Interview: Alexander Payne, film director

Alexander Payne on the set of The Descendants and below, a scene from the film starring George Clooney
Alexander Payne on the set of The Descendants and below, a scene from the film starring George Clooney
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Oscar-winning writer-director Alexander Payne admits there is a common theme in his films, but it’s been successful enough that even George Clooney was happy to come back after being snubbed by him, writes Alistair Harkness

NOT EVERY director would have the nerve to turn down George Clooney for a leading role in a film, much less when they’re trying to raise finance for a tricky, mid-budget drama about men going through a midlife crisis. Alexander Payne did.

A scene from The Descendents

A scene from The Descendents

It happened when Payne was casting his future award-winning (and, eventually, box-office conquering) wine comedy Sideways, The director – who paid for the pre-production costs himself to maintain control of the project – found himself discussing with Clooney the co-starring role of a handsome failed actor sowing the last of his wild oats in the run up to his wedding.

Given Clooney’s long, undistinguished, pre-fame career as a struggling actor (never mind his post-fame box-office cachet), one might think he’d be the ideal choice. Payne, however, felt otherwise, casting the relatively obscure Thomas Haden Church, despite Clooney reportedly lobbying hard for the role.

“He did not lobby hard,” corrects Payne, “but he liked the part and we had lunch and discussed it, and then I did not hire him. But it didn’t mean I didn’t want to work with him one day, because I wanted to very much. I think of all the stars of his generation, he’s my favourite.”

That Payne is telling me this the morning after the London Film Festival premiere of his new George Clooney starring film The Descendants suggests that Clooney is certainly not the kind of A-lister to take rejection personally – especially when there’s good material on offer. And The Descendants is certainly that. The film has already picked up a raft of plaudits and awards, including two Golden Globes this week for best drama and best actor.

The Descendants finds Clooney playing a Hawaiian real estate lawyer called Matt King who is forced to rally his reluctant-to-be-parented daughters (newcomers Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after a water skiing accident leaves their mother in a coma. Like Payne’s previous films (which, in addition to Sideways, include Election and About Schmidt), it’s a somewhat subversive comedy drama that never goes in quite the direction one expects, something aided in no small way by Clooney, who digs deep to deliver a recognisably flawed character without relying on his innate movie star charm to get us on side.

As it turns out, it’s precisely this quality that Payne has always appreciated in Clooney. “I like him in the way that I like Marcello Mastroianni,” he says. “I like actors who, when you see them on screen, you sense a person, not just an actor. There are so many movie stars these days who don’t seem like complete human beings who cry and suffer and make fun of themselves. They seem like bristling, nerve-masses of ambition. But Clooney is a real human being. Which is not to say he’s not ambitious or competitive or all those things. But I sense a human being there, and one in whom I’m interested.”

Clooney has described The Descendants as a coming-of-age film in which the person coming of age is a 50-year-old man, but Payne has no problem viewing it in the context of his own back catalogue.

“It was pointed out to me earlier today that my last four films are about middle-aged men who reach a certain point in life and have the rug pulled out from them, then have to figure out who they are and what they have to do from that point on. And I thought, ‘That sounds about right.’ There’s Jim McAllister in Election, and Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, and Miles in Sideways, and now this fellow. Matt has reached a certain point in life and thought he was doing alright and then he gets the rug pulled out from him and he has to grow or die.”

With Payne turning 50 last year it’s tempting to view his increasing preoccupation with these types of characters as a reflection of his own experiences and fears. Payne, however, reckons it might be more straightforward than that. “I just think it might be my preferred comic archetype. Just like Chaplin had the Tramp and played with that scenario and that same character in film after film, I think that because I make comedies, maybe it’s my preferred archetype.”

Payne’s career certainly hasn’t been overburdened with the kind of failures or compromises his characters confront. Having broken through in the late 1990s alongside Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, David O Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson, he has, like them, managed to parlay his early success into a sustainable, artistically valid career without getting swallowed up by the system.

“I certainly can’t complain,” he nods. “I’ve still been able to do my films, and I aspire to make more personal films as I grow as a film-maker. And you’re right about those other guys: the Andersons and David and Sophia. But I keep hearing how hard it is to get films financed right now, especially more human films and middle-budget things. I’m very grateful, because I get to do it. But I read that it’s hard.”

To this end, while he may yet find it too tricky to get financing for the science-fiction flavoured social satire he was working on prior to The Descendants, his next two films are already set up and, from the sounds of it, will remain on uncomfortably familiar territory: one is a father-and-son story about a road trip from Montana to Payne’s home state of Nebraska, which he’s planning to shoot in black-and-white; the other is an adaptation of Ghost World writer Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Wilson – about a misanthrope who lives in California.

Mostly, though, Payne says he just wants to keep improving as a film-maker and have a better understanding of what a film is.

“I don’t think so much about ‘my shifting dramatic content’ or if I’ve become mellower, but I hope that’s happening too. “Well, not mellower,” he adds quickly. “But in life and in film I would like to have an amplifying appreciation for what life is and who people are, but still reserve the right to make fun of them.”

The Descendants is in cinemas from Friday 27 January