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Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Can't ignore the Payne

Tagged the "Lone Wolf of Hollywood," filmmaker Alexander Payne has always told a story from a slant that no one else has seemed willing, or capable, of doing. And he has never resorted to formulaic endings.

News photo
Alexander Payne

"Citizen Ruth" (about the clash between Baby Savers and proabortionists, with a dopehead caught in the crossfire) and "Election" (a nauseatingly perfect over-achiever pitches her all into running for student-body president) highlighted aspects of American life without attempting to judge, moralize, or worse -- entertain. Both were works of satire at its more crystalline and now, with "About Schmidt," Payne has reached a higher level of droll irony.

As with his other two works, Schmidt's story is once again set in Omaha, Neb. It's where Payne grew up and, until recently, chose to live.

"I find it strange that so few American films are set in the Midwest," says Payne. "The ones that are have the unmistakable ring of untruth."

The world of Schmidt, on the other hand, is sometimes a little too real for comfort.

From the floral wallpaper in his bathroom to the inanity of his retirement dinner party, Payne has an almost journalistic mission to report it like it is (and indeed, the filmmaker was trained in journalism before switching to UCLA film school). And of course, realism extends to the characters -- some critics in the United States thought at first that Schmidt's wife was his mother.

Payne says with a laugh: "But that's exactly the kind of woman he'd be married to, in Omaha. There are no Angelica Hustons over there. Take it from me, I know."

In Tokyo last month to promote "About Schmidt," Payne says he had been intrigued by Louis Begley's original novel, but decided to change the entire tone of the story by shifting the stage from New York to Omaha.

In Begley's novel, Warren Schmidt is more suave and much wealthier, and he moves in with a young waitress after retirement. No such perks await Schmidt in Payne's version.

"I just wanted to draw life in Omaha as I saw it. Schmidt's life is the norm for the majority of people living there."

In that case, what was behind the decision to cast Jack Nicholson, whose screen image is the polar opposite of Schmidt's?

"So many people identify Jack with 'The Shining' or 'The Witches of Eastwick,' but I knew that his performance range was so much broader than that. I wanted him to play someone different, someone like Schmidt, and see how the chemistry worked on-screen. I think it was a success."

Payne stresses that "About Schmidt" is not out to make a statement about the Midwest, or even about mid-life.

"I focused on the story of one individual and how he was affected by retirement. If there's a message at all, it's probably a warning: Hey, we're all in danger of becoming Schmidt so let's try to avoid that by keeping our minds open, brains active and striving for freedom somehow."

Payne also observes that in the United States, men tend to have a rougher time than women when it comes to riding out the autumn years. "This is why I love the character of Kathy Bates. She's unconventional and brassy, but she has a good heart and she's also much freer than Schmidt. She discovered the secret long before him and so she's miles ahead. Women tend to be, don't they, not just in America but in general?"

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