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Sheldrake does the fly on Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's walls and captures it all for you and me!

Harry here with an incredibly lengthy interview with Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor. I'm not going into an intro here, I think he's done a wonderful job of that himself. Here's one of the best filmmakers we have today... enjoy...

MONDAY EVENING

JAN 19 2005

7:30 PM

THE NEW MOMA

W. 53RD STREET

NEW YORK CITY

Sheldrake here, reporting from the Hungarian Pastry Shop at 111th and Amsterdam, my second home since I was a teenager. Thank God for Peter and Wendy and their bottomless cup of coffee and their cherry strudel. This is the report that nearly broke me. The event itself occurred on an evening when I was supposed to be meeting a friend for dinner, and when I tried to reschedule I (temporarily I hope) damaged our fifteen years of friendship. Then I almost immediately fell sick with the flu. Then the boot drive crashed (not the one with the recordings, or else your wouldn’t be reading this). Then I had to pack and move to a new apartment. Then I had to see Lucien Clergues original prints of Picasso, and his remarkable in-camera “Nudes and Masterpieces” series. Then I had to see the Gates, which enthralled me for three days of photography; if you’re anywhere near New York, you really shouldn’t deny yourself the experience. And let me head off the most clueless remarks: it’s not about how pretty they are; it’s not about whether or not they ruin your penthouse view of Central Park; it’s not about the color choice, except incidentally; and it’s not about aerial views of them from your private helicopter. It’s a public work of art performed by an American man who was raised in a Socialist country, and his American wife who was raised in France. The reason the Gates are there is to BE there, so that they can create a time and space for the ordinary men and women to gather (in the cold under the bare trees in February in Central Park!) and share something enormous and powerful.

Anyway, let’s climb into the Wayback Machine and return to that unseasonably warm January night…

I’ve just finished a nice Italian dinner in midtown, about a block from the Museum, and seen two of my three best friends, one of whom now lives in the Midwest and who I only get to see a couple of times a year. We are deep into the conversation and I lose track of the time. For some reason I glance at my cell phone clock—whoops, I can still make it but I’ll have to run. Some quick goodbyes, then a dead run headed east on 56th Street for a half a midtown block across town, then two blocks downtown, then another three-quarters block headed east to the Museum of Modern Art, the spectacular Mecca of 20th Century (and now 21st Century) art that recently underwent a great expansion. The new spaces are incredibly beautiful, and one of the things they’ve done is expand the movie theater space. I dash into the huge lobby, about a minute to go: empty, except for a few clerks at the desk. One of them has my ticket: she shoves it into my hand, I make the long run to the back of the lobby, take a left, head down the three flights of stairs and run into the auditorium. Packed full of course. But when I run up to the front, I spot one seat, against the wall but in the second row, that will be close enough that I’ll be able to see and hear everything and be able to beat the crowd to the stage after the talk.

Who’s speaking tonight? This is part of MOMA’s Great Collaborations series, covering famous and productive partnerships in the film business. And tonight we have two of the best writers in Hollywood, ALEXANDER PAYNE AND JIM TAYLOR!!! Election, About Schmidt, Sideways: some of my favorite movies in the last few years have come from these guys, which Alexander has directed. And, as all the world knows, Sideways is up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year!!! And, as if all this success and glitz weren’t enough already to send me into spasms of pleasure, they’re going to be interviewed by ADAM GOPNIK, the New Yorker writer!!! Gopnik regularly produces the best prose printed in that magazine, and his book about living in Paris, PARIS TO THE MOON, is cerebral, funny and beautiful.

The lights dim and the director of the museum, Glenn Lowry, introduces the program from the podium; then Natalie Hirniak, who runs the Great Collaborations program talks about the event and thanks a few people, including Christy Prunier who, if I’m not mistaken, produces the event.

Applause, then Alexander, Jim and Adam come onstage. Alexander, tall and gangly, is wearing a blue suit, a brown sweater vest and a shirt open at the collar, Jim is dressed sleekly in a darker suit. Adam is wearing a jacket and a blue dress shirt open at the collar. They take their seats. At the table onstage--

--Then Adam begins to talk…

Adam: First I’d like to talk about how you two connected – there’s a moment in Sideways when two men sort of shake hands and then reach for each other, quickly embrace each other and then pull away – when did you two first have an awkward embrace?

