‘I’d rather be making a film’: Before walking Oscars red carpet, Alexander Payne sits down with FFP

Mike’l Severe’s freewheeling Flatwater Free Conversation with the famed film director, on “The Holdovers,” going to the Oscars, growing up Greek in Omaha, Giamatti, Costco and doing work at the Elkhorn Public Library.

Editor’s note: This article is a condensed version of Alexander Payne’s conversation with Mike’l Severe in our series, Flatwater Free Conversation. Watch the full interview below.

Mike’l Severe: Welcome to Flatwater Free Conversation. I’m joined by Omaha, Nebraska, native and of course, award-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne. We appreciate you taking the time. I’m glad we could make this work.

Alexander Payne: Happy to be here. (Turns to camera.) He’s been at me for a while and I’ve been a little slippery, so we finally made it work today.

Alexander Payne, on growing up in Omaha: “We…kind of are conflict avoidant.”

Severe: I want to, first off, talk to me about growing up in Omaha and in Nebraska and how that influenced you in terms of filmmaking. Was that a big part of what you became? 

Payne: I thought you said this is going to be easy. … I think that’s a hard question to try to gauge because you try to glom on to what you’re conscious of and then there’s a whole vast arena that you’re probably unconscious of.

…I don’t know man, I don’t want to say stuff that’s very self-con… that we Omahans try to congratulate ourselves on. Nebraska’s like, ‘we’re nice, we’re honest, we’re plain-spoken.’ We are, I wouldn’t exactly say conflict avoidant, but kind of are conflict avoidant. And if we do have to enter into conflicts, we try to do so the most kind of fair-minded, let’s not get too upset about things kind of way.

Starting when I left Omaha and went to college in California and then graduate school, and so near San Francisco I went to Stanford, and I went to UCLA and obviously in LA for graduate school. I would invariably find that my best friends were fellow Midwesterners.

Somehow there’s a shared, I’m going to use that word again, ethos. There’s just a shared wavelength, a sensibility that we have. 

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And I find that we Midwesterners, we Omahans, we try not to be too proud … but we’re kind of proud we have that vibe of basically being plain spoken, trying to be fair, fair minded. I always think about in this time of the much-discussed political divide,  we grew up in a very Republican state and those of us who maybe weren’t so conservative, everyone still got along… 

In terms of what I do in movies, it’s very interesting that Omaha in particular and Nebraska in general has produced so many people who have distinguished themselves in film over the years, going back to the silent days. … When I trot that list out to people who are like, ‘oh you’re from Nebraska, how’d you get into the movies?” I go, “well,” and I start reciting the list of famous names … Harold Lloyd, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Johnny Carson, on and on and on. It’s amazing how that works. Fred Astaire, of course. 

Director Alexander Payne and actor Dan Aid on the set of their film “The Holdovers.” The movie hit theaters in November to serious critical acclaim. Photo, by Seacia Pavao, courtesy of Focus Features

Payne, on Being Greek-American: “I grew up within a subculture, an ethnic one.”

Severe: What about growing up in a Greek family? I grew up in an African-American family, you know, huge dinners, we had fun. I see Greek families on TV and on screen. Was it like that? You guys were around food at a restaurant in your family. What was like growing up in that family? 

Payne: I came to feel lucky that I’m from a subculture within the tapestry of the mainstream culture in America. So I grew up very much with a not just American but Greek-American identity. I think more so than many other European ethnic groups, Greeks really cling to their heritage. 

… So here’s a connection I’ll make, linking your two first questions, that as a Nebraskan going out to the coasts to do flashier work, in my case, film, I’m identified as being kind of from a subculture of, “oh yeah, he’s from Nebraska. In fact, he still lives in Omaha. Isn’t that interesting?” 

Well, then within Omaha, I grew up within a subculture here, an ethnic one. I can’t say it’s Greek. I’m a Greek citizen now. I go to Greece a lot  and they say “well you’re Greek” and I say, “that’s true but let’s be specific I’m actually not Greek I’m Greek American, right?” And these ethnicities forge their own kind of new hybrid identities in their country,  the country they emigrated to. 

But in both cases both as a Nebraskan in California and in New York, and as a Greek-American in general … Sorry I’m being so long-winded, but you get to be a participant observer. So you’re participating in what you’re doing, but you’re also observing it because of your background from a subculture. Interesting. 

Severe: What’s your favorite Greek restaurant in Omaha? 

