Granted unusual leeway with "Election," writer-director still waxes sardonic about Hollywood
"So what up? How may I help you today?" gibes 30-ish writer-director Alexander Payne as he straddles into a chair at the glass dining table in his San Francisco hotel room. "Have you seen my film?"
He's asking about "Election," his deliriously sardonic and underhanded satire of politics and high school culture that follows trepidatious government teacher (Matthew Broderick) through increasingly bizarre attempts to sideline a junior's fanatical student body presidential campaign. The film, which opened locally last Friday, had just played the night before at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
"Oh, yes. I liked it," I reply.
"Really?" asks Payne, eyebrows akimbo. "Wow! Thanks, man. Thank you."
His voice has a practiced tinge of cynicism, but he's completely sincere in his gratitude, even though his film has been enjoying some the best advance buzz of any movie this year not featuring Jedi knights and droids.
A ruthless, laugh-out-loud roundelay of back-stabbing and vote manipulation, "Election" is a rare breed -- an intelligent high school comedy, long on acerbic wit and refreshingly devoid of chiched, cardboard characters. Driving the story is Reese Witherspoon in an award-worthy performance as star candidate Tracy Flick, an obsessive over-achiever and the perfect neurotic zealot.
Payne, whose first writing-directing effort was 1996's abortion debate farce "Citizen Ruth," pours a can of Coke into a tumbler from the mini-bar and rubs a lime around the lip of the glass with his narrow hands he will soon be using to mold the air in front of him like clay, as if trying to physicalize his thoughts as we talk about his sophomore venture behind the camera and his deep dissatisfaction with the state of American movie-making.
SPLICEDwire: How did you get away with making an intelligent, dark satire for MTV Films?
Alexander Payne: Can I tell you? I haven't seen a single other MTV Films film.
SPLICED: They're mostly bad John Hughes spawn -- pathetic, lowest-common-denominator, teenage shash.
Payne: You know what, though? To be fair -- not that I really care about being fair to anyone, ever -- but to be fair, I'm sure that same ratio of bad films to good probably exists in every studio. Every production entity these days makes largely bad films and every once in a while a good one. I'm glad you happen to think "Election" was one of those good ones. But it's just that the whole country is making generally lousy films these days and has been for quite a while. That's the big problem that we all have to think about, I mean you guys on the critical side and me in terms of things I want to make. We have to think about it because we have to change it. It's important. We love our cinema too much and we also have this cinema with a world-wide influence.
SPLICED: Do you think there's more crap now than there was 50 years ago?
Payne: It's true they always made lousy pictures, but the used to have a higher number of good ones every year than we have. And I don't know where to point the finger. Movies are too expensive these days, and that sense of film as software to be used for the TV and the airplane and the foreign, (instead of being) thought about as just, what's the story we want to tell and how should it be told?
SPLICED: ...Which is another reason for the question. "Election" feels very much like an independent film, not a studio product, yet MTV films and Paramount produced it. How much autonomy did you have?
Payne: A lot. A lot. But I think it's important to define these days what we mean by independent. Regardless of the source of financing -- be it a group of dentists in Akron, Ohio or a major studio -- I think independent should refer to a spirit of filmmaking. (An independent is) a film which tries to do something different, that feels like it comes from one person, that has some sense of authorial voice and doesn't seem to be pandering exclusively to commercial exigencies at the time.
I had a lot of people I had to answer to. I had, at one point, seven producers on the film, and then all the executives at Paramount. So at times I had a lot of hand holding to do. But, god love 'em, in the final analysis they gave me the support and the vote of confidence to do what I wanted to do.
You know, Mel Brooks (has a) theory that when you do comedies, they tend to leave you alone a little bit more.
SPLICED: Because as long as you're making somebody laugh, they're OK. Whereas with a drama there's all kinds of minefields as far as the studio is concerned -- can they pimp it for an Oscar? Will the audience take the actors seriously?
Payne: A pitfall of making a comedy with a studio -- and it's also an American cultural thing -- is that I get tired of being encouraged to go always for laughs. When you try to make something that is complex -- "Citizen Ruth" and that sort of thing -- really are they comedies? In "Citizen Ruth" there is a serious, highly critical subtext going on. At least I hope there is.
