Movie Interviews
10:08 am
Thu November 17, 2011

In Payne's 'Descendants,' Trouble In The Tropics

Originally published on Thu November 17, 2011 6:04 pm

Though he's directed only five feature films, Alexander Payne has built a reputation as one of Hollywood's most respected filmmakers. His movies find comedy in the crises of his flawed protagonists — among them Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher in Election, Jack Nicholson as a widower in About Schmidt and Paul Giamatti as a struggling author and wine snob in Sideways, for which Payne shared an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Payne's latest film is The Descendants, which is set in Hawaii and stars George Clooney. He plays a Honolulu lawyer named Matt who stands to inherit 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian beachfront real estate. Matt must decide whether to sell the land to developers or keep the land pristine. At the same time, Matt's personal life turns upside down when his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident. Her prognosis is bleak, and Clooney's character finds himself trying to solo parent his two daughters, one of whom tells him that his wife had been cheating on him throughout their marriage.

Critics are giving the emotional drama rave reviews: The Los Angeles Times' critic Betsy Sharkey says the movie is "a tragedy infused with comedy [that] calls for a balancing act from filmmaker and star alike, a tightrope they navigate with nary a wobble." Rolling Stone's Peter Travers called the film "near perfect."

Payne talks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies about his films The Descendants, Election, Sideways and Paris, Je T'Aime, and sheds light on his casting process.


Interview Highlights

On passing on George Clooney for the role Thomas Haden Church played in Sideways

"It just so happens Jack Nicholson is very right for About Schmidt and George Clooney was very right for The Descendants. But [for] Sideways ... I thought no one kind of superfamous was quite right for those two parts."

On casting George Clooney in The Descendants

"He's right for The Descendants because he's the right age, he's the right look — one of those handsome rich guys out in Hawaii. And also emotionally [right] for the part — because we film viewers have detected in Clooney's work a certain charming detachment from emotions ... how he looks at the proceedings going on around him with a certain twinkle in his eye. ... I thought that would be accurate for the character of someone who's grown detached from the emotions of his own life, and has to grow to be more connected and aware and in touch with his own feelings."

On casting young actors

"The young actors who have experience and have acting chops often don't seem the age that they really are. It's like 17 going on 30. They seem like actors; they don't seem like real people. And if you try to cast someone off the street, like a nonprofessional actor, they might not have the acting chops to memorize a lot of dialogue and remain focused with all of that moviemaking machinery around them.

"I saw at least 200 girls for the older part and at least 300 for the younger part. ... Shailene [Woodley, who plays Clooney's older daughter] is someone who has the chops. She's been acting professionally since she was under 10 — yet has maintained a freshness and an innocence that I [can] believe she is 17. And Amara [Miller, who plays the 10-year-old daughter] — that was a tough one [to cast]. By the time the girls would come back in and read for me, they come in and they're so drilled and rehearsed by their mothers and fathers, that any talent in them has been cloaked by what their parents wanted them to do.

"But Amara had never even been in a school play — she'd never been in anything. And I found her only three weeks before shooting by the flimsiest of threads. ... A minute into the audition, I said, 'There she is.' That's someone who has no acting chops but she's very, very comfortable simply in being herself."

On casting famous people

"Anytime you cast a movie and you need someone famous in the lead part, you're a prisoner of whoever happens to be famous in the six-month window in which you're trying to get a film financed. I lament that many times, a director has to compromise about who these lead actors must be, simply in order to get the film financed — when that's the single most important element of the film that should be never compromised."

On film settings

"My first three films were set in Omaha, my hometown, and maybe I was trying to grasp something about Omaha — something elusive about one's own sense of place. In making those first three films, I began to acquire a certain skill set about how to do that. I think that skill set was refined a bit more in Sideways, in capturing Santa Barbara County. By the time I got to doing The Descendants and really wanted to show almost with the eye and sensibility of a documentarian, the right feeling — physically and rhythmically — of Hawaii ... it's become something I'm very, very interested in."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Though he's directed only five feature films, our guest Alexander Payne has managed to build a reputation as one of Hollywood's most respected filmmakers. His movies find comedy in the crises of his flawed protagonists, among them Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher in the 1999 film "Election," Jack Nicholson as a widower in "About Schmidt," and Paul Giamatti as a struggling author and wine snob in the 2004 film "Sideways," for which Payne shared an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Payne's latest film is "The Descendants," which is set in Hawaii. George Clooney plays a lawyer whose life turns upside down when his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident.

