Alexander Payne's Filmmaking Journey

Archbishop Demetrios and Charles H. Cotros, joined by Fr. Eugene Pappas, far left, present Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Award for Excellence to Alexander Payne, second from right.

Alexander Payne, the award-winning screenwriter, film director and producer, known for films like The Descendants (2011), Sideways (2004), About Schmidt (2002), and Election (1999), spoke on February 8, 2013 on his life’s journey into filmmaking. He was introduced by his former pastor in Omaha, Nebraska, Very Rev. Fr. Eugene N. Pappas, now of Three Hierarchs Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Payne began his talk with that memorable moment when he received his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay when he uttered “s’agapo” to his mother in his acceptance speech. He was thanking her, he explained, for indulging his obsession with movies from an early age in the words of their shared heritage “during this extremely difficult era in Greece’s history, a crisis that has made our mother country the source of resentment and the butt of jokes.”

Since that time, Payne said, that gesture is the first thing he hears about, but in the process he was struck by how many Greek American groups and organizations are involved in education for young people and look to him as a role model. That made him come to realize “how important it is for parents, teachers, older siblings and friends to serve as examples” and especially for someone in public life to realize that their “actions, achievements and failures” have ripple effects in the larger community.
 
Payne reminded his audience of Greek American leaders from every walk of life that one of the most powerful ways to lead is by example and that the essence of leadership is to “foment excellence in others by accessing their own power of observation and their own eagerness to excel.”  

Born Constantine Alexander Payne, February 10, 1961 in Omaha, Nebraska, the youngest of three sons of Peggy (née Constantine) and George Payne, restaurant owners, the critically acclaimed filmmaker gave a detailed family history, beginning with his grandfather, Nicolaos Papadopoulos, who had Anglicized his last name to Payne.

Payne attended Creighton Preparatory School and Stanford University, where he double-majored in Spanish and History and, as part of the latter program, studied at the University of Salamanca in Spain. Payne earned an MFA in 1990 from the UCLA Film School, but the family dedication to education and excellence preceded him. His father went from Omaha to Dartmouth College, and his mother attended Birmingham Southern College, where she was valedictorian. During World War II, both found themselves in Washington DC, where his father was an officer in the Navy and his mother was doing graduate work at American University.    

Since he was encouraged to pursue professions only in law, medicine, and business, it was a “hard sell” when he declared that he wanted to be a film director, something he still had to struggle with until his mid-30s while waiting to direct his first feature film. As a result, he says he tells young Greek Americans, as he did later in addressing Leadership 100 Partners, “that the pioneering spirit did not stop with our immigrant parents and grandparents.  They left their community behind in order to pursue a dream in the distance, and so must we all.”

The celebrated film director told his audience that rather than appearing as “some sort of leader in the Greek-American community”, he strives not to influence others but to succeed in his own personal work, and because he has observed excellent examples, serve, even reluctantly, as an example himself.  “I was raised by good Greeks who showed me what it looks like to be devoted to family and community and church and who taught me – as all of you are doing today as well -- what it is to be a good Greek.”
 
Payne wrote and directed his first full-length film, Citizen Ruth, in 1996, followed by the film Election in 1999, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, which won Best Screenplay from the Writers' Guild of America and the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. He and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, received a Golden Globe in 2003 for the screenplay of About Schmidt, which premiered in 2002 in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and opened the New York Film Festival, as well as both the Academy Award and Golden Globe in 2005 for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2004 film Sideways, which Payne directed. The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. In total, Sideways received five Academy Award nominations. 

He served as Producer or Executive Producer on the films King of CaliforniaThe Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Savages, and Cedar Rapids.  He returned to directing in 2011 after a seven year hiatus with The Descendants, starring George Clooney.  He also co-wrote the screenplay, winning his second Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.  The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Jurassic Park III in 2001.  Payne is on the short list of directors who have final cut rights for their films.

 

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