Interview: Alexander Payne

The Oscar-nominated director of Sideways talks wine, Little House On The Prairie and "purification by suffering". Yowie!

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UNCUT: Sideways is a multiple Oscar-nominated movie about men and wine. Is it a wine snobs’ film?
PAYNE: I don’t know, you’d have to ask a wine snob.

Are you a wine snob?
I don’t think so. I like wine. I like wine very much, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make the film. But no I don’t think I’m a snob, in fact I hope this film encourages people to have a much more democratic sense about wine, and to jettison any ideas they might have about wine belonging to snobs. Wine belongs to everyone. You don’t have to know anything about it to like it. It’s just like, ‘Hey, this sure tastes good! It sure goes nicely with the food!’

There’s a standout speech in the middle of the movie where failed writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) and student Maya (Virginia Madsen) discuss the merits of pinot noir versus cabernet sauvignon while actually…
No, no, he talks about pinot noir and Maya talks about ‘wine in general.’

Er, sorry.
Go on.

How did you write it?
My writing-partner Jim Taylor and I wrote that pinot speech, and it’s suggested by something in the [original Rex Pickett] novel, as I recall. I wrote Maya’s speech about why she likes wine, because that speech is quite personal to me. Jim and I did some rewriting on it, of course, but that’s largely how I feel about wine.

Are you surprised at how well audiences have reacted to that scene?
I know they all like that scene a lot more than I do. I think it’s a fine scene, but I would never have imagined that people were going to like that scene as much as they seem to. And now what I’m hearing from friends already is that actors are going to use that speech in acting class, when it comes to performing monologues.

Is there a fleeting reference to Little House In The Prairie in the film?
I’ve never seen Little House On The Prairie.

Serious?
Yes I’m serious. I’ve never seen that series. Not even once.

But it’s a great American cultural tradition…
I don’t watch football, I don’t watch baseball, I’ve never seen Little House On The Prairie, I’ve never seen ER, I just don’t care!

OK, so that wasn’t a Little House On The Prairie reference…

What shot are you talking about?

When Miles learns that his ex is getting remarried, then runs madly down hill through the long grasses like Laura Ingalls Wilder in the ’Prairie title sequence.
Oh no, that’s stolen from a film-school friend’s thesis film, back in UCLA. I called him up and even asked him if I could steal that shot.

Is there a sense that your characters, like Matthew Broderick in Election, or Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, or Paul Giamatti in Sideways, all have to be purified by suffering?
Purified by suffering? Really? Wow! I don’t, er, or, I can’t… You see that in Scorsese’s films, but I’ve never articulated that to myself even once about my films. I just think that these are films where the characters are subjected to quite a bit of pain, but I don’t see redemption or purification at the end of it. But that’s just me, personally.

Interview By Kevin Maher

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