Patmos, Payne, and Paradoxes


By Ioannis Pappos

In Greece for the International Film Festival of Patmos, discussing life's big questions with filmmaker Alexander Payne

“Patmians make 50-percent of our audience,” Steve Krikris, IFFP’s Artistic Director, told me. “Patmos doesn’t have a theater. The festival is their only opportunity to get together and watch films, and admission is free. Remember that the locals had a terrible winter, financially. They need outlets like this festival. And they’re grateful.”

“I picked on that excitement,” I said. 

“We have a beautiful audience,” Steve said modestly. “The rest 50% is insiders and fancy world travelers.” 

“Quite a combo,” I said. “Hamish Bowles or Aga Khan flanked by the local baker and a priest as they watch Before Midnight…Study their body language and you got some serious marketing research.”

“That’s Patmos,” Steve said shyly. I could see him putting at ease monks, sponsors, actors…“The island is perfect for mixing and networking,” Steve went on. “This already happens but down the road the semiotic diversity that you spotted could help distributors make decisions.”

“Let’s talk about the program,” I said. “What’s the festival’s underlying theme?”

“Yes, we were careful. We had to be both edgy and mild so locals, experts, and travelers would all be interested. We looked for social and human films. Films about character development, like Alexander Payne’s films. And injustice. We included No, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Angels' Share, LittleLand, Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey. IFFC is a response to what is happening to Patmos and Greece. And to the world.” 

I was infected by Steve’s tender empathy. “Right here, right now, this makes perfect sense,” I agreed. “But when you are a small festival you can go anywhere.” I point up at the monastery. “There are plenty of beautiful islands where you can expose locals to art without permission from their guardians.” 

“Interestingly enough we welcome the constraint you refer to,” Steve said carefully. “This year we sponsored young filmmakers to make eight shorts titled Life in the Borderlands. Residents of the island are their subjects. Borders engulf social and personal boundaries too. One short is about a monk who left his career as a ballet dancer to join the monastery. I think it’s an amazing story for Greece.”  

“For anywhere,” I mumbled, wondering why do I need to segment the open-minded from the dogma? Science has beefed up its research for evidence of God since I left Stanford. “Many, many years after you left campus,” I told Alexander Payne, rolling my eyes.

Payne smiled. His Greek is limited, but he has a good accent from his mother. “Foreign languages are the only thing I’m good at,” said the director/screenwriter (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) who hasn’t made a single bad movie. My turn to smile. Payne was back from a long hike on the island with his girlfriend, Grace, but under their sweat and dust they still projected American health and stamina. We ordered cold drinks. It was sunset.

“I have to bring up Election,” I told Payne. “I was in New York when it opened and word of mouth spread like fire. People went: What was that?”

“The high school film?” Payne asked perplexed. It took us a few to pin each other’s humor. “No, seriously now, it’s the movie I get the most complements for. I didn’t know New York responded so well. I wasn’t there.” Checking with Grace, “Were you?”

“Oh, yes!” Grace said. “There was buzz.” 

“In a way Election exposed us,” I said. “Whether people identified with Broderick or Witherspoon the story reminded us that deep-deep down, somehow, something didn’t go exactly as planned for lots of us to end up in New York.” 

Grace nodded. She went to school in my hood in New York. “Election was a Greek tragedy played out in a high school,” she said.

“It’s set up as a Greek tragedy from its very first minute,” Payne intervened. “The voice-over says: You can’t fight destiny because it’s going to happen anyway, and all you’ll accomplish is to suffer.”

“So Woodyallenesque,” I said.

“So Aeschylusesque,” Payne corrected me. 

True. We were in the Aegean. Why the middleman? But then we Greeks have been making it and screwing it up 3,000 years now ’cause we can’t stand each other. I brought up Payne’s long-term workmates, his forever-writing-partner, Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who was also at the festival. They work splendidly together—from scripts, to movies, all the way to the Oscars. What was Payne’s secret to teamwork?