Stumbling Sideways With Alexander Payne
January 20th, 2005
by Bebek McGhee
In the world of screenwriting idols, Alexander Payne occupies his own firmament. The writer/director of the film masterpieces "Citizen Ruth", "Election" and "About Schmidt" is again blowing audiences' minds with the original, multi-award-nominated-and-Golden-Globe-winning movie "Sideways". I was lucky enough to get my little hands on the very last ticket available to see the movie opening in the Sonoma County, California wine country. Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church and one of my favorite actresses, Virginia Madsen, were appearing along with the director at a swanky party hosted by the Sonoma Film Festival.
Was this the opportunity of a lifetime? Over the top excitement at meeting artists who I really admire? Ideal scenario for me to drink too much and make a perfect ass of myself? You bet!
The lovely, tasteful soiree at the Hotel Healdsburg was a cup runnething over that night. Healdsburg, California was eager to woo the filmmaker and maybe even kill him with kindness for setting "Sideways" in Santa Barbara instead of Sonoma or Napa. The appropriately named Cinema Epicuria (aka the Sonoma Film Festival) put on a spread of alcohol that made me feel like I had arrived on Burl Ives' Big Rock Candy Mountain where the licker flows in streams! (In their defense, we were following this romp with a two hour movie.)
There was a Pinot Noir table, a Sauvignon Blanc table and a Champagne table, not to mention the martini bar! "Nothing exceeds like excess" as my dear mother used to say. Waiters in tuxes circulating with tiny hor d'oeurves provided me with a tiny dinner. The grape was flowing and I was nervous about meeting my heroes. Thomas Haden Church was like a father to my children (along with Mr. Rogers and McGuyver) during all those years when, as a single mom, I parked them in front of the TV to watch "Wings." I'm sure he deserves some credit for the fact that my boys are really funny!
Besides wishing to thank Mr. Haden Church for being a great role model to children, I had a friend in common with Virginia Madsen. And my biggest ambition was to talk to Alexander Payne about a great fellow Nebraskan screenwriter, Jan Kelley Weinberg, and ask if he would take an interest in helping her. It would certainly be easy, I was sure. But that was before I discovered the martini bar and ended up inadvertently insulting Mr. Payne's beautiful wife Sandra Oh. Back to that later.
Virginia Madsen entered the room, a petite Goddess shining so brightly that people stepped back in awe. She stood all alone looking shy and temporarily lost, so I went up to her and introduced myself as a friend of Vivienne Radkoff (the screenwriter and executive producer of "Temptation" a movie Virginia starred in a couple of years ago.) Virginia Madsen, besides being a living doll, is a very earnest, sweet person. She actually guiltily remembered that she still owed Vivienne money for some postage.
At some point, the handsome, rugged Thomas Haden Church (wearing a butter smooth leather cowboy jacket - y'all know, he lives in Texas! ) had joined us. Overhearing Virginia reminded him that Paul Giamatti was indebted to him for some cash from the set of "Sideways". "I'm sure he'd be devastated to know he owes me," Haden Church deadpanned. At this point, the mixture of pinot and champagne I had quaffed nervously at the start of the event was just reaching an effect in my bloodstream. Imagining myself witty beyond belief, I proceeded to thank Mr. Haden Church for being a surrogate father to my children. He looked taken aback. "How'd they turn out?" he quizzed. Lots of people arrived at this point. Later, my denouement with Haden Church would, unfortunately,also follow my encounter with the martini bar.
I'm an excitable girl and the sheer glory of the occasion (plus the martini bar) soon had me in upbeat conversation with whoever I could collar. I hung around my friend Trevor Cole, owner of Zebulon's Lounge in Petaluma, a stylish live jazz club that serves fine wines and Belgian beer. He was there with his usual group of "hot" and interesting people. At one point I turned around and there was Sandra Oh. In person, she has exquisite, porcelain skin and perfect, delicate features. I was so struck by her oriental beauty that I was reminded of a movie I had just seen, "Hero". Before my brain had time to process all the peripheral implications, I blurted out, "Wouldn't it be cool, now that this movie is so successful, to star in one of those martial arts epics like "Hero"?
To Ms. Oh's great credit she did not take offense with my boorish comment, which some might interpret as racist or typecasting at its worst. I sincerely meant to compliment her beauty, and the beauty of the film. "Have you seen "Hero?" she inquired graciously. Already infected with foot-in-mouth disease, I began to hemorrhage, "OH GOD YES! It's beautiful, so Beautiful! Absolutely gorgeous! A work of GENIUS!" At this point, she was whisked away by someone more important than me.
There was still some clear delicious liquid left in my glass, and so I nursed it. Thomas Haden Church was deep in conversation with a couple at the bar, his buttery leather back to me. He had been parked in that spot most of the evening, avoiding the general crowd of Northern Californian local yokels. "He can't leave Sonoma County without getting at least one pitch from a local screenwriter!" I said to myself with martini logic. Moments before, the role I had originally imagined for Sean Penn or John Malkovitch or Campbell Scott (David, the Russian mafioso who takes over the US government) in my thriller screenplay "The Sword of Allah" - WOULD BE PERFECT FOR THOMAS HADEN CHURCH! "Make hay while the sun shines!" I said to myself cheerfully as I tapped the buttery leather shoulder and Haden Church's irritated face turned to greet me. His worst nightmare! Another screenwriter with a pitch!
