I think Alexander Payne is messing with me. The Oscar-winning writer/director of six films, including About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, is in a Toronto hotel room. His chair is positioned so he can look at me but also gaze out the window into middle distance, where he seems to seek his answers. We're talking about his latest film, Nebraska, which opened in select cities yesterday. It's a road movie, shot in black and white, about an irascible father, Woody (Bruce Dern), who thinks he's won a million dollars, and his son David (Will Forte), who knows he hasn't, but agrees to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, anyway.
To me, it's a meditation on an America that doesn't exist any more: small towns that have gone from friendly to boarded up; once-productive farms reduced to sticks and weeds; parents who refused to let their children get to know them. Woody's economic history mirrors America's, too: His father farmed, he owned his own car repair garage, and now his son sells electronics made overseas.
But when I tell this to Payne, he feigns astonishment. "I didn't think about any of that stuff," he says. "I just thought it was a cute little movie."
I think he's joking. He thinks I'm kidding. For an awkward second we stare at each other, not sure where to go next. It's not unlike a scene in a Payne movie, which are rife with such moments of disconnection: conversations that turn from friendly to threatening in a heartbeat; pauses where two people realize completely different things.
"I'm not saying the elements you noted aren't there" in Nebraska, Payne finally continues, "but I don't think about them. Honestly, I swear to God, what I'm thinking is, 'Oh, this could be a movie.' I'm just thinking about the act of making it. Fellini said a director searches for himself in his films. I guess I have to make a film sometimes to know why I wanted to make it. Then I need time to know what I found."
Payne, 52, is a true American hybrid, a combination of the filmmaking elite he's become and the pleasant face and affect of the Midwesterner he's always been. He grew up in Omaha, the son of Greek restaurant owners (his paternal grandfather changed his name from Papadopoulos), then graduated from Stanford and UCLA's film school. He lives half the time in Omaha – he says he's calmer there and that more of his life is his own, because it's easier to get around and get things done – and spends the other half in Los Angeles, which he calls, without irony, "grand."
His films – hybrids, too – aren't for everyone. They're full of scenes that are so sad they're funny, and vice versa, and he can be hard on his characters. (A scene with Jack Nicholson recoiling from a naked Kathy Bates in About Schmidt comes to mind.) But they're also full of humour both subtle and broad, with moments of surprising generosity and originality.
"I always think I'm making a comedy," Payne says. (Okay, he says it to the window. But it feels like he's warming up a little, deciding to play along.) "Maybe a grim comedy. A lot of people don't pick up on how grim it is. They think it's satirical, that I'm making fun of people.
"But I can't think of a bigger love letter than this film," he continues. "It's loving and compassionate to accept people for who they are. When films seek to sugarcoat characters or sand off hard edges, I think, 'What are you really saying about people? That who we really are isn't worthy of being dealt with in a commercial fashion?'"
Though his earlier movies made money and were nominated for awards, Payne had to fight a year to shoot Nebraska his way; he got the green light only after he brought the budget under $14-million. "But I'm very grateful for my career," he says, then adds, deadpan, "and gratitude is the grandmamma of all sweet emotions, is it not?" When I laugh, he says, "It's true, meditation, everything starts with gratitude. I'm grateful that we're here on this beautiful day, relatively healthy, talking about something artful."
Still, he's objective about his oeuvre. "I think these first six features of mine are okay, but minor works compared to what I would like to make in the future," he says. "I still think I'm doing my études." Asked to cite a major work, he immediately replies, "Cabaret. Lawrence of Arabia. The Seven Samurai. Sunset Boulevard. The great films. It would be nice to make one of those some day. Just one. I hope I've got a little time. I hope that my own talent and the period in which I'm living can still allow it."
Almost by accident, we've come to a subject Payne obviously cares deeply about, and all coyness is gone; I feel I'm hearing the real him. "Could Cabaret even be financed today?" he asks. "I don't know. I don't blame just the studios. There's something else in the zeitgeist."
I venture a thought: If there's a through-line in Payne's films, it's that they illuminate so-called ordinary lives, people we don't normally see A-list movies made about.
"We used to," he replies, quietly fervent. "Look, I believe in national cinemas. I want Canadian films about Canadians, French films about the French, Venezuelan films about Venezuelans. Stories which are at the same time universal yet could only be told in that way, in that country, at that time. We see the hegemony of commercial U.S. cinema trying to crush that around the world, at least in terms of distribution. And we suffer from the same thing in the United States. I want to see American films about Americans like we used to have, not American films which are all cartoons intended to be digested easily the world over.
"To bring our conversation full circle," he goes on, "I'm trying to make movies like they used to make in the 1970s. We didn't know then that we were living in a golden age of American movies. And why? Because there was an explosion of young directorial talent, eager to do something new, fuelled by European art cinema. Making films whose stories were valued by their proximity to real life, not distance from it."
That's a good line, and we both know it. We take another pause on that one, unified this time, not awkward. "We need narrative art," Payne concludes. "Art is a mirror. And cinema is the best mirror. The most verisimil-mirror." He smiles. "We need movies to give us context. And the best message that any art can give, which is: 'You are not alone. Other people suffer, too. You're not alone.'"
Somehow our conversation, like a road trip, got to some place genuine. Or maybe Payne was here all along, and it just took me a while to catch up.