AUDIENCE - BIG LAUGHS

Jim: I actually vividly remember meeting Alexander and he was wearing only surgical pants. I was sitting on the floor and then he came over to me and said, “I went to Stanford” and then walked away.

AUDIENCE LAUGHS

Jim: …aaaand I didn’t really know who he waaaas…. It was quite some time before we became friends.

Adam: (amused): Out of sheer distaste for the experience, or…?

Jim: (crisply): I was a bit put off, yeah.

AUDIENCE LAUGHS

Adam: And Alexander…

Alexander: Phht, I don’t even remember him.

AUDIENCE LAUGHS

SHELDRAKE: ok, I think you get the idea of how these guys talk to/about each other now…so I’ll spare you most of the inserts

Jim: Also I was an extra in his student film.

Adam: In your thesis film.

Jim: Yeah.

Adam: I was talking about this just before, and I KNOW this sounds like one of those things you couldn’t imagine, because one of the things we were just sharing was some…pinot noir, in fact… You both are…film school people, in fact, but one of the things that I think so many people admire about your work is that it doesn’t seem to be in anyway refracted through the video store, not so much through previous films—instead it shows a different kind of American reality. The reality of Omaha, of California wine country, wherever you are, and it seems to be rooted in a kind of, for lack of a better word, neo-realism. Do you think that’s a fair description of what you’re after? How did you escape the kind of…HALL OF MIRRORS that so many film school people seem to get caught in?

Jim: - Hmm, I mean, I like that assessment. I agree, something we always strive for is, not to do “the movie version” of something. Which is kind of easy to do, you get into some kind of dramatic situation and there’s an impulse to go, “oh yeah, that’s the way that goes” because you’ve seen it so many times in a movie. And you have to step back and say, “How does that REALLY happen? What REALLY happens with that guy when he goes into this room and there’s someone…WHATEVER the situation is.

Adam: Can you remember a specific moment with something like that? I can think of some in the film…we were talking before about that moment in SIDEWAYS in fact when Stephanie beats the poor guy over the head with a helmet. And, in one way, you’re sort of…taken aback, it’s a much more…he stops being a ‘loveable punk’ and suddenly becomes a bad guy in a way and you were saying, Alexander, that’s exactly what you were after with something that was actually difficult to deal with, something that was ambivalent instead of, ‘isn’t he a loveable scamp’ or ‘isn’t he a creep.’

Alexander: I like vivid emotions and I want things to be real and yes Jim and I are both film buffs …. But in the moment of writing films and selecting the actors and the location and the feel of it…I want real life to be the raw material and to use whatever film knowledge we have to inform us FORMALLY but not CONTENT-WISE. And in fact when Jim says that we… when we’re writing we’re always thinking … I mean that’s kind of where story comes from, we choose a milieu that we find delicious or interesting or suggestive, and then characters we think are real and vivid and interesting*, and then the way story flows is from asking ourselves constantly ‘what would really happen’ and just telling it from his point of view, NOT the ‘movie version’ like quickly getting from L to M in a screenplay but, ok, how would it REALLY happen and what from there can we learn and make it .. ‘Cause it’s all about details and that’s, that’s…it’s just all about details. But based on real life, and I think we have a certain…documentary approach to our fiction film-making both on the screenplay level--I mean, what’s the real version, what real emotions can we mine, that we’ve observed or felt ourselves, and in directing I don’t like sets I like locations, and I like not to touch the locations and much as possible—so, basically, found objects.

SHELDRAKE: *I have dubbed this trope of his the Alexandrian triad.

Adam: So when you work together, and that’s one of the aspects of collaboration I would imagine, is that you each act as each other’s bullshit detector, that you can say, that’s phony that’s a movie moment, that’s not a real moment.

Alexander: I don’t think we really say that necessarily – we have one-man veto power over the other person.

Jim: No no no that’s the biggest part of it. We don’t take offense if the other….

Alexander: – it’s comforting!

Adam: Comforting in what way?

Alexander: It’s comforting to know that your idea sucks! Because then you’re not going to pursue it. Each writer, I’m sure there are writers here, you know you have twenty sucky ideas before getting to that one MAYBE good one. And then just to have a sounding board there is so helpful.