In this scene, he's just brought his 17-year-old daughter, played by Shailene Woodley, back from boarding school to deal with the family crisis. They're talking while she's in the pool. In a moment, his 10-year-old daughter, played by Amara Miller, comes out of the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DESCENDANTS")

SHAILENE WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) Sid's coming over.

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Matt King) Who's Sid?

WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) A really good friend from (unintelligible). We were in school together for years.

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) Oh. Okay.

WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) He wants to be here for me with all this happening.

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) Do I know his parents?

WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) Nope. He might stay over too. Is that cool?

AMARA MILLER: (As Scottie King) Hey, Alex, over here.

WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) Get out of my underwear, you freak.

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) Now, okay.

MILLER: (As Scottie King) Ooh la la.

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) No, no, no, no. Back inside.

MILLER: (As Scottie King) Don't I look fine?

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) Put on a swimsuit.

MILLER: (As Scottie King) Why?

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) Now.

WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) Real good job you're doing.

CLOONEY: (As Matt King) That's part of why I brought you here. You have to help me with her. I don't know what to do with her.

WOODLEY: (As Alexandra King) Maybe if you spent more time with her she wouldn't act like such a complete spaz.

GROSS: Alexander Payne spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Alexander Payne, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This film stars George Clooney, and I know that you have had films in which you've done big stars like Jack Nicholson, others with less recognizable actors, and I know that casting is really important to you. How do you approach that, whether you want to get a big name or not?

ALEXANDER PAYNE: Well, I think first who is right for the part, be the actor famous or not so famous. And it just so happens that Jack Nicholson was very right for "About Schmidt" and George Clooney is very right for "The Descendants." But "Sideways," for example, I thought no one kind of super-famous was quite right for those two parts.

DAVIES: Right. And I heard that George Clooney was interested in the part that Thomas Hayden Church got. Why was Clooney right for "The Descendants" and maybe not quite the right fit for "Sideways"?

PAYNE: Yeah. Well, the part in "Sideways" called for a guy who's a failed TV actor and the fact that George Clooney is this handsome, extremely successful television and film actor, I thought that if he were playing that part, that that would've been one of the jokes of the film and I didn't want that to be a joke of the film. I wanted the film to have its own jokes.

And he's right for "The Descendants" because he's the right age. He's the right look and coloring for someone, one of those handsome rich guys out in Hawaii, and also emotionally for the part, the fact that maybe we film viewers have detected in George Clooney's work a certain charming detachment from emotions or how he looks at the proceedings going on around him, with a certain twinkle in his eye but slightly detached.

I thought that that would be accurate for the character of someone who's detached from the emotions of his own life and has, over the course of the film, to kind of grow into being more connected and in touch and aware, more in touch with his own feelings. So I thought that would be interesting.

DAVIES: In this film the lead character Matt King has two daughters, a teenager who's a handful and a younger kid, played by Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley. If these young actresses don't pull it off, this movie's just not going to quite work. You want to tell us a little bit about finding those two actresses and casting them?

PAYNE: That's - finding young – yeah, finding young actors is, so far in my career, the hardest thing to do. Well, not necessarily hard but very, very, very time consuming. I had had some experience doing it on "Election," finding all of those young people, and then going into "The Descendants" I told the studio, yes, I want to — I'm beginning work on the screenplay, but even as I'm writing the screenplay I want my casting director at work.

Because it's going to take a long time to find those two girls. And why? Because the young actors who have acting experience and a lot of acting chops often don't seem the age that they really are. You know, it's like 17 going on 30. And they seem like actors, they don't seem like real people.

And if you try to cast someone off the street or a non-professional actor, they may not have the acting chops to memorize a lot of dialogue and remain focused with all of that movie-making machinery around them, and having to do it take after take after take. I saw at least 200 girls for the older part and at least 300 for the younger part.

Maybe I didn't see them all personally, but between the casting director and myself those were about the numbers we saw. And Shailene is someone who has the chops. She's been acting professionally since she was under 10, yet has maintained a freshness and an innocence that, you know, I believed that she was 17, which is what the character is. She was 18 when we shot. And Amara Miller, the 10-year-old, boy, that was a tough one.

