Alexander Payne

Constantine Alexander Payne (/pn/; born February 10, 1961) is an American film director, screenwriter, and producer, known for the films Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013), and Downsizing (2017). His films are noted for their dark humor and satirical depictions of contemporary American society. Payne is a two-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and a three-time nominee of the Academy Award for Best Director.

Alexander Payne
Payne in 2017
Constantine Alexander Payne

(1961-02-10) February 10, 1961
EducationCreighton Preparatory School
Stanford University
OccupationFilm director, screenwriter
Years active1985–present
  • Sandra Oh
    (m. 2003; div. 2006)
  • Maria Kontos (m. 2015)

Early life

Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Peggy (née Constantine) and George Payne, restaurant owners.[1][2][3] He is the youngest of three sons[4] and grew up in what is now known as the Dundee-Happy Hollow Historic District, the same neighborhood as billionaire Warren Buffett.

His father is of Greek and German descent, and his mother is of Greek ancestry.[5][6] Payne's paternal grandfather, Nicholas "Nick" Payne, anglicized the last name from Papadopoulos.[7] His family comes from three areas in Greece: the island of Syros, Livadia, and Aegio.[8]

Payne's family was part of the fabric of Omaha, which he references as part of his upbringing.[9][10] His grandfather was a founder of The Virginia Cafe, with Payne's father taking over the restaurant. Payne went there regularly as a child. The restaurant was destroyed in a fire in 1969; the W. Dale Clark Library is now located on the site.[9]

Payne's paternal grandmother, Clara Payne (née Hoffman), was from a German Nebraska family from Lincoln, Nebraska.[10]

In Omaha, Payne attended Brownell-Talbot School, Dundee Elementary School, and Lewis and Clark Junior High. He graduated from Creighton Prep for high school in 1979.[11] At Prep, Payne wrote a humor column for his high school newspaper and was the editor of the high school yearbook.[12]

Payne then attended Stanford University, where he double majored in Spanish and history.[7] As a part of his Spanish degree, he studied at Spain's University of Salamanca. He later lived a few months in Medellin, Colombia, where he published an article about social changes between 1900 and 1930.[13] Payne received his MFA in 1990 from the UCLA Film School.


In the 1960s, Payne's father received a Super 8mm projector from Kraft Foods as a loyalty reward,[3][14] and eventually passed it on to his son when Alexander was about 14 years old.[12][15][16]

A short time after getting his MFA from UCLA Film School—and after his successful thesis film, The Passion of Martin had attracted industry attention—Payne got a writing/directing deal with Universal Pictures. The ensuing screenplay, which was turned down, would ultimately become About Schmidt.[7] He says that he cleared about $60,000, which was enough to fund his simple lifestyle at the time for about five years.[6]

Payne has said he sees his talent as being one of learned economy, referring to the essay written by Tennessee Williams on The Catastrophe of Success.[16]

Citizen Ruth (1996)

Payne worked in various capacities on films and television before he co-wrote and directed his first full-length film, Citizen Ruth (1996).

Election (1999)

His second film, Election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, which takes aim at politics and education in America, attracted attention when New Yorker film critic David Denby named it the best film of 1999. Payne was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay for Election.

About Schmidt (2002)

In 2003 he received a Golden Globe for his screenplay for About Schmidt, which was also nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. To the surprise of many who kept track of Hollywood news,[17][18] Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor were not nominated for an Oscar for the About Schmidt screenplay.

Sideways (2004)

He won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe in 2005 for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways, while the film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. In total, Sideways received five Academy Award nominations.

The Descendants (2011)

Payne returned to directing in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus with the film The Descendants, starring George Clooney. He also co-wrote the screenplay, winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Nebraska (2013)

Payne's Nebraska, starred veteran character actor Bruce Dern and SNL comedian Will Forte.[19] It was released on November 15, 2013.[20]

Downsizing (2017)

Payne has said that during his seven-year hiatus between Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), he, along with working partner Jim Taylor, were developing the satire Downsizing, which Payne has described as "a large canvas, science-fiction social satire" and "an epic masterpiece." The film, about an impoverished married couple who decide the way ahead lies in shrinking themselves, was to star Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon, but was superseded by The Descendants and Nebraska.[21][22] In March 2016, Witherspoon was replaced by Kristen Wiig and Giamatti by Matt Damon.[23] Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Sudeikis also starred.[24] Paramount Pictures released the film on December 22, 2017.[25][26] It has received mixed reviews, with many critics describing it as the weakest film of Payne's career.[27]

Additional work

Payne executive produced the short film Run Fast. Anna Musso, his long-time assistant and protege, wrote and directed the film, which shot in March 2014. The project was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign.[28]

In 2000, he did an uncredited polish-up of the screenplay for the comedy hit Meet the Parents. In 2001, Payne wrote a draft of Jurassic Park III.

Payne served as an executive producer on the films King of California and The Savages. He also teamed up once again with writing partner Jim Taylor to write a draft of the screenplay for the film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy directed by Dennis Dugan, and starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Payne disliked the final product, stating that Adam Sandler rewrote so much of the story that almost all of what Payne and Taylor wrote was gone.

