Alexander Payne Biography

Director and screenwriter

Born February 10, 1961, in Omaha, NE; married Sandra Oh (an actress), January 1, 2003 (separated). Education: Earned undergraduate degree from Stanford University, and M.F.A. from the University of California—Los Angeles, 1990.

Addresses: Agent —Endeavor Agency, 9701 Wilshire Blvd., 10th Flr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212-2020.


Signed to picture deal with Universal Studios based on his 50-minute graduate thesis film, The Passion of Martin, 1990; collaborated with screen-writer Jim Taylor on Citizen Ruth, 1996, Election, 1999, About Schmidt, 2002, and Sideways, 2004, all of which Payne also directed; also credited as screen-writer on Jurassic Park III, 2001.

Awards: New York Film Critics Circle award for best screenplay, 1999, for Election, and 2004, for Sideways (with Jim Taylor); Sideways won several other honors, including the best picture, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Academy Awards, and Writers' Guild of America prize for best screenplay based on material previously produced or published, and two Golden Globes from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best picture and best screenplay.

Alexander Payne


American filmmaker Alexander Payne won his first Academy Award for Sideways, the darkly comic California road-trip story that was the surprise hit of 2004. The work was nominated in five Academy Award categories, and Payne and his screenplay co-author, Jim Taylor, took home one of the Best Screenplay statuettes. But Payne's films had long enjoyed top critical accolades for their darkly comic humor, credible characters simultaneously compelling and unlikable, and their ability to capture the more banal details of modern American middlebrow culture. Jack Nicholson, the star of Payne's third movie, extolled Payne's skills as a director and screenwriter. "Black humor is a tough sell," Nicholson told the New York Times ' John Hodgman in a lengthy profile on the Nebraska-born maverick. "If you're not making essentially youthful films, you're taking chances. Alexander is a real throwback to the kinds of moviemakers I started with."

Born in 1961, Payne grew up in the Nebraska city of Omaha, which would become the integral setting for his first three films before Sideways. His parents were of Greek heritage, and the family name had been changed from "Papadopoulos." A good student, he earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford University, where he studied Spanish and history, and went on to film school at the University of California's Los Angeles campus but first had to choose between film and journalism, because he had also been accepted into another esteemed graduate program, the journalism school at Columbia University. He chose filmmaking over a career as a foreign correspondent, and when he graduated in 1990, his thesis film, The Passion of Martin, earned him notoriety for its bleak 50-minute chronicle of a photographer obsessed with a woman. Within a few weeks of its first screening at UCLA, Payne had been signed to a picture deal with Universal Studios.

From the start, Payne's moviemaking plans were greeted with some degree of skepticism in Hollywood. He had written a screenplay called "The Coward," about a middle-aged Nebraska man who leaves his wife and begins a journey of self-discovery, but Universal was deeply uninterested in committing to the project. Payne had better luck making his feature-film debut, though its subject matter was one Hollywood studios generally avoided: the debate over reproductive rights. In Citizen Ruth, released in 1996, Laura Dern played a glue-sniffing wastrel, pregnant for the fifth time, who is caught huffing patio sealant by the cops. She has already lost custody of her other four children for being an unfit parent, and this time, the judge makes Ruth an offer: if she terminates the pregnancy, the court will drop the charges. Anti-abortion activists step in to help, and so do pro-choice advocates, each of whom attempts to make the hapless Ruth their cause celebre. "Payne has a good eye for the character traits of zealots who feel the call to run other people's lives," assessed Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review, and noted that the script's conclusion shows neither side—nor even Ruth—in a favorable light. "The movie illuminates the ways in which mainstream films train us to expect formula endings," Ebert reflected.

Payne set the film in Omaha partly because, as he explained to Hodgman in the New York Times article, "if you're trying to recreate life, the life that you best know is the one you grew up with. I hadn't seen the Midwest in a movie. I'd never seen it." By that, Payne meant the real Midwest, not the sanitized version depicted in most Hollywood films. He also returned to his hometown to shoot Election, a darkly satiric look at a high school student-government contest. He wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, with whom he had also co-written Citizen Ruth, from a novel by Tom Perrotta that was actually set in New Jersey. Perrotta, in turn, based his story on 1992's three-way American presidential race.

