Alexander Payne is in a position to ask any world class film figure to be his guest of honor at the Film Streams Feature event, the art cinema’s annual big fundraiser. Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda and the principal cast of Nebraska have all come at his invitation to appear on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
For the Monday, Nov. 10 Feature VI Payne will engage writer-director David O. Russell in conversation. As fellow auteur leaders in the vanguard of New American Cinema they make a matched set. Since emerging in the mid-1990s their careers have followed similar paths. Each is on a roll with their last several pics, all critically acclaimed and awards-laden.
Both infuse an urgent humanity in their work that revolves around the various social units people aggregate in. Each delights in distilling the emotionally-charged, seriocomic conflicts that play out among groups – where the people driving you crazy are the same people you love.
Payne and Russell were right in the mix of edgy American indie filmmakers to arrive in the 1990s. Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino led the way. Then a whole new wave followed in their wake, including Russell, Payne, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Darren Aronofsky. Russell and Payne announced themselves as talents to be watched in close order. Russell broke first with the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey in 1994. In 1996 Russell caused a stir with Flirting with Disaster and Payne with his abortion satire Citizen Ruth. In ’99, both garnered attention: Russell with Three Kings and Payne with Election.
The 2000s have seen each evolve into bankable independents whose work spans audiences and resists trends. Russell’s recent run of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle parallels Payne’s own run of About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska.
A repertory series of Russell works continues at Film Streams through November.
Film Streams executive director Rachel Jacobson says the Feature event gives attendees “the amazing opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two of the world’s most celebrated contemporary directors.” She adds, “It’s interesting how David and Alexander’s careers have paralleled one another. Both started out with independent films on ridiculously taboo subjects. They both premiered their first features at the Sundance Film Festival during the renaissance of American Independent film.” She says Russell’s recent films “show an artist at the peak of his form.” A major difference in approach, she notes, is that unlike Payne Russell works with a consistent ensemble of actors. “I love how that consistency creates a world unto itself.”
In the same way Payne feels he’s just now coming into his own as a filmmaker, Russell does, too. Both had long periods in between pics: six years passed from Payne’s Sideways to Descendants and from Russell’s I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Each went through a divorce in that period. But where Payne was busy producing and writing, Russell got out of his head and in touch with his heart.
“I’m grateful things have become clearer to me and in some ways I feel it’s springtime for me and that’s a very beautiful thing because you know that could easily not be the case,” Russell says. “I think it’s hard in any endeavor, especially in the art of storytelling, to stay fresh. You always have to find new wells of inspiration and I understand many of the greats who have not. We can look back and say, Well, they did their great works and then they kind of couldn’t find it again. So I feel like I’ve found renewed clarity and heart for certain kinds of stories.
“It’s still very hard to do them well. I still have to try every moment like it’s my last opportunity on Earth. The only way it can come out as well as I hope it will is to act like it could very easily not come out that way every step of the way, which makes for a lot work.”
Like the best of their New Wave contemporaries Russell and Payne didn’t just make a splash and then disappear. Rather, they reestablish themselves as relevant storytellers with something to say again and again. The way they’ve asserted their strong, singular visions and voices is reminiscent of what Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Russell and Payne have mostly weathered the volatile film industry that eventually envelopes everyone. Russell’s one commercial flop, Huckabees, enjoys a cult following. The same for Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Election. Nebraska’s sure to find a growing audience as more people discover it via the home and digital markets.
All of which is to say these two filmmakers at the top of their game should have much to talk about. They’re each steeled in classic cinema from the 1970s and before. Given they are from the same generation of writer-directors and leaders of Indiewood, it’s no surprise they’ve found themselves in the same circles.
Russell says, “We’ve done Q-and-As and we’ve had a lot of fun with them,” including a CineFamily session available on Vimeo.
The two once chummed around. The new millennium had just dawned and they were identified as rising cinema stars and it only made sense they would fall in with each other.
“We started being on each other’s radars socially and professionally in 1999,” Payne says, “when he had Three Kings and I had Election. 1999 was like a debutante’s ball year of independent directors. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore had come out the end of ’98. I had Election, David had Three Kings. Kimberly Peirce had Boys Don’t Cry. It was a year when this younger crop of directors were having some degree of mainstream success. And I adored Three Kings. Wow. if he could make a jump from Flirting with Disaster, a madcap family comedy, to a very beautifully directed film like Three Kings that’s when I knew he had a depth of talent.
“I’m always in favor of someone who wants to do comic human films. His films are always intelligent, entertaining – a wonderful combination of humanity and comic showmanship. We became friends and I’ve always supported his work. I admire him and I’m just so proud and thrilled to be hosting him at Film Streams.”
And Russell’s returned the favor.
“Yes, and it’s been really been fun, I think we’ve both enjoyed that,” Russell says. “When Alexander had The Descendants come out I was really happy to sit by his side at a couple events, chat with him, have a glass of wine, cheer him on and tell him how much I love the picture. And he was very kind to me likewise about the last three pictures.”