Payne was also executive producer of the acclaimed 2014 film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter directed by David Zellner.

He was scheduled to direct a film produced for Netflix based on the life of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard starring Mads Mikkelsen, but in October 2019 the production was cancelled a week before filming was to begin due to Knausgard objecting to his life story being turned into a feature film.[29]


Payne's films often revolve around middle-aged or older men who reach a breaking point in their lives, enter into transformative existential crises, and then emerge in the end as changed people, for better or worse. Some unexpected life experience forces the central male figure to "crack" and see the world in a new and surprising way. This theme appears in Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and to a lesser extent in Nebraska, via the son, one of two main characters. His movies also tend to involve infidelity, road trips or travel, tragedy, despair, disappointment, and crises of masculinity. He has set many of his films in Omaha, his hometown. His films sometimes include scenes of historical landmarks, black and white photographs, and museums, and he often uses amateur actors for minor roles.[7][30]

Payne is on the short list of directors who have final cut rights for their films.[31]

In 2005, he became a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Directors Branch).

Personal life

Payne married Canadian actress Sandra Oh on January 1, 2003, after dating her for three years, and directing her in Sideways. On March 12, 2005, a publicist announced their separation. The divorce was officially finalized on December 22, 2006,[32] although the former couple took more than two years to settle their finances.[33][34][35] In 2015, Payne married Maria Kontos, a Greek philologist he met while visiting the Aigio region of Greece where some of his ancestors originated.[36] He became a father for the first time at the age of 56 in 2017.[37]

Payne is on the Board of Directors of an Omaha non-profit film theater, Film Streams.[7] He maintains a passion for preservation. In recent years, he helped preserve a historic film theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.[38]

Payne was co-owner (along with friend Ann Beeder) of King Fong (now permanently closed), a Chinese restaurant in Omaha.[39]

Payne is a long-time supporter[40] of the Nebraska Coast Connection, a social networking organization that meets monthly in Culver City, CA. In November 2013, he held a special screening of Nebraska for the group's members at the Sherry Lansing Theatre on the Paramount Studio's lot.[41]


Feature films

Year Film Credited as Notes
Director Writer Producer
1996 Citizen Ruth Yes Yes No
1999 Election Yes Yes No
2001 Jurassic Park III No Yes No
2002 About Schmidt Yes Yes No
2004 Sideways Yes Yes No
2007 I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry No Yes No Early draft
2011 The Descendants Yes Yes Yes
2013 Nebraska Yes No No
2017 Downsizing Yes Yes Yes

Short films

Student films


Year Film Academy Awards BAFTA Awards Golden Globe Awards
Nominations Wins Nominations Wins Nominations Wins
1999 Election 1 1
2002 About Schmidt 2 1 5 2
2004 Sideways 5 1 1 1 7 2
2011 The Descendants 5 1 3 5 2
2013 Nebraska 6 3 5
Total 19 2 8 1 23 6

In 2012, he was named as a member of the Jury for the Main Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.[42] His 2013 film Nebraska was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.[43] With his Academy Award nomination for Nebraska in 2014, Payne has been nominated seven times, winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay twice.

In 2014, The Location Managers Guild of America honored Alexander with their inaugural Eva Monley Award for his masterful use of location as another character.


Levinson, Julie, ed. Alexander Payne Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

  • Payne, Alexander, and James Zemaitis. The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book. London: Black Dog Pub, 2003. ISBN 978-190-103304-5[44]
  • Payne, Alexander, and Jim Taylor. The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life. New York: Newmarket, 2005. Illustrated by Rex Pickett. ISBN 978-155-704686-4


