election and lying to ourselves and the use of voiceover… Plus it's funny.

Is it true that it's Obama's favorite political film?
I can't tell you if it's true. But what is true is that he's told me twice that it's true. “You did Election! That's my favorite political film!”

Your career is a clear example of an artist evolving. You started from unabashed satire, which then transformed into comedies about the human condition as a whole.
I still want to be able to do good satire. I don't want to forget that. But you talked about cinematic influences. We have other influences as well. And not to compare myself at all to him, but Chekhov… You can see that in Chekhov's career, that his early satires, two, three pages that he published in magazines, were very satiric and totally just making fun of people. And then little by little, his stories became deeper and more humane. So not to compare myself, but I admire that body of work and his trajectory, and also that he never lost his sense of humor.

There’s a great quote from British film critic Mark Kermode, who said: “There's a difference between satire and just laughing at roadkill”. Did that thought ever cross your mind? How to make it so you’re not just making fun of your characters?
I never thought I was. And also I have to include my co-writer Jim Taylor in this discussion, because it's our combined sensibility. We totally make fun of people and don't make fun of people. At least we don't put ourselves above them, we feel. We are all part of that same old phrase: human condition… But we're making comedies! Yet, we know we're not mean-spirited. We're not putting ourselves above our characters… Except sometimes.

Actually, with everything that’s going on in the US and the world, it would be great to have another satire from you.
There's some appetite for a possible sequel to Election, and we are weighing how much to try to satirize the current political scene. It's kind of too easy, and it's a satire of itself, and comics are doing satire of it every night on television, because it's so ridiculous. So as filmmakers, if you have the urge to make a political film, you want to make a human film. It's the human face, the human struggle. I mean, behind what is done in public. For Jim and me, in Citizen Ruth and Election, it was much more about how individual psychodramas are played out in the public arena. And that used to be everywhere, so that's always a good thing. But not to just make fun of politics on the surface, because that doesn't do anybody any good. We're interested in the people.

That just creates animosity, right?
Yeah, even with Election, which is considered a political metaphor, I was never thinking about politics at all. I was only thinking about high school and those kids and those characters, that's it. Now, I'm not saying that that metaphor isn't there, but that's not what I'm thinking about. Nor is it intentional. I'm intending to just tell a good story. That's the thing about storytelling, I think, about writing novels, or in my case screenplays. You focus on the people and the story, and you trust that the themes are there. And people may ask: "What's your movie about?" I don't know, man, I'm just writing a story. Like, if you declare to yourself, "This is what the movie's about," you're kind of limiting what it could possibly be about. Even things you yourself don't understand. When I finish a movie and I do interviews, and people say: "Well, the movie's about this and about this and about that..." Okay, I wasn't thinking about that, but good. Sure. I'm so glad that you see things in it that I didn't see. That's what a work of art should do. It's not that the author, the painter, the writer, the director, he or she doesn't have to think about those things. You just make something, and other people bounce off of it. That's what's so beautiful. That's what I want to do with a work of art, bounce my own self off of it. I don't really care what the author intended, unless it's important, unless what he or she intended helps guide my viewing in a way, which I may not understand on my own. Then I need it. I can't walk up and see Picasso's Guernica without knowing a little history.

Do you think satire is the best way to deal with all the absurdity that’s going on in the world? To lessen its effects on the minds of people. Is it best just to laugh at it?
The problem is a lot of people, maybe most people, don't really have a sense of humor. They wouldn't get it. The thing about comedy or satire or parody, whatever you want to call it, and why it's a serious form, and to my mind the most serious form, is that it's a distancing. Always find ways to look at what you're doing, not just do it, because then you're lost. Comedy does that. Satire does that. It takes human pain and human ridiculousness and helps you look at it through a prism of humor. The mere act of laughing, and it's a joyous way to have distance from human pain. Oscar Wilde used to say, "When you tell people the truth, you have to make them laugh at the same time, too, or else they’ll kill you." The jester in Shakespeare or in courts is the one who makes you laugh and at the same time tells you the truth.

So you think this release is necessary?
No, it's not necessary, but it's one of the instruments we have. I can't declare that it's necessary.

Because there’s also the opposing view that an artist shouldn’t give the audience a release. Like you intentionally make the ending bleak so it stays with them. So they don't think: “Oh, it's okay in the movie, so I don’t have to think about it…”
It depends, but yeah, I totally get that. I often resent films, which think they have to give me a release for commercial reasons. A movie I saw that is shot into my mind is Klimov's Come and See from 1985. So you see that and you never forget that movie. You don't even necessarily want to see it again, but it stays with you for the rest of your life. But that's a different question. Comedy versus drama. And then catharsis through comedy or catharsis through tragedy, like what you do with the ending. You know, an ending, as long as it's earned, it's okay to give people hope. Again, you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. If there's a release or a glimmer of hope at the end, if it's honest and done by an artist, and it gives you a hope of what life could be if only… that's okay too. But if it's done in a cheap Hollywood bullshit way - no, no, no, no, then the movie I think kind of shouldn't have been made. So again, it's up to the craftsmanship and artistry of the individual. And hopefully the studio isn't fucking around with it, which often happens too.

By watching your films, one really gets the sense of how much you love people. And my question is: why?! With all that’s going on, why aren’t you a misanthrope like the rest of us normal folk?
First of all, there is a lot of decency. There really is, despite everything. It may be 49% against hideousness' 51%, but it's still there. And also, this is the optimistic part of me that I don't even necessarily agree with, but I can't help it. People won't necessarily do the right thing. But they could. They could not turn away from God, as Adam and Eve do in the Bible. If anybody takes it literally, that's bullshit. But as a metaphor for all of the rest of human existence, they, we are given heaven. And they screw it up. Chapter two: a brother kills a brother. Spoiler alert for the rest of human history.

Artur Vardikyan