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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Rite of Passage

Screenwriter Jim Taylor '84 accepts the fact that winning an Oscar for the movie Sideways is likely to be a life-transforming experience.

By David L. Ulin

ON THE FRIDAY AFTERNOON BEFORE the Oscars, the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills is a study in anticipation contained. By the entrance, valets park Jaguars and Mercedes, while in the lobby, women pass in jeans and T-shirts, elaborately coifed and wearing immaculate makeup: the first step in preparing for the parties that will soon begin. At the concierge desk, phones buzz discreetly, as small groups of people talk in clusters, quietly intense. The feeling is like the prelude to a drama, the last few moments before the lights go down.

In many ways, the Four Seasons is Oscar-central, a home away from home for out-of-towners who have come to California for the Academy Awards. Among them is Jim Taylor ’84, the New York–based screenwriter who, with director Alexander Payne, is two days away from winning a best adapted screenplay Oscar for the film Sideways. Taylor and Payne are an increasingly rare commodity in Hollywood: long-term partners, responsible for four movies—Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways—that share a bittersweet sense of humor, making for what Taylor calls “a certain kind of comedy, a humanistic comedy that’s truly painful, emotionally painful and funny all at once.” To be sure, that’s true of Sideways, which has become the unlikely hit of the season, an offbeat buddy picture that traces the last hurrah of two best friends as they spend a week touring the vineyards of Santa Barbara before a marriage changes their relationship for good. In a cinematic culture increasingly defined by blockbusters, Sideways is something of a revelation: an adult movie, in which the characters are flawed, conflicted, less sympathetic in any simple sense than three-dimensional and complex. Coming into this weekend, the script has won a Golden Globe and a Writer’s Guild Award; the film is up for five Oscars, including best picture and a best director nomination for Payne. Asked what that means, Taylor laughs softly, as if, even now, he hasn’t quite wrapped his mind around the idea. At 42, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and a white shirt, he speaks with a casual intensity, relaxed and focused at the same time. “It’s hard to say,” he offers finally. “It feels sort of like a ritual, like a manhood ritual. It feels like all this stuff is a process, like you’re being put through this thing and then you come out the other side and you’ve been circumcised.”

The notion of the Academy Awards as a circumcision ritual is vintage Taylor, an image that’s a bit off-kilter, but resolves to make an unexpected sense. It’s also accurate—metaphorically, at any rate—since this is very much a rite of passage, at least as far as Taylor is concerned. For all that, he and Payne now find themselves compared with legendary creative teams like Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond. It has been a circuitous path for Taylor, one that began, in many ways, when he came to Pomona. Although he knew from early on that he wanted to be a filmmaker, he turned down USC’s prestigious undergraduate film program, to which he’d been accepted as a freshman, to attend the College instead. “I felt,” Taylor recalls, sitting in his room at the Four Seasons, “like I was too young, and I didn’t have anything to make movies about. So very specifically, I went to Pomona to get a liberal arts education and not do filmmaking, even though I knew that was what I ultimately wanted to do.” On campus, he did a lot of theatre—so much, he says, that “even though I was an English major, most people thought I was a theatre major because I was in so many productions”—and programmed the college film series, as well. Yet even after graduation, he took his time feeling out a passage in the world. “I had no plan,” he laughs. “My first job out of school was painting mailboxes blue.” Eventually, he got a job as a receptionist at Cannon Films, a 1980s exploitation house that, for Taylor, became something of a learning laboratory, since Cannon worked with literally everyone, from Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman to the Czech director Ivan Passer, himself the longstanding collaborator of Milos Forman, one of Taylor’s influences. After visiting China on an Avery Foundation grant, Taylor returned to L.A. and spent three years working with Passer before deciding to get a graduate degree in film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1992.