Jim: Yeah, I don’t know how many…I mean eighty times a day, we’ll say “this is REALLY BAD, but…just take look at it.”

Alexander: We constantly deal with each other.

Adam: What are the mechanics of that collaboration? Do you sit at a computer in New York and you sit at a computer in California and you send each other things

Jim: Same room. Which is nice since...our collaboration’s been going on fourteen years, fifteen years not and there are only two years that we lived, shared a place together, and since then I’ve been in New York, so it’s been me going to LA a lot, and Alexander coming to New York, because we’ve just never been able to do it over the phone

Adam: …or sending each other emails…

Alexander: That’s not what it IS. I mean, I think that the …our friendship grew from our suddenly finding ourselves living together. And then our COLLABORATION grew very naturally from our having become friends. So really… the screenplays we write, the quality of our writing, is very much an extension of our friendship…It’s not about doing work alone. I mean it is a professional partnership but it’s not JUST a professional partnership. It’s really an extension of how are in a room together, about how we make each other laugh, and what we observe with each other…

Jim: (wicked grin): I need to SMELL him.

SHELDRAKE: place ROCKS with laughter. Ok, watching them for awhile, now listening to this to transcribe it -- this is how they work – Alexander is serious and earnest, he’s really going for answering the questions as honestly and sincerely as he can, when he’s funny he never loses sight of answering the question, keeping focus– Jim, gives a little, raises an eyebrow, takes a little away, makes a joke – resets the balance between them every now and again – a New Yorker, “easy there, it’s not THAT serious”—it’s also his way of changing the subject when he wants to move on…but then he’ll dive back into the water and be very serious about something – his intelligence is part of the suit of clothes he wears and he shows it to people… Alexander, he’s just very Very VERY smart, he doesn’t think about that part of himself as a THING much, he just reads a lot and he’ll tell you what he’s read in books, but beyond that he’s thinking about what he’s thinking about and that’s it…

Alexander is very warm and Midwestern in an almost Jimmy Stewart sort of way, in spite of some of the at-first-glance grouchy things he says later (at second glance, he’s a broken hearted romantic, he’s quite sad about the way people are, but they are the way they are towards each other, which is often brutal), though he has his cerebral moments – Jim is arch and precise and very funny, a cerebral sophisticated urbane wit – he’s probably a little more delighted with the awful things people do to each other – he accepts it, is untroubled by it, perhaps more than Alexander does, is…

These are just my freewheeling impressions, folks.

Adam: How did your friendship begin?

Alexander: We had met – the surgical pants moment, I was in film school and living in an apartment in Hollywood, and the chick upstairs from me was dating Jim at the time.

Jim: (blanked out) Hmm? (thinks hard, long pause, then it dawns) Oh Oh…THAT! The Chateau de Fleur…

Alexander: Yeah we met at the “Chateau de Fleur” – Meg from Seattle**, so we knew each other, just “hi, how are you”--then about four years later I suddenly needed a roommate in my two bedroom apartment, I put the word out through friends and then HE showed up.

Adam: Now you’re both from outside “the Metropolis”. Alexander, you’re from Omaha? Jim is from Seattle. Do you think that that experience, in growing up in—how should one say this?—the outer reaches of the United States*** formed a crucial part of your work?

SHELDRAKE: ** mental flash to Sleepless in Seattle. That’s not who he means.

SHELDRAKE: ***Adam is the New Yorker’s best writer, in my opinion. He also is very much a New Yorker (and a Parisian, check out his book), thus the “outer reaches” crack. That said, he was lovely and friendly afterwards as was Alexander. And no joke: if there's one writer alive whose training and sensibility I admire, it's Mr. Adam Gopnik. And so do you. It's a fine treat, listening to him interview two of the best writers in movieland. To add to the accolades, he's not hoity-toity: he knew instantly what AICN was when I introduced myself to him. Big fonts and exclamation points don't scare him: good for him. We like Adam.


WHERE THEY CAME FROM


Jim: I think there IS something, a way in which we were from the same place—my Dad was a dentist—not so much geographically, I think both of us had backgrounds that weren’t particularly fancy or entitled or – I mean, I had a very nice life, but a lot of the people that I think Alexander went to school with or that we meet in Hollywood…

Alexander: Joshes.

