Ask Alexander Payne what drew him to the novel from which emerged he and Jim Taylor’s scalpel-sharp satire Election, and he’ll tell you about how impressed he was that novelist Tom Perrotta wrote a character that had a stinky-watch band problem. He admits having no desire at the time to do a high school movie, and essentially read the novel, given to him by producer Albert Berger, “just to get him [Berger] out of my hair.” Once he read about the school principal’s “stinky-watch band” problem, however, he was sold. Looking at the canon of funny, incisive, profoundly human comedies thus far compiled by the deeply-gifted team of director/co-writer Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, details seem to be less a preference than a way of thinking.
Payne and Taylor’s responses at the Q and A following last Thursday’s screening of Election were not just wry and candid, but illuminated, whether intentionally or not, the very virtues that make them two of the most talented filmmakers working in Hollywood today. At the heart of their filmmaking philosophy (a term this sardonic, delightfully unpretentious pair would most likely shoot down with knowing glances) is a reliance on pinpoint observation and acute character detail.
“We’re never giving a character a puppy so the audience will like them.” -Jim Taylor, on audience empathy to their characters
Payne and Taylor’s characters rarely scream likeability. Whether it’s Election’s Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a civics teacher who makes it his “civic” duty to derail the presidential campaign of rabid overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), About Schmidt’s emotionally-stunted retiree Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), or depressive, quasi-alcoholic novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, their protagonists often reside within the tragicomic cracks of collapsed masculinity. Payne, particularly in Election and About Schmidt, makes expert use of voiceover to contrast the deluded thoughts of his characters against an unsparing comic reality. They do not allow their characters the false and saccharine quirks to make their spiky, difficult personalities more palatable to the viewer, but allow them a perfectly observed universe in which to flail and fall and, with any luck, move an inch towards self-realization.
“Life is mostly casting.” -Alexander Payne, on choosing actors for his films
This may be a debatable credo for life, but it’s an essential truth when discussing Payne and Taylor’s films. Payne gets revelatory work from established actors through an acute awareness of their off-screen personas. Matthew Broderick’s affable “nice-guy” image is deliciously flipped on its head in Election, wormy passive-aggression and sexual frustration informing his every nicety and cheery smile. Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is an epic performance in terms of screen time (he’s in almost every moment of a two hour film), yet the miracle is found in the restraint and lived-in regret Payne culls from the actor, known best for his wild-eyed antics and shark-grin slyness. Yet, he also manages to see the untapped talent in both unknowns and “has-beens”. Though she just won the Oscar for Walk the Line, Witherspoon’s best performance came in the form of Tracy Flick, balancing comic ferocity and loneliness that deepens what could have been a shrill caricature. And how about that Virginia Madsen? Languishing in direct-to-video hell until cast as a waitress and budding oenophile, Sideways showed what a luminous, earthy actress she could be.
“Should we go for the laugh or should we go for the meaning?” -Jim Taylor, on balancing comedy and character
As you watch them, one can almost sense a tonal shift in Payne and Taylor’s work, a shifting away from the empathetic if unsparing satire of Citizen Ruth and Election to more recognizably humanist works like About Schmidt and Sideways. Payne contests this idea, saying that he “has always aspired to be a humanist” and that all his films attempt to balance the discovery of a debut feature with the experience accumulated through past work. Looking at all his films through a humanist lens, you can see where he is coming from. The multiple perspectives through which Election is refracted defuse any sense of one character possessing smug superiority over the others. Each is flawed in its own individual way. Conversely, the characters that populate Schmidt and Sideways are royally skewered for their petulance, lethargy, and pomposity. As always, though, they are brought back from the brink of mockery by the inherent empathetic detail Payne and Taylor imbue in even their most unattractive moments.
“The stuff that they [many American filmmakers] don’t do is what we all do. -Alexander Payne, on what separates his filmmaking from others
In other words, the stinky-watch band template. It’s the way Tracy’s mom, after comforting her daughter after her election loss, passive-aggressively wonders if maybe Tracy would have won had she taken her advice on her campaign speech. It’s the way Warren Schmidt breaks down over a picture sent by an African orphan he has never met. It’s the way the twenty-year plus friendship between two middle-aged men is summed up in a small conversation regarding who wears a seatbelt and who doesn’t. Every shot counts, every line reverberates, and every detail allows the audience to enter a specific world while seeing a reflection of their own.
Commenting on the surprisingly strong reaction to a key scene in Sideways (the back-porch wine conversation between Giamatti and Madsen), Payne said that, when it comes to making movies, ”you learn what the film is based on what the audience tell you.“ If the rousing applause at the film’s end is any indication, the audience has a simple message for these masterful chroniclers of what Taylor calls ”the heroics of making it through a day“: we’re lucky to have you.