Pleasure and Payne

Kimon Kalamaras talks to award-winning director Alexander Payne on the art of movie making and whether or not he will take home the Oscar for his latest movie The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest movie The Descendants is making waves in Hollywood. The creator of the Oscar-winning Sideways, The Descendants is a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic journey for Matt King (George Clooney) – an indifferent husband and father of two girls – who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki. The event leads to a rapprochement with his young daughters while Matt wrestles with a decision to sell the family’s land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries.

Kimon Kalamaras talks to the director, hot-on-the-heels of his Golden Globe nomination:

KK: At first glance your films remind us of the magnificent Hollywood. But on reflection, the themes are closer to American Independent Cinema. Can you comment?

AP: To me, it doesn’t say independent, it says studio films but of the great period you know, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. You see I am very influenced by the American films of the ’70s. That’s when I was a teenager and going to the cinema two times a week and saw all those films that now we consider masterpieces. At the time they were just movies. You know, these were American movies. Now we see, ‘oh the ’70s Hollywood films, what a classic period’. But those were precisely the films that I wanted to make and which, as American cinema changed, became much more blockbuster oriented. Those films which used to be standard American films suddenly became art films, which is too bad. And then had to become independent films. So if that’s the tradition of films that you see mine in, then I thank you, and you are correct. Those are the films that I try to make.

KK: After making a movie have you ever felt that the audience may overlook the depth of your film for the superficial and less artistic part?

AP: Of course the arrogant director will say ‘yes, I make comedies, I want films to be entertaining’. Even Kurosawa said first and foremost films should be entertaining. But yeah, I think comedy should not be a mask for a detraction from serious themes underneath. Now, I’m not going to take my films very seriously myself. Because I am always trying to improve and to learn from film to film. But yeah, I would like to think that there is a certain depth in my films, which of course I want each time and as I grow older – I am 50 now – to become more deep. Unless I am just making a fun film and there is nothing wrong with just a fun film to give people a good time.

KK: In the film Paris Je T’aime we saw you as Oscar Wilde and at the end as an American stunned by the beauty of Paris. How deeply are you influenced by European literature and in general by European culture?

AP: Well, I am American which comes from Europe, I am Greek American which comes from Greece. In university I studied History and Literature, specifically Latin American literature. So, I always accuse myself of not having read enough, because there is so much to read and there is so much classic literature and history that I have not read. Even if the books are sitting on my shelves, in front of me right now, which they are, unread you know, we all have that. But I am also, maybe in my work, very influenced more by world cinema.

KK: Your films negotiate subjects such as loneliness, isolation and the conflicts of human relationships. How contemporary is this trend for existentialism and do you find fertile ground for such an inner search, to blossom in a country like USA?

AP: So I don’t know about a trend. I mean that’s not for me to say, that’s really I think for critics or observers, to observe trends. Because I work, I think all artists work in a vacuum. At least consciously. Maybe they’re part of the collective unconsciously, because of the way the wind of culture are blowing, and how those winds blow through the artist and then blow through collectively many artists. But individualists are unaware of those things. I think those themes you mention are extremely universal.

And of course an American audience could respond, but those are universal themes: god, isolation, desire for connection, desire for family. You know, you see those things in films from the beginning, in literature from the beginning. I know I would like to see more such films in the United States because I don’t see enough human films coming from the United States. You know human films instead of blockbusters, which are like cartoons. Which is fantastic, but not at the exclusion of all other types of films. Every year we have in the United States five to ten at the most, films which are interested in a human level and which receive significant distribution. And a few films from other countries. That’s fantastic but it’s not enough for me. I want more

KK: How challenging was your collaboration with George Clooney who, apart from being a superstar is also a director?

AP: Oh, it wasn’t challenging at all, it was easy. He’s fantastic. He makes things very easy for the director because he has directed himself. So, those are the best actors, because they understand the problems and they know how to make things easier for the director. I had the same experience with Jack Nicholson. He was wonderful.

KK: The plot of The Descendants unravels in Hawaii. Are you aiming at an even greater twist of plot than that of your previous films?

AP: Well, no, it’s not a twist of plot … I would say it’s not so much plot, but a look. When I go to make a movie there are two major considerations. One is the story. What are the emotions of the story, the feelings of the story the specifics of the story? A story which can be told anywhere. Then comes the question of ‘where’. Where are we going to make this movie? In that degree I think more like a documentarian than a narrative film maker, because I want very much to show very accurately the world of the film. In this case the aristocracy of Hawaii. So that is what is going on in my mind.

KK: The press is talking about an Oscar award for The Descendants? What are your expectations?

AP: I don’t have expectations, I have hopes, I have aspirations which is the people like the movie. You know, if they don’t that’s okay. You know I had fun making the film. If some people enjoy watching it then I am very happy. I am happy to give them an entertainment experience and maybe a thinking experience. All these things about oh, box office, or Oscar … you know it’s nice but then again it has nothing to do with me. I enjoy making the film.

KK: You were in Thessaloniki for the Film Festival. Was there something that you took back to the USA after that visit, emotionally speaking?

AP: Well there were two things emotionally. One was, of course, to be there during the crisis. So it was a very superficial trip. Only three days, you know. But, even three days is better, is something. At least I could walk down the street and talk to people and hear anecdotes, hear little stories about how they are thinking about the crisis and how the crisis affecting them.

Which leads me to the number two thing I took away, which was that thirteen of my cousins came from Greece, from Aigio, they came [to visit me] in Thessaloniki. It was beautiful, they came to see the movie on Friday night and then Saturday afternoon we had a very long lunch at a taverna in Thessaloniki and it was very beautiful for me. I was so touched that they came to see me and support me and have that time with me. And of course when we looked into each others eyes, there’s the understanding not just of the culture but of the family. And it’s beautiful when you see the DNA transcend time and culture. Very beautiful and I loved it very much.

KK: You arrived in the worst week for Greece (Payne arrived in Greece when there was no government).

AP: Yes, but how beautiful that I came in the worst week. You know it’s funny how I have a very different life as an American than I would have as a Greek. I am not saying better or worst. I’m just saying different. But it’s interesting how in times of crisis my DNA is activated. It makes me feel very Greek and very connected and interested, very interested.