Jim: (nods) Yeah.

Adam: Joshes???

Alexander: All right. I’ll just say it – and I apologize because there are probably some Joshes in the audience so I apologize. But you go to a place like Stanford, it’s like, where are you from, oh, I’m from Omaha where are—oh, my father owns a restaurant, oh, what to do you… I grew up in Rome…I was born in Rome but my parents were instructors so we traveled all over…

Adam: And these guys all became “Josh?”

Alexander: Josh. Yes. It seemed like they were all named Josh. You know, my parents were artists and … I dunno, we were always kinda jealous of that.

Adam: Well that jealousy shines through every thing you do. You set your films in places that we don’t necessarily see very often in American movies…certainly a strong part of what you’re doing. Other places that haven’t been over-shown, that haven’t been over-inspected—it’s part of what you bring to your work…

Alexander: Our first three movies ended up being shot in Omaha. And I felt very connected – but also disconnected – from the place where I grew up. Because you leave a place, at eighteen, never to return in a sense…you go back for Christmas and visit the place…but it’s like an unanswered question...what WAS this place? I was always in school when I was there, your earliest memory, all that STUFF…I needed somehow personally to go back to Omaha and connect both as someone from there but also as someone who DIDN’T really know it. I’d never been an ADULT there.

Jim: I don’t think it’s a geographic thing – it’s more to do with what interests us. I’m just not so interested in most of the stuff that’s in movies, the sanitized version of things, the obsession with New York and LA, --- it’s just not as interesting to me, and so I could be anywhere. In Sideways, for example, I feel like Alexander found a lot of Omaha in Solvang, where I had a very traumatic moment when I was a kid…with … a piece of blown glass that broke…

Adam: …wait! This is…worthy of more analysis….

LAUGHTER

Jim: My aunt and uncle lived there and I remember buying this little crappy piece of blown glass and I remember just…weeping for days. But these places are much more interesting to me than a lot of more…”refined” places, I guess.

Adam: That’s certainly one of the beautiful things in Sideways, you get a sense of the California wine country but it’s not a tourist brochure sense – that wonderful scene where they’re walking along the side of the highway to get to the restaurant and meet the girl – not an image—right?—that would NORMALLY appear in American movies—two men HUDDLED along the side of an expressway… OK. Shall we look at a clip? Citizen Ruth was NOT your first collaboration, but WAS your first feature.


CITIZEN RUTH


Alexander: It came from a number of new stories about gals, one in particular, one gal, an American Indian gal from Fargo North Dakota, who was a spray paint addict, a huffer, she was pregnant with her eighth kid. And the judge said charging her with just a misdemeanor, well, she had reckless endangerment of her unborn fetus to keep her in jail so she wouldn’t go out and give birth to another retarded kid. And in jail she met a bunch of “Lambs for Christ,” the radical Catholic anti-abortion group who’d been harassing outside the clinic there. And they said oh! that murderous Nazi judge who’s basically ordering you to have an abortion…so they popped the bail and brought her out. And then the clinic got involved, they told her, look, if you’re going to, you know, you have the rights of a woman and a citizen, we’ll give you a pro bono abortion. And then the Lambs of Christ countered it with ten thousand dollars if she kept it. And she was…torn. So we got wind of the story, and looked at some other similar stories…

…So, we thought that would be a good basis for a comedy.

STUNNED LAUGHTER

Adam: Ok we’re excited about Citizen Ruth, but first…


HANGING WITH HEF


Jim: …talk about “Inside Out….”…

Alexander: This is something that is rarely screened unless you’re screening it. I was at Sundance 1991, a guy came up to me, he now produces Six Feet Under, and said we want to make some short films, I said, great! He said, they’re for the Playboy Channel. I said…mmmmmmiiiiiI don’t think so but thank you very much. He said no no no we’re trying to get interesting and cutting edge—and mostly non-DGA—directors for the show, Joe Frank, Lizzie Borden, Harvey Milk did it. Yeah, and we were young, and it was a chance for us to write and me to direct… shorts! and be able to make mistakes and direct a professional crew and no one would ever see them BIG LAUGH and on the basis of doing this show called Inside Out, it was very significant because Jim and I saw we did get along well as co-writers, and on the show I met the production designer and composer with whom I still work. James Stewart Manuel Kent

Adam: Let’s look at it:

Alexander: Notice how many times the word “secret” is used!

