How do directors decide if a movie needs a sequel? Sideways director Alexander Payne says, “Money. It’s obviously about the money.” However, it’s a bit more nuanced than that, according to the two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker, who spent most of 2022 filming and editing his newest dark comedy, The Holdovers, which is set to be released in 2023.
“There has got to be enough interest in the world of the story and the characters suggested in the first film,” says Alexander Payne. Take, for example, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Payne considers the 1972 crime drama and its 1974 sequel, The Godfather: Part II, “the greatest examples [because] The Godfather had the source material, the novel [written by Mario Puzo],” he says. “The Godfather had a lot more material unused in the first one, plus the interest and the desire of the artist to express more about that world. So you had Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo saying, ‘Well, yeah. We are interested in expressing more about that world.’”
Too Much of a Good Thing?
The Godfather made the cut of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the 1970s; it ranked ninth, just behind Smokey and the Bandit. Payne says, “There was such interest in The Godfather. Fans asked, ‘Oh, can’t there be more? Can’t there be more?’ And the studio hammered Coppola for years to ‘Do a three. Do a three.’ However, he resisted. There’s nothing more to say. But finally, Coppola relented and made The Godfather: Part III, which is arguably the least impressive of those very impressive films.” The third film in the series was released in 1990 and brought in $136.9 million at the box office.
Payne cites Star Wars as another excellent example of a movie that’s spawned many prequels and sequels. “The interest in that world is so keen around the world, that there’s more to do,” says the filmmaker. “Nowadays, though, for a lot of filmmakers, that question doesn’t even come up because they’re doing series. The series kind of takes care of it and is like a sequel on steroids — t never-ending stories.”
What did Payne prefer about 1970s cinema? He says the movies of that decade “defined my idea of what an adult commercial American film is, [which is] just intelligent, human stories told in a modern cinematic vernacular where you say bad words and show nudity, and where acting style more approximates real life and is relatively free of contrivance and device.”
Alexander Payne Answers: Is Film School Necessary?
Payne graduated from high school in 1979. His teenage years were spent consuming the new American cinema. “Movies which are now considered to be the golden age of ’70s filmmaking, but at the time they simply reflected what commerical American cinema was supposed to be,” he says. “Those movies really made me want to make movies.”
He studied Spanish and history at Stanford University before following his dreams by attending film school at UCLA. However, Payne believes aspiring filmmakers should be free to pursue their own paths. “No one could follow in anyone else’s footsteps because everyone has his or her own path. But you certainly do not need to go to film school anymore to be a filmmaker, nor did you even need to in my day,” says Alexander Payne. “Some people decide to go to film school. You need that discipline. And that sense of a conservatory and being surrounded by like-minded peers. You’re all working together, supporting each other, working on each other’s films, becoming one another’s colleagues, both in school and then later professionally. And that’s one very beautiful possible path.”
Payne says, “But nowadays, access to the means of production is so easy. And access to filmmaking knowledge, and how-tos, is also easy. All you have to do is watch YouTube tutorials and bonus materials on DVDs, and it’s all out there. So it’s always been a matter of self-motivation, discipline, and stuff like that to actually do it. You can tell a story in many ways, short story or painting, any art form. But for anyone really burning to tell a story on film, there is no longer no excuse not to do it, other than a few thousand dollars to get set up with the basic equipment and then the wherewithal and the discipline to get it done. Or go to film school. There are many different paths.”
Is It Time To Bring Tracy Flick Back to the Big Screen?
Alexander Payne says that Election is one movie he’s directed that he can watch in its entirety from time to time. “Because it’s the only one I made that isn’t too long,” he says. “It has a very good rhythm to it. I think it succeeds because of its brisk, metronomic pace. It has a relentless, shark-like narrative drive.”
Payne is particularly fond of the film’s protagonist, Tracy Flick. “I have a soft spot for all the characters in my movies. She was no exception. You have to distinguish between whether you would like that character as a human being if you knew that human being in real life, separate from [whether] you love this person as a character, as a literary character,” he says. “As driven as she was, and the name Tracy Flick has entered popular culture as a very driven person, I still wanted to give her understanding and depth. There is a scene where she’s really weeping, and you see how much she has been manipulated by her mother. Stuff like that even subtly helps explain things,” he says.
In June 2022, Election author Tom Perotta published the next installment of the story, Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Speaking of sequels, would Alexander Payne ever consider bringing the characters back to life on the big screen? “Oh yeah. It’s possible. It’s very possible,” he says. “I’m interested in that world. I think there is more to say, but I’m not deep into it yet, into deciding what that would look like.”
Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor collaborated on the original Election script. “When you work with a partner, it’s nice to be throwing a larger net for ideas,” says Payne.”That’s why TV has the writer’s room. You’ve got a lot of people there throwing out ideas, and it’s just great to have all of that collective brain power. Writing, as you know, can be so very lonely and frustrating. So it’s nice to have someone help you through.”
On the other hand, Payne says, “The advantage of writing alone is it’s also nice to go to that secret silent place inside of you and just write from there and not have to talk about it first. And I think sometimes, when you’re writing something a little bit more personal, it’s good to write alone, at least at first. And then maybe work in partnership with crafting a final screenplay.”