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Past Article

"Friends By Pure Chance": Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
By Sean Axmaker
November 17, 2004 - 2:44 PM PST

"Miles is more successful at sabotaging his life than Jack."

SA: After directing Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, you could have jumped off to bigger films and bigger name stars, and instead you came back to make a small, personal film like Sideways.

AP: But there was a big jump from About Schmidt to Sideways, which was that we could get financing without the presence of an A-list movie star. That's a huge jump.

JT: Alexander just wanted to be the star.

SA: Has it been difficult to keep making these small films in the contemporary film industry?

AP: Not for us. It's always hard. Citizen Ruth was almost impossible to get made, Election was nearly impossible to get made, About Schmidt was a bumpy road to getting it made. This one was relatively easy. Now, because of the success of this and Schmidt, anything we come up with, within reason, we can get made. So no, it's not hard to get these made right now. We're really lucky.

SA: But it's taken you four films to get to this point.

AP: Yeah. On the other hand, we made these first four films in about eight years. Which is pretty good.

JT: When you're in the middle of it, it's, "Oh my God, the movie is not going to get made," but from the outside... Alexander has a lot of UCLA buddies, one who just made a movie after thirteen years.

AP: I'm hoping that, by the example of the films we make, it will in fact facilitate other filmmakers to get their films made on a similar scale. Also bear in mind that we don't have excessive budgets. Our budgets have been four [million], eight, 32 - but half of that is Nicholson - and sixteen, respectively. I'm not known as an indulgent director. I don't go over budget and the films aren't too long and they make money, so, so far, so good. But certainly people do complain that human movies, like these kind of middle to low budget movies, are hard to get made.

SA: I've heard that a lot. Cheaper films that can go to cable or straight to video can get made, and big budget, high-concept, movie-star driven movies - even though there seem to be more and more failures with that formula - can get made because they fall into a formula that studios understand and know how to promote.

AP: That formula is starting to fail, more and more. I mean, on the one hand, you have the low budget ones, not straight to video but Monster, In the Bedroom, the under the six or seven million dollar range, where things tend to get made and then get awards and everyone benefits. And then it jumps to the $25 million and up films. But I think what we've stumbled upon really works for us.

SA: You've cited the directors of the 1970s in previous interviews, and back in the 1970s, the very kind of films you make were produced regularly by the studios. This wasn't a niche, this was contemporary filmmaking.

AP: These were mainstream films. The types of films we make, I grew up thinking, "These are mainstream films." Unless your idea of a mainstream film was Airport '75.

JT: It's interesting how everyone pins the change to Jaws, and Jaws really was a movie that - it was hugely successful - but it really is a movie very much in the mold of personal films, with characters and directing. But it fucked everything up, not because of the kind of filmmaking it was, but because of the marketing of it.

AP: He used to be a good director, Spielberg. Back in the 70s. Believe it or not, he made some good films in the 70s.

SA: Citizen Ruth and Election are overtly satirical and political. About Schmidt and Sideways focus more on the personal stories and journeys of its characters, specifically the crises of American men. Not the kinds of stories you usually see on screen about American men, because these are actual real, emotional crises as opposed to something you can solve through energetic adventure. And very warts and all portrayals, the antithesis of American Beauty, which seems like it's saying the same things, but comes from a...

AP: Fraudulent? Is that the word you're looking for?

SA: It wasn't, but it'll work. It's upper-middle class, people of privilege, something out-of-touch for most Americans. But I can relate to Schmidt. I haven't lived a life anything like his and I'm decades away in age, but I can relate to the life he led because he looks like and lives like the kinds of people that I know. There was a question in there originally, but I never quite got the question mark on the end.

AP: That's okay, it's well said. Agreed.

SA: There aren't many movies about that. What is it about the lives of these people, these very ordinary but very real people that attracts you?

JT: The answer is embedded in your question. Because we find it more interesting to look at the small heroisms in people's lives as opposed to some kind of really grand heroism, like pulling someone out of a car wreck, going underwater. Just making it from day to day is more interesting to us.

AP: Also, there's an absence. There aren't that many movies made about people that are genuinely related to reality, not a fake movie reality but to a real reality. That's what we look for in older American films and it's what we look for in European films. But it's been missing here. We miss it and that's the kind of films we're attracted to making. It goes back to what was mainstream in the 70s, when we were growing up. Even in the 70s, we were watching films from different countries and different periods, and that's what the mainstream was. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is Best Picture in 1975. Midnight Cowboy is Best Picture.

JT: Where we intersect the most is Czech films. [to Alexander] I wanted to tell you, did you know Black Peter is out in DVD? But so those Czech movies we both love, and Kurosawa, who is generally known as a humanist. Sure, there's the samurai movies, but they're about human beings more than swords.

AP: And Italian films. I've been increasingly more interested in Italian films.

JT: Right. Anyway, it's that humanism that's important to us.

