In the realm of contemporary cinema, few directors possess the distinctive ability to seamlessly blend profound storytelling with a subtle touch of humor, quite like Alexander Payne. Renowned for his captivating films such as "Sideways," "The Descendants," and "Nebraska," Payne has become a revered figure in the industry, celebrated for his insightful portrayals of human emotions and the complex dynamics of relationships. With his Greek American background infusing his work with a unique perspective, Payne's creative journey has been one of constant evolution and artistic exploration. In this exclusive interview, we delve into his creative odyssey, uncovering the influences of his heritage and his unwavering passion for crafting compelling narratives.
As a fervent admirer of his films, the opportunity to briefly peer into his creative world was nothing short of a dream come true. However, little did I know that this interview would not only enlighten me but also make me laugh, immersing me in the very essence of Payne's unique storytelling style. The experience was more than just a mere exchange of questions and answers; it was a genuine connection that allowed me to partake in the golden moments Payne so eloquently speaks of later in our discussion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The interview was conducted virtually.
Q: Mr. Payne, has your Greek Heritage affected your work, and if so, how?
A: Everything that makes up who we are affects us in ways that we are conscious of and unconscious of. I’d say that growing up as a Greek American, not a Greek, and not an American, but a Greek-American, gave me a certain ‘participant observer’ point of view. As you know, Greeks in America very much tend to cling to their identity. As I pursued a career in the Arts, it gave me a sort of observational outsider’s perspective rather than simply living inside that society. Also, Greeks are funny, and I think having a humorous point of view toward what I observe through my creative work was, in no small part, inspired by my Greek heritage.
Q: What inspired you to become a film director, and how did you develop your passion for storytelling through film?
A: I fell in love with movies from a very young age. I didn’t know that I wanted a career in it. Actually, the first thing I wanted to be was a projectionist so I could watch movies all day and touch the film. But it wasn’t until university that I thought that maybe I could do this thing. I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles, where it’s in the air, and many examples surround you. I’m a second-generation Greek immigrant from Omaha, Nebraska. But fortunately, my parents were very supportive, even though they were hammering me to go to Law School, which just wasn’t going to happen. But it wasn’t until the age of 22, 23 that I realized that my love of watching movies did translate into wanting to make them as well. And I discovered in film school that I actually had some talent at it.
Q: What will be your advice to the graduating class of 2023?
- Alexander Payne took a while to answer this question. In fact, a few seconds of silence followed until I asked him if he was going to answer the question. And he said, “Hell no!”
- And we both laughed, and I got a taste of his sense of humor. But he did end up giving me a brief answer, and it was: “Buy low, sell high.”
Q: Can you share a personal story or turning point in your own career and the lessons you learned?
A: I think it’s very exciting when you’re a senior in high school, and you get a letter from the colleges that you’ve applied to, and even before you open the envelope, you examine it to see if it’s thick or thin. I remember how exciting it was when I was 18 and received some thick acceptance letters from colleges -- not just because of the approval that those letters implied but because, at that moment, you feel a door open. I love the feeling of the open road, I love the feeling that anything can happen and will happen and that I will have a chance to develop things within myself. You never know when you’re living a golden age in your life, you only know it later. If only we could be more conscious of living in a golden age before that failure or before that illness, or just the joy you have with a certain friendship or creative experience. So, I think it’s a real gift we can give to our kids or to young people that we love to say, “Enjoy this time!”
Q: Is there a topic or theme from Greek History or Mythology that you would like to make a film about?
A: Not an exact theme, but a great story spine that I hope to have in a movie one day is what you see in Oedipus and in many Greek tragedies, which is that the very steps you take to avoid your fate are the very steps which bring it about. Many people want a happy ending in stories, but people forget about what the Greeks taught us about catharsis through tragedy, that tragedy can also be ennobling and cathartic. You get something out of your system, and God knows we have a lot to get out of our systems!
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