But it was when the two men first came to the fore, they were particularly close.
“We sort of hung out a bit together in that time around 2000,” Russell confirms. “I remember the Museum of Modern Art began this series for filmmakers of our generation and I felt very squeamish about doing it. I said I’ll only do it if you name the series Works in Progress because I consider myself a work in progress and they said OK and they started this series where I talked about my films with my actors and stuff.”
That inaugural 2002 event was called Work in Progress: An Evening with David O. Russell.
“Alexander came, Wes Anderson came, Kimberly Peirce came, Sofia Coppola came. A lot of actors came. I’m probably forgetting some other filmmakers who were there. There we were all together and it was a great feeling of camaraderie.
“And then the next years I ended up helping tap them (other filmmakers) to do it, so the next year Alexander Payne did it (that 2003 event was called A Work in Progress; The Films of Alexander Payne). And then Sofia did it and it kind of went from there.”
Russell, who as a young man waited tables at MOMA events, grew up in Larchmont, New York in a Russian-Italian American household. His father worked for publishing giant Simon and Schuster. His mother was a homemaker and political activist.
Much like Payne he was steeped in movies and literature.
“I grew up watching movies. I would go to my local movie theater in the next town and I’d watch a movie with movie stars and so I am interested in movies and movie stars that kind of grab me and don’t let me go and leave me indelibly moved. It’s like a wonderful record I can go back and play again in part or in whole.”
Asked whose work principally influenced him then and he rattles off the names Frank Capra, Coppola and Scorsese, adding with a laugh, “There, I named every Italian-American.”
Like Payne he initially went to college not to study film but to broaden his mind, At Amherst College in Mass, he studied English under novelist Robert Stone and religion under professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman.
“I always wanted to be a writer – a novelist or a short fiction writer – since I was about 10 years old because my dad worked at Simon and Schuster. I actually kept doing it into my 20s, you know, and I found it very hard. Meanwhile, I would memorize sections of movies as sort of a way of learning narrative and telling stories.”
He committed to memory sections of It’s a Wonderful Life and Chinatown, for example.
Again, like Payne, he went abroad as a young man, in his case to teach English in Nicaragua. Once back in the States he moved to Boston, where he did social justice work.
“I worked in low income areas, working for tenants rights, also teaching English as a second language.”
Unlike Payne, Russell never went to film school. His film immersion came haunting video stores and revival houses and learning the rudiments of the medium as a production assistant on the PBS television series Smithsonian World in Washington, D.C. Ever more feeling the pull of film, he made a documentary short. Boston to Panama (1985), that examined the lives of immigrant workers.
“Then I started to crossover thinking maybe I wanted to become a (narrative) filmmaker, which seemed like kind of a nutty idea because I’d never thought of that before as much as I loved movies.”
His narrative debut, the comedy short Bingo Inferno (1987) showed at the Sundance Film Festival. His next, the short Hairway to the Stars (1991), played Sundance and festivals in Seattle and London.
His feature debut, Spanking the Monkey, was a micro-budget production financed with private funding and grants. The dark humored Oedipal story concerns a young man marooned at home with his convalescing mother and the awkward longings they express. So, from the start, the family dynamic, dysfunctional and all, took precedence.
“I very much find community or family to be sort of an engine, a rocket engine, that leads to all avenues of humanity. All I know is that I think it works and it gets really intense and personal and complicated and funny and heartbreaking very quickly, so I love all of that. You know, I also love romance as I’ve discovered in my last three films.”
Family though is where it’s at for him. It may be a mother and son breaking taboos (Monkey), an extended family letting it all hang out (Flirting), rouge U.S, Army soldiers searching for a fortune (Three Kings), a boxing clan’s ups and downs (The Fighter), a mentally ill son reconnecting with his father (Silver Linings Playbook) or a motley crew pulling a sting operation (American Hustle).
“In terms of my interests I know that I’m interested in romance and I know it includes a great intensity of predicaments that carries from one moment of the film to the next, meaning that it has an intensity to it and a propulsiveness to it that feels enveloping. And you have to maybe go back and watch it again or parts of it again to regather, but there’s never a moment where we are intentionally crafting the story that way.
“I mean, it’s nice to know what kind of movies you want to make and what kind of characters you want to render and what kind of actors you want to work with. And then I have a great love of music, a great love of camera movement that’s become a particular way of doing things that I’m still trying to learn how to make better. But at least it’s very clear when you know what path your on.”
Payne admires that Russell has “kept his own voice throughout them all,” adding, “Some of the same elements you see in Flirting with Disaster you see also in The Fighter, Silver Linings and American Hustle. His sense of dialogue and how he gets the camera in very close so that you’re standing with those characters or talking with them somehow. None of that has changed.”
