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Nebraska Film-Maker Alexander Payne

NebraskaAuthorA list of works by Nebraska film-maker
Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne (Constantine Alexander Payne) was born February 10, 1961, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Peggy (Constantine) (a professor of romance languages) and George Payne, who owned and operated a Greek restaurant. He grew up, the youngest of three boys in the family, in the Dundee-Happy Hollow Historic District of Omaha, not far from where famed investor Warren Buffet also grew up. His father had both Greek and German background, while his mother came from Greek ancestry — paternal grandfather ‘Nick’ Payne changed the family name from Papadopoulos to Payne. The family restaurant, The Virginia Cafe, was an Omaha landmark, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1969.

Payne graduated from Creighton Prep high school in 1979, where he wrote a humor column for the student newspaper and was editor of the yearbook. Payne attended Stanford University, double-majoring in both Spanish and History and receiving a B.A. in 1984. As part of his degree program, he also studied at the University of Salamanca in Spain. Following his undergraduate degree, he briefly lived in Medellin, Columbia.

When Payne was still a youth, his father received a Super 8-mm film projector from Kraft Foods, as a loyalty reward, which the elder Payne eventually passed on to Alexander at around age 14, sparking his early interest in film-making. Following his time in Columbia, Payne returned to California, to attend the UCLA Film School, where he graduated with an MFA in 1990. His senior thesis film, The Passion of Martin, which centered on a love-struck photographer, was noticed by industry professionals and eventually screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Though it earned him a development deal with Universal Pictures, no films came from it.

After a few years of work-for-hire, Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, succeeded in getting their first true film produced — Citizen Ruth (1996), which starred Laura Dern in an acerbic look at the abortion debate, and the radicalization of both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice activists. Though a critical success, Citizen Ruth was lukewarm at the box office. Payne and Taylor had a much greater box-office success with Election (1999), starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Additional films in Payne’s artistic career have included About Schmidt (2002), starring Jack Nicholson, Sideways (2004) starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, The Descendants (2011) with George Clooney, Nebraska (2013) with Bruce Dern and Downsizing (2017) with Matt Damon. Payne and Taylor shared in winning the Academy Award (“Oscar”) for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways.

In the gap between Sideways and The Descendants, Payne served as producer for several films by other filmmakers, and was Executive Producer of the darkly comedic HBO television series Hung (2009-2011).

As a filmmaker, Payne is best known for creating films that mix wry, sardonic humor with true human drama. He is proud of his Nebraska heritage, and regularly sets his films in part of his home state. If the setting for one of his movies isn’t Nebraska in specific, then the “sense of place” in the film will still be an essential part of the movie. His characters often take road trips, during which one or more character will find themselves at a “breaking point” in their life, and will make a life-changing discovery about him or herself.

Payne was married to actress Sandra Oh from 2003 to 2006. He married again in 2015, this time to Maria Kontos, a Greek linguist. For years, Payne has served on the Board of Directors of Omaha non-profit film theater Film Streams. His interest in film preservation also led him to help restore a historic film theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. To this day, Alexander Payne continues to maintain residences in both Los Angeles and Omaha, Nebraska — he keeps his Oscar statues in Omaha.

Additional information about Alexander Payne can be found at the following Web sites:

Books by and about Alexander Payne:

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
by Leo Adam Biga
(2016 edition) (Biography Payne)

Leo Biga has reported on the career of filmmaker Alexander Payne for 20 years. In this updated collection of essays, the author-journalist-blogger offers the only comprehensive look at Payne’s career and creative process. Based in Payne’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, Biga has been granted access to location shooting for Nebraska and Sideways, the latter filmed in California’s wine country. Biga has also been given many exclusive interviews by Payne and his creative collaborators. His insightful analysis of Payne’s films and personal journey has been praised by Payne for its “honesty, thoughtfulness, and accuracy.” The two-time Oscar-winner calls Biga’s articles, “the most complete and perceptive of any journalist’s anywhere.” Payne’s films are celebrated for their blend of humor and honest look at human relationships. Members of Hollywood’s A-List, including George Clooney (The Descendants), Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Reese Witherspoon (Election), Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Laura Dern (Citizen Ruth), and Bruce Dern (Nebraska), have starred in his films.

Alexander Payne Interviews
by Julie Levinson

Since 1996, Alexander Payne (b. 1961) has made six feature films and a short segment of an omnibus movie. Although his body of work is quantitatively small, it is qualitatively impressive. His movies have garnered numerous accolades and awards, including two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay. As more than one interviewer in this volume points out, he maintains an impressive and unbroken winning streak. Payne’s stories of human strivings and follies, alongside his mastery of the craft of filmmaking, mark him as a contemporary auteur of uncommon accomplishment.

