The Joy Of Discovery: Alexander Payne's Approach To Filmmaking
A trip to the movies is a relaxing pastime for most Americans, but for the writers and directors behind these films, it's a grueling artistic process to successfully create, film, edit, and market each movie.
Celebrated American filmmaker Alexander Payne shares his experience filming the 2017 movie Downsizing as well as his unique approach to filmmaking. "I'm told I haven't made a bad film and I hope it's true," he says. Read on to learn why Payne says Downsizing was his most difficult project to date and what three approaches he takes to film unique movies for the silver screen.
About Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne is a film writer and director originally from Omaha, Nebraska. He studied Spanish and history at Stanford University before receiving his MFA from UCLA's film school.
Payne is known for taking a different approach to his films, which offer a refreshing change of pace from Hollywood's film industry standard. He's best known for thought-provoking dark comedies like Citizen Ruth, Sideways, and About Schmidt.
Over the course of his 30-year career, Payne's films have been nominated for 19 Academy Awards. including Best Director three times and two of his films won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Downsizing: Alexander Payne's Most Ambitious Project Yet
"This one is by far the hardest film I've made," Payne says of his latest feature, Downsizing. Released in 2017, the National Board of Review named it one of the top movies of the year. Actress Hong Chau also won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes for her role in the film.
Although Payne felt that Downsizing was his most difficult film to date, he says it's a continuation of his body of work. "This film summons up a lot of the themes that Jim Taylor and I as writers and directors have worked on in the previous six films," he says.
Downsizing was certainly a departure for Payne, but at its core, Downsizing is still very similar to his other films. Payne points out, "This movie is disappointingly similar to my previous films. It has the schnook from Omaha who gets lost and has things taken away from him." Omaha schnook or not, Downsizing still pushed the boundaries of Payne's artistry in many ways.
"I hadn't done visual effects before," Payne says. A fan of real-world grit and normalness, Payne was hesitant to invest so much time and money into special effects, but he knew effects were critical to creating a believable film.
However, Payne didn't use special effects for the sake of it-he wanted the story to take precedence. "It's a movie that needs visual effects to tell its story, but it isn't a 'visual effects movie,' which has some story as an excuse to do visual effects," Payne says. He worked closely with the effects team to ensure the effects were realistic on screen. "I wanted the visual effects to be so real, to look lived in and believable, and even banal," Payne adds.
Downsizing's storyline reads not as a single story, but as multiple acts or sequences. "It's such a big idea. Jim and I had the basic premise of how to find a story and a protagonist to guide us through a world where downsizing happens," Payne says.
He and co-writer Jim Taylor wanted to balance comedy with political and social satire. In their effort to create a hyperrealistic world, they found it tough to fit all of the commentary and intricacies of daily life into the film. "It took a long time particularly because this idea has so many mental chain reactions," Payne explains.
The complexity of the plotline led to a more episodic type of film. Payne explains that it was a challenge to write, film, and edit Downsizing, but the resulting project faithfully showed the cumulative impact of the story on the characters.
Payne and Taylor approached Downsizing with a lot of ideas-maybe too many ideas. "It's a kitchen sink movie," Payne confesses. "We were greedy; we wanted to put a lot in it."
The raw cut of the film was originally three hours long, but the team managed to cut it down to just over two hours. Payne says the ambitious idea behind the movie made it incredibly challenging to complete. "All of these crazy ideas and crazy elements. It took time," he explains.
Alexander Payne's Approach to Filmmaking
With seven features under his belt to date, Payne considers himself a lifelong student in the art of filmmaking. Although he releases Hollywood films, he's considered an industry contrarian who thinks outside the box. He credits his diverse work to his intentional-but sometimes meandering-approach to filmmaking.
Filming as Discovery
Payne doesn't like to micromanage his creations. "For me and other filmmakers, it's more an active discovery," he says. "The joy of filmmaking is discovery."
Payne takes filmmaking as a day-to-day process. It starts when he and Jim Taylor sit down to write the script and ends on the last day of mixing and editing. He never quite knows where a film will lead, and he says that's a good thing. "Although I write the film and envision it, it's not like Hitchcock, who really had it completely mapped out," he explains.
Instead of holding the entire cast and crew hostage to a script, Payne uses his scripts more as outlines. "You've got the screenplay, but that's like the blueprint of a building," he says. He doesn't know how a movie will look until it's finished. Sometimes that leads to surprises along the way, but he considers that part of the joy of filmmaking.
Matt Damon had a strong presence in Downsizing as the star of the film but Payne adds that working with experienced actors as artistic partners on set makes the filming process much more enjoyable. In an industry where some actors work on three films a year, Payne confesses, "As the director, I'm the least-experienced person on set."
Payne also adds that it's important to consider your actors' abilities. He tries to stay faithful to the script but likes coaching the actors so each take is different. "People trained in theater do the same tone and mannerisms, but actors trained in film are constantly moving," he explains. Payne likes shaking things up from take to take, so film-trained actors often more easily align with his artistic process.
Payne doesn't believe in one-take wonders. "Even though I may get something really great in a take and it's usable, I still want to do a couple more takes," he says. Instead of sticking with a triumphant last take, he wants to know he's squeezed as much juice from a scene as possible because, as he says, "You never know."
"I'll do one or two takes and then jump in," he says. On average, Payne does 4-6 takes per scene, but it's not unusual for him to take up to 20 takes. In an industry culture where there's pressure to film one take and move on, Payne says it's critical to take your time to make sure you don't miss potential moments.
Creating the Films of Tomorrow
Alexander Payne has experienced commercial success with his humorous and thought-provoking films, but he admits that he's still looking for his masterpiece. "I hope I make a good film in 10 years; one that I think is good. You don't want to die with unrealized potential. And the potential lies inside of you," he explains.
Payne urges filmmakers, regardless of their experience or age, to never lose their hunger and anger. "You see too many films that lack anger. They're made by filmmakers who lose touch with that," he says.
He's never sure where he'll find inspiration for his next feature, but Alexander Payne is dedicated to the lifelong pursuit of creating films with soul-fueled by the joy of artistic discovery. He admits, "I see each film, not as an accomplishment, but as another lesson. So, I'm still learning."