Payne also likes how Russell balances the “larger circumstances” his characters find themselves in yet remains focused on the “eccentric details” of those situations and the personalities involved.
Russell says his own family’s strong personalities and rich heritage form a great template for him to overlay on the stories he tells.
“There’s a whole human opera of mine that extends back to Italy and Russia, to the Bronx and Brooklyn. There’s this tapestry of people. It’s a goldmine to me of rhythm, of music, of life, of romance, of food, of terrible things happening, of wonderful things happening, of traditions being passed, traditions being broken. All the things I care very deeply about in telling stories and as a person.
“I think I learned a great deal from my family before I even realized it.
It’s sort of a great gift that you don’t realize, that I didn’t realize I had until much later in my career. Although it was obvious right at the beginning because I wrote that claustrophobic kind of quasi-horror $80,000 dollar trapped-in-the-house-with-your-mother movie (Monkey), which is almost like a horror movie, but it’s also funny, and that was all based on personal experiences I embroidered in great detail. There was a summer where my mother had trouble with her health. She had a car crash, And so that gave birth to that story.”
Flirting is another film where his real life resonated with his invention.
“There were moments when I saw my family the way we see the family in it, going through those chapters.”
He says Three Kings was “a departure” from the biological family thread and instead subverts the band of brothers conceit. He says Huckabees was “an attempt to create a parallel society little family of people but I don’t think my focus was where it ought to be in there,” adding, “Yet I never cease to be surprised by the young people, including Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings, Hustle)), who name that among their favorites of mine, which is baffling to me.
“And then the last three (films) are very much family-centered.”
The most personal of these to him is Silver Linings. Adapted from a novel, Russell emotionally connected with the characters because like the protagonist his own son Matt has bipolar disorder. Matt, who’s also had learning issues, has attended the Devereux Glenholme School in Conn., which serves young adults with special needs. Russell has been “very involved” at the school,” serving on a board. “I’m very invested in helping that school, plus the next experience for those kids who need to find pathways into work or higher education.”
Another educational institution he’s involved with is Ghetto Film School, a New York City public high school whose curriculum is cinema-based.
“It’s a very strong school in the Bronx. It became a crown jewel of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public school system in New York, It’s exciting that people are learning how to tell narrative and to tell stories. I always like to go talk to the students and teachers about what they’re doing. I’ve been on the board for 12 years. I’ve helped bring a lot of filmmakers and actors to go talk to them: Spike Jonze, Catherine Hardwick, Amy Adams. We have to get Alexander to go see them.”
Russell says 20th Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch “was so smitten by the project” he helped open an L.A. branch this past summer. Russell was there for its launch.
The filmmaker would be happy if a future script he wants to direct comes from a graduate. The same would be true of Alexander Payne. But the fact is each director usually writes his own scripts. Payne often says writing is the most onerous part of his creative process. Russell agrees but like Payne he sees it as a necessary chore to produce raw material for his films.
“I’m just coming out of a very intense writing period where I’ve been writing 15 hours a day for the last six months. I literally become a shut in. I went to some event for my younger son’s school and I just really felt like a-fish-out-of-water. I’d almost forgotten how to be out and about because your world becomes very narrow. It’s a very strange way to live because you’re basically living 15 hours a day in this narrative. You’re living in a movie all day, and that’s the only way I can do it to get it done. I have to make myself sit there all that time.
“So like Alexander it’s also my least favorite part of the process but you have to do it. You know you can’t get the iron ore or the diamonds out of the ground unless you do the back breaking work of digging into the ground, which is really difficult.”
Both filmmakers are weighing what their next projects will be. While Payne is reportedly trying to revive Downsizing, the project he abandoned after the financial crisis hit in 2008, Russell says, “There’s two stories we may be going into preproduction on soon. Those are the two things I’ve been working feverishly on for the last eight nine months. One is a large original story I don’t want to get into too much detail about but it involves family.”
The other, titled Joy, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano. The storyline reads something like Erin Brockovich: a struggling single mother of three surprises everyone when she finds success as an inventor and entrepreneur. Jennifer Lawrence is tabbed to star.
Russell says he’s eager for his visit here. “I can’t wait to come to Omaha. I’ve been reading about all the famous cinema people who are from Nebraska.” He hopes to find sites commemorating Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire, for example, but outside a street sign named for the former and a ballroom named for the latter, he’ll be disappointed.
He’ll be searching, too, for a local fix to feed his passion for video stores, which he feels should be preserved as cultural “hubs and meccas.” He helped create a nonprofit foundation for Santa Monica’s iconic Vidiots. “I’m trying to get the studios – and I’ve reached out to Alexander as well – to turn it into a place where they can feature the libraries of each studio and people can learn about cinema.”
The Feature event with Russell and Payne is at 7 p.m. For tickets and rep series details, visit www.filmstreams.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.