Payne: Oh that’s dangerous. I would be pilloried if I said one. Greek restaurants, Greek Islands is excellent. My family goes way back with their family. My father helped them when they were first getting started. Jim and Jennie’s Greek Village on 90th Street is excellent. Feta’s in both locations, if they still have their location out west, too. And that’s all I can think of right now. Is there another Greek place? There’s a couple of places that serve Greek food. There’s one like in Papillion, like in a mall. 

Severe: Yes, she’s from South Omaha, but has a Greek ancestry, so it’s a mixed menu. 

Payne: Is it good? 

Severe: It’s good, yeah it is really good. 

Payne: Just in general though, Greek food, and even in Greece, the best food is at home
not at a restaurant. 

Payne as a teenager: “It was scary. I was movie crazy.”

Severe: So both my sons are Lewis and Clark (Junior High, where Payne also attended.) 

So I want to go back to then, did you already know what you wanted to be? Because a lot of us, I always wanted to be on TV as a little kid. Did you know exactly what you wanted to be even going back that far?

Payne: It was scary. Look, I was movie crazy … at Lewis and Clark they used to have an 8th grade humanities program where, if you were kind of  good at your studies, you were invited to participate in this special group. 

Man, I remember in 7th grade being asked to give the 8th grade humanities class a lecture in film history because they knew how film crazy I was. And then in eighth grade I did the same thing. I had a film collection on, not even Super 8, but regular 8. And I had a little film collection. I brought my projector in and ran scenes, scenes which illustrated the points I was making. 

And then I got into journalism. At (Creighton) Prep High School I was on the paper and then yearbook editor. Then I got to college and I just couldn’t go to law school like my parents were wanting me to do. 

I wanted to go to film school. I wasn’t even thinking about being a director. I was just thinking it would be so cool to go to film school. 

And as I said, I grew up in an immigrant family, second generation, but still you have the same ideals. It’s basically just law, medicine, and business that you’re allowed to go into. 

But when I was a senior in college and got an acceptance letter in a film school, I just knew I had to try it. I had no idea if I’d be any good at it. But that didn’t matter. I just knew that I didn’t want to go on and do anything else in my life until I had at least tried it.

My dad had a restaurant. He was partners with his father. His father started a restaurant at 14th and Douglas in 1920. And my dad was in it the last 20 years of the restaurant’s life. And he got an 8mm projector as a bonus from Kraft Foods. And brought it home. And first my older brothers were like, what you do to get movies at the time is you go to the camera store.

So they got Abbott and Costello, and Frankenstein from Castle Films and we’d run movies. And I just completely fell in love with that. And soon enough my brothers lost interest in it, but I never did. I still have the projector. And that kind of got me started.

On Getting Movies Made In 2024: “You still do need someone to give you some dough.”

Severe: How much is getting a project green-lighted changed in your almost 30 years of doing it?

Payne: It’s always hard. It’s degrees of more hard or less hard. It’s never easy. Never easy. Never easy. And even after I’ve had successes, it’s still hard to get the next one. 

Because … even though I’m considered to have a style or my movies are all in a certain sensibility … it’s like, “oh yeah, we like your last one. What do you want to do next?” 

(And I say) “Well here’s this.” 

(And they say)  “It feels too new and different or too risky.” 

Also I don’t always go in for wanting to have big movie stars in my movies. I want to cast whoever I think is appropriate and when you don’t have big movie stars it immediately lowers their interest in financing it and, if they do finance it, (lowers) the budget you get. 

But let me just say that, having said that it’s always kind of hard and tricky, obviously I’ve had some pretty good luck, right?

Payne with Da’Vine Joy Randolph on set. Randolph beat out better-known actresses for the role of a school cook devastated after her son’s recent death during the Vietnam War. She’s now a favorite to win an Oscar for the role. Photo, by Seacia Pavao, courtesy of Focus Features

Severe:  Yeah. It seems like it’s easier to make a movie now technically with the equipment we have right?  But it seems like to me that convincing someone to give a bunch of money for an idea that’s  in your head would be pretty hard to do. 

Payne: Well look here. (Payne points at the camera.)  We’ve got these wonderful cameras, which did not exist 15 years ago … you can do an extremely high-quality movie on that camera with excellent sound, and then you can edit it on your laptop. And all of that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of manpower to get all that stuff done. Now the means of production is highly … It’s been democratized, basically. 

But to get something distributed theatrically, you really, in general, (need) a higher level of talent in front of the camera,  the talent and the quality of the story and the efficiency of the storytelling. For that kind of stuff, and better production values and a little more visual scope, you do still need someone to give you some dough.

