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High Plains Joker 

Alexander Payne's Wild, Wild Midwest

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo"I WANT TO MAKE WESTERNS," SAYS THE INtense-looking man in the coffee bar. It's the afternoon of the Academy Awards, and in a dozen cafés Larchmont Villagers are lingering over late lunches before they join this city's biggest communal event. Constantine Alexander Payne couldn't care less about this annual ritual, though, preferring to sip his coffee and answer a question that's just been put to him: What would he do if he had complete freedom as a filmmaker? Not just financial carte blanche, but unlimited artistic and -- why not? -- moral freedom. Payne is a youthful 38, though in conversation his thoughtfulness makes him appear solemn. "Alexander," as the actor Matthew Broderick notes, "has a good sense of deadpan humor. He's a little nerdy -- he wears these sports jackets."

"I want to make Westerns," is Payne's reply. "I love larger-than-life landscapes and archetypal characters who work out ethics. The best cinema is about ethics." He will have to wait before he turns a lens on the wild ethical West, however. At the moment he is doing interviews to promote his second feature, Election, which is, nonetheless, all about ethics. Based on Tom Perrotta's novel, the film, directed by Payne and co-authored with his longtime screenwriting partner and friend, Jim Taylor, explores the comic catastrophe that ensues when a high school teacher, played by Broderick, intervenes in a race for student-council president. It's a wry but sympathetic look at good people behaving badly. "Jim and I are drawn to characters like traffic accidents," Payne says, "but we also like people, so when we make fun of them we are implicating ourselves."

The pair's previous film, Citizen Ruth, was a hilarious -- if supremely unsympathetic -- examination of the national abortion debate, in which they filleted both sides. "Jim and I don't like self-righteous, earnest people," Payne says, and not a frame of Citizen Ruth contradicts him, from Burt Reynolds' creepy pro-life bigwig to Swoosie Kurtz's shrill lesbo-feminist, who, like the moral absolutists in Reynolds' camp, mud wrestles for the soul of a pregnant, drug-addled slut played by Laura Dern.

"In the moment of making films, I want to share my observations of life, not of other films," Payne says, dismissing the current trend of packing movies with references to other movies. He deplores the formulaic sump that he believes American cinema has fallen into since the 1970s -- a wasteland of arthritic message films, steroided actioners, mandatory sex and football scenes. For Payne, a film is an opportunity to conduct an inquiry into the nature of human relationships and the folly that often destroys them. Nothing more.

PAYNE'S OWN INTELLECTUAL INQUIRIES BEGAN on the steppes of Nebraska, where he grew up the youngest of three sons in a Greek-American family of businessmen and restaurateurs. (His grandfather had changed the family name from Papadopulis.) In 1975, a tornado blew down Alexander's junior high school, a divine meteorological event that caused his mother to send him to Creighton Prep, Omaha's Jesuit academy. "I'm not Catholic," Payne says, recalling the move to the all-boys school. "At the time I said, 'I'm not going to some Catholic homo farm!' But I went and just loved it, and took four years of Latin. Jesuits encourage an intellectual rigor in a way that I like."

Though he had been in the throes of an "ongoing love affair" with the movies, he told himself he wouldn't take the "boring film-school" route. Instead, he studied history and Spanish literature at Stanford University before applying to New York's Columbia School of Journalism, and lived in Colombia and Spain. And yet, fatefully, one of Palo Alto's charms was the Varsity Theater, a repertory house that screened the very films he loved. By 1984, the cinematic siren song had become irresistible, and he enrolled as a grad student in UCLA's film department, believing that while "USC films are more watchable, UCLA's are more interesting." But first he had to acclimatize to Los Angeles. "It was a great culture shock," Payne remembers. "L.A. doesn't pronounce itself to you, it doesn't say, 'I'm New York,' 'I'm Paris.' Even Omaha says, 'I'm Omaha!' L.A. says, '[unintelligible noise].' It's a raw cloth for which you have to find your own pattern and dyes."

Payne learned the "secret carpentry" of filmmaking at the Westwood campus, where he could eat, breathe and dream movies, sheltered from the financial and political realities of Hollywood. His 1990 thesis project, an hourlong film about an alienated photographer titled The Passion of Martin, garnered him the kind of industry attention most film students can only pray for. "It brought stuff to me," he says somewhat ruefully. "Within a few weeks of leaving film school, I entered the velvet coffin at Universal. They said, 'Write whatever you want to, and if we want to make it you'll direct.' Of course they hated what I wrote, but the studio deal gave me money to live off for three years."

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