Photo: Rafael Winer/Fox Searchlight
Screenwriting doesn’t always work better in twos, so Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne can count themselves as a couple of the lucky ones. Beginning with 1996’s Citizen Ruth, the collaborating scribes have penned some of the most critically acclaimed scripts of the last 10 years, including Sideways, a film that has already swept every critical and industry award list and is a surefire Oscar contender.
It’s not the duo’s first brush with such accolades. Taylor and Payne received an Oscar nomination in 2000 for Election and won a Golden Globe in 2002 for About Schmidt. Taylor took time away from his tux fittings to speak with MM about working in a team and why 10 seems to be the magic number.
Jennifer Wood (MM): First of all, congratulations on all of the success the film is having. You must be thrilled.
Jim Taylor (JT): Yes, it’s been incredible.
MM: People are really responding to this movie, which is so great particularly because I think that you and Alexander, more so than any other writers out there, are creating movies around characters who are very “normal” people. They’re not heroes, nor do they pretend to be. These aren’t the big blockbuster “We’re going to save Earth” type of films. How are you guys able to do it?
JT: Hopefully that’s changing a little bit. The way we’ve been able to do it is to point at the last film and say ‘It’s going to be like that.’ We wrote this script on spec. Alexander and the producer, Michael London, had the rights to the book. We weren’t doing it for hire so we were able to go around and see who was willing to make the movie.
The bigger question than the script was the cast. He was able to make this movie without a cast. I mean, we had Jack Nicholson for the last movie, and if Jack says he wants to make the movie…
MM: Then someone else is going to want to make it.
JT: Right. But I hope that, especially in terms of casting, other people will be able to point at this movie and say “Hey, you don’t need to have A-List stars to have a movie that people are going to come and see.” Although, actually, the box office is still an open question for this movie.
MM: In terms of casting, in all of your movies, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in these roles. Everyone—from Paul Giamatti in Sideways to Reese Witherspoon in Election—seems so perfect for these roles. At what point do you start discussing cast? Do you write with anyone in particular in mind or would that jinx it?
JT: Other than for Nicholson, we haven’t written for anyone. Although this time we did write for Sandra Oh, since we knew we wanted her to be in the movie. It looks like, for the next film, we’re kind of talking about writing for actors that we love. We haven’t done that generally, but we’ve been really lucky. I mean Reese was perfect, so there was no question about that. And Paul Giamatti is amazing, so we’ve been really, really lucky.
MM: How did you first meet Alexander?
JT: We had mutual friends, we were acquaintances, and then I had fallen—well, it extended into about 10 years of hard times. (laughs) I couldn’t afford my apartment and Alexander had a room available in his apartment so I moved in as a roommate and we became friends that way.
MM: What is it about your relationship—both personally and professionally—that makes you continue to work together?
JT: We make each other laugh and that’s a big thing. We just have really similar sensibilities. Also, I think we’re both able to put the story first and the movie first and not be interested in pushing our own agendas. We’re kind of able to see the other person’s point of view without getting offended. We both have thick skins and are also gentle about saying ‘Well, I don’t know…’ (laughs)
MM: How does the collaboration itself work? Are there certain aspects of the screenplay that you usually tackle? Do you write together in a room or do you go off separately and come back?
JT: We’re always writing together; we never split things up. Although, actually, one of us, in a very small way, will sit down and talk about a scene or a sequence and then one of us will take a stab at it—either sitting right there or across the room. But most of the process is rewriting. Whoever’s typing we call it “who’s driving,” so oftentimes we hook up two keyboards to the same computer so that we can instantly jump in.
MM: How is it different when you’re writing original material as opposed to adapting something?
JT: It’s harder to get started [on original material], because when you have something you’re starting with that inspires you, it’s not quite as scary or as difficult. We’re going to try and write something original next, but really our only other original script was Citizen Ruth, except that About Schmidt turned out to be sort of a rewrite of an original script by Alexander combined with the novel.
MM: When you’re adapting something, does the process change from project to project, or do you have a regular process in terms of the original material, i.e. you read through it, make notes, etc
JT: When we’re doing original stuff we are talking pretty much the same way. That’s one thing that I say is that pretty much every kind of screenwriting is adaptation of one kind or another. You’re either rewriting another script or adapting a dream you had or something that happened to you or a story. So it’s always taking something out of inspiration and thinking ‘Okay, now what do I do with this?’
MM: Knowing that Alexander will be directing the script, do you ever leave any blank areas that you want the actors themselves to fill in or something that you want to work out during production?
JT: No, it’s always complete. There’s very little that changes during production and I think that’s because Alexander’s directing. We’re sitting there talking about a lot of issues and we try to get them in the script because it’s helpful for him and everybody to know what the objective is and what we’re going for.
MM: Do you spend a lot of time on the set?
JT: I did for the first few movies and on About Schmidt I was there less. On Sideways I wasn’t there at all except for just the first couple weeks of photography. There’s really not that much for me to do, since I’m not producing the movies, although that might change a little bit. But I’m trying to get things going for me to direct, so I needed to take the time to do that.
MM: I’d seen that you directed some shorts before, but you’ve never done a feature?
JT: No, I haven’t directed a feature—but I’m working on it.
MM: Will that be your next project or are you working on another script?
JT: Alexander and I are going to write something else but, in the meantime, sort of while he’s been directing, I’ve written a couple of other scripts that I’m hoping to get produced. So we’ll see how that fits in with the schedule of working with Alexander.