Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Alexander Payne fell in love with cinema. His parents often took him to the local art museum for special showings of old movies. From a young age, he’d scour the TV Guide to discover vintage films on television and knew that he wanted to make movies. That’s a lofty dream that a lot of people have but few ever achieve, which makes Payne’s success all the more exceptional. “In general, it is very, very difficult to get into the position of directing feature films,” says the 61-year-old Academy Award-winning filmmaker. And that has historically been the case. “Although depending on the decade, the ways in which it is difficult can change, it has always been difficult.”
Alexander Payne says that it’s even more challenging to sustain a career as a movie director. “Many directors, by hook or by crook, can get a first film made [easier] than it ever was in my day,” he explains. “Now, for a relatively low cost, anyone can buy a video camera and lights and have access to editing devices and programs. Then it is just a matter of your ingenuity about what you can do with the very accessible means at your disposal.”
According to Payne, “It’s always like that early in your career. But then to have it be somewhat successful, at least successful enough in the marketplace that people want to begin or continue to invest millions of dollars in you to see what else you can do, that’s one difficulty. The other difficulty is a lot of artists in many media, their first or second work is really juicy and meaningful because they have had their entire life experience to pour into it.”
The Difficulties of Establishing a Successful, Long-Lasting Career in Hollywood
Alexander Payne’s first feature film, the dark comedy Citizen Ruth, garnered instant attention when it debuted in 1996. He won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for Sideways in 2005. In addition to Citizen Ruth and Sideways (2004), he’s co-written Election (1999), Jurassic Park III (2001), About Schmidt (2002), The Descendants (2011),, and Downsizing (2017). As a director, he recently completed The Holdovers, to be released by Focus Features in the fall of 2023.
With that many movies under his belt, Payne understands the struggle filmmakers face to keep making the movies they want to make, as well as fashion those that people want to watch. “I think both inside yourself internally, there’s a struggle, and then externally there’s a struggle,” says Payne.
Cinema is a highly complex art to accomplish. “If you wish to work in film, it is much different from working as a writer, a painter, a poet, or a composer, because those things you can do alone. And they don’t necessarily cost money to do them,” explains the filmmaker. “However, filmmaking requires a lot of money and, at least in commercial filming, requires some degree of salesmanship, [because you have] to help convince other people that their millions of dollars will be safe with you.” If a filmmaker overcomes those obstacles and is lucky enough to step foot on a set, they then have to be prepared to “have to fire people and lead people and be clear and give clear directions,” adds Payne.
“To be a film director often requires developing skills that are not only different from, but often antithetical to, the art spirit,” says Alexander Payne. “You’ve got the art spirit inside you, this fragile thing that needs care and nourishing that sees the world in a certain way, and you’re burning to express it. But then you have so many other external activities you have to engage in, like the bulls–t, salesmanship, and leadership, which involves firing people and just awful things. It is a unique and vexing combo pack.”
Why does Payne continue to persevere? “I went to film school with potential directors who were much more imbued with the art spirit than I. But they’ve never made a feature film because of their very sensitive natures. They may not be able to do some of those other things,” says Payne. “Similarly, you find people who are good at bulls–t and salesmanship but have little art spirit and make crappy things.”
Alexander Payne: ‘You Do Not Need To Go to Film School Anymore To Be a Filmmaker’
After graduating from Stanford University, where he studied history and Spanish, Payne attended UCLA’s film school. He earned a master’s degree in 1990, but he insists that no one necessarily needs to go to film school in order to be a successful filmmaker. “Everyone has his or her own path. But you certainly do not need to go to film school anymore to be a filmmaker, nor did you even need to in my day,” he says. “Some people decide to go to film school [because they] need that discipline, and that sense of a conservatory and being surrounded by like-minded peers. They are all working together and supporting each other and crew on each other’s films and become each other’s colleagues, both in school and then later professionally. And that is one very beautiful possible path.”
Advances in digital technology and easy-to-use equipment are making it more accessible than ever for anyone to make their movie dreams a reality. “Nowadays, access to the means of production is so easy,” says Alexander Payne. “The access to filmmaking knowledge, and the how-tos — it’s all out there now. All you have to do is watch YouTube tutorials, extras, and bonus materials on DVDs, and it’s all out there.”’
According to Payne, “For anyone burning to tell a story through film, there is no excuse not to do it, other than a few thousand dollars to get set up with the basic equipment and then the wherewithal and the discipline to get it done. The hardest part is always the screenplay.” Can we expect another Alexander Payne flick after he’s done editing The Holdovers? “I am always inspired to write a new script. I just do not have the time right now,” he shares. Many fans of Payne’s dark comedies are anxiously awaiting news of the next project.