“Hello, my friends!,” Alexander Payne says, arms outstretched. Embracing—or trying to—all of us at once, he is, as always, instantly welcoming, less like the greatest American filmmaker of his generation, which he is, than a beloved high-school English teacher. One who is about to take me and a few mutual friends on a field trip.

Artist as miserable wretch? Never, in my experience. Turns out, if you’re any good, you are your work. And if your work’s any good, it’s instantly welcoming to the audience. Even if it’s a horror film. It must lead us in, anticipate our needs. As Martin Amis said, be a host. Better still, be a great host. I think immediately of Alexander’s father, a restaurateur. Pull up a chair. Leave the rest to me.

“It is comedy directors who are most adept at evoking pathos without sentimentality,” Payne says.

Alexander is a born filmmaker with a career average that might make even a perfectionist feel sloppy. But he is no shut-in. He lives—and his work is wonderfully without the nerdiness or boyishness that so often comes with savants, or those who love foremost the world in themselves, making him one of that very rare species, mature master well before his time. Among his eight features as writer-director are Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.

“Before we leave,” Alexander asks, “does anyone want coffee of any kind, or something to eat, or want to defecate in the pleasant comfort of my home?”

Politely declining, we leave the 62-year-old director’s loft apartment, some 40 blocks from his birthplace in Omaha, Nebraska, pile into his Mercury Colony Park (like mom used to drive), and take off, Alexander behind the wheel.

We are on our way to visit our friend, film professor and Hollywood historian Jeanine Basinger, in Brookings, South Dakota, three states away, where she was raised and first started ushering at the local movie theater in junior high school. If it were just me, I would have flown. But I’m a book writer and Alexander’s a filmmaker. His world is out there.

For much of the next three days, however, we will be indoors. When we are not on the road, we will watch movies, and eat, and consider the future of theatrical exhibition in America, a country whose towns big and small, Northern, Southern, and Midwestern, were once unified by a shared love of the movies, if nothing else. Those were the years, before “Barbenheimer,” when an audience didn’t have to be coerced into the theater, and encountering extraordinary talent, the best humanity has to offer, was as commonplace as going to the grocery store.

This is a matter of more than passing interest to Alexander, who is, after all, not just a passionate and concerned moviegoer but a writer-director whose latest feature, The Holdovers, opened October 27.

“I just thought it was a good premise,” Alexander says when I ask about the movie. Here’s that premise: a motley gang of prep-school boys spend their Christmas vacation at the school because they have no place else to go, in the charge of a widely disliked professor (played by Paul Giamatti).

“When I make a movie, I don’t know what the movie’s going to be,” he says. “I don’t know who the characters are going to be. I don’t know what the mood of it is going to be. I have to make the movie—not to execute what I’ve pre-imagined, like Hitchcock or Ford, but simply because I’m intrigued with the premise. I want to see how that movie turns out.”

Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in a scene from Payne’s new film, The Holdovers.

The Holdovers is set in the 1970s, which prompted Alexander to pretend he was a filmmaker from the period. “As much as I could play that game with myself, I did,” he says. “I haven’t had a single damn interview about it, but it’s going to be like, who were you paying homage to? Was it Ashby? Well, actually, no. I love Hal Ashby, but I was pretending, you know, what movie might have come out of me?”

The movie that came out of him is his warmest, most appealing yet, a Christmas comedy rich in loneliness and wordless communion, with a certain Oscar nomination for Paul Giamatti.

“I have to make the movie—not to execute what I’ve pre-imagined, like Hitchcock or Ford, but simply because I’m intrigued with the premise. I want to see how that movie turns out.”

“Two-three-two-six,” Alexander says. “Two-three-two-six … ” We are driving along 10th Street in Omaha. He’s holding a sheet of paper with addresses in one hand while his other hand grips the steering wheel.


He slams the brakes, reverses, parks. We get out.

I, for one, cannot believe this is the house. But I am no judge; I still cannot believe Fred Astaire lived in any house, anywhere, or, for that matter, ever walked the earth.

It is a little house, less than a thousand square feet, and it is boarded up and moldy. It has no plaque bearing the name of the greatest dancer in Hollywood history, and perhaps even the greatest dancer of all time.

Fred Astaire’s childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska.

I run—leap—up to the front door and touch the ground where a doormat might have been. His shoes were here, I think. In those shoes were his feet. I circle the house and, before we leave, break off a piece of the wooden siding to give to Jeanine. That’s about when I realized we were on a pilgrimage.

In a matter of moments, we’re back in the car, slowing down to pass by for a look at Montgomery Clift’s house, and then Henry Fonda’s, and finally Marlon Brando’s. We stop before the small-ish, two-story house at the end of a short road and FaceTime a friend who once knew the actor. We hold the phone up to the house.

That’s Marlon’s house?” the friend says.

One wants to be able to see genius in these houses, or at least stature, something of the talent within. But we don’t. We see, instead, houses. The disparity is one a great filmmaker would resolve, reconstituting the visual world to show us what can’t be seen.

Looking at Things

I met Alexander the way I encounter most superlative filmmakers: through Jeanine. She was my film professor at Wesleyan (as well as, more recently, my co-author). And Alexander, she says, is the best student she never had. Clearly the admiration is mutual, or we wouldn’t be driving 235 miles to see her.

Film professor and Hollywood historian Jeanine Basinger has called Payne the best student she never had.

