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

“Well…” he paused, “I wish I could say something profound here, but I think that partnerships are basically luck. Sometimes just laziness. Sometimes you are just too lazy to bother to look for something different. Yes. Laziness.”

I stare at him. There was no trace of slugging in his eyes. No trace of bullshiting either. “What happened those 7 years between Sideways and The Descendants?” I asked. “Were you hibernating? Downtime? Just lazy?” 

“I was writing,” Payne said. “I wish I made movies, I wanted to make movies, but you need a solid story. I took the time to write a different kind of a script, something more visual, something that finally didn’t play out and I worked on The Descendants. You know, it’s all about the script in the movies. And good casting. The rest…” he waved his hand dismissively.

“That simple, eh? So why the push for black-and-white on Nebraska?” Payne’s new film to be released in 2013. “Couldn’t someone accuse you of showing off there?”

“No. It’s not bells and whistles. I fought for that. Black-and-white is pretty much all I watch. Don’t get me wrong, there are many shitty black-and-white films, but there are spectacular ones too.”

He is one of the five or so independent filmmakers that work with studios. Something that allows Payne to bring mainstream audiences to indie work. Now he has reached the point where he can make something as close to as possible to his vision. Nebraska’s budget went down, but black-and-white was nonnegotiable. Cannes-praised and without a box-office-cast, Nebraska narrates a father-son road trip. Finally reaching equilibrium in my relationship with my father, 25 years after I left Greece, what more could I want from a movie? So here I am, in Patmos, under the monastery, eating up Payne’s vision, Payne’s way of registering the world, his “internal modeling” according to cognitive scientists who suggest that our souls exist after death because we pass our very models to the world through our sayings and actions, knowing that when all is said and done there’ll be much more of Payne’s soul around than of mine, as there’ll be more of Aeschylus’ than Payne’s My ego hurts. I need to man up and suck it up. Take from Payne’s models, abstract them, and pass them on. Just as he takes from mine. 

“I’m curious about what’s next in the pipeline, but actually I have a suggestion,” I said to Payne. He gestured encouragingly. “Circling back to where we started, in Election there were two small accidents that changed the lives of your protagonists.”

Payne was interested but lost. “What accidents?” he asked.

“Broderick misses the garbage bin and Witherspoon falls from the chair while fixing a poster. In a way these mishaps trigger things that change everything in their lives.”

“Right on.” Payne nodded.

“There are presumably minor accidents that can change the lives of millions,” I went on. “Chaos theory can arch stories that take us from the micro to the macro, from human to society.” 

“I like the chaos theory amplifier you bring up,” Payne said. He turned to Grace and asked if she had seen the film I mentioned as a proxy. “Let’s watch that,” he prompted—even though it’s in color. We talked about the screening of Nebraska in New York. I can’t wait, but what I really can’t wait to see is a Greek story from Payne. A Greek amplifier. He is considering working in Greece, his way of giving back. My way of giving back: stay up all night and hike to the cave of the Apocalypse at dawn.

The pink color was breaking behind the hill as I approached the site. Dogs, chicken, and birds appeared and disappeared between the rocks. One second their eyes stared at me, and then they were gone choreographing some rural magic. I hadn’t sensed such vibe since I got lost while driving in Trinidad and Tobago. Reaching the cave, I felt a sudden fear, and I got it: Instigators who come to Patmos long for the preserved mysticism of orthodoxia as others may long for Buddhism or Kabbalah—now way overexposed. I don’t know how gray Patmos’ magic feels to its regulars, I don’t know magic, I don’t think I believe in magic, but I can tell it is primitive, worth their hike.