In this compilation of his interviews, Payne reveals himself as a captivating conversationalist as well. The discussions collected here range from 1996, shortly after the release of his first film, Citizen Ruth, to the 2013 debut of his film Nebraska. Over his career, he muses on many subjects including his own creative processes, his commitment to telling character-centered stories, and his abiding admiration for movies and directors from across decades of film history. Critics describe Payne as one of the few contemporary filmmakers who consistently manages to buck the current trend toward bombastic blockbusters. Like the 1970s director-driven cinema that he cherishes, his films are small-scale character studies that manage to maintain a delicate balance between sharp satire and genuine poignancy.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012
by Leo Adam Biga
(2013 edition) (Biography Payne)

“I’d be an Alexander Payne fan even if we didn’t share a Nebraska upbringing: he is a masterly, menschy, singular storyteller whose movies are both serious and unpretentious, delightfully funny and deeply moving. And he’s fortunate indeed to have such a thoughtful and insightful chronicler as Leo Biga.” –Kurt Andersen, Host of Studio 360.

Long before Alexander Payne arrived as a world-renowned filmmaker, Leo Adam Biga spotted his talent, even screening his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, at an art cinema. By the time Payne completed Citizen Ruth and prepped Election, Biga made him a special focus of his journalism. Interviewing and profiling and Payne became a highlight of the writer’s work. Feeling a rapport and trust with Biga, Payne granted exclusive access to his creative process, including a week-long visit to one of his sets. Now that Payne has moved from emerging to established cinema force through a succession of critically acclaimed and popular projects — About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants — Biga has compiled his years of reporting into this book. It is the first comprehensive look anywhere at one of cinema’s most important figures. Go behind-the-scenes with the author to glimpse privileged aspects of the filmmaker at work and in private moments. The book takes the measure of Payne through Biga’s analysis, the filmmaker’s own words, and insights from some of the writer-director’s key collaborators. This must read for any casual fan or serious student of Payne provides in one volume the arc of a remarkable film-making journey.

The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life
by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

A lighthearted companion to the best-reviewed film of the year—a pocket-sized illustrated guide to the locations and wines featured in Sideways including maps, winery listings, tips for drinking wine, and Oscar®-winning dialogue.

Yesterday, you didn’t know Pinot Noir from film noir.

Now, after seeing the marvelous movie Sideways, you are living the life uncorked, and this is the perfect little book to celebrate your own sideways journey. Inside you will find:
• Wine recommendations, tips for tasting wine, and a list of bottles featured in the film
• Places and wineries to visit in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County that were featured in the movie
• Excerpts from the Oscar®-winning screenplay
• Web sites and information for planning your own trip.

This hilarious and useful guide is fully illustrated in color with movie stills, location stills, and delightful drawings by artist Robert Neubecker, who created the film’s poster.

Originally created as a specialty item for wineries and tourist sites, The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life has been featured widely in articles (USA Today, The New York Times, and Wine Spectator) about the Sideways phenomenon and the surge in Pinot Noir’s popularity across the country. Now available in an expanded trade edition for the first time, this is a terrific gift and countertop book year round.

The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book
by Alexander Payne and James Zemaitis

The coffee table is an often ignored piece of furniture that is central to every well-bred living room. This book charts the history and fashions of this living room stalwart, with a focus on modern and contemporary versions from celebrated designers. Playing on the pun of a “coffee table coffee table book”, this collection is both a light-hearted homage and studied reference guide. A beautifully designed compendium, The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book is essential for interior designers, collectors and academics as well as appealing to those with a more general interest in design, interior decoration and style. Texts include a history of the coffee table by design curators Alexander Payne and James Zemaitis.

Alexander Payne’s films and TV work

Not all of these titles are owned by the Lincoln City Libraries. For those titles not hotlinked into our catalog, consider requesting them through InterLibrary Loan!

This “director’s chair” icon marks the films that are most closely associated with Alexander Payne as a film-maker — the films he was most heavily involved in making, on a creative, artistic level. In the case of most of the rest of the films on this list, Payne served only as a producer or writer, or director-for-hire.

Small Town Wisconsin
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

A father tries hard to be a good dad but alcoholism is the huge deterrant.

The Last Shift
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

Stanley’s last shift at his fast food job takes an unexpected turn when he befriends a young African-American work employee.

Crash Pad
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

A hopeless romantic, who thinks he’s found true love with an older woman, learns that she’s married and that the fling is merely an instrument of revenge against her neglectful husband.

( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Screenplay | Producer )

A social satire in which a man realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself to five inches tall, allowing him to live in wealth and splendor.

Run Fast (Short)
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

Run Fast is the story Vivian, a young Kenyan runner who travels to Los Angeles to compete in her first American marathon. Her sponsor, Peter, is thrilled to identify true promise in his long-shot prospect, but their future together is imperiled by realities awaiting Vivian back in Kenya.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

A jaded Japanese woman discovers a hidden copy of Fargo (1996) on VHS, believing it to be a treasure map indicating the location of a large case of money.