“Just to be in the presence of that mind is a great, great privilege,” Alexander says of Jeanine. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of them—people who probably have known more about cinema than anyone else who’s ever lived: Bertrand Tavernier, Pierre Rissient, Martin Scorsese, Leonard Maltin, Jeanine. It’s her brilliance and perception of things, the connections she makes, the wealth of history she has retained that she can draw upon to make these connections.”

In addition to their Midwestern roots, Alexander and Jeanine share an admiration for certain films and filmmakers that is so attuned that I have come to regard their eyes, without abdicating my own, as a kind of control group. Even if I don’t see what they see, I want to see as they see.

“Does Astaire have a Midwestern quality to him?”

“Could be,” Alexander says.

“He has no cynicism. He’s clearly not a city boy. Underneath the white tie and tails … ”

“I’d be curious to know what Jeanine thinks.”

Alexander turns us onto a cozy, shady, tree-lined street, straight out of a studio back lot: ample lawns, wide verandas, Presbyterian church. “Perfect for Our Town,” he says. We’re on our way to Dundee, the neighborhood where he grew up. It feels to me, a lifelong Angeleno, like Hancock Park.

“This is Warren’s house,” Alexander says, meaning Buffet. “He’s been here since 1958. He finally put up a fence about four years ago.”

“Modest,” I say. “For a billionaire.”

“Yeah. He’s never moved. And there’s my old house,” Alexander says, pointing to a white, two-story house, two blocks away from Buffet’s.

“His daughter and my middle brother were extremely close from kindergarten. In fact, when my brother Peter died, the Buffets let us use their plane to fly all the friends and family out to North Carolina.”

“Modest giants,” I observe. “Buffet, Astaire … even the self-deprecatory streaks in Fonda and Clift.”

“That’s the Midwest,” Alexander explains to this car full of visitors. “It’s the opposite of conspicuous consumption. You never want to appear better than others.”

Payne, the author, and a few mutual friends on their way to visit Basinger in Brookings, South Dakota. Front row, from left: Lorraine Nicholson, Amy Carey, and Payne. Back row: Wasson, Brandon Millan, and Amanda Parker.

“That’s often what comedy is, an equalizing force, arrogance cut down to size.”

“It is comedy directors who are most adept at evoking pathos without sentimentality,” says Alexander, driving us onto a cow-lined, grassy highway. “[Leo] McCarey, [George] Stevens, both of whom trained under Hal Roach; Frank Capra, who trained under Mack Sennett. Chaplin, of course. You can even throw Yasujiro Ozu onto the pile. His early training was in comedy, and there’s a lot of comedy in them, often involving children—and boy, can he come in for the kill in the end.”

They are comic masters of a kind that has—with the single exception of our driver—vanished from Hollywood. The filmmaking family from which Alexander descends is patient with their close-ups. The camera, attending energies inside the actor, says, These people are worth looking at. They—the words they’re not saying—are the event.

I, for one, cannot believe this is the house. But I am no judge; I still cannot believe Fred Astaire lived in any house, anywhere, or, for that matter, ever walked the earth.

But where Chaplin always dignified the Little Tramp, Alexander, perhaps never wanting his characters to appear bigger on the outside than they feel on the inside, alternates those close-ups with long shots that diminish—or, to borrow from one of his titles, downsize—them against a motionless landscape.

Payne with Bruce Dern and June Squibb on the set of his 2013 film, Nebraska. Both Dern and Squibb received Oscar nominations for their performances.

It is this characteristic in his work that might be the product of Alexander’s Midwestern modesty. Jeanine, admiringly, calls it “tart.” To me, it is something like the existential ordeal, hence the often lonely sense of time and place. Which is why I know one day he will make the Western he has always dreamed of. I think of Day of the Outlaw. But my guess is it’ll be more Walter Brennan than Robert Ryan.

“Younger American directors shy away from emotion,” Alexander says, “because they so fear sentimentality. But what do we want from a movie if not emotion?”

“When Jeanine teaches comedy,” I say, “she talks about how a filmmaker needs to have some kind of emotional distance—‘margin of safety,’ she calls it. But it’s a subtle kind of distance, because too much distance, and you’re remote, emotionally.”

“Well, the whole point in life is to have distance,” Alexander says. “It’s not just what a comedy director does; it’s what Buddhist monks are encouraged to do—what we’re all encouraged to do through meditation is to practice looking at things rather than being things or being subsumed by things. And comedy, at least in films, is the most effective and the most delightful way of looking at things and life.”

We drive for hours, through miles and miles of theater-less highway.

Payne, the author, and friends in front of the director’s Mercury Colony Park.

“Film isn’t something outside of human existence,” Alexander says. “It’s the greatest mirror we have of human existence. If you’re interested in movies, you’re interested in the world and people and in life. If one part of the function of art is to serve as a mirror to human experience, both seen and unseen—material and, say, psychological-slash-spiritual—cinema is this genuinely miraculous gift that provides the most vivid mirror.”

“I am so glad to hear you say that, because—actually, I got this from Jeanine—the enhanced intimacy with movies, because of the lifelike nature of the medium, is enhanced enjoyment of life.”

“Yes. Absolutely. And travel. In movies you get to travel in time. And you get to travel in space. You get to just see the whole thing.”

Jeanine is waiting for us, sitting outside with John, her husband of more than 50 years, when we pull up to her house. “You’re here!” she cheers, trying to embrace all of us at once.

Sam Wasson is the author of several books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. His next book, The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story, will be published by Harper in November