Because all – by the time the girls would come in to read for me, like, you know, it's a call back for the director, they come in and they're so drilled and rehearsed by their mothers or fathers that any talent in them has been cloaked by lifelessness, of aping what their mothers or - you know, what their parents wanted them to do. But Amara had never even been in a school play. She'd never been in anything.

And I found her only three weeks before shooting by the flimsiest of threads of destiny. I happened to tell the wife of my second unit cinematographer that I was still – you know, just casually in conversation – that I was looking for a girl who would be like this or that. Unknown to me, she told a friend in her apartment building who told another friend who has a sister in Monterrey, California who has a daughter who maybe is kind of a ham and wants to act.

And three days later, I woke up and in my email inbox was an audition from this little girl, Amara Miller, and a minute into the audition I said, Oh, there she is. That's she. And that's someone who, as I said, has no acting chops but she's very, very comfortable simply in being herself. And has - that's someone you cast more for the essence that she brings. So I was very, very fortunate to find those two. And there were – I had no also-rans for either part.

DAVIES: Wow. If that's the case – that you take, in the case of Amara Miller for the new film, "The Descendants," you simply can tell by your gut or whatever that this is the right person.

PAYNE: Correct.

DAVIES: How do you think you get that ability?

PAYNE: Well, you do have to have some tests to determine if the actors are going to be bulletproof or not, if they're going to get freaked out by the camera and the lights. So you have to do a little bit of research there, but basically it's, you know, it's kind of whom do we respond to as people? Oh, well, I like that person's essence. I like that person's face. It's a whacky choice for this film. It's more like life.

I mean, I'm trying to make films in general, on many levels - on the script level, visually, production design, rhythmically, which are like life. And I want - and the casting – casting is the most important of all components of cinema. It's the first among equals. The cast is the primary possessor and expresser of tone. And, you know, De Sica used to say, gosh, you know, talking about leads, he'd say, you know, each individual human face tells its own story. And you're telling me that - at the time - three billion faces on Earth, I can only choose from 25? I agree with that. I want to see many different faces in front of the camera.

DAVIES: Twenty-five meaning established actors?

PAYNE: Correct.

DAVIES: Right.

PAYNE: You know, any time you cast a movie where you need someone famous in the lead, lead part or in the top two or three parts, you're a prisoner of whoever happens to be famous in the, you know, or hot in the six month window in which you're trying to get a film financed. So it's - I lament that many times a director has to compromise about who those lead actors must be simply order to get the film financed. When in fact that's the single most important element of the film that should be never compromised.

DAVIES: Well, with your kind of success I guess you can kind of do what you want now, right, or hopefully...

PAYNE: As long as I keep, yes, as long as I keep my prices low. As long as I keep the budgets of my films low, I'm granted more freedom. Absolutely. But it's totally related to budget.

DAVIES: One of the memorable moments in your film "About Schmidt," your earlier film, is when Warren, the Jack Nicholson character, realizes that his deceased wife had an affair with a friend. And in "The Descendents" we find that the lead character, Matt King, played by George Clooney, his wife is in a coma. He discovers that in fact his wife was cheating on him. This is a fascinating situation where the people learn of an affair, try to grapple with the most important relationship in their lives at a time when it's too late to do anything about it.

Now, I don't know how much of the story we want to give away here, I mean but this character Matt King does find that, you know, his wife, who's now in a coma, has been having an affair. And one of the things that happens is that he and his daughter set off to find this man who was having an affair with his wife. And I don't know if we want to reveal too much here, but it's interesting that there's a dramatic confrontation brewing and there are a lot of ways you could resolve it, some of which, you know, you might have him punch out the guy or have an angry argument. And the way it is resolved seems to me that kind of improvised thing that happens in real life, and I'm just wondering how you approach that.

PAYNE: This is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. And what I liked about it, one of the things I liked about the novel was that when he does learn of the infidelity and he does feel murderous, greater than that he feels a responsibility to his wife to say, you know, I want to kill the mug but I should let him know that the wife is dying and that - and give him a chance to go to the hospital to say goodbye. And I just gave away some of the plot, but that act of love, when it's difficult, was something that I thought was very beautiful and was one of the main reasons I wanted to make the film. And so when you talk about the confrontation between the two at the end, I mean I play it for some comedy as well, for some kind of supercharged drama/comedy.

