Nebraska is the center of Alexander Payne's universe

 Nebraska is the center of Alexander Payne's universe
Director Alexander Payne grew up in Nebraska. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Alexander Payne is a born director. Not just thanks to his six feature film credits (including "Election," "About Schmidt" and the current Oscar nominee "Nebraska") but because even in a brief meeting he finds ways to assert control — over old misquotes, article angles and declining to put certain topics on the record that are off-message. He's probably smarter than you are and speaks with a thoughtful eloquence that doesn't quite hide that he knows it.

Yet he wins Oscars for his scripts ("Sideways," "The Descendants") rather, thus far, than for his directing. But this year may be different; Payne did not write "Nebraska," and so has a nomination solely for his directing efforts. Perhaps this time, voters will see it his way. On a recent visit to New York, Payne sat down with The Envelope.


What was it like filming a script you hadn't written?

Well, I did do a rewrite of the screenplay [by Bob Nelson] before directing it. But I did not seek screenwriting credit because I felt the work I was doing was in service to his already fine screenplay. I've written scripts for myself to direct only out of desperation. I never aspired to write everything I directed. Writing is dreadful. I like directing, and I like editing. But it's difficult early in a director's career to have access to decently written material written by others. Also, nowadays they're not making the types of films that used to be made and those writers, the best writers working today are working in television.

You directed the "Hung" pilot for HBO. Why that one?

It was a long gap between "Sideways" and "The Descendants," and I was eager to shoot film and be up on actors, so I accepted to do a TV pilot. And I wanted the experience too; I just thought it would be fun to do.

Did having Nebraska as your home state play any role in wanting to do this film?

Absolutely. It had to play a role in why the script reached me. I'm the go-to Cornhusker director. I like shooting away, out of Nebraska. I love the whole world, I like to shoot all over the place, but I also love shooting in Nebraska, particularly in Omaha.

East and West Coasters will have this stereotype of Nebraska as being very homogenous; did growing up even as third-generation Greek contribute to an outsider feeling for you?

Jews, Greeks see themselves as part of the fabric, part of the whole, but also a subculture. I think it contributed to what I do as a filmmaker, to be a part of the overall fabric of people in America, yet slightly from without. It's kind of how our planet Earth is situated with respect to the rest of the Milky Way, the galaxy. You see the Milky Way, those are a bunch of stars all pressed together and the planets that surround them wouldn't have such a good view. Our sun is apart from it, we can look at it. We have an amazing point of view of the galaxy we're in, because we're in a far-off border.

So Earth is the ….

Earth is the Greek Omaha of the galaxy, that's true.

In a previous conversation we had, you said, "My first six features are études. … These are minor works." So what's the major work you still want to do?

I'll know it when I see it.


It just hasn't crossed your path yet?

Either because I'm slow or because of the period in which we're living. I haven't been able to accrue lots of experience quickly or earlier in life. I'm 52, I've completed only six features.

What holds you back?

Screenplays, the hardest thing. I'm not quick like Woody Allen, for example. I'm pretty disciplined, but I don't have that discipline. I'm grateful for the opportunity to make the films I've been able to make, but I always think I'm just learning. The egotistical side of that is you ain't seen nothing yet. But it's not so much what I'm trying to show the world, it's what I'm trying to dig out of myself, for myself.