Highways, Byways, and 'Sideways'
Wine flows through Sideways, the latest film by director Alexander Payne. The story of wine aficionado Miles (Paul Giamatti) who takes his soon-to-be-married actor buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week long tour of southern California wineries as a wedding present, it has received some of the most glowing reviews of the year and has firmly established Payne as one of the most interesting, talented and uncompromising directors of our time.
Like wine, Payne just gets better with time. From his first film, the wicked little political satire "Citizen Ruth," through the even smarter "Election," the bittersweet "About Schmidt," and finally "Sideways," his work has gotten successively richer, deeper and more complex. Of course, credit must be shared with longtime writing partner Jim Taylor. They began as a team on "Citizen Ruth" and their creative partnership and personal friendship continues to this day.
Payne and Taylor were in Seattle on Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, to promote "Sideways." In the brief half hour we had together, we discussed their writing partnership, the state of personal filmmaking in Hollywood today, and, of course, wine. As often happens with old friends, questions sparked discussions between them, and their give and take reveals as much about their collaborative process as their answers do.
Sean Axmaker: "Sideways" is your fourth feature, and your fourth collaboration.
Alexander Payne: We've actually collaborated on other things. We've done script doctoring, so we've actually written like seven features together.
How did you start collaborating and how does that collaboration process work?
Jim Taylor: We met through an acquaintance who is actually someone I knew from Seattle, Meg Richman. Do you know Meg? She did a movie here called "Under Heaven" [also known as "In the Shadows"].
Yes, it's a modern take on "Wings of the Dove."
JT: She knew both Alexander and I and she had a room in this apartment ...
AP: I don't think either of us really anticipated having co-writers in our film careers but it happened in the best possible way, which is naturally, from our friendship. We were roommates, and I have to say that the way we work happens as naturally as the way we came together in the first place. I don't know, it's like something, once introduced to us – we've never fought, it just happens. So when we write, we're together and it's kind of like this; we sit around and talk and think of what could happen next and the computer is over there. We think, "Oh, that could be good," and one or the other of us will get up and pound out a page or two.
JT: It's funny because, as you can imagine, that question comes up a lot, and I think people – especially screenwriters – are surprised that we work the way we do.
AP: How are you supposed to work?
JT: I think when they get into collaborations, they get together and say, "Let's make an outline and then you go do this scene and I'll do this scene." But I think that we're not surprised we work the way we work because we see pictures of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett sitting around ...
AP: I always think of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
JT: ... and Jean-Claude Carriere. My image of people collaborating was people like that. So we have an office and we sit around and we talk and we go have lunch and write something, but it doesn't seem to be that that's other people's images of collaborating. They're surprised we work that way.
Your first film, "Citizen Ruth," was an original screenplay, but your three subsequent films are adaptations of novels.
JT: "About Schmidt" is about two-thirds an original, really.
Which leads to my next question. The novels that you adapt tend not to be best-sellers and are not well-known to the general public. Does that give you more latitude to bring in your own ideas and rework the material?
AP: I think that even if we did something that was more well-known, we would still ...
JT: I think we always had the latitude, it's just how people react to it. Some people kind of take offense. But that's their problem.
AP: "About Schmidt" is a different case of adaptation. It's really not an adaptation. It's an original with some narrative ideas stolen from a book that we then embroidered into our own completely different story. But I thought you [Jim] said something interesting this morning, which is that when we make changes from a book, it's not against the novel, it's just for the film. Because it's a different form. A novel is sprawling and long exists in any amount of time and a film is two hours and demands a certain discipline. No matter how free-flowing it is, it demands a certain discipline. You can only get so much characterization in it. It's very limited in relation to a novel. The novel's a richer form and can suggest a much richer fabric of life most of the time. So you've got to do a lot of changes. Also, as writers, we have to connect to what we're writing personally. Certainly I as a director have to connect personally to what I'm trying to put on film. If I'm just executing someone else's vision, I'm lost. I can't do it. And I'll point out that ... You know it would be interesting, because I always point at Kubrick and say that there's a guy who is certainly a personal director, yet many of his films are co-screenwritten adaptations of books. I think eleven of his thirteen films are adaptations. It would be interesting to read his source materials.
You always hear novelists complain about how movie adaptations have "ruined" their novels.
AP: So don't sell it.
But I heard a very interesting and perceptive comment from James Ellroy when he was in town a few years ago with a preview of "L.A. Confidential." He was fascinated at how Curtis Hanson had to change the plot of the last half of the novel, almost entirely rewriting the course of events, to fit this sprawling story into a film, and he appreciated that his characters were intact. Hanson had changed the plot of his novel to tell the stories of his characters.
AP: That's ... correct of him to think that way.
So was it the characters that brought you to the novel "Sideways"?
AP: Yes, and I think that's basically the thing. Even when we change their names or alter some of the situations in which they appear, we're very faithful to the characters, largely, and I think it's interesting that you say that. Tracy Flick [from "Election"] is a little different, and so is Paul Metzler [the character played by Chris Klein].
