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Alexander Payne, Writer/Director

  • By Anne Pautler
  • Published Mar 1, 2003 8:00 AM

It sounds like a coincidence too improbable for a screenplay. Big Star endows prize for student filmmakers. Promising Student wins prize. Years later, Promising Student (now a topflight director) gets his chance to direct Big Star. Film is a major success. Big Star is showered with praise and wins Academy Award.

Except for winning the Academy Award — so far it’s only a nomination, with the awards to be handed out March 23 — that’s pretty much what happened to Jack Nicholson and Alexander Payne.

Back in 1988, Nicholson created the Jack Nicholson Outstanding Student Director Award for students in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Graduate student Alexander Payne was the first recipient. Two years later, Payne earned his M.F.A. His thesis film, The Passion of Martin, screened at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and won an array of awards.

Fast-forward to 2002. Payne is no longer a novice in the industry: His directing credits include Citizen Ruth (1996) and Academy Award nominee Election (1999). His new film project is About Schmidt. Based on a novel by Louis Begley, the screenplay is the work of Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor. The screenplay itself wins a Golden Globe Award.

And Payne gets a chance to direct Jack Nicholson in the title role. Critics rave about Nicholson’s performance as a crusty retiree forced to reexamine his life. Nicholson gets an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor, his 12th acting nomination but his first since 1997.

UCLA’s current students had the inside track on the film. In November 2002, when the buzz on About Schmidt was just beginning, Payne taught a master class for about 150 students. Among other topics, he talked about the value of film school and the best way to work with editors and actors. (Actor Kathy Bates was also nominated for her role in About Schmidt.)

Payne’s teachers at UCLA are not at all surprised by his success. “He is an original,” says Delia Salvi, internationally known for her pioneering courses on how to direct actors. “He’s special because he is true to his spirit, true to his vision, and his work reflects his take on life with an edge.”

Salvi’s praise goes well beyond words. She also cites advice from Payne in her new book, Friendly Enemies: Maximizing the Director-Actor Relationship.

Hmmm. Sounds like another role-reversal story: Renowned Teacher coaches Promising Student ...

Payne continues to write screenplays and won the academy award in 2005 for best adapted screenplay for "Sideways". - (Updated 1/07)