Payne’s first movie hits different in 2024: “It’s considered a much more subversive and … bold film, which it kind of was not at the time.”

Severe: You have taken on some big topics in your movies. Go back to “Citizen Ruth” and the discussion on both sides of the abortion debate.
Roe (v. Wade) gets overturned by the Supreme Court. I wonder, as someone who dove deep into that to make a movie on it, your thoughts on the way it’s handled state to state?

Payne: Right. Well, first of all, “Citizen Ruth” … Jim Taylor and I, my co-writer, thought it’d be daring and kind of subversive and fun to dive into abortion as a pool. But really thematically that movie isn’t about abortion. Thematically that movie is more about fanaticism and a comedy, a satire of fanaticism using the incendiary abortion debate. 

But when … Roe was overturned, Laura Dern and I fielded a lot of calls. Like, you know, it was a very small film. It cost $2 million to make and made nothing at the box office. It got me started in my career and, you know, did its job. And we’re proud of the film and we had a good time making it and shot here at Omaha. 

But it was kind of a double-edged sword. Laura Dern and I … interviewed for the Washington Post and some other publications saying, “How do you feel that you made such a prescient movie?” And it’s, you know … double edged because on the one hand, we were sad for the reason that that movie is still considered relevant, but also happy that people still watch it.

Severe: Well, it was one of the first things I thought about when it came down. And I understand why a reporter would start looking up movies that involve that, and you pop up.

Payne: Well, it’s a funny thing, too. When that movie came out, I didn’t get a single protest letter or complaint. Like, no, I think it was so under the radar. Or maybe, I thought, “I guess I pulled my punches too much.” It’s too nice or something. 

Now … by comparison it’s considered a much more subversive and bold film which it kind of was not at the time.

Payne on his  movies: “Each movie kind of … builds its own world. But you can’t avoid who you are.”

Severe: So are there threads … of either Omaha or just your life in each one of your movies, or are they all just fresh thoughts?

Payne: Both. I want each movie to be new and different and, to some degree, unlike anything I’ve done before. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that. Each movie kind of, this isn’t my term, but builds its own world. You know, you see Honolulu, you see rural Nebraska, you see, in the new one, you see Boston in 1970. Excuse me, Massachusetts.

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers.” Payne found Sessa by auditioning high schoolers at schools where “The Holdovers” was to be shot. Photo, by Seacia Pavao, courtesy of Focus Features

But you can’t avoid who you are. So there are thematic concerns which tie them together. And then to your other part of your question, autobiographical things turn up even unconsciously. And other people may not know that they are autobiographical. I may not even know that they’re autobiographical until later … when I see it and go, “oh, yeah, right, I was going through that at the time when I put that joke in…” 

It’s kind of, it’s interesting when you see your movies, because my movies are all very personal, if not ostensibly autobiographical. 

Payne on reuniting with his “Sideways” leading man in “The Holdovers: “I love Paul Giamatti.”

Severe: What is it about Paul Giamatti and your chemistry? 

Payne: I love him. I love Paul Giamatti. 

Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers.” Payne said he was thrilled to work with Giamatti again after teaming up with him in “Sideways,” one of the Omaha director’s most beloved movies. Giamatti is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “The Holdovers.” Photo, by Seacia Pavao, courtesy of Focus Features

Severe: (Does it help)to have good chemistry with your actor? Especially if it’s a lead like that, it’s so much bigger… 

Payne: It helps. It helps, because then a director has partners.
You don’t make a movie alone. So when I’m writing, I have my co-writer as a partner. When I’m scouting locations, I have the production designer and the location manager as partners in the moment of making the film, shooting the film. I’ve got the assistant director, but the key is the cinematographer. He or she and I are partners in that moment. 

But then also, the director … ideally should be, partners with the lead actor, because he or she is kind of team captain and will set the tone for how all the other actors kind of rally around the flag of the film you’re making. And I’ve had pretty good luck with that. 

…It’s really beautiful, man, when you’ve got a good relationship with the leader. And I was so lucky I had that with Laura Dern in “Citizen Ruth,” and we remain close friends, but we had a very tight, creative sense of the movie we were making. And then I’ve had that also with Paul, with Paul Giamatti 20 years ago in “Sideways,” and now with this one. We just really get each other creatively.

Payne on telling a timeless story: “He’s asking the question, ‘what makes a film both popular and memorable?’”