JT: But more than that, forgetting the novel, the characters are always the why of the story. The story doesn't supersede the characters. The characters, whatever they have to do, the story has to follow them.
AP: Even when we adapt, it's almost like a writing exercise. Let's say you take a creative writing class and the teacher gives you one plot and you're all supposed to go out and write your own version of that plot. It's kind of like that. You get the story and the situation and the characters from the book, but then we go and make our own filmic version of that.
When you cast Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, did you rework any of the script for them?
JT: No, not really. Thomas Haden Church came up with a few zingers in rehearsal that Alexander and I stole.
AP: But I think what he means is, did we retailor the script ...
JT: Oh yeah, no, we didn't.
AP: Even for Nicholson we didn't. We try to find actors who can embody what we wrote and execute that.
After directing Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," you could have jumped off to bigger films and bigger name stars, and instead you came back to make a small, personal film like "Sideways."
AP: But there was a big jump from "About Schmidt" to "Sideways," which was that we could get financing without the presence of an A-list movie star. That's a huge jump.
JT: Alexander just wanted to be the star.
Has it been difficult to keep making these small films in the contemporary film industry?
AP: Not for us. It's always hard. "Citizen Ruth" was almost impossible to get made, "Election" was nearly impossible to get made, "About Schmidt" was a bumpy road to getting it made. This one was relatively easy. Now, because of the success of this and "Schmidt," anything we come up with, within reason, we can get made. So no, it's not hard to get these made right now. We're really lucky.
But it's taken you four films to get to this point.
AP: Yeah. On the other hand, we made these first four films in about eight years. Which is pretty good.
JT: When you're in the middle of it, it's, "Oh my God, the movie is not going to get made," but from the outside ... Alexander has a lot of UCLA buddies, one who just made a movie after thirteen years.
AP: I'm hoping that, by the example of the films we make, it will in fact facilitate other filmmakers to get their films made on a similar scale. Also bear in mind that we don't have excessive budgets. Our budgets have been four [million], eight, 32 – but half of that is Nicholson – and sixteen, respectively. I'm not known as an indulgent director. I don't go over budget and the films aren't too long and they make money, so, so far, so good. But certainly people do complain that human movies, like these kind of middle to low budget movies, are hard to get made.
I've heard that a lot. Cheaper films that can go to cable or straight to video can get made, and big budget, high-concept, movie-star driven movies – even though there seem to be more and more failures with that formula – can get made because they fall into a formula that studios understand and know how to promote.
AP: That formula is starting to fail, more and more. I mean, on the one hand, you have the low budget ones, not straight to video but "Monster," "In the Bedroom," the under the six or seven million dollar range, where things tend to get made and then get awards and everyone benefits. And then it jumps to the $25 million and up films. But I think what we've stumbled upon really works for us.
You've cited the directors of the 1970s in previous interviews, and back in the 1970s, the very kind of films you make were produced regularly by the studios. This wasn't a niche, this was contemporary filmmaking.
AP: These were mainstream films. The types of films we make, I grew up thinking, "These are mainstream films." Unless your idea of a mainstream film was "Airport '75."
JT: It's interesting how everyone pins the change to "Jaws," and "Jaws" really was a movie that – it was hugely successful – but it really is a movie very much in the mold of personal films, with characters and directing. But it fucked everything up, not because of the kind of filmmaking it was, but because of the marketing of it.
AP: He used to be a good director, Spielberg. Back in the '70s. Believe it or not, he made some good films in the '70s.
"Citizen Ruth" and "Election" are overtly satirical and political. "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" focus more on the personal stories and journeys of its characters, specifically the crises of American men. Not the kinds of stories you usually see on screen about American men, because these are actual real, emotional crises as opposed to something you can solve through energetic adventure. And very warts and all portrayals, the antithesis of "American Beauty," which seems like it's saying the same things, but comes from a ...
AP: Fraudulent? Is that the word you're looking for?
It wasn't, but it'll work. It's upper-middle class, people of privilege, something out-of-touch for most Americans. But I can relate to Schmidt. I haven't lived a life anything like his and I'm decades away in age, but I can relate to the life he led because he looks like and lives like the kinds of people that I know. There was a question in there originally, but I never quite got the question mark on the end.
AP: That's OK, it's well said. Agreed.
There aren't many movies about that. What is it about the lives of these people, these very ordinary but very real people that attracts you?
JT: The answer is embedded in your question. Because we find it more interesting to look at the small heroisms in people's lives as opposed to some kind of really grand heroism, like pulling someone out of a car wreck, going underwater. Just making it from day to day is more interesting to us.
AP: Also, there's an absence. There aren't that many movies made about people that are genuinely related to reality, not a fake movie reality but to a real reality. That's what we look for in older American films and it's what we look for in European films. But it's been missing here. We miss it and that's the kind of films we're attracted to making. It goes back to what was mainstream in the 70s, when we were growing up. Even in the 70s, we were watching films from different countries and different periods, and that's what the mainstream was. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is Best Picture in 1975. "Midnight Cowboy" is Best Picture.
