Oral History: Alexander Payne, in 2002, Looks at a Changing America

by Jack Tewksbury December 19, 2019
Filmmaker Alexander Payne, Golden Globe winner

hfpa

For over 40 years the HFPA has recorded famous and celebrated actresses, actors and filmmakers. The world's largest collection of its kind - over 10,000  items - is now in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library. In 2002, filmmaker Alexander Payne - born in Omaha, Nebraska in a Greek and German family - talked to the HFPA about his most recent project, About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson. The film would go on to receive five nominations and two Golden Globes - one for Nicholson for Best Actor-Drama- and one for Payne (his first) and partner Jim Taylor for Best Screenplay. In this excerpt, Payne ponders the rigors of the Midwest and the changing mood of America in the early 21st century.

“Sociologists say that  Americans are increasingly shy.  One of the reasons is technology. You don’t talk to anyone when you pump your gas, you don’t talk to anyone anymore when you go to the bank. Now you can buy things without even leaving your house. There is much less connection among people than there used to be even in the most trivial aspects but those trivial aspects cumulatively gave people a sense of community and of society. 

I grew up in the Midwest.  I will say that it's unlike New  York or L.A,  where people go to therapy and there are many more ethnic people who speak very freely about their emotions and have violent tempers. Those people in the Midwest are always difficult to generalize but I’ll do it anyway.  It’s not encouraged to discuss your emotions.  If you feel anger or joy,  you suppress it.  People can go their whole lives this way. You go to someone’s house and they don’t offer you any water or something to drink when you first walk in. Then you  say, ‘Can I have a  glass of water?’ ‘Oh,  yeah, it’s in the refrigerator. Go up and get  it.’  So there are  aspects of Americans relating to one another that are puzzling to me.”