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Alexander Payne Talks Truth in Filmmaking

Narrative Features As Stepping Stones to Documentaries?


As with his other narrative features, director Alexander Payne's latest movie, The Descendants creates characters and a sense of place that are compelling and convincing. As filmmaker, Payne brings to narrative films a rare commitment to detail that gives his fiction features the ambience of truth, and an almost documentary-like feel.

That is certainly true of The Descendants. The film, an intergenerational family drama set in Hawaii, stars George Clooney as an upperclass Haole who's faced with a dying wife who'd been cheating on him, caring for two difficult daughters who are losing their mother and desperately need his love and help, and selling off his family's extensive real estate holdings -- all at the same time.

Payne presents a rare view of Hawaiian culture, history and lifestyle apart from the standard tourist perceptions and experiences. While speaking with Payne about the making of The Descendants, I asked him about his sense of truth in filmmaking. In answering, he spoke about both narratives and documentaries. The interview follows:

JENNIFER MERIN: Actors who've worked with you on your narrative features comment about how much attention to pay to detail, about how specific you are in creating a sense of place -- not only for audiences, but for them, as your collaborators. In each of your films, a particular human drama unfolds in a very specific location. We've seen that in Election, About Schmidt and, certainly in Sideways. And, now, in The Descendants, you approach a story about contemporary Hawaii and Hawaiian history with a sense of truth that's almost documentary-like. Why this emphasis on detail, detail, detail?

ALEXANDER PAYNE: I want to make films that I'd like to see, and I'm attracted to stories about real and true people, about things that could happen in real life, and that are free of movie contrivances. When the story happens in a place I'd like to go, and among a class of people who are complex in their relationship to that place, it makes the story even more interesting to me.

With regard to The Descendants, I am enormously grateful Kaui Hart Hemmings for her novel. i could never have thought of this story in a million years. Regarding the narrative of the love story, of the family drama, it could work anywhere, in any country, in any social class, of any race. But, that this story happens among this upper class of Hawaii makes it especially interesting. What is that particular social fabric? I was very interested in finding out about it and showing it.

As a filmmaker, I'm not just interested in the narrative story. I also have a documentary Itch inside of me. i like to do emotional and, then, visual reportage. i like my films to be very much documentaries at the same time as they are narrative features. When you make a film, a narrative feature, you're not just trying to please an audience. At the same time, you're trying to create and leave a document of the times. You have to take that responsibility seriously. I think truth is what makes good movies.

MERIN: In your narrative features, how is truth, How is or, rather, truthful fiction established or impacted by your directorial style, by the particular tone of your work?

PAYNE: Style and tone result from the approach of the director, and that's true in my work, too. Although I work with a lot of other people, with a team of marvelous collaborators -- the actors, costumers, set decorations, cinematographer and everyone on the set., and they all contribute to the style and tone. But overall, I think that the tone and style of my films really reveals the kind of films that I want to see. I want to see truth.

People comment that they can't quite classify my films as comedies or deeply serious dramas. And, that's fine. in life, I think, the truth is that comedy and pathos occur in close proximity. If I'm able to achieve that in my films, I'm happy about that.

On a practical level, I spend a lot of time editing. Directing is harvesting good footage to edit. I'll do several takes on a scene, but I don't overshoot. I shoot enough to have flexibility in editing.

A film is comprised of fragile things, of moments that are unique and particular. Finding those moments, getting them exactly right, is a process of discovery. The making of a film is the planned process of discovery, of finding things that work, and testing them -- sometimes with audiences -- to see that they really do.

MERIN: Would you say that your films show the truth?

PAYNE: Well, I'm showing the truth, but in order to do that, I have to learn it. I'm intent on learning.

My life is not the resulting film. I actually don't care very much about the resulting film. No, that's not true. I really do care. But there's a way in which the resulting film doesn't effect me deeply. What effects me is the time I spend making it -- not only the camaraderie I have with the crew, and getting to work with the actors, and the creative collaborations. But also in discovering things about the story as I go along.

I am complemented and satisfied if each of my films presents a world of its own. People often ask me about through lines in my films, about recurring themes. But I would hope that each film presents a very different world, one that's fully realized and completely truthful, one that feels and kind of smells lived in.

I like this world we live in. I like seeing it, getting to know it and showing it as it really is. I also know that as a film viewer I'm not crazy about films that are anytown, USA, or someplace that's supposed to be New York City that's really shot in Vancouver. I don't buy it. I can will myself to forget about disparities, and try to follow the story. And, sometime I can do that, but I just notice what's wrong, what's not truthful.

MERIN: That said, do you think there is a documentary in you?

PAYNE: Oh, yeah! And I actually think that documentary is the superior form. I think that, in as much as many filmmakers start in documentary as a sort of a stepping stone towards narrative, I'm starting to detect in myself the opposite, that narrative is a stepping stone to documentary, where I don't have to put up with actors and hair and makeup and second and third takes and all the egos and all the big money and the studios and all that stuff. Why should I spend so much time and effort and millions of dollars to come up with a pale version of reality, when the real thing surrounds us everywhere -- with no second takes, and everybody knowing their dialog (laughs). But, I'm getting there and, actually, I've just begun shooting a documentary.

MERIN: What is the subject?

PAYNE:I'm not going to talk about that. It's a very personal documentary.

MERIN: Coming from narrative films, what do you see to be your biggest challenges in documentary mode? Obviously, you get just one take, and you're an observer not someone who writes or programs scenes, and much of the storytelling in documentaries comes in the editing process -- which, as I gather from what you said earlier, is true for your narrative features, too. Other than that, what are you finding to be the essential differences?

PAYNE: The biggest challenge is that if you don't shoot it quite right technically, you can't to do it over again. That can cause trouble. I mean, you have to enter into a whole world and slosh around until you find what you're looking for, shooting everything that might work without knowing whether it will or not. That's the biggest challenge, and difference.

Look at Frederick Wiseman and his films, and what he's able to capture. He's unstoppable. See one of his films and you're in a whole world as it is, without narration or anything to tell you what to see and think. You're just there. I get that.

But I like narrative, too, because there's opportunity for selection, and the illusion of order, and you get to present a different kind of truth. I get that, too.

MERIN: Where's your documentary set?

PAYNE: All over, kind of, but I really don't want to talk about it because I don't want to ruin it for myself. It's too inchoate.

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