But more than wanting to kill the guy, I see George Clooney's character in the film as simply someone who wants to know the truth. He finds the guy and says, did you love her? Did she love you? Like, what, how did you meet? Those things. Just wanting to know the truth. And it's - that has roots, of course, in Greek tragedy, where you want to know the truth but of course the truth may hurt you more than you realize. And I don't know, I just think that's interesting.

DAVIES: Yeah. And in some way he's sort of trying to figure out some things about his own life which he hadn't bothered paying much attention to.

PAYNE: Yeah. He's taking responsibility for his own complicity in a failed marriage. You bet.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Alexander Payne. His new film is "The Descendents." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is filmmaker Alexander Payne. He's directed a new film with George Clooney called "The Descendents." Now, your films have a real sense of place. This is set in Hawaii. It's based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Do I have the name right?

PAYNE: Yes.

DAVIES: And I'm kind of curious about what was distinctive about Hawaiian life or culture that you wanted to bring into this film and how you got there.

PAYNE: I had visited Hawaii many times over the last 20 years, starting in 1990 when I took my thesis film from UCLA to play it at the Hawaii International Film Festival. So my first trip to Hawaii was not as a tourist, but rather as a friend of someone who grew up there and in fact went to Punahou High School, that elite school where indeed even our president attended. And from that point on I always got a sense of the complex social fabric and cultural fabric, ethnically. It's very sui generis. It's very unique out there.

DAVIES: Why put as much effort as you doing some of these films to make them rooted in a place? And that really struck me in "Sideways," that we saw a lot of the Santa Barbara wine country. And we see a lot of Hawaii in "The Descendents."

PAYNE: Well, I think that for some reason, and it wasn't conscious - now I recognize it in retrospect and now I'm conscious of it, but capturing that sense of place has become very important to me. Maybe because the first three features I did were set in Omaha and I was trying, my hometown, and I was trying to grasp something about Omaha - something elusive about one's own sense of place. And in making those first three films, I think – and certainly by "About Schmidt" I began to acquire a certain skill set about how to do that. and I think that skill set was refined a bit more in capturing Santa Barbara County in "Sideways." By the time I got to doing "The Descendants," and really wanted to show almost with the eye and sensibility of a documentarian, a right feeling - physically and rhythmically - of Hawaii, then it's become - well, it's sort of become something I'm very, very interested in, to the point where now when I consider future movie, I audition mentally not just the story, the emotional story, but also where is it going to take place. Does the setting interest me as much as the story?

DAVIES: I want to talk about "Election," the film you made in 1999...

PAYNE: And still the film I get the most compliments for.

DAVIES: Really?

PAYNE: Yeah.

DAVIES: Well, it's a terrific film. It's based on a novel by Tom Perrotta. And I thought we begin by listening to a clip. This is the story of a high school class election where Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, who's this ambitious overachieving kid who is running for class president. She is a conflict with a teacher named, who's played by Matthew Broderick, who develops a real dislike for her, and he commences a football star named Paul Metzler to run for class president. He's a really sweet naive kid. He's played by Chris Klein. And in this scene, Tracy, the girl, sees Paul has entered the race for class president and she goes over to confront him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ELECTION")

CHRIS KLEIN: (as Paul Metzler) Oh, hi, Tracy.

REESE WITHERSPOON: (as Tracy Flick) Who put you up to this?

KLEIN: (as Paul Metzler) What do you mean?

WITHERSPOON: (as Tracy Flick) You just woke up this morning and suddenly decided to run for president?

KLEIN: (as Paul Metzler) No. No. I just thought that...

WITHERSPOON: (as Tracy Flick) Thought what?

KLEIN: (as Paul Metzler) Well, I was talking to Mr. McAllister about my leg and how I still want to do something for the school and...

WITHERSPOON: (as Tracy Flick) So Mr. McAllister asked you to run.

KLEIN: (as Paul Metzler) Well, I talked to him and everything. But he just said that he thought it would be a good idea and how there's all different kinds of fruits and - it's nothing against you, Tracy. I mean you're the best. I just thought...