**************************

FILM BREAK

**************************

SHELDRAKE: We see a short clip from Inside Out: A white woman is lying in bed, ready to go to sleep. She’s Playboy-type hot. She’s monologuing, ok, it’s Blade Runner narration time, except the subject is her pleasuring herself. She begins fantasizing about her secret strong African lover: two strong black arms appear, and start massaging her naked body. Then she adds: “and then my two secret Latino lovers appear” and two Latino guys in straw hats appear and start massaging her…and this builds and goes on, more and more erotic-fantasy-worthy men, at the end there’s a queue of men in business suits whispering things in her ear, island men, Samurai warriors, Eskimos pouring creamed corn on her, whatever, and her hand is slamming away under the sheets, then the sheet pulls back and she’s still working' it like a pro with a seven-year no-trade contract…and then...

**SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

then she comes,

**SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

…and they all disappear and she rolls over, goes to sleep and starts snoring. It’s damned funny AND hot. Quite a trick. Hey, who needs 42nd Street. Uh 42nd Street in the old days I mean, because now it’s freaking Disneyland and we have Hustler advertisements on our coffee cups and our yellow cabs all over the city…anyway… you’ll thank me for this later… http://imdb.com/title/tt0104512/

**************************

After the applause dies down there’s a kind of…uhh…exhausted?…silence in the room, everyone’s very jolly, broken by

Adam: (wryly) And thus the springboard of American satirical realism was revived.

Jim: I was the burglar! And the voice of the burglar!

Adam: That’s your first…PIECE OF WORK together…so to speak.

Jim: So to speak.

Alexander: Instead of corn, or something, it was supposed to be BEETS. But the Eskimo costumes were too expensive, they were rentals… we couldn’t stain them with beets. The last change was corn.


MORE OF WHERE THEY CAME FROM


Adam: (with amused good cheer) So from that basis you went on then to Citizen Ruth, in fact. Now, after what we just saw I hesitate to use the words, “in all seriousness,” but…in all seriousness: in an odd way the combination of parody and a kind of affectionate homage is not unlike the work you’ve done since then, that’s pretty much the emotional spirit…

Jim: --it’s ALL masturbation.

WILD LAUGHTER

Adam: (over audience laughter, without missing a beat) Really! Let’s go back to something I referred to before, what made you decide to want to make these things -- what did you experience as kids, as teenagers, that made you…because we all know how difficult it is to do, and how hard it is to achieve [to make movies, to succeed in that career] – what made you want to do it…

Alexander: I’m sure I’m answering for a lot of the people in this room in saying I just LOVED MOVIES from a very, very early age. So I kind of always wanted to do it, on the other hand growing up in Omaha it was such an impossible-seeming thing. And I also had to come to it very gradually, and only when I was a junior in college….will I dare to go to film school, all right, let’s apply, let’s see if I can get in.

Adam: When you say you loved movies--what movies did you see…American commercial movies at theaters on Omaha…or something more specialized…?

Alexander: Very early on I liked what my older brothers liked, which were Universal horror movies from the thirties, Warner Brothers gangster pictures from the thirties, King Kong, and then movies like Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde, The Good the Bad and the Ugly were models of what was COOL. At the same time I was also beginning to discover silent comedy a lot.

Adam: Was there a repertory cinema in Omaha that you went to?

Alexander: At that time in the late 60s, early 70s there was a great renaissance of Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and--

Adam:

Alexander: …they were re-released commercially and I saw them on TV a lot…comic book store had the posters of W.C. Fields in the Bank Dick, My Little Chickadee. But ALSO I had a regular 8mm projector that my Dad had gotten for showing films at the restaurant…so first my brothers had bought 3 and 12 minute short versions of films like Abbott and Costello from Castle Films, you got those at the camera store. But then when I started getting an allowance so I could save, I started sending off to Blackhawk Films…and then I started learning, I got all 12 Chaplin Mutual shorts, I started being a big silent movie fan. But also what was cool, the 70s was a GREAT period in American Film. So when you just went to see whatever was out, it turned out to be this really great period in film.

Adam: What specifically did you see?

