Oscar Directors: Payne, Alexander–Background, Career, Awards, Filmography

August 17, 2020

Alexander Payne Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class:

Nationality: US; Greek


Training: UCLA

First Film: Citizen Ruth, 1996; age 35

First Oscar Nomination: Sideways, 2004; 43

Oscar Awards: 2, best adapted screenplays

Other Nominations: Yes

Genre (specialties): social satire

Collaborators: co-writer, Jim Taylor

Last Film:


Career Output: small; 7 features in 25 years

Career Span: 1996-present

Marriage: Sandra Oh, actress





Constantine Alexander Payne[1] (born February 10, 1961) is an American film director, screenwriter, and producer, known for the films Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013), and Downsizing (2017). His films are noted for their dark humor and satirical depictions of contemporary American society. Payne is a two-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and a three-time nominee of the Academy Award for Best Director.

In 2017, Metacritic ranked Payne 2nd on its list of the 25 best film directors of the 21st century.

Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Peggy and George Payne, restaurant owners.[3][1] He is the youngest of three sons[4] and grew up in the Dundee neighborhood.[5]

His father is of Greek and German descent, and his mother is of Greek ancestry.[6][7] Payne’s paternal grandfather, Nicholas “Nick” Payne, anglicized the last name from Papadopoulos.[8] His family comes from three areas in Greece: the island of Syros, Livadia, and Aegio.[9]

Payne’s family was part of the fabric of Omaha, which he references as part of his upbringing.[10][11] His grandfather was a founder of The Virginia Cafe, with Payne’s father taking over the restaurant. Payne went there regularly as a child. The restaurant was destroyed in a fire in 1969; the W. Dale Clark Library is was later located on the site.[10]

Payne’s paternal grandmother, Clara Payne (née Hoffman), was from a German Nebraska family from Lincoln, Nebraska.[11]

In Omaha, Payne attended Brownell-Talbot School, Dundee Elementary School, and Lewis and Clark Junior High.[1] He graduated from Creighton Prep for high school in 1979.[12] At Prep, Payne wrote a humor column for his high school newspaper and was the editor of the high school yearbook.[13]

Payne then attended Stanford University, where he majored in Latin-American literature and history. As a part of his Spanish degree, he studied at Spain’s University of Salamanca. He later lived a few months in Medellin, Colombia, where he published an article about social changes between 1900 and 1930. Payne received his MFA in 1990 from the UCLA Film School.

In the 1960s, Payne’s father received a Super 8mm projector from Kraft Foods as a loyalty reward, and eventually passed it on to his son when Alexander was about 14 years old.

A short time after getting his MFA from UCLA Film School—and after his successful thesis film, The Passion of Martin had attracted industry attention—Payne got a writing/directing deal with Universal Pictures. The ensuing screenplay, which was turned down, would ultimately become About Schmidt. He says that he cleared about $60,000, which was enough to fund his simple lifestyle at the time for about five years.

Payne sees his talent as being one of learned economy, referring to the essay by Tennessee Williams on The Catastrophe of Success.

Citizen Ruth (1996)
Payne worked in various capacities on films and television before he co-wrote and directed his first full-length film, Citizen Ruth (1996).

Election (1999)
His second film, Election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, which takes aim at politics and education in America, attracted attention when New Yorker film critic David Denby named it the best film of 1999. Payne was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay for Election.

About Schmidt (2002)
In 2003 he received a Golden Globe for his screenplay for About Schmidt, which was also nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. To the surprise of many who kept track of Hollywood news,[18][19] Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor were not nominated for an Oscar for the About Schmidt screenplay.

Sideways (2004)
He won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe in 2005 for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways, while the film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. In total, Sideways received five Academy Award nominations.

The Descendants (2011)
Payne returned to directing in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus with the film The Descendants, starring George Clooney. He also co-wrote the screenplay, winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Nebraska (2013)
Payne’s Nebraska, starred veteran character actor Bruce Dern and SNL comedian Will Forte.[20] It was released on November 15, 2013.[21]

Downsizing (2017)
Payne has said that during his seven-year hiatus between Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), he, along with working partner Jim Taylor, were developing the satire Downsizing, which Payne has described as “a large canvas, science-fiction social satire” and “an epic masterpiece.” The film, about an impoverished married couple who decide the way ahead lies in shrinking themselves, was to star Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon, but was superseded by The Descendants and Nebraska.[22][23] In March 2016, Witherspoon was replaced by Kristen Wiig and Giamatti by Matt Damon.[24] Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Sudeikis also starred.[25] Paramount Pictures released the film on December 22, 2017.[26][27] It has received mixed reviews, with many critics describing it as the weakest film of Payne’s career.[28]

Payne executive produced the short film Run Fast. Anna Musso, his long-time assistant and protege, wrote and directed the film, which shot in March 2014. The project was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign.[29]

In 2000, he did an uncredited polish-up of the screenplay for the comedy hit Meet the Parents.

In 2001, Payne wrote a draft of Jurassic Park III.

Payne served as an executive producer on the films King of California and The Savages. He also teamed up once again with writing partner Jim Taylor to write a draft of the screenplay for the film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy directed by Dennis Dugan, and starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Payne disliked the final product, stating that Adam Sandler rewrote so much of the story that almost all of what Payne and Taylor wrote was gone.

Payne was also executive producer of the acclaimed 2014 film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter directed by David Zellner.

