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113/365 – Alexander No Payne No Gain
© 2012 Timmy Tamisiea. All rights reserved. Alexander_payne

113/365 – Alexander No Payne No Gain

The Descendants.  A movie described by one of my cinematographers as a film that, “gave me faith in film making again.”  Megan and I went on a date last night and saw this film by Alexander Payne . . . an alum of Creighton Prep high school (my alma matter), a devoted Omaha native and a damn fine film maker.  Did it give me faith in film making?  Well, I had never really lost it.  What it did give me was that rare feeling I get in a movie theater where I remember why I started this stupid, crazy-ass journey in the first place.  Mr. Payne has this uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry, feel sad and jubilant, all within the span of 120 minutes.  Other film makers can do this, but with Alexander Payne, you feel that the release of your emotions are genuine.  You aren’t embarrassed when you shed a tear and the laughs that came pouring from youir mouth are a complete surprise to you.

Of course, this scene made me laugh, cry and gag at the same time.

I’m sure many film makers and plenty of artists in general feel this way when they view one of his films.  However, I have a little extra boost of energy when I watch About Schmidt or Election or Sideways.  See, Alexander Payne is one of the reasons I decided to stick with film in the first place.  It all goes back to when this awkward, sophomoric Nebraskan was more lost than he’d ever been . . . It goes back to Los Angeles, 1996 . . .

This was probably 1996. I don't know. I look like a jerk - that tongue hanging out like a neanderthal.

I spent my first year of college at Marquette University studying acting.  I felt this tug and pull to explore all different types of artistic mediums.  Even when I was applying to colleges, I was torn between acting, illustration, animation and film.  Film being the strongest desire after acting.  After a semester of feeling like I wasn’t going too far in theatre, I decided to transfer to Loyola Marymount University in sunny LA to study film.

Being in LA was weird.  I was not prepared for that kind of culture shock.  I barely knew who I was and I was now trying to figure out the incomprehensible la la land.  Milwaukee was really more my speed.   Especially after living in Omaha my whole life.  Besides the people and the weather, the one big difference I always noticed was the smells.  When you woke up in the haze of a Milwaukee morning, you could smell the mixture of the tannery and the hops from the Miller brewery.  Waking up in LA, you could smell the smog and the CK1.

This guy's the head of the Southern California Department of Air Quality? Now it all makes sense.

The whole experience was weird — all my classmates came to school like they were going clubbing.  Not fitting in, I just attached myself to studying.  I loved my film classes.  So much that the next semester, my mom got a letter from Loyola that said I had made the deans list with a 4.0.  She was really proud.  I said, “It’s easy to get a 4.0 when you have no friends.”  I had decided at the end of the semester to quit school.  Well, maybe not quit.  That’s a very terminal word.  More like take a break.  I didn’t know what I wanted.  I felt that Marquette had everything but a film program and Loyola had nothing but a film program.

It was staring me in the face all along. At least when I was home with my brothers.

During winter break, I decided I would regress a little and seek help from one of my old high school councilors, Mr. Swanson; Swanny, as the students fondly called him.  We sat down and, surprisingly enough, he didn’t treat this as a typical high school student crisis.  He gave it the time and thought a college crisis deserves.  At one point, he looked at me and said, “Do you know Alexander Payne?”  At the time, I admit, I didn’t.  He had been in town shooting his second feature, “Election.”  He was back in LA by that time, but Swanny called Alexander’s wife – whom he knew.  I guess they all were at Creighton Prep at the same time.  She was super nice and told Swanny I was welcome to call Alexander at his office on the Warner Brothers lot – I think it was WB.  Regardless, I now had cart blanche to contact this guy.

If he didn't answer the phone, I'd have to go all FEAR on him.

The following is the story about my conversation with Alexander Payne.  I wrote this when applying for grad school.  I’ve edited it down it a bit so that it applies to my life today . . .

“I called him later that day.  I remember the day as plain as if I was staring out my dad’s basement window right now – gloomy, overcast, cold . . . I left a message.  Even though he was in post-production for Election, he called back . . . and left a message.  That continued for a good part of that miserable winter day.  Then we connected.

Maybe I reminded him of a 20-year-old version of himself, or that we were alumni of the same high school, because his candor was sincere and reassuring.  It was an hour conversation about film and the future; specifically mine.  There was witty banter and amusing anecdotes, but it was his final message to me that has left the most memorable impression.  He countered my impatience and neuroticism by letting me know that he hadn’t made a feature film till his mid-thirties, well after grad school and various experimentations.  He was trying to stress the triviality of time.  He had two specific pieces of advice for a young artist.  First, watch as many films as possible.  Secondly, he told me good filmmakers should do everything they can in life; travel, live in every city you can, live in every small town you can, meet everyone, do drugs, get drunk, stay sober, read, have sex with women, have sex with men (if that’s you’re thing) be active, talk to strangers, be social, be isolated, take risks, play it safe, move around, play as many games as you can, work as many jobs as you can; experience everything.

That was 16 years ago. It was the first and last time I spoke to him.  While he may not remember that conversation, I have never forgotten it.  Payne understood that an artist is simply a storyteller.  He knew that even though I might be the best storyteller in the world, if I don’t have any stories to tell, then I’ve got nothing.  It is the experiences we encounter in life that create our stories.  It is tragedy and success that create you and your perception of life.  They help shape the stories you have to tell.  They even influence the stories others want you to tell.   I have done a lot to further my career in the arts, but I take pride in having listened to Alexander Payne’s advice.  I have traveled those un-traveled roads and put myself outside my sphere of comfort.  I have been a small town boy in the big city and a big city boy in a small town.  I’ve been a temp, a manual laborer, a leader, a follower, a musician, a foreigner, a nice guy, a jerk, a security guard and a thief.  I have seen life and death, addiction and redemption.  I have been lost and found, invigorated and exhausted.  I could list off all the “qualifications” that make me an ideal filmmaker.  I have a lot of them.  At the end of the day, though, it is all those things that I have seen, done, heard and felt that make me ready to start my career.  I have the stories.  Now, I am ready to tell them.”

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