WITHERSPOON: (as Tracy Flick) Okay. You're on, Mr. Popular.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WITHERSPOON: You might think it upset me that Paul Metzler had decided to run against me. But nothing could be further from the truth. He was no competition for me. It's like apples and oranges. I had to work a little harder, that's all. You see, I believe in the voters. They understand that elections are just popularity contests. They know this country was built by people just like me who work very hard and don't have everything handed to them on a silver spoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

DAVIES: And that's from the film "Election," directed by our guest, Alexander Payne. The bangs we hear there are Tracy Flick making buttons for her run for class president. Boy, memorable character here. You know, and Reese Witherspoon, I guess she was maybe 21, 22 when she played this role, and it struck me, she's, you know, she's playing a younger person, a high school kid, but of a kid who is worldly-wise and cynical beyond her years. Want to talk a little bit about getting that performance from her?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: Well, she's a smart actress. She knew what the heck to do. I think the only thing I really helped her out with was the accent. It was slightly, slightly Fargo-ish, and I tried to keep her kind of, you know, on this side of going too far with the accent, and then encouraging her to do some of the more physical humor. But, man, she can do anything.

DAVIES: The other thing that I noticed about this film and also about "About Schmidt" was the use of voiceovers to kind of give the inner dialogue, the inner voice of the characters. You don't do that on "Sideways" or "The Descendents." I'm wondering when that...

PAYNE: Yeah, no, there is - sorry to correct you...

DAVIES: Okay.

PAYNE: But "The Descendents" has quite a bit of voiceover...

DAVIES: Okay.

KLEIN: ...in the first half hour, 40 minutes or so.

DAVIES: So seamlessly included that I didn't notice.

PAYNE: I'm so happy you didn't notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: But I like voiceover a lot. And one of the main reasons I wanted to make "Election," in fact, was the challenge of having multiple voiceover.

DAVIES: Right.

PAYNE: I had never seen that before. Both "Goodfellas" and the "Casino" have a little bit of multiple voiceover but I thought, what if you do a movie, you know, slightly "Rashomon"-like, you know, it's different people's perspectives around a single event. The book "Election" had, I think, seven or eight people's first-person accounts of these proceedings, and then for purposes of the screenplay Jim Taylor and I limited it to four. And this kind of narrative passing the baton, that was, that - how to do that was the main reason I wanted to make that film.

DAVIES: Yeah. And there's a wonderful moment when - it's probably the night before the big election when each of them lie down and say their prayers and we can hear them. And it's just - it's this kind of wonderful exposition of their own perspectives of life.

PAYNE: Yeah. Thanks. I liked that too. I think the reason I still get the most compliments of this film over any of my other films, I saw the film a couple of years ago and to my eye it succeeds on two levels; one, it's not too long. I think it's the only film I've made so far which isn't somehow too long. It's kind of exactly right. And it succeeds rhythmically. It has a very good internal metronome that just clicks along and it's - just rhythmically it's very good. And second, I think the cynical bite of the film is giving it some staying power. I think cynicism ages much better than sentimentality.

DAVIES: So why are your other films too long?

Well, they're not very much too long. But it's, when working with a feature, it's just sometimes, I don't know, it's hard to get movies to cut finally so they're exactly right and feel exactly the right rhythm and that they end exactly when they should. And usually there's some scene or sections of scenes that drag the film down a little bit - and I'm aware of that while making the film, and then the editor and I have to make the judgment, well, you know, we could cut that scene but if we did cut that scene, then the scene 40 minutes later wouldn't pay off and those sorts of questions come up constantly. But "Election" somehow came out just right.

GROSS: Alexander Payne will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Payne directed the new film "The Descendents" starring George Clooney. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the conversation that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Alexander Payne, who directed the new film "The Descendents," starring George Clooney. Payne also directed "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways." Payne shared an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Sideways" which was released in 2004. In a moment we'll hear a scene from it.

