With “Sideways,” his full-bodied fourth feature, Alexander Payne has moved from the fringes of Hollywood to front and center as the embodiment of a new humanism in American cinema.
Payne gladly welcomes the label. “I aspire to be a humanist,” says the 43-year-old writer-director. “I find myself deriving inspiration from ’50s and ’60s Italian films and ’70s American cinema, and I think those movies are all about human beings, about really holding a mirror close to human experience.”
Such sentiments are a far cry from Payne’s previous incarnation: as an acerbic chronicler of American life with sharp-fanged films such as “Citizen Ruth” and “Election.” But Payne starkly denies the widely held view that “Sideways” marks a shift away from the biting sarcasm for which he may be known. “That’s just a crock of shit. I’m just beginning to make movies and you haven’t seen what the next one is. Every movie is different: ‘Land of the Pharaohs’ is markedly different from ‘Bringing up Baby.’ ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ is pretty different from ‘The Awful Truth.’ ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ is a far cry from ‘The Circus.’ I could keep going.”
Note that Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and Charlie Chaplin, who respectively directed the above pairs, come from an older American movie tradition. And while Payne’s “Sideways” flirts with 1970s America cinema in its sun-flared cinematography, split-screen sequence and road movie construction, Payne’s sophisticated and adroitly written comedies have been compared to other earlier filmmakers such as Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder.
While “Sideways” features witty dialogue worthy of Payne’s predecessors, the film is as much about what is said as what is unsaid: This openness allows for rich and real exchanges between the actors. It is capturing those moments that is Payne’s top priority, according to “Sideways” cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
But the Nebraska native doesn’t allow the film’s heavier dramatic beats to weigh down his wine country tale. “If you’re precious with certain scenes, and you say this is special, it often sucks,” Payne explains, referring to one pungent moment where Virginia Madsen’s Maya nearly seduces Paul Giamatti’s Miles over a discussion of pinot noir. “So I approach everything in the same work-a-day method.”
“Sideways” also benefits from a bubbly feeling of inclusion and intimacy on the set that Payne admits could have translated to the screen. “This film was by far the most fun. And it comes from the growing relationship between myself and my collaborators,” he explains, listing everyone from co-writer Jim Taylor right down to his production and costume designers, composer and sound and picture editors.
“We feel ourselves learning more craft as we get older and our shorthand is so short and extremely harmonious that it made for a genuine familylike atmosphere.
“And,” he adds, “there was all that wine.”