A cult favorite of 1999, Election is a battle of wills between beloved high-school civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and desperate over-achiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). In contrast to the depressed, repressed "Mister M.," Tracy, noted Cineaste 's Thomas Doherty "has what he doesn't: a promising future. Chirpy, clipped, coiled like a rattlesnake, Tracy is that most-likely-to-succeed-and-[tick]-off-her-peer-group overachiever issued one-per-graduating class, the girl with complete homework, perfect hair, and sensible clothes who always thrusts her hand into the air like a Hitler salute when teacher asks a question." Prior to the election, Tracy had been involved in an affair with a teacher, McAllister's best friend, but emerged unscathed when it was discovered.

When Tracy runs unopposed for the presidency of the Student Government Association, Broderick's character convinces popular student-athlete Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her; Paul's loose-cannon sister, a closet lesbian, then enters the ring as the spoiler candidate when her girlfriend dumps her for Paul. In the end, Mr. M's career is ruined, like that of the shamed teacher's, but Tracy manages to enter the college of her choice, the ultimate goal of all her extracurricular activities.

Election earned such positive critical accolades—and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay—that Payne was offered a slew of potentially big projects, including the first Charlie's Angels movie. He was uninterested, he told Liese Spencer in an interview that appeared in London's Independent. "It was a ton of money but I just couldn't do it." Instead he and Taylor adapted another novel, with some similarities to his "Coward" project from years before, and snagged Jack Nicholson as the lead. Released in 2002, About Schmidt was based on a novel by Louis Begley, which was actually set in the Hamptons, the posh summer resort part of Long Island populated by wealthy New Yorkers. In the novel, Schmidt was a Manhattan attorney at the end of his career, but in this case Payne and Taylor set the story in Omaha and had Nicholson's Schmidt as a recently retired insurance actuary. When he is suddenly widowed—and learns that his wife may have had an affair with his best friend—he sets off in a Winnebago to visit his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis). Secretly, he hopes to prevent her marriage to waterbed salesman Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), and is drawn into the odd aging-hippie world of Randall's parents. Meanwhile, Schmidt writes long letters to the unseen Ndugu, a six-yearold Nigerian orphan boy he signed on to sponsor after capitulating to a television-commercial plea.

About Schmidt was chosen as the opening-night entry for the 2002 New York Film Festival, and earned both strong critical plaudits and good box-office receipts. The New Yorker 's film critic, Anthony Lane, noted that the film at first seems to have a self-discovery theme, but conceded that such a construct requires "a self to begin with, and Schmidt is hard to call. Is he a hollow man, or a fully fledged soul who has been plucked and spatchcocked by the attrition of modern life? It is to Payne's credit that the question arises at all, for not many directors can be bothered to approach what is still the most taxing of dramatic subjects."

Payne's next film would be his first to be set somewhere other than Omaha. Sideways generated an industry buzz when it debuted at film festivals in the fall of 2004, and won Payne critical accolades that hailed it as a masterpiece, a tour de force, and predicted that it would sweep the Academy Awards. Again, he and Taylor adapted the story from a novel, this one an unpublished work by Rex Pickett, which had been titled "Two Guys on Wine." Pickett never managed to find a publisher for his book—mirroring a subplot that nearly sinks one of the two leads in Sideways —and the road-trip buddytale about two men, nearing middle age, who head off for a weekend of golf and vineyard-hopping in California's Santa Ynez Valley, did not exactly appeal to Hollywood studio executives, either. Despite Payne's excellent track record, they balked at his plan to recreate Pickett's book for the big screen, and one studio even dangled a much larger budget if Payne would agree to let them suggest who would be cast. It was a game he was uninterested in playing along with any longer. "With Election, I had to first offer it to Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, who were never going to take it in a million years," he revealed to Entertainment Weekly 's Josh Rottenberg. "That's a process I didn't want to repeat."