DAVIES: This is a story of two guys on a road trip, Miles, who is played by Paul Giamatti, is this, you know, slightly depressed divorced schoolteacher and aspiring author who hopes to get his book published and a big wine buff. And he is there with his old friend Jack, who is played by Thomas Haden Church, who's sort of a not-terribly-successful actor who's about to get married. This is going to be their little bachelor's trip away to the Santa Barbara wine country. And Miles is all about the wine and Jack is on the make, wants to have a wild time before he gets hitched. Here is a scene where they're at a winery speaking to the woman who's doing the pouring, who is played by Sandra Oh, and we can kind of see their perspectives. She begins by asking their reaction to a wine she's just poured.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SIDEWAYS")

SANDRA OH: (as Stephanie) So what do you think?

PAUL GIAMATTI: (as Miles) Quaffable but far from transcendent.

THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (as Jack) I like it. It's great.

GIAMATTI: (as Miles) Well, I will tell you something, I've come to never expect greatness from a Cab Franc, and this one is no different. It's kind of a hollow, flabby, overripe...

CHURCH: (as Jack) I don't know. It takes pretty good to me. So, do you live around here or something?

OH: (as Stephanie) Yeah. Up around Las Olmos. And I agree with you about Cab Franc.

CHURCH: We're just over in Buellton, Windmill Inn.

OH: (as Stephanie) Oh, yeah?

CHURCH: (as Jack) Do you happen to know a gal named Maya that works at the Hitching Post?

OH: (as Stephanie) Yeah. Sure. Yeah, I know Maya.

CHURCH: (as Jack) Yeah? No (bleep).

OH: (as Stephanie) Oh yeah.

CHURCH: (as Jack) Well, we had a drink with her last night. Miles knows her.

GIAMATTI: (as Miles) Yes. Could we move on to the Syrah, please?

DAVIES: And that's Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church from the film "Sideways," directed by our guest Alexander Payne. This movie was based on the novel by Rex Pickett, unpublished I think when you read it, right?

PAYNE: As was "Election." "Election" was unpublished when I read it.

DAVIES: Right. You really pull these little known-works. What convinced you this would make a good movie, "Sideways?"

PAYNE: I knew it immediately. I started reading that manuscript, I was on airplane at about 20 pages in I just started rooting for it - please stay good. Please don't disappoint me. Please don't suddenly come up with some stupid contrivance. Please keep it human and idiosyncratic and weird. And thank God it did straight to the finish. And I got off that plane ride and went to a pay phone and called the producer who had sent it to me and I said I want to do this. And that was before "About Schmidt." So I was sitting on it while making "About Schmidt" and then finally when I finished "About Schmidt," did "Sideways.

DAVIES: Again, you know, casting is really important to you. Tell us why Paul Giamatti was right for this role?

PAYNE: Well, he's one of our most magnificent actors. And I remember thinking when he auditioned for the part, I thought, man, this is a guy who can make even bad dialogue work. And that's kind of what I look for in actors and leads is those who can, no matter what the dialogue is, they can make it work.

DAVIES: Right. And what about Thomas Haden Church, what did he bring?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: Well, he's just such a unique personage, Mr. Church. He had auditioned for me for both "Election" and "About Schmidt" and he always makes a big impact when you meet him. And I had him come in and audition for "Sideways" two or three times 'cause I wanted to be exactly sure, but he's just such a wild guy and there's a really unpredictable comic streak in him. He's one of the funniest individuals I've ever met. And I just thought mentally, I kind of mentally put together Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church and I thought, well, I would like to see that movie. I mean, I didn't, they didn't meet before two or three weeks before we started shooting. I just imagined that they would be good together.

DAVIES: Did you have them spend time together, tooling around the wine country to get acquainted?

PAYNE: Oh, yeah. That's why I had them come out to Santa Barbara County two or three weeks before we started shooting, supposedly to do rehearsal but not so much with me but rather so that they could spend time together and play golf together and go taste wine and hang out and go to a movie together, because if their friendship was not believable onscreen then your wasn't going to be much of a movie because they're such different individuals.

DAVIES: What makes it unique are the wine stuff, the fact that Paul Giamatti is this struggling novelist, I mean, the particular contrast in these characters.

PAYNE: Yes. Well, I'd seen versions of the film in a way, the male friendship between an extrovert and an introvert or one who is kind of a centralist and one who is more internal. You see it in the "Zorba the Greek." You see it in "The Easy Life," it's an Italian film from the early '60s. You see it to a degree in "Withnail and I." So that combination has been done before. It's kind of two sides of a single man's soul. But, again, one thing is the emotional story of a film and the other thing is where and under what circumstances? And the fact that it was during a wine tasting trip the week before one of them was to be married and in Santa Barbara County, it just made it unique. I had never seen that film before.