In December 2019, it was announced that Payne is attached to direct an American remake of the 1987 Oscar-winning Danish film Babette’s Feast.  Payne’s version is said to be set in Minnesota.

In 1999, it was reported that Payne was in talks to direct Esquivel, a biopic starring John Leguizamo as Mexican musician Juan García Esquivel.[36]

In November 2010, it was reported that Payne would possibly direct the film adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson.[37][38][39][40] Then in November 2011, Payne confirmed that he was to direct Wilson next after Nebraska (2013).[41][42][43] However, Payne officially confirmed in a 2014 interview with Parade that he was no longer attached to the Wilson project.[44]

In November 2013, Payne was in talks to direct a film titled The Judge’s Will for Fox Searchlight. The project was to have been based on a New Yorker article written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala about an elderly judge from Delhi who wants to make sure his much younger wife will be taken care of after his death.[48][49][50] In May 2018, it was reported that James Ivory would write the screenplay of the project for Payne.[51][52][53] In June 2018, it was reported that Payne will possibly shoot The Judge’s Will in Chicago.[54]

In February 2016, it was announced that Payne was to direct a film titled My Saga, which is based on a pair of articles written by Karl Ove Knausgård and published by The New York Times Magazine.[55][56][57][58] The articles cover Knausgård tracing the Vikings’ voyages in North America.[59][60][61] The film was to have been distributed by Netflix and star Mads Mikkelsen.[62][63][64] In October 2019, the production was cancelled a week before filming was to begin due to Knausgard objecting to his life story being turned into a feature film.[65]

In March 2018, Payne was in talks to direct a legal drama film for Amazon Studios titled The Burial.[66][67][68][69] The project was to have been based on the true story of Mississippi-based lawyer Willie Gary, who takes on the case of Jeremiah O’Keefe, an owner of a chain of funeral homes who claimed he was swindled by a major funeral parlor conglomerate.[70][71]

Payne was attached to direct a comedy horror film titled The Menu for Gary Sanchez Productions.[72] The plot concerns a young couple that attends an exclusive restaurant in a tropical island only to experience some “shocking surprises.”[73][74][75][76] It was reported in April 2019 that Emma Stone and Ralph Fiennes were to star in the film.[77][78] In May 2020, it was officially announced that Payne was no longer involved with The Menu and that Mark Mylod would assume directing duties.[79][80]

Payne’s films often revolve around middle-aged or older men who reach a breaking point in their lives, enter into transformative existential crises, and then emerge in the end as changed people, for better or worse. Some unexpected life experience forces the central male figure to “crack” and see the world in a new and surprising way. This theme appears in Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and to a lesser extent in Nebraska, via the son, one of two main characters. His movies also tend to involve infidelity, road trips or travel, tragedy, despair, disappointment, and crises of masculinity. He has set many of his films in Omaha, his hometown. His films sometimes include scenes of historical landmarks, black and white photographs, and museums, and he often uses amateur actors for minor roles.[8][81]

Payne is on the short list of directors who have final cut rights for their films.

In 2005, he became a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Directors Branch).

Payne married Canadian actress Sandra Oh on January 1, 2003, after dating her for three years, and directing her in Sideways. On March 12, 2005, a publicist announced their separation. The divorce was officially finalized on December 22, 2006,[83] although the former couple took more than two years to settle their finances.

In 2015, Payne married Maria Kontos, a Greek philologist he met while visiting the Aigio region of Greece where some of his ancestors originated. He became a father for the first time at the age of 56 in 2017.

Payne is on the Board of Directors of an Omaha non-profit film theater, Film Streams.[8] He maintains a passion for preservation. In recent years, he helped preserve a historic film theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.[89]

Payne was co-owner (along with friend Ann Beeder) of King Fong (now permanently closed), a Chinese restaurant in Omaha.[90]

Payne is a long-time supporter[91] of the Nebraska Coast Connection, a social networking organization that meets monthly in Culver City, CA. In November 2013, he held a special screening of Nebraska for the group’s members at the Sherry Lansing Theatre on the Paramount Studio’s lot.[92]

On August 17, 2020, actress Rose McGowan publicly accused Payne of sexual misconduct on Twitter, stating “Alexander Payne. You sat me down & played a soft-core porn movie you directed for Showtime under a different name. I still remember your apartment in Silverlake. You are very well-endowed. You left me on a street corner afterwards. I was 15.”

Filmography: Feature films

1996 Citizen Ruth Yes Yes No
1999 Election Yes Yes No
2002 About Schmidt Yes Yes No
2004 Sideways Yes Yes No
2011 The Descendants Yes Yes Yes
2013 Nebraska Yes No No
2017 Downsizing Yes Yes Yes

Executive producer

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Gray Matters (2006)
The Savages (2007)
Saidoweizu (2009)
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)
Crash Pad (2017)

Producer only

King of California (2007)
Cedar Rapids (2011)
Short films
Carmen (1985)
Paris, je t’aime (segment 14th arrondissement); he appeared as Oscar Wilde in the segment entitled “Père-Lachaise”

Student films
The Passion of Martin (1991)

In 2012, he was named as a member of the Jury for the Main Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.[94] His 2013 film Nebraska was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.[95] With his Academy Award nomination for Nebraska in 2014, Payne has been nominated seven times, winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay twice.