Severe: One of my favorite things is the hero’s journey. I always loved that, going back to British lit. And I watched “The Holdovers” and I watched the way we think of Paul going through the movie. And we start learning things about his life. And at the end, he does a heroic act. Do you enjoy making movies like that, where you’re taking someone through that entire transformation? Or at least the person watching the movie is watching someone go through that transformation?

Payne: The older I get, the more interested I am in, “What is a classic story?” …And I have a recommendation to make right now for anyone interested in story and movies. TCM just finished running a six-part documentary called “The Power of Film” with Howard Suber, who, in fact, had been a teacher of mine at UCLA.

And he’s retired now. He’s in his 80s. And some other UCLA folks got him to sit down and basically teach a distilled version of his class. And then they illustrated it extremely brilliantly with clips. And you learn so much about, “What is a story?” I mean, he’s asking the question … “what makes a film both popular and memorable?” 

Why do we have this canon of films that were popular in their day, and … remain part of our collective consciousness? 

And he answers it really well, and in ways that connect to what you’re asking about, about classic storytelling, the hero’s path, journey, what he or she needs to do, and then by extension, who are we? 

So when you start to answer what is a story, you’re analyzing a story outside of yourself, but really what you’re doing is looking at something inside of yourself, and that’s why we respond to it.

Alexander Payne on Star Wars: “The Empire Strikes Back…That’s the best one.”

Severe: I was gonna say that, because a big part of it is when you watch it too, right? Like where you are in your life. Like people my age defend the original Star Wars trilogy to the death. The kids who watch the prequels, they defend that because where they were…

Payne: They’re wrong.

Severe: I know they’re wrong! But where they were in their life, that was the movie that touched them because they were that age or where they lived.

Payne: Then when you have children, you should only show them the first three first. At the right age.

Severe: We did.

Payne: And especially “The Empire Strikes Back.” Which is the best one. That’s the best one! Can you name the director of “The Empire Strikes Back?

Severe:  I know exactly who it is, and right now it’s not going to … I can see him. The mustache.

Payne: Irvin Kershner. But isn’t it interesting that the director of one of the most successful blockbuster films of all time remains largely unknown?

Payne on the pace of his filmmaking? “…I kind of want to speak only when I have something to say.”

Severe: Why only eight films in 27 years? 

Payne: I’m slow with screenplay. 

Severe: The writing of it? 

Payne: Yeah, yeah. I want to be, rather than sitting here wasting my time talking to you today, I’d rather be making a film. But it’s the script. But, you know, I want to be doing it all the time. And at the same time, I kind of want to speak only when I have something to say. And conceiving, putting in the work to the screenplay, getting it all, that’s one thing I’ve been a little bit slow at.

Severe:  It’s not crazy, because Tarantino’s only made a certain amount.

Payne: Yeah, Sergio Leone directed seven features in his lifetime, Stanley Kubrick 13. You know, quality, quantity, you can have that discussion, but I really envy the Hollywood directors of the studio system who would do three a year. Oh my God, all the filmmaking. 

Payne, on getting nominated for Oscars: “Really groovy.”

Severe: What’s it like when you get nominated? “The Holdovers” comes out and right away, we’re talking Academy buzz. Film gets nominated, Paul Giamatti gets nominated, Mary Lamb gets nominated.

Payne: She’s probably going to win.

Severe: Yeah, I hope she does. …What’s that feeling like the last couple of weeks or three weeks since the nominations came out?

Payne: Really groovy…Look, it’s so hard to get to make movies. It’s so hard to make a movie. It’s so hard to make a good one. It’s so hard to make a good one that gets enthusiastic distribution. It’s so hard to have one that gets enthusiastic distribution that then is considered for awards. Like, I’m in a really privileged place, like right now with this movie out and so forth, and that it got five Oscar nominations. 

From left to right, Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in director Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers.” The unlikely trio forms an impromptu family after being thrown together during a holiday break. “You know me,” Payne says, “I like to do stories about people who find ways to love one another when it’s difficult.” Photo, by Seacia Pavao, courtesy of Focus Features

You know, you can’t, you can take it only so seriously, because the other part of you recoils at the idea of competition in the arts. How can you really say this is better than that? It’s apples and oranges. 

I mean, so if you put aside that philosophical objection … and kind of see, well, it’s for entertainment purposes only. It’s fun. I mean, this sounds like a cliche, but it’s really true. The fun thing is getting the nomination. Who wins? Yeah, it’s awesome. You know, I’ve won. It’s great. But the nomination is the real gift. 

More on Alexander Payne

To read more about Alexander Payne’s twisting, turning path to make, “The Holdovers,” read Flatwater Free Press correspondent Leo Adam Biga’s story from October 2023.

