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Oscar Winner Director Alexander Payne: Food, Family and Films

Oscar Winner Director Alexander Payne: Food, Family and Films

A chat with director Alexander Payne, Oscar winner with The Descendants (Best Adapted Screenplay) and, in 2005, with Sideways: a portrait of a food lover

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“What does an Oscar taste like to me? Well, metallic, I suppose.” That’s the way the foodiest of the Academy Award nominees, director Alexander Payne, makes fun of us. But if anyone knows what an Oscar tastes like, he should, as his cinematic tribute to fine dining and drinking won him a coveted statue in 2005, for Best Original Screenplay. The movie was Sideways, in which a socially awkward and Pinot-Noir-obsessed Paul Giamatti took his best friend and groom-to-be on a wine road tour through Southern California.

His last movie, The Descendants – 2012 Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay – may be a family saga, but there’s not even a single, on-screen supper. No table set for three, no glass of wine or cup of tea with which to deal with difficult moments. The only food we see is a dish of scrambled eggs – which gets refused – and a huge bowl of strawberry ice-cream shared on the sofa by George Clooney and his daughters, in the film’s final scene. And it’s no accident: “Food is mainly connected with family and friendship,” Payne explains, and in this film there are lots of descendants but a faded sense of family affection.

Sure enough, both family and food played a large role in Payne’s life. This connection between food, family and film may have been set in motion when Kraft Foods sent his Greek-American family (originally named Papadopoulos, they ran a restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska) an 8mm projector as a loyalty gift. That’s how the director-to-be began watching films and longing for a Super-8 camera, which he got at the age of 14. While he willingly professes his love for Greek lamb dishes and Spanakopita, his personal specialities in the kitchen are pasta and risotto; in one interview he described preparing them as “an artistic activity”. He’s also – which may come as no surprise – madly in love with good wine (“Wine is to food as music is to film, if the combination is right, then it's a whole new thing”), and he even managed to trick many gourmet viewers by inventing a mysterious (and nonexistent) “root vegetable foulon” in Sideways.

While Hollywood insiders often claim to love Italy, when Payne says it something rings particularly true: before being engaged and then married to Sandra Oh (who plays Christina in Grey’s Anatomy, and whom he divorced in 2006), he had an Italian girlfriend and would commute from America to Tuscany. That love story left him with more than a good grasp of the Italian language and wine expertise.

Sarcastic and witty, snobbish enough to let one of the world’s biggest sex symbols wear dreadful Hawaiian floral shirts and stumble about in his slippers, Payne admitted he “suspected” he would get the Oscar nominations to the Oscar but didn’t “expect” it. “You never do,” he said. “And I thought about maybe getting two or three, not five.” One of the Oscar perks that he most enjoys are the symposiums that get organized among the nominees as a courtesy for the public.

But right after the nominations were announced, he was almost certain that Woody Allen wouldn’t attend, but was “sure that Martin (Scorsese, ed.), Michel (Hazanavicius, ed.) and I will have lot of fun.” To his family he owns much more than a beloved moussaka recipe: “My grandpa and my father’s credo,” he’s said, “was: The soup must be warm, the service quick and the prices kept down. I applied this lesson to cinema.”

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