Submitting a clean screenplay is key to getting it on the big screen
According to Alexander Payne, “Screenwriting is the hardest part of filmmaking.” So, when the Academy Award–winning filmmaker gets a new screenplay, what makes him want to keep reading? “It’s nice when a screenplay is written clearly and succinctly,” shares the 60-year-old director. “It’s arduous to read an overwritten screenplay. This might sound superficial, but the screenplay is the catnip that attracts money and talent, and it must be easy and entertaining to read.”
What exactly does Payne mean by that? “I find it laborious to get through a script that is logged down with too many details or one that asks me to imagine too much,” he explains. “When one reads a screenplay, one wants to get a sense of the very same flow that the film will have.”
According to Alexander Payne: Less Is More
As a screenwriter, Payne has learned to self-edit. “When writing a first draft, I think of numerous details, but then I’ll question myself as to whether the reader needs to know all of that,” shares Payne. “And if the answer is ‘no,’ then I remove those details and store them in a different file containing things I want to remind myself about later. But the reader does not absolutely have to know that the house is blue with a yellow-striped front porch and cedar siding.”
In addition to editing out non-essential details from a screenplay, Payne says it’s equally important to keep the page count down. “If a feature film is over 120 pages, as a director I think, ‘Oh God, I have to direct this with a gun to my head to keep it under two hours.’ You really don’t want that,” shares Payne. He says that a good rule of thumb is remembering that one page of the script equals a minute of the movie. “That isn’t always true, but when the screenplay is over 120 pages, a director gets nervous thinking about the scope of the project. You want to film more than the dialogue. You want to allow the film to breathe.”
Payne prefers to keep his movies to under two hours. “I tend to think that a writer really knows his or her stuff when I open a screenplay and see that it’s around 98 pages,” he says, only half-joking. “This is because, I think, making movies is a constant search for economy. Even if a movie is nine hours long, it must still be as economical as possible within those nine hours.”
How do today’s big-screen movies stack up to Payne’s standards of filmmaking? “Too many movies today are just too darn long,” he says. “And I’m not the only one who thinks so.” That said, when asked to share his favorite movies, it’s not surprising that some of Payne’s picks are from the 20th century: Modern Times (1936), Seven Samurai (1954), The Wild Bunch (1969), To Be or Not to Be (1942), and The Last Detail (1973).
From Film School to the Academy Awards
Payne graduated from UCLA’s film school with a master’s degree in 1990. His student film, the dark comedy The Passion of Martin, earned him instant attention when it debuted at an end-of-the-year screening. He won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for Sideways in 2005 and again for The Descendants (2011). In addition to Citizen Ruth (1996) and Sideways (2004), he has co-written Election (1999), Jurassic Park III (2001), About Schmidt (2002), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007), and Downsizing (2017) with writing partner Jim Taylor.
Payne’s panache for writing about an everyman facing extraordinary situations resonates with moviegoers. “A very human story is what I like,” he says. “Especially when it is about something that conceivably could happen in real life.” For that reason, Payne has little patience for movie gimmicks. “Unwarranted violence, when it’s there for effect, really disappoints me,” he shares. “Sometimes violence feels like it’s only been added to a movie to adhere to some expectation of the American narrative of violence. I don’t like that. I much prefer a good human movie, ideally a comedy. I want to watch and make movies about people and the mysteries of the human heart.”
He draws a lot of inspiration from his life growing up in Nebraska. “Coming from Omaha as the grandson of Greek immigrants, becoming a film director was a distant dream. Now I like filming there,” says Payne. “Others know Nebraska as a place they fly over or drive through and say, ‘Wow, that state is flat.’ But I still live there and enjoy shooting my films there.”