Because of Payne's reputation, several leading actors reportedly wanted one of the Sideways roles, but Payne cast Paul Giamatti—previously seen as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor —as the nebbish Miles, a frustrated novelist and tedious wine snob, and Thomas Haden Church, who once starred on the sitcoms Wings and Ned and Stacey, as the callow Jack, a onetime soap opera actor about to marry. Miles takes Jack on a road trip north to celebrate his final weeks as a bachelor, and Jack plans to use the time to his maximum advantage. Jack also believes that all Miles needs to lift him out of his long-term, post-divorce funk is some female attention. They meet two women, one of them played by Sandra Oh, Payne's real-life wife, but the outcome is predictably disastrous.

The immense critical plaudits showered upon Sideways even inspired a New York Times article about why critics loved it so much, with one line of reasoning concluding that many critics—who might be characterized as a slightly nebbish, sometimes pedantic group—saw themselves in Miles. A review from the New York Observer 's Andrew Sarris was one example of the superlatives heaped upon Payne's latest project. " Sideways is quasi-Chekhovian in the moving vitality of its ever-hopeful prisoners exploring their lost aspirations. It could turn out to be the best English-language picture of the year." Stanley Kauffmann, the New Republic film critic, conceded the story had a couple of Hollywood-type attention-getters, but "otherwise, Payne's directing is alert, warm, patient. He knows that the surface must keep us interested until we go below it, and his confidence holds us." Writing in Time, Joel Stein called it "a quiet, sad, beautiful story about how ego obstructs work and love," while Lisa Schwarzbaum, the Entertainment Weekly critic, mused that "it's an intoxicating feeling when a movie excites and enlivens us like this—and there's a particular giddiness to be had in thinking about what movies can (but don't often) do for one's soul after imbibing such a fine vintage."

Sideways, though Payne's first to be filmed outside of Omaha, still managed to capture that grittier, decidedly un-picture-perfect side of life. In this case, details included a visit to Miles' mother's home, a typical southern California condo development, and an entire town, Solvang, built to resemble an authentic Danish village. His next project, however, would return him to his home state. Nebraska was another road-trip movie, this one about a Montana man who is convinced he has won the Nebraska lottery and convinces his son to drive him there to claim the winnings.

Payne has sometimes criticized the American entertainment industry in interviews, and spoken of his deep respect for the bygone zenith of the 1970s, when "studios [financed] personal, risky and political cinema," he wrote in a manifesto-style piece that appeared in Daily Variety in 2004. "For 25 years we've largely been making not films but rather glorified cartoons which can be as easily digested in Omaha as on a bus in Thailand; films whose principal message is, 'We need your money to keep our stock price up.'" He clarified his own expectations of the medium, asserting that he hoped for American "cinema that is intelligent, uplifting, and human, and that serves—as good art should—as a mirror, not as an impossible or fraudulent consumer-oriented projection."

Selected writings


The Passion of Martin (thesis film), 1989.

(With Jim Taylor) Citizen Ruth, Miramax, 1996.

(With Taylor) Election, Paramount, 1999.

(With Taylor) About Schmidt, New Line, 2002.

(With Taylor) Sideways, Fox Searchlight, 2004.


Back Stage West, October 14, 2004, p. 12.

Chicago Sun-Times, April 4, 1997.

Cineaste, Fall 1999, p. 36.

Daily Variety, September 8, 2004, p. S7.

Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 2004, p. 36, p. 46; December 3, 2004, p. 43.

Esquire, January 2003, p. 20.

Independent (London, England), September 24, 1999, p. 14.

New Republic, November 15, 2004, p. 24.

New Yorker, December 16, 2002, p. 106.

New York Observer, October 25, 2004, p. 23.

New York Times, December 8, 2002, p. 88; January 2, 2005, p. AR18.

Time, October 25, 2004, p. 90.

—Carol Brennan

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