  1. "Entertainment: Sideways director keeps it real". BBC News. January 25, 2005. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  2. Fischbach, Bob (November 21, 2011). "'The Descendants' debuts in Omaha". Omaha World-Herald. Archived from the original on 2013-11-10. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  3. "2010 Ak-Sar-Ben Issue: Alexander Payne (Court of Honor at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball in October 2010)". metroMAGAZINE. 2010. Archived from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  4. Mikulan, Steven (April 21, 1999). "High Plains Joker: Alexander Payne's Wild, Wild Midwest". LA Weekly. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  5. Papapostolou, Anastasios (May 19, 2013). "Exclusive: Alexander Payne Talks Nebraska, Greece & American Cinema". Hollywood Greek Reporter. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  6. Papapostolou, Anastasios (May 18, 2013). "Alexander Payne Talks Nebraska; Cinema; Greece" (Video interview). Greek Reporter. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  7. Talbot, Margaret (October 28, 2013). "Profiles: Home Movies: Alexander Payne, High Plains auteur". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. p. 50. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  8. Rhompotis, Demetrios (March 6, 2013). "Film Director Alexander Payne: Greece 'energizes my DNA!'". NEO Magazine. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  9. Biga, Leo Adam (July 6, 2012). "Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne" (Writer's blog). Leo Adam Biga. Retrieved 14 November 2013. Originally published in The Reader
  10. "Payne (Papadopoulos) - Hoffman" (PDF). St. John's 100 Year Anniversary. St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. June 13–15, 2008. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  11. "Archives: That time Alexander Payne returned to Omaha to make his first movie". Omaha World-Herald. November 12, 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-11-13. Retrieved 14 November 2013. Originally published February 5, 1995
  12. Feinberg, Scott (December 27, 2011). "Writer/Director Alexander Payne: 'I Don't Know How Talented I Would Say I Am' (Audio)" (Audio podcast interview article). The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  13. Constantine Alexander Payne, Crecimiento y cambio social en Medellín: 1900–1930, Estudios sociales. Vol. I, N° 1. Medellín, septiembre 1986, pp. 111 – 194.
  14. Kelly, Michael (February 25, 2012). "Payne, Ware on to big-time awards". Omaha World-Herald. Archived from the original on November 13, 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  15. Turan, Kenneth (September 16, 2011). "Alexander Payne Regis Dialogue with Kenneth Turan" (Video interview). Walker Art Center. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  16. Feinberg, Scott (December 27, 2011). "Scott Feinberg Interviews Alexander Payne" (Audio podcast interview). The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  17. Weaver, Cathy (27 July 2003). "'SCHMIDT' DIRECTOR UNFAZED BY 'SNUB'". Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  18. Karger, Dave (11 February 2003). "Check out the top five Oscar surprises". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  19. Chitwood, Adam. "Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA Moving Forward with Will Forte and Bruce Dern". Collider. Retrieved 2 December 2012.
  20. Han, Angie. "Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska' Eyeing Late 2013 Release; Will Forte and Bruce Dern Run Around Billings, MT in First Set Photos". /Film. Retrieved 2 December 2012.
  21. "Matt Damon downsizing with Alexander Payne". The Guardian. 6 November 2014.
  22. Fleming, Jr., Mike (5 November 2014). "Matt Damon To Star In Alexander Payne's 'Downsizing'". Deadline Hollywood.
  23. "Kristen Wiig replaces Reese Witherspoon in Downsizing · Newswire · The A.V. Club". Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  24. Lesnick, Silas (8 January 2015). "Three More Join Damon and Witherspoon for Downsizing". Retrieved 11 January 2015.
  25. Kroll, Justin (2 October 2015). "Paramount Nabs Alexander Payne's 'Downsizing' Starring Matt Damon". Variety. Retrieved 24 December 2015.
  26. Pedersen, Erik (10 March 2016). "Christoph Waltz & Hong Chau Join 'Downsizing'; '3rd Street Blackout' Gets NYC Release Date". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
  27. "Downsizing (2017)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
  28. "RUN FAST - A Short Film by Anna Musso by Anna Musso — Kickstarter". Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  29. "Rights Issues Cancel Alexander Payne-Directed Mads Mikkelsen Netflix Film". 17 October 2019. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  30. Biga, Leo Adam (September 24, 2013). "Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About 'Nebraska,' Casting, Screenwriting and Craft: Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson". Leo Adam Biga. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  31. Belloni, Matthew (November 16, 2011). "THR's Directors Roundtable: How to Fire People, Who to Steal From, and Amy Pascal's Secret Advice". The Hollywood Reporter. p. 3. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  32. "Sandra Oh files to divorce husband Payne". UPI (United Press International, Inc.). April 18, 2005. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  33. Lee, Ken; Stephen M. Silverman (December 27, 2006). "Sandra Oh Is Officially Single". People Magazine. Time Inc. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  34. Lee, Ken (January 22, 2007). "Sandra Oh's Ex: No Spousal Support". People Magazine. Time, Inc. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  35. Lee, Ken (October 18, 2007). "Sandra Oh and Alexander Payne's Divorce Finalized". People Magazine. Time, Inc. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  36. Oscar-winning Alexander Payne secretly gets married with a Greek woman
  37. Romney, Jonathan (January 7, 2018). "Alexander Payne on Downsizing: 'The film isn't a major statement – it's a metaphor'". The Observer. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  38. Bristow, David L. "Saving Our Cinema: Scottsbluff's Midwest Theater offers a glimpse of Nebraska film possibilities". Nebraska Life. Archived from the original on 28 March 2006. Retrieved 13 November 2013. Midwest Theater (Scottsbluff, NE)
  39. Fonda, Jane (July 24, 2012). "Alexander Payne, Laura Dern & an Amazing Weekend in Omaha". Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  40. Andrew Stewart (2013-05-17). "Alexander Payne Screens 'Nebraska' Cannes, Nebraska Coast Connection". Variety. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  41. Richard Verrier (2013-11-20). "Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska' shows state's deep roots in Hollywood". Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  42. "The Jury of the 65th Festival de Cannes". Cannes Film Festival. Archived from the original on 24 May 2012. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  43. "2013 Official Selection". Cannes. 18 April 2013. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  44. "The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book". Black Dog Publishing. Archived from the original on 13 November 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013.

Levinson, Julie, ed. Alexander Payne Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

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