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Alexander Payne on What Makes a Great Comedy

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne has established a well-deserved reputation for his ability to mine every film for potential comedy. “I prefer comedy that is somehow rooted in pain and reality and truth,” says the auteur. “At its finest, comedy is an entertaining and useful distancing lens through which to view human experience. We take the substance of our human experience, including — and perhaps especially the most painful or puzzling — death, relationships, that kind of stuff. And it allows you to look at it – mercifully — without feeling it. Well, you feel it somewhat, but you also laugh at it — you get of distance from it.”

One of his favorite movies is the 1934 romantic screwball comedy It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. However, making a comedy is no laughing matter for him. “I think it is a really serious form, and it is very difficult,” says Alexander Payne. Since his debut film, 1996’s Citizen Ruth, the filmmaker has earned a reputation for mastering the art of dark comedy. The genre is not new; it has been a popular form of storytelling for centuries.

“In ancient Greece, the two masks, the drama mask and the comedy mask, were never separated. They were always together because life has both of those things built in, drama and comedy all at once,” says Payne. “Here is a corny analogy:  Life is not a single-note melody.: It’s made up of chords, including blue notes and black notes. So comedy is rooted in a genuine experience, and there is little difference between drama and comedy other than the lens through which you look at life.” 

Payne prefers to put himself into the characters’ shoes to assist the actors better. “I like to act out the scenesfor myself so that I know what the actors are going to go through,” he explains. And he has a soft spot for all of his characters. “I adore the characters in all my films,” says Payne. “We have to make a distinction between would we like that character as a human being, if we knew that human being in real life, separate from do we love this person as a character, as a literary character?”

A Look at the Filmmaker’s Illustrious Career

“There is an efficiency now to my work, which I’m enjoying,” says Alexander Payne. His films — Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways, and Downsizing — have been nominated for 19 Academy Awards. The 61-year-old Nebraska native has personally won two Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) Academy Awards, for 2004’s Sideways and 2011’s The Descendants in 2012. His work has also earned eight Golden Globe Award nominations. 

He spent the first part of 2022 filming The Holdovers in Boston. After shooting wrapped on the film project that had him reunite with Sideways star Paul Giamatti, he spent months in the editing process. “That was a really beautiful experience. It was great to be with Paul again,” says Payne. That is undoubtedly true since Focus Features reportedly acquired the worldwide rights to The Holdovers for $30 million.

“Editing is so interesting,” says Payne. “No matter how many times you’ve done it and how skilled you think you are, every film is new, and every cut is new. It is a beautiful process.” It is also a much more complex process than one might expect. “A lot of people think editing is just putting the movie together. How hard can that be [since] It’s already been shot? You just string it together.” 

However, according to Payne, editing is the third part of the filmmaking process and is just as important as the writing and directing. “Editing is as much full of discovery and invention as the other two parts are,” he says. “And at least if done well, and you really have to take a lot of time to really see how the film is functioning and to streamline it.” 

A Lifelong Love of Film

Payne’s fascination with film began at a young age, when his mother would take him to see old films in Omaha, Nebraska. “Cinema isn’t just about seeing a movie. It is about the presentation of it and the conversations around it, the reviews, and the culture, including cinema magazines, critics, intellectuals, and nonintellectuals, talking about what a movie is and letting it penetrate more deeply into our souls and into our culture,” says Payne.

What To Expect From Alexander Payne When He’s on the Set

“I usually get to the set early, at least 30 minutes early, so that I can walk around and make sure it looks good,” says Payne. Just don’t interrupt his lunchtime siesta. The director says a noontime nap “is my only ritual in all of filmmaking. I usually nap anywhere between 20 minutes and 30 minutes.” He adds that the “only director prerogative I take advantage of is that I can make cuts and go to the front of the lunch line and get my food.”

Payne says, “ Like all directors, when I’m making a film, I’m all in. It’s like being out to sea.” One thing he does while editing? “Cooking is the only thing I do while editing,” shares Payne. “I cook a lot because I’m with my editing partner the whole time. Sometimes he needs a few minutes to do something on his own, and I run to the kitchen and make us lunch. This summer, I upped my cooking game while editing The Holdovers.” Does he have a culinary specialty? “Not really.  I kind of like to do everything. For example, last night I made a lasagna – an easy one — that I am going to bring to the cutting room for the crew ,” says Payne.

Alexander Payne has advice for those interested in pursuing a career in moviemaking. “The thing about film is that it is much different from being a writer or a painter or a poet, or even a composer because you can do those things alone, and they don’t necessarily cost money to do them,” says Payne. “Filmmaking requires a lot of money to do it and requires, at least in commercial filming, salesmanship to help convince other people that their millions of dollars will be safe with you. And then on a set, you have to fire people and lead people and be clear and give clear directions.” 

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