Payne, on “Downsizing”: “You mean why it tanked?”

Severe: Why did a movie like Downsizing with a great concept, Matt Damon’s a wonderful actor, I think the story is incredible, why do you think that wasn’t necessarily widely… 

Payne: You mean why it tanked? 

Severe: You can go with that if you want. Obviously the topic (climate change) can be divisive for a lot of people. 

Payne: Yeah, it’s not that, I think it’s a really good idea. Jim and I were sitting on that idea for years, and we continue to stand by that idea. … Were Jim Taylor and I to do that today, it’s probably an idea better served by a limited series than by a feature film. Because it’s a huge idea and you keep going, “Then this would happen, then this would happen, and then this would happen.” And then where do you break it off? 

And so we wound up kind of trying to stuff 20 pounds of sausage into about a nine pound casing.

And then with often very flimsy narrative threads connecting one section to the other section … might be more forgiven in a series where it’s like, “Oh, wait till you get to the fourth hour. You never could have seen that coming.”

Severe: Is (a TV or streaming series) something you’d be interested in doing? The Bear is one of my favorites.

Payne: I hear it’s great. I still haven’t seen it.

My brain currently, to date, defaults to movies. I like movies. And even nowadays, people are like, well, have you seen “Succession”? Have you seen “The Bear”? Have you seen this, that, and the other? 

It’s like, yeah, I want to. And then when I go to turn it on, I say, “Well, what do I have recorded from TCM?” And I still default. Because there are so many magnificent older films to watch. I mean, literally, in your lifetime, you won’t be able to watch all the great films which have already been made! 

Payne on future projects: “We’re thinking about Custer County, Nebraska.”

Severe: What about a Western?

Payne: Thinking about it.

Severe: Would you set it in Nebraska? 

Payne: Yeah. In the Wild West, so 1880s, kind of 20 years after the Homestead Act. And we’re thinking about Custer County, Nebraska. Largely because a lot was written about Custer County, Nebraska. It’s a very documented county here in Nebraska. Now whether it would be shot there, I don’t know. I can’t say for sure because where do you find prairie? Where do you find that?

That’s why so many Westerns, going back even to “Unforgiven,” have been shot in Canada. I don’t like the idea of shooting in Canada, shooting an American story. But anyway, let’s not put the cart before the horse. First we have to get the script right.

Severe: What about a horror movie?

Payne: Love to make a horror movie. And occasionally, I watch some horror movies. And there are some good ones. The trouble with them that you have to figure out is…they all are really great, and then you’re let down by the ending. 

And often the trouble with it is that the climax of the movie has also to serve sort of as the explanation of why that phenomenon has occurred, this abnormal phenomenon. And so great movies like” Hereditary: and “It Follows” and “Smile” are so awesome. The Exorcist, something like that. And “Rosemary’s Baby” is fantastic, because it just is, and it ends on a moment of horror.

There’s no release, like the horror’s just beginning.

Severe: And the poster, too, one of the best of all time.

Payne:  In my apartment here in Omaha, not only do I have that one, but I have two Polish posters of Rosemary. At one point, my dream was to do my entire apartment in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Severe: Wow.

Payne on writing: Yes, that man you saw working at the Elkhorn Public Library was Alexander Payne

Severe: Very good. So, yeah. So what’s next?

Payne: I’m going to go back to my apartment and put – I was at Costco just now – and put the groceries away.

Severe: Right. Professionally.

Payne: Oh, I got to get back to writing. This (“The Holdovers” awards buzz period) is a great period, but it just takes like a five-month plug out of my life because it’s hard then to really focus. Basically, I got to get back to writing. I don’t know what my next movie will be…

Severe: Are you at a spot in the house? Do you write in bed? Is there a guest room? Do you have to work a certain time? 

Payne: I’m coming to the point now where I think it’s impossible to work at home. Even if you have a space set aside for yourself at home, you’ve got to get out of the house. I went to a public library today to work. I went to Costco and met a friend for lunch. But before that I put in a couple hours at, of all places, the Elkhorn Public Library.

Severe: Wow. Well, we appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time.

Payne: Yeah, I support Flatwater Free Press. We all should. Thanks for having me. 

Full interview: Flatwater Free Conversations — Alexander Payne


I’m an unlikely fan of this site and what it covers.
Living In California the past 50 years but grew up on a farm in Idaho. We seem to be the same tribe and the stories you feel are important ring true to me.
Keep on doing it.



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