As part of the 17th annual Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca Talks: Director’s Series Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne took to the stage to discuss his career to date which includes seven feature films: Election, Citizen Ruth, Downsizing, The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt and Nebraska. Payne was joined by fellow Nebraskan, comedian and multiple Emmy-winning TV host, Dick Cavett.

Cavett asked Payne about the experience of directing the great Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt. “He made me a better director,” Payne revealed. “There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a director to say the right thing. First of all to figure out what you want, if there’s something you want and then the right thing to say and often you can’t think of the brilliant thing to say, the “actable” verb. You have to give a result or a line reading. Anyway, I would say something to him and he would do exactly that and during the take I would realise that I had misspoken and would have to say ‘cut’ and ‘sorry Mr Nicholson, I know I said to make it X but actually could you make it a little more Y.’

“Before directing him I rang Mike Nichols up and I said ‘you who have directed Jack Nicholson thrice, what advice would you have for me because I’m going in for the first time?’ And he said ‘oh, it’s very easy, just tell him the truth because he’s going to smell it on you anyway.’ And I have found that to be pretty good advice not just for a great like him, but pretty much for anybody.”

Jack Nicholson in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt
Jack Nicholson in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt

Dick Cavett asked the filmmaker if he was making Nebraska in 2018 whether it would reflect “the catastrophic mess this county is in.” Payne believes it inescapably would, “certainly when you make a film, even if I’d kept the screenplay exactly the same and you shoot it in any time in history, six years ago or whenever I shot it or now, if you’re open as a director I think you can’t but help the winds of history blowing through you and the whole film set. So in some way or another it would, but I do not know how, all I know is that I would recognise it if I could. When you turn on a camera you put time in a bottle and not just that time in front of you, but the time of all the molecules of history as it wafts by you. So somehow it would show up. Certainly in 2012 with the economy tanking and we were still in that minor depression, I tried to capture that.”

In discussing his favourite movie Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Payne revealed how much he revered Kurosawa as a filmmaker. Cavett jokingly asked if the director had a statue of him in his home and received an unexpected answer from Payne: “I don’t have a statue of Kurosawa but I do have one of his neckties! A Pierre Cardin necktie from the seventies. In Japan when someone dies, his or her personal effects are often distributed to family members and friends. Little mementos, shirts, ties, cufflinks. I happened to become friends with a Japanese Italian family who live in Turin and the Japanese side was very close with the Kurosawas and learning of my great fondness for his work I was given one of his neckties, with the consent of the family so that’s one of my treasured possessions.”

On screenwriting Payne discussed his frustrations with the process. “I wish it happened more quickly, I’m 57 years old and I’ve directed only seven feature films. I wish it were more, but it’s the damn screenplay that I find the slowest part. I’m not quick like Woody Allen who can just sit and has that discipline. On the one hand, I wish I were making a film all the time. I wish I’d had a career like the great Hollywood directors, making two or three films a year and that magnificent system, and industry you had going. On the other hand, I also want to speak only when I have something to say, but I’m just open. My number one job is that I’m searching around for articles, screenplays, getting ideas and somehow being open because you never know. I made a movie called Election twenty yeas ago. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was a high school picture. They had a tonne of high school movies in the late Nineties. I thought ‘God no!’ Then finally I read that novel and there it was.”

When Cavett asked if the studios have ever hurt his films once he’s finished editing, Payne had an interesting response without getting into specifics. “You mean The distributors? Yeah, that has happened to me a lot and I have to let it go. I’m responsible for ‘so and so presents’ to the last bit of the credits, but what happens is out of my hands. I try to influence, but… I just had a movie that tanked.” Payne was referring to his 2017 Golden Globe nominated film Downsizing starring Matt Damon. “Nothing was easy about that thing. The script was hard, getting financing was nearly impossible, only one person said yes, of course you only need one person to say yes. A big production schedule, the editing… that was a toughie. Still made with joy, but that was a big one.”

Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.
Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.

When the event opened up to audience questions, one audience member asked Payne if he had any ideas about why the film hadn’t been as successful he might have hoped and how he felt about the film now. Payne shared with the audience: “Really my one word reaction is ‘next’. Just move on, ‘what’s the next thing?’ One answer might be that we were maybe a little bit greedy as screenwriters, it was a big idea that really could fuel a TV series and we wanted to cram a lot of ideas into two, two and half hours, maybe some of its narrative turns were a little too hairpin, maybe the protagonist was a little too passive, seemingly passive. People generally like active protagonists. So who the hell knows?! Next!”

Another audience member asked Payne what the most important filmmaking skills are for a director. “Editing and writing is he job,” he immediately replied. “You cannot become a director until you’ve mastered the art of screenwriting. If you want to make ninety minute narrative films you’re going to have to write for yourself. Not that you should necessarily think of it as writing. You’re making a film in your brain. You’re imaging a film and the screenplay is the written record of that imagining. Films are made in the editing room. I think editing is what it’s all about. What does that mean? The ongoing process of disguising how bad the film really is! Every day we’re going to the cutting room to make it suck less. It feeds right back into your screenwriting with what you need and don’t need and you always overwrite a little, but you can’t foresee exactly what you’ll need to omit in the cutting room. Focus on writing, directing, editing. Cinematography you can hire someone.”