Wine flows through Sideways, the latest film by director Alexander Payne. The story of a wine aficionado Miles (Paul Giamatti) who takes his soon-to-be-married actor buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week long tour of southern California wineries as a wedding present, it has received some of the most glowing reviews of the year and has firmly established Payne as one of the most interesting, talented and uncompromising directors of our time.
Like wine, Payne just gets better with time. From his first film, the wicked little political satire Citizen Ruth, through the even smarter Election, the bittersweet About Schmidt, and finally Sideways, his work has gotten successively richer, deeper and more complex. Of course, credit must be shared with longtime writing partner Jim Taylor. They began as a team on Citizen Ruth and their creative partnership and personal friendship continues to this day.
Payne and Taylor were in Seattle on Friday, October 29, 2004, to promote Sideways. In the brief half hour we had together, we discussed their writing partnership, the state of personal filmmaking in Hollywood today, and, of course, wine. As often happens with old friends, questions sparked discussions between them, and their give and take reveals as much about their collaborative process as their answers do.
Sean Axmaker: Sideways is your fourth feature, and your fourth collaboration.
Alexander Payne: We've actually collaborated on other things. We've done script doctoring, so we've actually written like seven features together.
SA: How did you start collaborating and how does that collaboration process work?
Jim Taylor: We met through an acquaintance who is actually someone I knew from Seattle, Meg Richman. Do you know Meg? She did a movie here called Under Heaven [also known as In the Shadows].
SA: Yes, it's a modern take on Wings of the Dove.
JT: She knew both Alexander and I and she had a room in this apartment...
AP: I don't think either of us really anticipated having co-writers in our film careers but it happened in the best possible way, which is naturally, from our friendship. We were roommates, and I have to say that the way we work happens as naturally as the way we came together in the first place. I don't know, it's like something, once introduced to us - we've never fought, it just happens. So when we write, we're together and it's kind of like this; we sit around and talk and think of what could happen next and the computer is over there. We think, "Oh, that could be good," and one or the other of us will get up and pound out a page or two.
JT: It's funny because, as you can imagine, that question comes up a lot, and I think people - especially screenwriters - are surprised that we work the way we do.
AP: How are you supposed to work?
JT: I think when they get into collaborations, they get together and say, "Let's make an outline and then you go do this scene and I'll do this scene." But I think that we're not surprised we work the way we work because we see pictures of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett sitting around...
AP: I always think of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
JT: ... and Jean-Claude Carriere. My image of people collaborating was people like that. So we have an office and we sit around and we talk and we go have lunch and write something, but it doesn't seem to be that that's other people's images of collaborating. They're surprised we work that way.
SA: Your first film, Citizen Ruth, was an original screenplay, but your three subsequent films are adaptations of novels.
JT: About Schmidt is about two-thirds an original, really.
SA: Which leads to my next question. The novels that you adapt tend not to be best-sellers and are not well-known to the general public. Does that give you more latitude to bring in your own ideas and rework the material?
AP: I think that even if we did something that was more well-known, we would still...
JT: I think we always had the latitude, it's just how people react to it. Some people kind of take offense. But that's their problem.
AP: About Schmidt is a different case of adaptation. It's really not an adaptation. It's an original with some narrative ideas stolen from a book that we then embroidered into our own completely different story. But I thought you [Jim] said something interesting this morning, which is that when we make changes from a book, it's not against the novel, it's just for the film. Because it's a different form. A novel is sprawling and long exists in any amount of time and a film is two hours and demands a certain discipline. No matter how free-flowing it is, it demands a certain discipline. You can only get so much characterization in it. It's very limited in relation to a novel. The novel's a richer form and can suggest a much richer fabric of life most of the time. So you've got to do a lot of changes. Also, as writers, we have to connect to what we're writing personally. Certainly I as a director have to connect personally to what I'm trying to put on film. If I'm just executing someone else's vision, I'm lost. I can't do it. And I'll point out that... You know it would be interesting, because I always point at Kubrick and say that there's a guy who is certainly a personal director, yet many of his films are co-screenwritten adaptations of books. I think eleven of his thirteen films are adaptations. It would be interesting to read his source materials.
SA: You always hear novelists complain about how movie adaptations have "ruined" their novels.
AP: So don't sell it.
SA: But I heard a very interesting and perceptive comment from James Ellroy when he was in town a few years ago with a preview of L.A. Confidential. He was fascinated at how Curtis Hanson had to change the plot of the last half of the novel, almost entirely rewriting the course of events, to fit this sprawling story into a film, and he appreciated that his characters were intact. Hanson had changed the plot of his novel to tell the stories of his characters.
AP: That's... correct of him to think that way.
SA: So was it the characters that brought you to the novel Sideways?
AP: Yes, and I think that's basically the thing. Even when we change their names or alter some of the situations in which they appear, we're very faithful to the characters, largely, and I think it's interesting that you say that. Tracy Flick [from Election] is a little different, and so is Paul Metzler [the character played by Chris Klein].
JT: But more than that, forgetting the novel, the characters are always the why of the story. The story doesn't supersede the characters. The characters, whatever they have to do, the story has to follow them.
AP: Even when we adapt, it's almost like a writing exercise. Let's say you take a creative writing class and the teacher gives you one plot and you're all supposed to go out and write your own version of that plot. It's kind of like that. You get the story and the situation and the characters from the book, but then we go and make our own filmic version of that.
SA: When you cast Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, did you rework any of the script for them?
JT: No, not really. Thomas Haden Church came up with a few zingers in rehearsal that Alexander and I stole.
AP: But I think what he means is, did we re-tailor the script...
JT: Oh yeah, no, we didn't.
AP: Even for Nicholson we didn't. We try to find actors who can embody what we wrote and execute that.