Fun isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind when you think of Alexander Payne. Sure, the director's films—like Sideways and Election—have an undeniable playfulness, but they overwhelmingly reside in that prickly gulf between emotionally charged interactions and mundane reality.
And yet "fun" is the quality Payne himself says most characterizes the atmosphere on the sets of his movies. As an ardent fan of his work, who am I to argue? "Making a film is so darn fun!" Payne told me last week, before the opening of his latest, the (deservedly) acclaimed Nebraska.
The film acutely captures the humor embedded in a searingly painful situation: a son indulging his elderly father’s delusional insistence on traveling from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up his Publisher’s Clearing House-style sweepstakes winnings. Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) plays the son, Bruce Dern (countless movies since the 1960s, but perhaps most notably Coming Home) his father. Their performances, like George Clooney’s in Payne’s The Descendants, and Jack Nicholson’s in About Schmidt, are unlike any either actor has tackled before.
Here, the director explains what he does to elicit such singular performances.
Payne knows better than anyone that the statement he's about to make is a cliché, but he makes it anyway. "I try to keep the atmosphere on set as relaxed and playful and jokey as possible."
Skeptical about all this on-set revelry, I ask how he does that without it feeling forced. "Frankly," he says, "I think a lot of it is that when making a film I have more fun than almost any other time in life. Even those other times last about 20 minutes."
"Come on," I say. "You don’t seem like such a jokey guy."
"No, I’m not," he replies. "But I like to have fun. And making a film is so darn fun! I hope the fun I’m having is infectious. Directing a movie is like having the world’s largest train set, as Orson Welles said. Why else do it if it’s not fun? It’s playful.
"It’s also the joy in having unity of purpose," he says. "Everything I’m doing during those months, everything else in life melts away. When I’m not making a movie, it’s like Martin Sheen in the opening of Apocalypse Now, just doing naked Tai Chi and cutting your hand on a mirror in Saigon. You want your next mission."
Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now?! Just like that, it starts to become clear: Payne’s version of fun wells up from a deep, intense place that drives his way of working. The crevasse between humor and intensity, joy and pain, rumbles beneath almost everything he has to say about his creative process.
He continues: "It's like a border collie. A border collie doesn’t want to hear ‘Good dog, good dog.'" And then he puts on a sheep dog's hangdog voice: "'Where are the sheep? Huh,’ It’s like that."
"It’s at once the tensest I am. It’s not even 'tensest.' I don’t even know what the right word would be. Focused. Super-focused." Charged? "Yes! The most adrenaline-fueled, because there’s a need every day to get done everything you want to get done, as elegantly as possible, as artfully as possible, within the allotted time. At the opposite side, I’m as relaxed as I will ever be in life because I’m doing something so fun, and I feel so lucky to be able to do it."
"My No. 1 job is to foment the creativity of others—both the cast and the technicians. I’m there for the actors. I’m there for the cameraman, too, but first and foremost on set it’s about the performance. I want a technical team who can set up a dolly shot as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.
"I don’t watch a monitor. I’m right there by the camera with the actors, there to gauge and aide in the performance. And the actors know that there are no mistakes. That’s why god gave us ‘Take Two’ and ‘Take Three.’ We just do it again so just keep going. And I won’t move on until I think we have it.
"Typically, for the first three or four takes, I don’t say anything." He quickly rethinks that. "Well, at least for the first two or three. And then I jump in to say, 'Huh, this thing you’re doing here, lets do more of that,' or, 'This other thing is not working so well."
Nearly every interview you’ll ever read with Payne addresses that thing he does best: the mix of drama and comedy. So, I ask him if that’s just him. "Yes," he says, "that’s something I naturally do. A lot of it comes from what’s in the script, which is people doing ridiculous things seriously. You choose this actor, not that actor, to play it very seriously, and then it becomes funny." He laughs. "It’s people very seriously doing very ridiculous things."
Forte is best known for the eight seasons he spent on SNL, playing such recurring characters as The Falconer and MacGruber, so it’s a leap, in Hollywood’s narrow way of looking at actors, to see him as a put-upon son yearning to connect with his aging, distant father. "I believed him," says Payne. "I just liked his audition. He has a sincerity in real life that comes through when he acts."
Believed him? "When I say I believed him, I mean I felt like I was bumping into someone I had known in high school—bumping into him at the mall. I find him very relatable, recognizable. I just liked him. Plus, there was something about Will Forte’s face in repose that just suggests a little damage. And I like that in his face. By the end of shooting—not even by the end, but early on—I no longer saw him as a comic actor. I see him as an actor who can do anything within his bandwidth."
"I work very closely with John Jackson, my casting director, who’s been on all my films with me. We never have what they call ‘chemistry reads.’" (The chemistry read is a Hollywood method of determining if two actors will work well together: Place them in a room together and have them talk, as themselves, while a camera rolls. This recipe for awkwardness then determines if they have "chemistry.") "I’ve never done that in my life. I’m casting them, so they better just do it. The best example was Paul Giamatti and Thomas Church [in Sideways], that those two very disparate guys could have a believable, longstanding friendship. When you bring these actors in they know it’s their responsibility to build that connection."
That’s what he did with Bruce Dern and Will Forte. He told them to take time together. "And they want to anyway. We brought them in two weeks before shooting, not to rehearse but so that they go play golf, go to the movies, have dinner together.
"The process of making a film together is a very intimate one. A week into it you’re already in battle together. Every day you’re only doing two or three pages [of the script], so by the last days of shooting there is a connection. Furthermore, we rely upon cinema’s wonderful capacity to lie. These two are father and son, and the audience believes it. The rest is gravy."