JT: Where we intersect the most is Czech films. [to Alexander] I wanted to tell you, did you know "Black Peter" is out in DVD? But so those Czech movies we both love, and Kurosawa, who is generally known as a humanist. Sure, there's the samurai movies, but they're about human beings more than swords.
AP: And Italian films. I've been increasingly more interested in Italian films.
JT: Right. Anyway, it's that humanism that's important to us.
The little triumphs that Schmidt makes in "About Schmidt"...
JT: Or little failures.
Or little failures – and there are more failures than triumphs – but there is a real empathy for him even when he's not able to make these leaps out of his very limited awareness. He's just not a self-aware person, even though he narrates as if he is one. Paul Giamatti's character Miles is completely different. That whole odd couple relationship with Jack is a little comic because they are such radically different personalities, and Giamatti has this black cloud over his head. But the triumphs that he makes in "Sideways" are, I think, much more profound than they appear to be on the surface.
AP: Yes. Like drinking the wine alone. When he drinks his '61 Cheval Blanc. That's a little personal triumph, at least one that suggests a shift within him.
I think Thomas Haden Church was inspired casting. He has this very effortless sense of humor about him. He can play a very smug character, but it's as if he's playing a character who's playing a smug guy.
AP: Yes, right, there's a couple layers going on there.
And yet his character, Jack, is pathologically self-destructive all through the trip. His last ditch effort to revel in casual sex before he's married becomes a way of sabotaging his own marriage, a way out without ever having to confront himself. And when he finally hits that last step he panics, he realizes how much he's lost when he succeeds in sabotaging it.
AP: Could be.
Not going to take a stand on this one?
AP: No, I don't really know. You'd have to ask Thomas. You could say, those of us who create crisis in our lives, on some perverse level are creating crisis because we need crisis, but maybe not. Maybe he just wants to get laid and get away with it.
JT: Miles is more successful at sabotaging his life than Jack. Even though he might do self-destructive things, he comes out smelling like a rose.
I wonder if Jack really learned anything. When he gets married, has he gotten it out of his system?
JT: No way, no way.
These guys became friends by pure chance. They were dorm roommates in their freshman year of college. It's hard to imagine that they would have met and become friends in any other circumstances, but twenty years later, they are devoted friends. It's very fitting, given the film, that you met as roommates and became friends and collaborators after that experience.
AP: I think a lot of people have that experience. They were friends at a really intense time in their lives earlier on and it survived.
JT: I was wondering if it was maybe the inverse of ... They say marriage ends up being a lot of bathroom time and that can take the romance out of your marriage, but if you can survive the bathroom ...
AP: You mean take a dump while you're brushing your teeth, and then still want to fuck?
JT: Yes. But roommates end up in the reverse situation. They survive the bathroom – it's like an arranged marriage – and then, "Well, I've flossed next to you." Or took a dump.
I've recently become something of a wine fan myself in the past few years, introduced to the culture by some of my old friends. Ten years ago, wine was something that had the ring of elitism to it, but since then it's become a lot more popular.
AP: They can make more money that way.
JT: The democratization of wine ...
AP: ... leads to more pockets. That's how wine was always supposed to be. It was never supposed to be an elite drink. Everyone was supposed to drink it. I always say that I think one of the biggest problems is the high prices they charge in restaurants. Why is there a 700 percent mark up in restaurants? Every restaurant like Barney's has to close. Why don't they just price it ten percent above what you pay for it, like they do in Europe, where it's not a special thing, it's an everyday thing.
I take that you are both wine aficionados.
JT: Not me.
AP: I have an active interest in it, he doesn't ...
JT: He has a locker someplace with bottles of wine; he buys wine futures.
AP: Not that much, just a little bit.
JT: But how many people buy wine futures?
AP: Well, just those of us in the cultural elite. [laughs]
So Alexander is the Paul Giamatti and Jim is the Thomas Haden Church in this partnership?
JT: In that respect. In other respects ...
Was the element of the wine culture and the vineyard tour something that attracted you to the book originally?
Is the wine tour that they take one that you have done yourself?
AP: I've never really done wine tours. I always thought that it would be nice to do one day. My wine knowledge is limited to reading about it and going to wine tastings. And they don't really do it in Europe, either.
JT: Isn't that an American thing? Americans go to Bordeaux and go around to the wine growing regions, Europeans don't.
AP: I think some Europeans do.
JT: But it's not a big tourist thing.
AP: You wouldn't go to Chateau Lynch-Bage and buy a T-shirt and a hat and buy Lynch-Bage jam, like you would here.
What is the deal with Merlot? Miles hates Merlot.
AP: Only in one spot. By the way, that's a joke that everyone gets, not just wine people. That's one of the biggest laughs in the film, and I think it's because they know they're guilty of not knowing anything about wine, so you just order Merlot, like if you're going to order white, you order Chardonnay. So there's a lot of mediocre California Chardonnay and Merlot. Miles, I'm sure, would be the first to agree that Chateau Petrus, one hundred percent Merlot, is nothing to sneeze at.