DAVIES: And there's that memorable moment in the film where the Paul Giamatti character says, I'm not drinking Merlot.

PAYNE: Yes.

DAVIES: Did this movie kill Merlot?

PAYNE: That...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: I'm told it did. It didn't - you can't kill Merlot but I'm told that it had an impact on Merlot wine sales and a positive impact on Pinot Noir wine sales. And that joke, I'm not drinking any, you know, Merlot, I thought was just a nice little joke. Who, I never in a million years could have predicted that it would enter, to some degree, popular culture.

DAVIES: And before we go, I wanted to ask you just a bit about "Paris, Je T'Aime"...

PAYNE: Yeah.

DAVIES: The film that you made a short for with - starring Margo Martindale, which she described in an interview on FRESH AIR recently and just in the most touching way. Just tell us a little bit about that piece.

PAYNE: Thank you for bringing it up. That's, I would say that's the only one of my films I would recommend, probably because it's only six minutes long.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: And, but I'm proud of it. It kind of, in a way it does everything I'm doing in my feature films and does it in only six minutes. And I wrote it specifically for Margo Martindale. I had wanted to work with her for years since I saw her in "Lorenzo's Oil," years ago. I was watching the movie and enjoyed it but then this one actress came up and I kept saying, who is she? Who is she? You know, in the way that she distinguished herself as Hilary Swank's mother...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

PAYNE: ...in "Million Dollar Baby" and she's done a ton of other stuff and she's always just terrific and I wanted to work with her, so I wrote that part specifically for her.

DAVIES: Right. And she is a Denver postal carrier, right, who is describing...

PAYNE: Correct.

DAVIES: ...her trip to Paris in French.

PAYNE: Yes. In really bad French.

DAVIES: Bad French with a heavy American accent. Did you direct her that way?

PAYNE: Yes. Well, when I talked to her on the phone, asking her if she wanted to come do the film, I asked her whether she spoke French or not and she said no. And I said, have you ever even had one class in it? She said no. I said perfect because you'll be speaking only French. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAYNE: ...it was quite a process to get that voice performance out of her and it took yeah, we, she spoke the dialogue for that six minute film, it took us about eight hours to get it out of her and then another couple of days of editing, voiceover editing. But it's, in doing so, I think the film makes fun of both the French and the Americans.

DAVIES: Right. Why don't we just hear a bit of Margo Martindale from that film speaking in French. This is Margo Martindale in "Paris, Je T'Aime."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARIS, JE T'AIME")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARGOT MARTINDALE: (as character) (spoken in French)

DAVIES: And that's Margo Martindale in the film "Paris, Je T'aime." It's sort of her and her week in Paris walking in various places and describing things she sees him somewhat comical ways at times. But there's this last scene where she seated on a bench. You want to just talk a little bit about that scene, what's going on there?

PAYNE: Well, I was trying to capture that feeling I have and I'm sure many other people have of when you're - for me it's like when I'm alone in the middle of a workday and I happen to go to a museum and I'm just all by myself and I walk around the galleries and look at stuff on the wall and think my own little thoughts and maybe I have thoughts that I write down and I feel just sort of connected to the world around me and to myself. And it's one of those feelings you have alone when you're traveling with a museum example I just used and that's a feeling. The genesis of that film was wanting to convey that feeling, and it's nice to have the medium of a short film to convey just small feelings like that and not try to have to get them into a feature film. But in that, you asked about the final scene. She's had a bit of a very lonely time walking around Paris by herself, even though she keeps telling herself that it's, she's having a great time but we see visually that she's not, that she's really quite lonely. And then she just has that a moment like that sitting on a park bench. And I think she acted it quite beautifully.

DAVIES: Well, Alexander Payne, it's been interesting. Thanks so much. Best of luck. We'll look forward to your next project. Thanks for speaking with us.

PAYNE: Thanks very much.

GROSS: Alexander Payne spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Payne directed the new film "The Descendents" starring George Clooney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.