( Payne’s credit for this film: Director )

An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

>> Nominee – Academy Award for Directing
>> Nominee – Golden Globe for Best Director of a Motion Picture

Breaking Night (short)
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

L Train (short)
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

L Train is the story of Sunny, a teenaged African American girl. Her commute through an inner city Chicago winter reinforces a negativity in her, until one day an encounter with a young woman who is differently-abled forces her to consider replacing her anger with compassion. L TRAIN aspires to be a brief, humble reminder of what we all might miss everyday.

The Descendants
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Screenplay | Producer )

A land baron tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident.

>> Winner – Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)
>> Nominee – Academy Award for Best Picture
>> Nominee – Golden Globe for Best Director of a Motion Picture
>> Nominee – Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)

Cedar Rapids
( Payne’s credit for this film: Producer )

Tim Lippe has no idea what he’s in for when he’s sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at an annual insurance convention, where he soon finds himself under the “guidance” of three convention veterans.

Hung (TV series)
( Payne’s credit for this TV series: Executive Producer for all 26 episodes; Director for pilot episode )

A former high school sports legend turned middle-aged high school basketball coach finds a way to benefit from his biggest asset.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
( Payne’s credit for this film: Screenplay )

Two straight, single Brooklyn firefighters pretend to be a gay couple in order to receive domestic partner benefits.

Payne commented on his involvement in writing this film: “When Jim (Taylor) and I wrote the script, we went with a dark comedy approach. We knew when (Adam) Sandler was brought on board that he would toss out our work, bring his buddies on board, and turn it into a juvenile slapstick piece. That’s fine, but that’s not our work. About 5, maybe 10 percent of our script remained.”

Paris je t’aime
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Writer | Actor (Oscar Wilde) – all for the segment “14e arrondissement” )

Through the neighborhoods of Paris, love is veiled, revealed, imitated, sucked dry, reinvented and awakened.

Sideways (Japanese adaptation of the 2004 American film)
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Director )

A middle-aged Japanese man travels to California to attend the wedding of his American-based friend. Prior to the big event, they take one last trip to Napa Valley, where they taste wine, dally with romance.

King of California
( Payne’s credit for this film: Producer )

An unstable dad who after getting out of a mental institution tries to convince his daughter that there’s Spanish gold buried somewhere under suburbia.

( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

A sister and brother face the realities of familial responsibility as they begin to care for their ailing father.

Gray Matters
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

They finish each other’s sentences, dance like Fred and Ginger, and share the same downtown loft — the perfect couple? Not exactly. Gray and Sam, are a sister and brother so compatible and inseparable that people actually assume they are dating. Mortified, they both agree they must branch out and start searching for love. He’ll look for a guy for her and she’ll look for a gal for him.

( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Screenplay )

Two men reaching middle age with not much to show but disappointment embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle.

>> Winner – Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Jim Taylor)
>> Winner – Golden Globe for Best Screenplay (shared with Jim Taylor)
>> Nominee – Academy Award for Best Director
>> Nominee – Golden Globe for Best Director of a Motion Picture

The Assassination of Richard Nixon
( Payne’s credit for this film: Executive Producer )

Based on real life events, Assassination is set in 1974 and centers on a businessman who decides to take extreme measures to achieve his American dream.

About Schmidt
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Screenplay )

A man upon retirement, embarks on a journey to his estranged daughter’s wedding, only to discover more about himself and life than he ever expected.

>> Winner – Golden Globe for Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture (shared with Jim Taylor)
>> Nominee – Golden Globe for Best Director of a Motion Picture

Jurassic Park III
( Payne’s credit for this film: Writer – Payne and Jim Taylor submitted an early draft script, which underwent substantial revisions! )

A decidedly odd couple with ulterior motives convince Dr. Grant to go to Isla Sorna, resulting in an unexpected landing, and startling new inhabitants on the island.

Meet the Parents
Alexander Payne’s Internet Movie Database page mentions that he did an uncredited polish-up on the final draft of the script for this comedy.

( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Screenplay )

A high school teacher’s personal life becomes complicated as he works with students during the school elections, particularly with an obsessive overachiever determined to become student body president.

>> Nominee – Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Jim Taylor)

Citizen Ruth
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Written By )

An irresponsible, drug-addicted, recently impregnated woman finds herself in the middle of an abortion debate when both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life parties attempt to sway her to their respective sides.

Inside Out III (Video)
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director — segment (??) )

Payne directed a segment of this “adult film” anthology.

The Passion of Martin
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Screenplay | Producer )

A lonely photographer gradually develops a rather unhealthy obsession with a young woman he once met by sheer chance. Alexander Payne’s senior thesis project.

Inside Out
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Written By — segment “My Secret Moments” )

Payne wrote and directed a segment of this “adult film” anthology.

Carmen (Short)
( Payne’s credit for this film: Director | Written By )

Alexander Payne’s first film, a short, silent “student film”. This is a version of the famous opera, but set at a gas station in the desert.

For a complete list of Alexander Payne’s film industry awards and nominations see his IMDb page at this link.

Posted to BookGuide in April 2019 sdc | Last updated May 2023 sdc