A day in the sun for losers
Alexander Payne’s movies often focus on the misanthropic and mean. He has an un-American passion for the underdog, and also for wine. He tells Melissa Denes how he managed to combine the two in his latest film)
After 10 successful years in the movie business, Alexander Payne remains in touch with his inner loser. He is a good-looking, friendly and articulate man, with an Oscar nomination to his name and all his own hair, but inside him there is a smaller, meaner version, who says the wrong thing and wants other people to fail. He is inspired, he says, by “the dire patheticness of life on this planet”.
In his 1999 satire Election, Payne’s inner loser was played by Matthew Broderick as a high-school history teacher whose hatred of an ambitious student causes him to lose his job, his wife, his every shred of dignity. In About Schmidt, it was Jack Nicholson as a retired insurance salesman who sets out to sabotage his only daughter’s wedding. And in his new film Sideways, it is Paul Giamatti - last seen as the terminally gloomy cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor - as a failed novelist who takes his best friend on a disastrous wine-tasting holiday. Payne is brilliant at getting under the skin of the male midlife crisis; he has an un-American passion for the underdog.
Sideways is a much warmer, more complex film than either Election or About Schmidt. It centres on the friendship between Miles (Giamatti) and Jack, a former soap star who is about to get married. Before he does, Miles wants to take him to the vineyards of the Santa Barbara valley - partly because he wants to get drunk and show off (he knows a lot about wine), and partly because he wants Jack to have a good time. But Jack just wants to sleep with other women, which Miles finds embarrassing, repugnant and sad. The two men are moving sideways through life, never forward. Payne has assembled a great cast, including his wife Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, and in spite of its many bleak moments, the film is shot through with a hazy Californian sunshine.
But can you make a film about a man in search of the ultimate wine experience in California? In Britain, its most famous exports come courtesy of Ernest and Julio Gallo - hardly the height of taste. Payne is stunned at such stupidity: like Miles in Sideways he knows a lot about wine. “That is pathetic ignorance! Have you tasted an Andrew Murray?” There is an enormous amount of drinking, and talking about drinking, in Sideways. Payne says that in reality only the women, Madsen and Oh, knew what they were talking about. “The guys don’t know anything about wine.” Were they interested in learning? “No. Paul only acted it.”
Payne got into wine after graduating from film school at UCLA. (Before that, he read Spanish and history at Stanford and thought about being a journalist.) “It was taking me a while to get to my first feature and I found myself diving into cooking a lot, and the more I cooked, the more I needed to know about wine. And I had a girlfriend who knew. The nicest thing about making this film was I broke through that barrier of being a prisoner of wine stores and wine magazines. I got to hang out with winemakers, be in the vineyards, the barrel rooms. That’s what was really cool.”
With three critical and commercial successes under his belt, you would think the pressure would be on Payne to make a big American movie, but in fact he says the pressure gets less: you are more trusted and less bullied by whichever studio decides to take you on. When Payne made Election, Paramount wanted Tom Cruise to play the Broderick character, not because he made sense in the role (he wouldn’t have), but because he made sense at the box office. “They go through that process where they think you have to find the most famous people possible,” says Payne, “and then they go down the line. That’s a game I’m increasingly uninterested in - unless the most famous possible person also happens to be very correct in the part, like Jack Nicholson.” With Sideways, he was allowed to use his own crew and do all his own casting. “Fox didn’t say, ‘We’ll trust you if you get stars.’ They said, ‘We trust you as a director to deliver us this film.’ “
Payne has nothing against commercial movie-making per se, and points to a number of recent blockbusters made by independent-minded directors as a positive thing. “When studios entrust big Hollywood blockbusters to strong, intelligent directors, like Steven Soderbergh or Sam Raimi [Spider-Mans 1 and 2] or Alfonso Cuarón [the latest Harry Potter], I say ‘God bless ‘em’, because those films will have legs and might stand the test of time. But if they rely on just product , like two examples from this year, Van Helsing and Catwoman - I’m glad they tanked.” As a writer, he has dabbled in the mainstream: he polished up the final draft of Meet The Parents (uncredited) and, less gloriously, Jurassic Park III (credited). But actually making one of these things, giving up three years of his life as opposed to a few months, is not something he is eager to do. “I want all my films to belong to me. There is an audience out there for literate films — slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made. Which is why I want Sideways to succeed.”