Alexander: Well we saw a lot. I remember taking one birthday party to see both the Sting and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown, I mean, it was…M*A*S*H*. Bananas. Little Big Man I saw quite a few times. It’s a really great kid’s film.

LAUGHTER

Alexander: No, really. You’re a little kid, nine, ten years old, something like Little Big Man really sets you’re your mind ablaze. Cool stuff.

Adam: It’s interesting…Blackhawk Mutual Chaplin were the first movies that ever moved me, my folks bought the 8mm, we showed them over and over…Jim, what made you want to become a filmmaker.

Jim: I was a young actor in Seattle and wore leotards and tights.

Adam: Was that the typical Seattle kind of thing…

LAUGHTER

Jim: No, no. And somehow I came out straight. And my friend Rick Chubb who was acting with me got interested in making movies and that’s how--we made a movie together, a super 8 movies, and it was more actually the making of the movie than…

Adam: …rather than seeing some movie…

Jim: And then I became interested in seeing films and fortunately I was growing up in Seattle, which was a GREAT movie town because it rained so much there, I could really see a LOT of wonderful movies. (to Alexander) I actually missed those movies you mentioned in release, and I’ve only seen those movies later. What I DID see in high school was Herzog and Kurosawa and Fellini and, at the time--now I’m blanking – who made the Robocop movie—

Audience: VERHOVEN!!!!

Jim: Yeah, Verhoven – these great Verhoven movies…I remember when he made Robocop I was VERY confused. (Audience laughter) And (significant pause): Showgirls?

BIG FAT ROLLING LAUGHTER

Jim: So I had this kind of exciting time seeing a lot of arthouse movies.

Alexander: (surprised) What Kurosawa did you see in the seventies?

Jim: I remember I saw Yojimbo and Sanjuro together, were the first Kurosawa I saw.

Alexander: Wow!

Jim: In Bellevue, Washington, actually. There was a little film festival there. I ALSO remember seeing, without any context at all, seeing An Andalusian Dog at some film festival along with, like, a Devo video.*

LAUGHTER

SHELDRAKE: *Salvador Dali and Bunuel, 1929.

Alexander: (curiously) What did you think of it then?

Jim: Oh, I was knocked out— really excited by it. Ants crawling out of somebody’s hand and…

Alexander: …a slit eyeball…

Jim: everything…and I often think about that, having that period when I had no context and all and not knowing if it was an IMPORTANT Fellini movie, where it was just pure discovery…

Adam: …and all of it undifferentiated sensation…

Jim: Yeah…


CITIZEN RUTH


Adam: We were talking before about ---it’s practically Fellini, certain aspects of Fellini as a model in Citizen Ruth…

Alexander: (thinking) Not really…only in that, I’m not sure if Jim agrees here as much, but sometimes whenever I got stuck with what Ruth would do next, I would think of Giulietta Masina in La Strada what she would do next, a mental model is …

Adam: In what way, some combination of knowingness or…

Alexander: (choosing words carefully) Like a pathetic endearing innocent …

Adam: Let’s look at a piece of the film…

**************************

FILM BREAK

**************************

SHELDRAKE: We see the scene in Citizen Ruth where Laura Dern is sitting in an alley, the kid comes up to her, Laura’s sniffing glue or paint or whatever, getting a lil’ high, screwin’ up her life and mindin’ her own bidness, a kid starts pestering her, then her Christian fanatic parents appear and light into her, Kurtwood Smith, pissed off their kid is there, they’re verbally chastising her, I THINK Kurtwood smacks her though I don’t remember exactly…here’s a little Kurtwood after Laura and Kurtwood struggle and he bogarts her stash:

“In the name of God! I want you to get off drugs! RIGHT NOW!!! You have got the DEVIL INSIDE YOU!! You are full of SIN AND DISEASE! We let you in our house, pulled your out of this cesspool you lived in. AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY US??!!”

**************************

Adam: Working with actors, when did you begin that, have you ever worked on stage, do you want to do that?

Alexander: (simply) I’m not interested in stage. At film school, I had a very good “directing the actor for the motion picture” class. That’s the basis of it. The professor was very hardcore Strasburg and Method, which we reacted against BUT it got us THINKING. Although I never really acted like Jim did, I still….I think I have a certain understanding of acting…? And also our films are so TONE DEPENDENT…

Adam: …tone dependent – what do you mean by that…

Alexander: Well--it’s all about striking the right tone…both in our writing and what I do as a director to execute what we put down on paper and the actors are the primary holders, embodiers of tone. I mean, ALL cinematic elements are very important but the most important by far is acting, the rhythm of the acting and how they do it.