In "Election" you're dealing with pathetic characters, like (Matthew Broderick's teacher) who's just making all the wrong and really pathetic choices and being a total loser in his life. Or Tammy (one of Tracy Flick's rival candidates) with her fragile sense of first love and this wonder that she's feeling then that huge disappointment at losing first love, which is something we can all identify with. When there's poignancy, there can be forces pulling you to go for laughs and to abort the serious moments, and that's something that I have had to be on guard against.
SPLICED: So it wasn't the satire that drew you to the material?
Payne: I liked it not because I read it and saw a satire, but because I read it and thought, look at these interesting people doing these really pathetic and hilarious things. (It was) just the human landscape. I mean, I don't really look at the film as being necessarily satirical. That's something other people have called it. I just see it as this human landscape.
SPLICED: Let's talk casting. Reese Witherspoon. Was (her fantastic performance in) "Freeway" the kicker for you? Did you have her in mind?
Payne: I didn't have anyone in mind. It was really meeting her that sold me. I didn't have her audition. I just met her and I just knew she could do it. I could believe her as being 17, but as an actress she's a young woman, not a girl. She's just really cute and really funny. She's much more seductive with her humor and her niceness than she is with her babeliciousness. She's just a delight.
SPLICED: Her physical manifestation of the character is just remarkable. How much did you two talk about the character? How much of it was her creation and how much of it was what you wrote.
Payne: Well, I like physical humor in films. They're really different films and really different performances, but in "Citizen Ruth," Laura Dern's performance relies a lot on physicality -- the walk and everything. Similarly, Reese with Tracy Flick, there's a certain similarity between those two characters.
SPLICED: I see that. But it's almost a 180 degree difference in their physical behavior.
Payne: Correct. But both have unique, kind of comic walks, ways they hold themselves, how they fight, how the screw up their faces. And the nostril-y-ness of her performance. If you ever see the film again, watch her nostrils...
SPLICED: Oh, I noticed that. I made note of that!
Payne: It's like they're independently wired with a remote control!
SPLICED: It was amazing to me. There were times they were so flared it looked like she'd just pulled a couple marbles out of her nose.
Payne: You know when I think she's really good in the movie is when she's making those (campaign) buttons (on a heavy press). She's very Richard Nixon-like to me, kind of begrudgingly wanting this impersonal love of the masses and having no concept of the individual relationship. And how she puts all the long hours in on the yearbook "just to give them their stinking memories!" It really comes through in her performance, and as she was making those buttons, she kind of over-did the stamping, and it came off like she was just all f---in' pissed off.
SPLICED: How much conversation did you and she have about the physical traits of the character?
Payne: Um...I don't remember....Oh, a lot! It all comes from me! (Laughs.)
I think a lot of it comes from her, but I think I encouraged her and urged her to go further with it and I would be there to tell her when it's too much. That's how I like to do it with actors, have them really go for it and I'll tell them when it's too much. It's always easier to bring it back then to push it further.
At this point we're interrupted by a publicist telling me my time is almost up. Even though I wanted to ask him about Matthew Broderick and Payne's choice of unknowns in the rest of the movie's key roles, I'd apparently gotten him fired up about his deep dissatisfaction with the state of Hollywood filmmaking, and he returns to that topic in our last few minutes.
Payne: There's a strong tendency right now toward formula. Like this is how a screenplay is written: By page 30 this has to happen, your Act Two goes to page 90...That's just horse sh--. I think a badly crafted, great idea for a new film with a ton of spelling mistakes is just 100 times better than a well-crafted stale script.
For example, Scorsese talks not about three acts in a script, but rather five sequences. Or you watch Fellini films -- you watch "Nights of Cabiria" or "La Dolce Vita" or "8 1/2" -- and you get a sense not of a three act structure, but of episodes with on character going through all these episodes. Then you get to the end of the film and there's a sudden realization or a moment that pulls a loose string suddenly taut through the whole movie you've been watching up until that point.
(We need) different mental models of what a film can be, and if you pay too much attention to these books, by Sid Fields and Robert McKee and I don't know who else, they're only presenting one cultural paradigm, and that's really, really dangerous to the act of creation and to our cinema, which needs new ideas and new blood now more than ever. Hollywood films have become a cesspool of formula and it's up to us to try to change it.
(Suddenly laughs out loud.) I feel like a preacher!
SPLICED: The Reverend Payne!
Payne: But it's really true. I feel personally responsible for the future of American cinema. Me personally. But so should you. So anyway. There you have it.