"O MY GOD ARE THEY EVERYWHERE?" he seemed to be screaming inwardly. "What kind of screenwriter lives around here? " I could see it in his eyes. The poor man had long had it with my kind. Undeterred, I stumbled and lurched ahead with my pitch, "I have a role that is TOTALLY perfect for you. He's a Russian mafioso who takes over the U.S. government. There are these sexy twins and a murderous bitch with a brass champagne glass and ah....." Haden Church showed the same interest in my screenplay as a recently gutted cod at the fish market. His eyes glazed over and an invisible hood descended to cover all signs of human life in them. "Long practice in Hollywood" I surmised. Saved by the proverbial bell, someone shouted "It's time for the movie!" and Haden Church gratefully resumed his public duties.
The crowd walked, teetered, lurched and wove their way the two blocks from the Hotel Healdsburg to the Raven Theater. We were promised an audience with Alex Payne and the cast members after the showing. I highly recommend sharing alot of nice California wine and martinis with your fellow audience members before you see a film. The movie "Sideways" is so very funny and the sound of a whole roomful of people laughing uproariously, all inhibitions flying three sheets to the wind, is the most heartwarming sound to experience.
"Sideways" like Payne's other masterpieces, contains a brilliant mix of dry wit and slapstick comedy that achieve archetypal status by perpetuating ancient mythologies. In "Citizen Ruth" the inflated claims of the opposing activists became more hilarious with each raising of the hyperbole bar in a classic slapstick routine that has existed since forever. "Elections" laundry list of Job-like punishments meted out to the hapless Matthew Broderick ends with him eating dinner alone in an apartment the size of a closet, a total washout. In "About Schmidt " we are treated to Jack Nicholson's incredulous responses to things that happen to him as to a modern Candide figure, when he leaves a sheltered existence for his daughter's wedding.
As a chronicler of American life in the midwest, Alex Payne has no equal. He is the equivalent of the great American novelist. Now I am a person who has actually survived two weeks spent in Nebraska (at Lew Hunter's wonderful Screenwriting Colony in Superior.) Nebraska, in its innocent, upstanding way, is totally surrealistic; I can see why it took Payne so long to leave this palate for other realms.
"Sideways" lovingly portrays the California many of us who live here know well. What our hero seeks in going wine tasting north of L.A. in the bucolic countryside surrounding Santa Barbara is the endless possibility of reinventing oneself. It gives hope to those of us who dwell here. But even the most beautiful afternoon drinking wine with a breathtaking view of the mountains can end up in drunken rage, perceived betrayal and extremely silly behavior of all kinds.
What's so wonderful about "Sideways" is the dead on realism of the scenes in the motel room and in the women's apartment. In the movie and its characters Payne accurately captures the wonders and disappointments of life in this state. The juxtaposition of the claustrophobic, in your face depressing drabness of the motel room the guys are sharing vs. the beautiful countryside.
Californians love to travel the state, meet new people and get invited over to their houses. That's what we're here for! But sudden intimacy with strangers can be volatile. Sometimes the dream boat turns out to have a fiancee and sometimes a great woman like Virginia Madsen wants to see you again. You always get another chance to reinvent yourself and try again. And it's a big state!
That's why, at the end of a short Q&A, the commentator (who had predictably asked Alexander Payne only one question, why didn't he film the movie in Sonoma County?) requested a question from the audience and my little hand shot up in the air! The fear-striken look on the faces of Sandra Oh and Thomas Haden Church when they realized I had been called on was something I'll not soon forget (sort of "who let her out of her cage again?" ) But my question was directed not at them, but Alex Payne. Fortunately no one had had time to tell him about me. "That was the most INTIMATE movie I have ever seen!" I gushed. "How did you achieve that up-close feeling, like you could practically smell their breath? What were your inspirations in achieving that effect?"
He smiled. "Good question!" Out of the corner of my eye I could see visible relief on the faces of the two actors. " The way we created the scenes in the motel room was by using multiple cameras and the actors never knew which angle was going to be used," he answered. "It made for more naturalistic performances. My inspiration came from movies made in the seventies, like "Klute." Also documentaries." The audience was fascinated and there were more questions, but time was up and the commentator told the audience to leave because the next group of mere mortals were to see the movie.
I wanted to say something more to the director and started to approach him. To my great surprise, Alex Payne jumped off the stage and walked towards me. I said to him " I wrote an article that mentioned you. It was about about Janet and David Webb Peoples. They said you were their favorite filmmaker. " Payne looked at me quizzically " oh yes, he wrote..." I jumped on his line and blurted out "The Unforgiven. Blade Runner." Payne looked skeptical, "But he wasn't the only screenwriter on that one." "No, you're correct," I replied, "there were three." Payne focused totally on talking to me as we passed hundreds of faces lining the aisles eager to interact with him. I realized later that he used me to whisk him out of there, but I sure didn't mind. Besides being a brilliant filmmaker Alexander Payne is very handsome, with dark penetrating eyes and fine features. We fell into step with his production designer, who he politely introduced me to, and walked out of the theater into the lobby together. He said "She can tell you what our influences were; we watched alot of movies together from the seventies in preproduction." Just as I was about to tell him about my brilliant friend the Nebraskan screenwriter, Payne announced "Please excuse me, I have to leave." Politely (How unusual is this man in Hollywood! Manners, consideration for a newcomer, respect!) he shook my hand and departed. To my relief, I had not stumbled nor made a fool of myself but I do need to say I'm disappointed for Jan Kelley Weinberg. Blame it on the martinis.
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