Adam: Do you sense that in your writing, Jim? Are you writing for a particular performer or…

Jim: Well, we generally don’t although we’re thinking about doing that more, but we definitely are…a big part of what we’re doing is BEING actors when we’re writing…not strictly getting up and acting out the scene, but to get the voice of the character you have to

Alexander: …channel…

Jim: …you have to try to be like them, and think the way they think and talk the way they talk. (to Alexander) and YOU starred in a short at Sundance that was pretty good

Alexander: I wasn’t well directed.

LAUGHTER

SHELDRAKE: My guess is they mean The Passion of Martin (1991), Alexander’s short, which he directed. Incidentally, how many of you know that Alexander and Jim are credited on Jurassic Park III?

Jim: I think that’s one of the most important things in a movie.

Adam: When we were talking before we came out here, how interesting it is that screenwriting, which you began doing in sort of full-feature form, is the ONE form, or one of the FEW forms that IMMEDIATELY lends itself to collaboration. So MUCH of the best work that’s been done since the beginning of movies has been collaborative in a way that plays these days typically aren’t…

Alexander: You correctly pointed out that musical comedies or other plays, like Moss Hart ...but really it’s the ONLY form of writing that DOES lend itself to collaboration

Adam: Why should that be?

Alexander: I was asking YOU that question!

Adam: (eagerly) I have a theory, thank you for asking. (Audience laughter) It seems to me that one of the reasons--I just finished reading this biography of Moss Hart, who of course collaborated with George Kaufman, of course he was a great collaborator also a great commercial writer, ONLY collaborated, never wrote anything by himself—is because, one of the things that’s crucial, in any kind of work made for an audience, is to have a sense of the audience in the room with you, and one of the things that the collaborator does is SUPPLY THE AUDIENCE. And you can each change roles if you want, but that’s one of the things you do.

Alexander: Well what about plays? Plays also have an audience? Playwrights always work alone, yes?

SHELDRAKE: While playwrights do indeed often work alone, professional plays are often rewritten extensively during rehearsals, with the actors in rehearsal serving as audience and collaborators. A director friend of mine once said to me: You know that line “sea of troubles” in Shakespeare? It makes no sense, right? What the hell is a sea of troubles? Well, the thinking is, is that the line originally was “siege of troubles,” which makes perfect sense. But some actor made a slip in rehearsal, or the director misheard it that way and somebody went “WHOA, THAT’S GREAT! CHANGE THE LINE!” If you follow the thinking, one of the reasons a collaborator in screenplay writing might be so valuable is that the writer is rarely (though sometimes) involved in movie rehearsals once the director gets hold of the script, whereas they’re always present for multiple play rehearsals—often until well into the run of the play. A finished screenplay has to be a lot closer to the end product when you start rehearsals than a play for the stage does, for the simple economic reason that a rehearsal space in Vermont costs a lot less than a film stage, or even a location, with star actors on it. And you can go through the “writing rehearsals” of the play with serviceable actors before you hire the theater stars.

Adam: Well, but we just said, they didn’t way back when…

Alexander: Yeah, but that’s very rare…

Adam: I suppose, I wouldn’t want to carry this too far—because I’m not sure that it’s true—but I suppose you could say that movies, especially the kind of movies you make, have a role now that’s not unlike the role that the theater had in the 1920s and 1930s Broadway comedy theater had in the 1920s and 1930s, taken from the times, just as Citizen Ruth is, you that very strong documentary quality. Kaufmann and Hart wrote a play about Roosevelt for instance, where Roosevelt he was a character in the play. You guys don’t go to quite to that extent, but for instance when we were talking about Citizen Ruth— it began as a news story that you read, and it has to have that kind of credibility for an audience. And almost everything you work on in that way, it’s not a news story, but it has that kind of documentary impulse that needs the check and control of an audience.

Jim: (a couple of beats, then) I just think it’s a LOW form. It’s just…cheap. (Big audience laughs) You know, so we can have 12 writers…

Adam: (makes a ! sound.)

