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Keeping It Simple

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By Teri Bond

Published Jan 26, 2012 12:00 AM


To feel the intimacy of a scene he's shooting, Oscar-nominated filmmaker (The Descendants) Alexander Payne MFA '90 imagines he's back in film school with just a camera and an actor.

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Payne on the set of The Descendants. Photo credit: Merie Wallace.

Update: Congratulations to Alexander Payne for his Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.

"Fierce, funny and wise" have been used to describe the Oscar contender The Descendants, directed, co-written and co-produced by Alexander Payne MFA '90.

Vying for Oscar gold in five categories, the movie is the latest in a long string of biting comedic human stories created by Payne for the big screen. The film has been nominated for best picture, directing, best actor in a leading role, writing (adapted screenplay) and film editing. Winners will be announced on February 26.

Known as one of the most consistently brilliant working filmmakers, Payne also has nominations from the directors and writers guilds, and already won the Golden Globe for best drama.

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Payne on set of The Descendants. Photo credit: Merie Wallace

The red carpet award dance is nothing new to this Nebraskan, who was born Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos in Omaha and speaks fluent Greek. His list of award nominations and wins on the Internet Movie Database is a mile long, honoring such impressive works as Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. He won the Oscar for the screenplay he co-wrote for Sideways; many think he also should have won for directing.

A family dramedy, The Descendants tells the story of a father whose wife is on life support after a boating accident. The film captures the father's effort to transition from back-up parent to only parent, of his two daughters.

In the Oscar race, industry insiders are pushing The Artist, but the pundits are in Payne's corner. In his Thompson on Hollywood blog, Matt Brennan says the film's real accomplishment "is to retain its loose, easy quality without making light of the tragedy at its heart."

Payne's launch into filmmaking is what dreams are made of. Within weeks of screening his 50-minute UCLA thesis film, he had signed a deal with Universal Studios. But he was first a "film watcher," he says, and now he uses the films he has seen as "a sort of mental spice rack."

Much of that watching he did in the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall, where many of the prints, from the collections of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, were nitrate, made before 1950.

He credits several UCLA film professors with shaping how he tells stories on screen. "I learned about directing actors from Delia Salvi; about cultivating a free and poetic sense of film from Ed Brokaw; about embedding visual patterns with thematic resonance into film from Steve Mamber; and a lot about efficient and orderly storytelling from Richard and Barbara Marks."  

Recently, during a Los Angeles Times Envelope directors' roundtable, Payne expressed concern about the machinery of filmmaking getting in the way of storytelling. "I always fear it will mar the intimacy of what I'm hoping to shoot," he said. "When I say 'action,' I mentally wish it all away, and I'm back in film school next to a Super 8 camera, and it's just me and the camera and the actor. I have to have that same kind of intimate feeling, with the actors in front of me."

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