Before Taylor left Los Angeles, he had what would be a turning point experience: he met Alexander Payne. “We were acquaintances,” Taylor says. “We met through mutual friends. Someone I knew in Pomona was his roommate, and a girlfriend I had lived in his building. I was an extra in his student film.” Toward the end of his association with Passer, Taylor found himself looking for a place to live. Payne had a room available, so the two became flatmates and soon started to collaborate. “Alexander,” Taylor notes, “was just finishing UCLA film school, and I was temping in a law office downtown. There were these short films he had the opportunity to direct, but they needed scripts. I had an idea and he had an idea, so we began to write together, and it went well.” After signing a development deal with Universal, Payne wrote his own screenplay, but the company passed. (A decade later, much of this material would be resurrected and integrated into About Schmidt.) So together, he and Taylor began to play with the idea for Citizen Ruth, a satire set in the world of abortion protesters; their first full-length collaboration, it was released in 1996.

Citizen Ruth is a model for Payne and Taylor’s approach to filmmaking, which involves taking a darkly comic look at individuals who, if not exactly lost, are caught in circumstances they cannot quite control. “A really important reference point for us,” notes Taylor, “are the Czech films, like Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball. That’s what we aspire to.” In Election, a high school teacher is overmatched by a manipulative student running for class president. About Schmidt, meanwhile, deals with a man brought face-to-face with his contradictions, in the wake of his retirement and the death of his wife.

Sideways represents the apotheosis of this aesthetic, with its protagonists, Miles and Jack, looking to escape the compromises that define their lives. These are people to whom we can relate, frustrated, funny, self-deceiving—a would-be writer with a wine fixation and a priapic actor terrified to settle down. The film’s measure is that it never reduces either to a figure of ridicule, but frames them in a nuanced light.

“What attracts us to a project,” Taylor explains, “is a sense of character. And with Sideways, the characters interested us a lot. They were very flawed and very … pathetic isn’t the right word, except as it relates to pathos. It’s painfully funny to watch these guys go through what they do.” Sideways is emblematic on another level, also; it is adapted from a novel, a way of working, Taylor says, that he prefers. “With something like Sideways or Election,” he suggests, “it’s a great gift to have these characters and this story. It’s sort of like having a first draft of a script without having to write it.” He laughs, as if to acknowledge the paradox, then grows serious again. “I have this thesis lately,” he continues, “that all writing is adaptation. You’re always adapting something, like a dream or a news story. Or a life experience. Or a book or a movie. And you’re saying, 'OK, how can I take this and make the movie I want to make?’” These days, of course, such a question is open-ended, given all the Oscar buzz for Sideways, which seems likely to lead Taylor in a variety of new directions, beginning with his desire to direct. Already, he has a few directorial projects in the works, including an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, to be developed by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co., and a script about a man who participates in Civil War re-enactments, which he and Payne are planning to rewrite.

Then, there’s the next Payne film, which, Taylor notes, won’t be an adaptation at all, but their first original since Citizen Ruth, a sprawling, Nashville-esque drama with many interweaving narratives. Taylor won’t talk about the project specifically—it’s too early, he says, to know how it will turn out—but one motivation is for him and Payne to push themselves, to try something more ambitious than they have previously done.

To some extent, it’s an embarrassment of riches, a fact of which Taylor remains disarmingly aware. “Being nominated for an Oscar?” he laughs. “It’s surreal. You don’t ever imagine it’s going to happen to you. We’re so lucky to be able to make movies that it seems weird to be rewarded beyond that.” Still, he admits, there is something iconic about the process, in both a professional and a personal sense. “Winning an Oscar,” he says, “is the peak. For whatever surrounds it, it means something. I notice it in people in my building in New York; they talk to me a little differently. And I think, Hey, wait a minute, there’s nothing different going on. But that’s not right, because if I take an Oscar home, everyone in the building is going to want to come over and see it. So all of a sudden, I’m a different person. And no matter what I say about it, no matter how much I say it doesn’t matter, no matter what my attitude is, whether it turns me into an egomaniacal monster or I feel completely like a fraud, it’s a force.”
David L. Ulin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
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