Monday, November 08, 2004

Payne in My Brain
Last week I had the chance to see Alexander Payne and his screenwriting collaborator, Jim Taylor, in conversation at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. I'm tempted to say the event rocked my world, but probably the effect will wear off soon and nothing will be different. I'll stumble along in my prosaic PR position, only occasionally to recall with shame that I ever imagined I'd get off my ass and make some serious changes in my life. Be that as it may, sitting there and hearing two creative men whose vision and sensibilities I find in excellent accord with my own discussing how they approach their craft was exhilarating. It reminded me how inspiring (above caveat still in force, of course) it can be to surround oneself with artists.

Taylor got off some nice lines and struck me as every bit as valuable as Payne in creating the pair's four great screenplays. And yet it was Payne who stole this show. The man is too sharp. I mean it. His sharpness can inflict pain (in addition to hilarity). Ask a question that veers the wrong way and eeek he'll jab you. Only by the least generous interpretation possible did the poor fellow next to me imply that Payne's movies were repetitive in their emotional arc. "So you're saying we've made the same movie four times in a row," Payne answered bitterly. The questioner was shocked and babbled his denial/apology, but Payne stuck the needle in even farther -- not to hurt the guy, but for the great laughs. Finally, Payne did give the guy a sly look of sympathy, and said barely audibly, "We'll talk after." That's Payne: He's got a heart, but he hurts, too.

Anyway, the three things Payne said that I've really been thinking about:

1) That to write is to learn to live with despair. He wasn't talking about that romantic schlocky writerly oh woe is me I am an artiste kind of despair. He was talking about writing and hating what you create and the feeling that comes with that. "A day won't go by when you don't look at something you wrote and say, 'That sucks.' There's the despair. You have to be able to live with that and power through it."

2) Ultimately, the creative process is about "figuring out what's rattling around inside you." Not exactly a new sentiment, but hearing someone who is turning out consistently offbeat and excellent work say it brings the point home.

Number 3? Well, that came when I was introduced to Payne before the event (I was there representing Sanford Winery, and at Payne's request we were providing wines for a post-conversation tasting). "This is Pete Danko. Pete does PR for Sanford Winery," Payne was told. To which he replied: "No,I do PR for Sanford Winery." And he's right, of course; Sideways is the best thing to happen to our winery in years.


dan said...

Boy, this post is about where I live right now, Pete. I am really going through a low, low spot about work. Will I ever get into a newsroom again? Do I even want to? Look how shitty most of my work has been. And on and on. (Wait, someone else can read this, right?) Anyway, nice to read see a little ray of optimism out there.

Pete said...

Yeah, I definitely found comfort and strange inspiration in the knowledge that pretty much anyone whose job is to roam through their own personal wilderness in search of ways to capture some truth, be it fantastic or journalistic, is going to struggle. As I listened to Payne it struck me: If it's not easy for him, man, it's going to be hard for me. It was hard for me back when I did it. When I wrote sports columns, I actually got a lot of praise from editors, colleagues and readers. Why did I stop? Because too often I hated the stuff. I loved doing it, I just didn't have the maturity or fiber or something to get through the downside.

You're a great writer, Dan -- better than 95 percent of the folks out there making a living at it. I'm talking about the raw ability to tell a story. Add to that the fact that you have vast knowledge, intense curiosity and tons of reporting experience and, well, shit, I know you'll do great stuff. I'm wondering, are you in a place financially where you can spend some time trying to get a book going? Maybe it's time in your life and your career to do that, to climb that mountain.

Here's a thought for a book idea: Berkeley.