Jim: You know what, I know…we can talk about why WE collaborate.

Adam: Do that.

Jim: I enjoy collaborating, first of all, there’s some people writing who, really, it terrifies them, they hate the thought of it, it gives us on a purely practical level, a structure, where we’re beholden to each other…because its hard to get to your desk sometimes and you’ve got to get the work done, it’s more enjoyable and we make each other laugh because we’re writing comedies. And most of the time I’m writing on my own I’m just hating everything I do, SO in ADDITION to being a bullshit detector there’s also “no, that’s GOOD” which is helpful because you might want to throw some good stuff away…

Alexander: What’s good too, really, really specifically, is sometimes when you or I will have, the impulse of the joke is right, but the example that, say, occurs to me, is bad, but then the other will take the FORM of what I suggested and say, yes but what if, why don’t we try plugging THIS into it…It’s a way of playing it off each other and working at it where both of us recognize it as being worthy of being put into the screenplay.


ELECTION


Adam: Now Election, which was the first film of yours that I saw, it starts off, one of the things that I think is wonderful about it, it starts off with an idea that seems…almost like a conventional comedy idea, a student body election, and then it takes radically weird turn early on and it never gets back onto a convention track again. What was the genesis of Election?

Alexander: The producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger sent me, after Citizen Ruth, sent me the book, it was then unpublished, the novel Election. And I didn’t read it for many months because I was not interested in making a high school movie, but they kept nudging me and I so finally as a favor I said all right, I’ll read it. And I read it and liked it, and I sent it to Jim, and I said what do you think? And he liked it too. And we both needed a job…

LAUGHTER

Alexander: Really—it was a job, to make that film. And one of the things I liked—like in Sideways, how pathetic and how human these characters are and all that—but on a formal level I liked the idea of attempting something with multiple voiceover.

Adam: Explain that about the multiple voiceovers.

Alexander: Election is narrated by four participants in the events surrounding a strange high school election. And I’d hadn’t really ever seen multiple voiceover carried off for a whole film. Good Fellas has it to a certain degree, Casino has it a little bit, but not as a full blown almost Rashomon like sets of narrative, I’d never seen that before. I personally am a big fan of voiceover in films.

Adam: That’s interesting, because in screenwriting classes in film, it’s usually considered amateurish and…remote…to use voiceovers.

Alexander: (deadly seriou

Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 21, 2005, 7:16 a.m. CST

    well

    by ScaryJim

    that was dull . fuh fuh fuh....

  • Feb. 21, 2005, 7:54 a.m. CST

    hmmm...

    by ScaryJim

    obviousely everyone else thought the same otherwise i wouldn't be here talking to myself . I'll just get my coat . Is that tumbleweed?

  • Feb. 21, 2005, 4:49 p.m. CST

    Sideways clip question

    by NNNOOO!!!

    Sheldrake: was that the entirety of the scene they played? 'Cause it's not complete without Maya's monologue-- Miles talks about Pinot because it's difficult and complicated and he identifies with that, feeling that something can only be worthwhile if it's a trial. But Maya's take is emotional, almost spiritual, and Miles has no response to that. By the end of the scene we can see that whether or not Miles really is trying to open up, he's actually isolating himself with his insistence on the value of difficulty and complication.

  • Feb. 21, 2005, 6:59 p.m. CST

    Excellent interview, terrible interjections

    by mortsleam

    Payne and Taylor have quite a nifty little partnership going on here. Every one of their movies has a quality to it; despite the hard looks at sometimes unpleasant characters, they are all shown with their humanity in tact. It's a tricky thing to pull off, and they've done it successfully every time out thus far. Great to hear them talk about it. But seriously, Sheldrake, I coulda done without your running commentary. Except the part at the end describing the Pinot Noir scene in Sideways. Good job there. And Gopnik did a great job with his "why she should pay attention to him instead of his miserableness and his unhappiness" comment. There's a person or two that I know that would do well to take that comment to heart, not to mention every line of that scene.

  • Feb. 22, 2005, 1:42 p.m. CST

    wtf with the sheldrake

    by splat

    i started to read that but had to stop.. wtf is this guy doing putting his comments in the middle of an interview! was he participating in it? can someone repost this without that crap?