The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life Of Alexander Payne

Feb 23, 2012

Alexander Payne watches a movie every day — or tries to, anyway. Lately, the writer and director of The Descendants has been busy going to nomination and awards dinners, in advance of Sunday's Oscar night — when the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay prizes could be his.

On a recent morning, we joined Payne at his house, up a wriggling canyon road in the Santa Monica Mountains, to see how he was spending this "in between time" — the release of a well-regarded film, the waiting until Oscar night. He was about to go hiking in the canyon, past a family of bats who don't seem to care that he is a Big Deal in Hollywood, and have taken up residence in the eaves of his house.

Payne recently installed two bat houses "to try to talk them out of staying in my house and living more comfortably in the bat house, but they haven't seen fit to move yet," he says.

At 7:00 a.m., the morning air smells of ocean, chaparral, sage and fruit trees — Payne points out one called a jabuticaba. "I planted it largely because it's fun to say jabuticaba," he admits.

Payne has just a few hours before he needs to leave for a luncheon at the American Film Institute. "Between now and about 10:30 I'll have to begin changing, beautifying myself," he says with a laugh.

It shouldn't take much. At 51, he's almost movie-star handsome, with dark attentive eyes and a listening face. Post-hike, over a warm cup of tea, he talks about his earlier films — Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. In 2005, Sideways, which he also directed, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Like all his films, Sideways has no special effects or cinematic dazzle — just real, solid storytelling.

In Payne's latest film, The Descendants, George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian land baron with two recalcitrant daughters and a comatose wife. She's on life support after a boating accident. With her in the hospital, he learns she's been cheating on him, and then learns several other lessons: the tough realities of selling family land; how to manage his difficult daughters.

In the film's powerful final scene, the 10-year-old daughter watches TV on the couch, wrapped in a quilt. Her father enters with two bowls of ice cream. He sits, and pulls the quilt over to cover his legs, too. The older daughter wanders in, and Dad moves over for her, covers her with the quilt, and hands her the ice cream as the credits begin. It's a coda, Payne calls it, a landing strip, to bring the film in.

"When writing the screenplay, I thought rhythmically the film would need one more scene," Payne says. "I had no idea if it would work or not."

Payne wasn't sure until they actually shot the scene — but it does work. In this almost wordless, two-minute scene, you finally see them become a family through the most ordinary gestures — adjusting a quilt, passing bowls of strawberry and mocha chip ice cream.

"Well, that's what life is — this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments," Payne says. "We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is."

Around 9:00 a.m., Payne spends some ordinary moments running errands: to the post office, and to the local farmers market for lettuce, carrots, apples — and 12 pounds of beef which he puts into his trunk. He likes to cook. His Greek grandfather and father ran a restaurant in Omaha, where Payne still lives most of the time.

His last stop is the dry cleaners to pick up some pre-Oscar gear — eight tuxedo shirts. Then it's time to go back to the house to get "beautified" for the luncheon. He's spent this part of his "in between time" making rounds that all of us make — except he says they could always have meaning.

"If you were falling in love and you could go back in time and relive a day and see the banal things you did that you'd forgotten about, you'd weep, looking at that day," Payne says. "Somewhat dramatic things happen, and you don't even always notice them — that's what life is."

Those moments, unless you write them down or photograph them, drift off and away. They just go by. But movies — mindful ones — can make us stop for a while and notice what happens.

In a jacket and just-cleaned shirt, the writer-director heads toward a waiting town car (no big black limo — where's the glamour!?). He's off to lunch in town and later, a film critics' banquet. So is this a typical day for him?

"In my life? No," he says. "Of this week? Yes."

Once awards season ends, Payne has two screenplays lined up to shoot. He wants to move quickly now, from film to film. And if Sunday brings Oscars, the pace will only accelerate.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.