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Alexander Payne: I Wouldn't Be Where I Am Without My Mentors

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Alexander Payne: I Wouldn’t Be Where I Am Without My Mentors

The Academy Award-winning filmmaker honors the people who inspire him to make his special kind of movie magic.

Alexander Payne’s films have received eight Golden Globe award nominations and 19 Academy Award nominations. In addition, he has personally been nominated for seven Academy Awards and won The Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award twice: for ‘Sideways’ in 2005 and ‘The Descendants’ in 2012. He’s best known for the 1999 dark comedy ‘Election starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. The 60-year-old Nebraska native says he “fell in love with movies around age 5.” Payne was able to turn that childhood passion into his life’s work with the guidance of memorable mentors.

Payne credits the mentors he’s met throughout his life with helping him achieve the lofty dream of becoming a professional film director. “Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to meet many interesting people both inside and outside the film world,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with great teachers and mentors. You can’t get by without them, at least I can’t, and it means the world when someone you look up to looks back and says, ‘You can do it.’”

Finding Mentors in Film School

Payne graduated with a history degree from Stanford University. He then attended film school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he met film editor Richard Marks. “As the saying goes, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears,’” says Payne. “In film school, I had the opportunity to work with Richard. He was a legendary editor who had edited ‘Godfather II,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ and the Jim Brooks films ‘Broadcast News,’ and ‘Terms of Endearment,’ among many others.”

Marks shared his filmmaking knowledge and industry tips with the new class of up-and-coming filmmakers. “He came to UCLA to help us MFA graduate students get the most out of editing our thesis films,” says Payne. “I’m not the only one with whom he started a relationship, but I was lucky that he took a great interest in me. He became very involved in our work in film school and also beyond — not only in our filmmaking but in our lives as well.”

Marks passed away at age 75 in 2018. However, Payne still feels the impact of Marks’ mentorship in his film editing process. “He was a great mentor to me and my fellow film students and to his assistant editors as well. He had a way of mentoring almost everyone he met,” says Payne. “There’s a great tradition in American film editing wherein editors bring on assistants who themselves wish to be editors. Richie had been mentored by a great editor named Dede Allen. Among many, many films, she cut “The Hustler,” “Reds,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and many of Arthur Penn’s other movies. Richie was a link in an astonishing chain, and his belief in me, starting in film school and extending into my professional career, made a huge difference. And I am merely one of many.”

A Chance Encounter Changes the Course of His Career

A random encounter with director Jiri Weiss also shaped the “About Schmidt” filmmaker’s future. “I met him by accident. He tapped me on the shoulder in line at a video store,” recalls Payne. “Jiri had been a leading director in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, he had to leave the country in 1968 when the Soviets rolled in. From when we met by chance during my first year of film school in 1985 until he died in 2004, we remained close friends. He taught me a tremendous amount about all facets of filmmaking.”

Payne is grateful for the opportunity to “learn a lot” from Weiss, inspiring him to return to his hometown roots. “Jiri once said to me, ‘Oh, my dear, you have Nebraska. It’s like having your own little Czech Republic.’” he reminisces. He clearly took that advice to heart because, to date, Payne has shot five of his feature films at least partially in his beloved Cornhusker state. “Young directors are often very fortunate when they develop a relationship with an older director like Jiri,” he says. “It was a combination of friendship and mentorship. We would have lunch and dinner together over the years and talk about everything, primarily cinema.”

Paying it Forward

Helping the next generation of filmmakers is one of Payne’s top priorities. “I’ve helped my assistant of 14 years make her short films, and now I’m trying to help her make her first feature. She’s retired but was by my side as I directed three or four films and has said she learned a lot,” he says. “I’m working with one young writer who is writing a script for me, and he constantly tells me how much he’s learning from me. I hope that’s true. It’s flattering. I have a new assistant, and I’m similarly encouraging her to write a screenplay for her first feature. I hope that I can be as influential to younger filmmakers as my mentors were with me.”

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