A look back with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Posted by on Feb 19 2012 | Motion Pictures, Other

George Eastman House, “Rochester’s Home,” is also home to the legacy of George Eastman and the arts he made possible. As such, it attracts many of Hollywood’s finest filmmakers, including Oscar nominees Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.

Payne has been nominated for three more Academy Awards this year, for producing, directing and writing THE DESCENDANTS (2010). Jim Taylor, his frequent collaborator, was also nominated this year for his work co-producing the film. This is their fifth feature film but the first time they have not shared a writing credit.

Payne and Taylor were invited by Assistant Curator Jim Healy to introduce a screening of their second film, ELECTION (1999) in July 2006, and participated in a Q&A after the film. Payne returned in December of that year to host a screening of one of his many favorite films, Richard Fleischer’s THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955). [Fleischer himself was a guest of GEH ]. Once he arrived a good relationship was established between our archive and the filmmaker. During both visits, Payne spent a few days at GEH, mostly watching many private screenings of films from our archive in the Dryden Theatre. He’s a real cinephile – but not the kind who slavishly repackages his influences in his own movies. They’re best classified not as comedies or dramas but as Alexander Payne films.

(l to r) Jim Talylor, Jim Healy and Alexander Payne

Healy, in his introduction to ELECTION, called Payne and Taylor “contemporary descendants to great filmmakers like Frank Tashlin, Michael Ritchie, Hal Ashby and the pioneers of film satire – Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.” Healy called their films “exquisitely written and profoundly funny.” He praised their “great taste in cinema and their expansive knowledge of film history and a deep understanding of essential film grammar – the cinematic language laid out by their predecessors.”

Of the four films that he has written and directed, when asked why he chose to screen ELECTION for the Rochester audience Payne said that it tends to be the “favorite of film nerds. And it is Cinemascope. And can I brag and say that both Barack Obama and Richard Holbrooke have told me that it’s their favorite political movie?”

The following are some of the highlights from both of Alexander Payne’s visits to George Eastman House.

Payne: “Casting is Job 1. The old cliché that 90% of directing is casting is really true. Even though I spend a lot of time complaining about working with the studio, [we] deal with who the top two or three actors are then after that it’s completely mine.”

“I shot [ELECTION] soon after CASINO (1995) had come out. It kind of quietly had an influence on the style of the film. It’s one of the few American films that I’ve seen with multiple voiceovers. [It is] moving and cutting quickly to constantly changing music cues which [Scorsese] began in GOODFELLAS (1990). I think CASINO is kind of a masterpiece.”

In response to a question about how they met, Jim Taylor said “[In 1989] Alexander had a room that was for rent. He had a two bedroom apartment. We were just acquaintances but I moved into that room and we became friends and started writing together.”

Payne, Taylor and Healy on the Dryden Theatre stage.

George Eastman House: “Your first film was in ’96. How many scripts did you guys work on together before you hit on one that got made?”

Payne: “Actually in ’91 we wrote and I directed two shorts for the Playboy Channel called INSIDE OUT – an anthology series. The producer Alan Poul, who later produced SIX FEET UNDER, did that show. He tried to get who at the time he thought were cutting edge and non-DGA directors.”

Audience member: “Has SIDEWAYS brought you a lot of freedom? Do you have a narrow window of opportunity? How secure do you feel?”

Jim Taylor: “We’re doing really well. But we don’t want to feel to secure. That could be a problem.”

Payne: “But I think filmmakers should act as though they have complete freedom. Especially when we’re writing, we’re pretending we have a billion dollar budget. Let restrictions come later.”

Payne on classic Hollywood cinema: “The more I learn as a film director, the more I learn about technique, the more I see the huge achievement of the classical Hollywood film style. No matter how they are made or under what conditions, a director is always thinking about how to make the actors move and where to put the camera. Whether you’re Godard or Michael Curtiz, it’s the same problem. Where do I put my actors and how do I move my camera. I see the elegance and practicality and efficiency and economy with which classical Hollywood film directors worked. And it’s astonishing. Young film school kids in love with the French New Wave, or now they talk about Korean cinema or something like that, they might [minimize] the film that they’ve seen the most, like CASABLANCA (1942). I say go try to make a CASABLANCA. Making something like that is going to be harder than trying to emulate any of these other films.”

Because it is my blog I can close with my favorite part of the evening. Jim reminded the audience that “we should remember the Stanley Kubrick quote that ‘the only person in the world who has final cut is the projectionist’. So kudos to Ben Tucker up there in the booth.”

Payne: “Thank you, Ben.”

Those moments make it fun to work at George Eastman House.

We wish Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor the best of luck on Oscar night.

Payne with audience members after the screening.



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    Ben Tucker is the Processing Technician in the Motion Picture Department. He has been employed by George Eastman House since 2003.

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