The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life Of Alexander Payne Life is a collection of "extraordinarily ordinary moments," says the Academy Award-winning director, if only people would "wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is." Payne's latest film, The Descendants, puts the power of everyday moments to use, and is nominated for five Oscars.

The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life Of Alexander Payne

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Alexander Payne watches a movie every day or at least tries to. Lately, the writer and director of "The Descendants" has been busy going to nomination and awards dinners, in advance of Sunday's Academy Awards when the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay prizes could be his.

In Southern California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg spent a pre-Oscar morning with Payne.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Alexander Payne has bats in his belfry.

ALEXANDER PAYNE: And I recently put two bat houses for them, to try to talk them out of staying in my house and living in more comfortably living in the bat house, but they haven't seen fit to move yet.

STAMBERG: Payne's house is up a wriggling canyon road in the Santa Monica Mountains. The air there smells of ocean, chaparral and sage, plus fruit trees.

PAYNE: And that one is a jabuticaba. And I planted it largely because it's fun to say jabuticaba.

STAMBERG: We arrived chez Payne at 7:00 a.m. for a hike, before he left for a 10-Best-Movies Luncheon at the American Film Institute.

PAYNE: Between now and about 10:30, I'll have to begin changing...


PAYNE: ...beautify myself.

STAMBERG: Shouldn't take much. At 51, he's almost movie-star handsome, with dark attentive eyes and a listening face.

PAYNE: How about rooibos tea?

STAMBERG: Over warm cups - no sugar, thank you - we talk about earlier Payne films "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways" - he has a best screenplay Oscar for that one which he also directed. No special effects, no cinematic dazzle. Just solid, real storytelling.

I ask about one extremely simple and powerful scene in his latest film, "The Descendants."

PAYNE: Let me think. This is the Hawaiian one, right?


STAMBERG: Yeah. What did you just say?


PAYNE: I finished it last March. So...

STAMBERG: Yeah, it's the Hawaiian one.

PAYNE: This is the Hawaii one, yeah.

STAMBERG: In "The Descendants," George Clooney plays a wealthy Hawaiian land baron with two recalcitrant daughters, and a comatose wife - she's on life support. He learns she's been cheating on him, learns tough realities about selling family land, learns how to manage his difficult daughters.

With a dribble more of tea, in front of the director's laptop, we watch that powerful final scene of the Hawaiian one.

PAYNE: You want sound or no sound?

STAMBERG: Oh, yeah.


STAMBERG: The 10-year old daughter watches TV on the couch, wrapped in a quilt. You don't see the television just her looking at us. Her father, Clooney, enters with two bowls of ice cream. He sits, pulls the quilt over, to cover his legs too. The soles of his bare feet stick out. The older, teenage daughter wanders in.

He moves over for her and covers her with the quilt.

PAYNE: Mm-hmm.

STAMBERG: Now he...

PAYNE: Hands her the ice cream and the credits begin.

STAMBERG: The credits are small in the upper right-hand corner. Meantime, father and daughters keep watching TV.


STAMBERG: Taking ice cream from one another, sharing, readjusting themselves onto the couch.

PAYNE: It's a movie ending.

STAMBERG: A coda, Payne calls it, a landing strip to bring the film in.

PAYNE: When writing the screenplay, I thought rhythmically the film would need one more scene. And I had no idea if it would work or not, I just wrote that to see if it would work.

STAMBERG: When did you know it would?

PAYNE: When we were shooting it.

STAMBERG: That was early, around day three of a 50-day shoot, four takes. And in this final, marvelous two-minute scene almost no words, just pictures, you watch them become a family through the most ordinary gestures - adjusting a quilt, passing bowls of strawberry and mocha chip ice cream.

PAYNE: Well, that's what life is, this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments. We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is.

OK, here we go.

STAMBERG: Around nine o'clock, Alexander Payne spends some pre-Oscar ordinary moments running errands - the post office, the local farmer's market for bags of carrots, apples.

PAYNE: What about the lettuces?

STAMBERG: He likes to cook, Greek. His grandfather and father ran a restaurant in Omaha. Payne still lives there most of the time. Also into the trunk, 12 pounds of beef. He likes to cook.

When you walk, go through life, in some ways, are you always casting? I mean, do you see a face and you think that would be wonderful on a big screen?



PAYNE: It's all about individual faces.


PAYNE: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love this customer. He never complain about anything.


STAMBERG: Last stop, dry cleaners for pre-Oscar gear.

PAYNE: Tuxedo shirts, yes.

STAMBERG: Oh, more than one, eh?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Two, three, four - one more.

STAMBERG: It's getting close to beautification time, so Payne heads back home having made rounds that all of us make. Except, he says, they could always have meaning.

PAYNE: If you were falling in love and you could go back in time and relive a day and see the banal things you did that you'd forgotten about, you'd weep looking at that day. Say, oh look, we walked into that store. We, you know, whatever it was. And somewhat dramatic things happen, and you don't always even always notice them. Yeah, that's what life is.

STAMBERG: Those moments, unless you write them down, or photograph them, drift off and away. They just go by. But movies, mindful ones, can make us stop for a while, make us notice what happens.

In a jacket and just-cleaned shirt, the writer-director heads toward a waiting town car. No big, black limo - where's the glamour? Lunch in town, later a film critics' banquet. Typical day?

PAYNE: In my life? No. Of this week? Yes.

STAMBERG: Once awards seasons ends, Alexander Payne has two screenplays lined up to shoot. He wants to move quickly now from film to film. If Sunday brings Oscars, the pace will accelerate.

PAYNE: Here we go.


STAMBERG: In movie land, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


INSKEEP: You hear Susan on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.


INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep.

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