Cinema, mon amour

On the eve of his Cannes jury duty, Alexander Payne divulges his love for film and fest

Feature Competition Jury
Emir Kusturica, director,
Serbia-Montenegro (prexy)
Toni Morrison, writer, U.S.
Nandita Das, actress, India
Salma Hayek, actress, Mexico
Agnes Varda, director, France
John Woo, director, China
Fatih Akin, director, Germany
Javier Bardem, actor, Spain
Benoit Jacquot, director, France

Un Certain Regard Jury
Alexander Payne,
writer-director, U.S. (prexy)
Betsy Blair, actress, U.S.
Sandra den Hamer,
head, Rotterdam Film Festival,
the Netherlands
Katia Chapoutier,
journalist, Canada
Genevieve Welcomme,
journalist, France
Gilles Marchand,
writer-director, France
Eduardo Antin,
critic-writer, Argentina

This year’s Un Certain Regard jury prexy Alexander Payne is no newbie to the Cannes Film Festival.

He accompanied his film “About Schmidt” to the fest in 2002 and visited last year when “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” a pic he exec produced, was invited to Cannes.

Like many filmmakers who’ve been embraced by the fest, he’s a huge fan. “I love movies and I love Cannes,” are Payne’s first words when asked about his forthcoming jury duty at the festival. “When I attended three years ago when ‘About Schmidt’ was in competition, I went for the entire time. I wanted to get full use out of my pass. I saw Ennio Morricone conduct his own music. I wanted to sell my house and move permanently to the Cannes Film Festival.”

Payne fondly remembers the spectacle surrounding “Schmidt” star Jack Nicholson’s presence on the red carpet before the pic’s competition unspooling, not to mention the standing ovation that followed.

But after the official premiere duties had passed, Payne was excited to go back “to being a happy private citizen again, so that I could go back to seeing four movies a day.”

He returned to the Palais des Festivals the following night to see someone else’s movie — sans the required full tuxedo look. “I’d been wearing the hell out of that bow tie,” says Payne, who’d opted to wear a more casual neck adornment. He was stopped at the gate, of course, and forced to buy a bow tie for $20 before entering the hallowed Palais.

His visit last year was just a 36-hour flyby, and he still managed to squeeze in four films. “I loved every minute.”

But Payne, an Oscar winner this year for his (and Jim Taylor’s) adapted script for “Sideways,” hasn’t limited his Cannes experiences to rarified VIP tours of the world’s most famous film fest. “I’ve not just been walking up the red steps,” he says, stressing that he’s also visited the fest’s pic market component. “I’ve walked in the basement and seen the Asian video dealers — that’s what gives the film business vitality. Cannes is the gland through which all of the blood cells of the international film business pass.”

As for this year, Payne’s presidency of the Un Certain Regard section marks the third time he will sit as a member of an international feature film jury. His previous stints were at the Thessaloniki and Turin fests.

“So I have an idea of how I’d want to run the jury,” he says. “I’d want to keep it loose and really keep it about the quality of the films.

“I know there always comes a point where you have to be weighing the relative merit of films,” he adds, noting that decisions often can come down to rewarding an ambitious film that doesn’t quite hit its target or a modest film that does.

He also knows that film is a subjective experience and that there will be some give and take among his seven-person jury, which includes actors, critics and filmmakers.

“I love it all,” Payne concludes. “I’m here as an observer. That’s why I was put on this earth.”