SA: The little triumphs that Schmidt makes in About Schmidt...

JT: Or little failures.

SA: Or little failures - and there are more failures than triumphs - but there is a real empathy for him even when he's not able to make these leaps out of his very limited awareness. He's just not a self-aware person, even though he narrates as if he is one. Paul Giamatti's character Miles is completely different. That whole odd couple relationship with Jack is a little comic because they are such radically different personalities, and Giamatti has this black cloud over his head. But the triumphs that he makes in Sideways are, I think, much more profound than they appear to be on the surface.

AP: Yes. Like drinking the wine alone. When he drinks his '61 Cheval Blanc. That's a little personal triumph, at least one that suggests a shift within him.

SA: I think Thomas Haden Church was inspired casting. He has this very effortless sense of humor about him. He can play a very smug character, but it's as if he's playing a character who's playing a smug guy.

AP: Yes, right, there's a couple layers going on there.

SA: And yet his character, Jack, is pathologically self-destructive all through the trip. His last ditch effort to revel in casual sex before he's married becomes a way of sabotaging his own marriage, a way out without ever having to confront himself. And when he finally hits that last step he panics, he realizes how much he's lost when he succeeds in sabotaging it.

AP: Could be.

SA: Not going to take a stand on this one?

AP: No, I don't really know. You'd have to ask Thomas. You could say, those of us who create crisis in our lives, on some perverse level are creating crisis because we need crisis, but maybe not. Maybe he just wants to get laid and get away with it.

JT: Miles is more successful at sabotaging his life than Jack. Even though he might do self-destructive things, he comes out smelling like a rose.

SA: I wonder if Jack really learned anything. When he gets married, has he gotten it out of his system?

JT: No way, no way.

SA: These guys became friends by pure chance. They were dorm roommates in their freshman year of college. It's hard to imagine that they would have met and become friends in any other circumstances, but twenty years later, they are devoted friends. It's very fitting, given the film, that you met as roommates and became friends and collaborators after that experience.

AP: I think a lot of people have that experience. They were friends at a really intense time in their lives earlier on and it survived.

JT: I was wondering if it was maybe the inverse of... They say marriage ends up being a lot of bathroom time and that can take the romance out of your marriage, but if you can survive the bathroom...

AP: You mean take a dump while you're brushing your teeth, and then still want to fuck?

JT: Yes. But roommates end up in the reverse situation. They survive the bathroom - it's like an arranged marriage - and then, "Well, I've flossed next to you." Or took a dump.

SA: I've recently become something of a wine fan myself in the past few years, introduced to the culture by some of my old friends. Ten years ago, wine was something that had the ring of elitism to it, but since then it's become a lot more popular.

AP: They can make more money that way.

JT: The democratization of wine...

AP: ... leads to more pockets. That's how wine was always supposed to be. It was never supposed to be an elite drink. Everyone was supposed to drink it. I always say that I think one of the biggest problems is the high prices they charge in restaurants. Why is there a 700 percent mark up in restaurants? Every restaurant like Barney's has to close. Why don't they just price it ten percent above what you pay for it, like they do in Europe, where it's not a special thing, it's an everyday thing.

SA: I take that you are both wine aficionados.

JT: Not me.

AP: I have an active interest in it, he doesn't...

JT: He has a locker someplace with bottles of wine; he buys wine futures.

AP: Not that much, just a little bit.

JT: But how many people buy wine futures?

AP: Well, just those of us in the cultural elite. [laughs]

SA: So Alexander is the Paul Giamatti and Jim is the Thomas Haden Church in this partnership?

JT: In that respect. In other respects...

SA: Was the element of the wine culture and the vineyard tour something that attracted you to the book originally?

AP: Yes.

SA: Is the wine tour that they take one that you have done yourself?

AP: I've never really done wine tours. I always thought that it would be nice to do one day. My wine knowledge is limited to reading about it and going to wine tastings. And they don't really do it in Europe, either.

JT: Isn't that an American thing? Americans go to Bordeaux and go around to the wine growing regions, Europeans don't.

AP: I think some Europeans do.

JT: But it's not a big tourist thing.

AP: You wouldn't go to Chateau Lynch-Bage and buy a T-shirt and a hat and buy Lynch-Bage jam, like you would here.

SA: What is the deal with Merlot? Miles hates Merlot.

AP: Only in one spot. By the way, that's a joke that everyone gets, not just wine people. That's one of the biggest laughs in the film, and I think it's because they know they're guilty of not knowing anything about wine, so you just order Merlot, like if you're going to order white, you order Chardonnay. So there's a lot of mediocre California Chardonnay and Merlot. Miles, I'm sure, would be the first to agree that Chateau Petrus, one hundred percent Merlot, is nothing to sneeze at.

back to past articles >>>

"The story doesn't supersede the characters."
"Miles is more successful at sabotaging his life than Jack."

back to past articles


Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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view past articles

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