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Alexander Payne
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Payne at the 2015 Munich Film Festival
Constantine Alexander Payne

(1961-02-10) February 10, 1961 (age 63)
  • United States
  • Greece
Education Stanford University (BA)
University of California, Los Angeles (MFA)
Occupation Film director, screenwriter
Years active 1985–present
  • (m. 2003; div. 2006)
  • Maria Kontos
    (m. 2015; div. 2022)
Children 1

Constantine Alexander Payne (/pn/; born February 10, 1961) is an American film director, screenwriter and producer. He is noted for his satirical depictions of contemporary American society. Payne has received numerous accolades, including two Academy Awards, a BAFTA Award and three Golden Globe Awards as well as a nomination for a Grammy Award.

After directing several short films, Payne made his feature film debut with the black comedy Citizen Ruth (1996). His career progressed with the political satire Election (1999), for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the comedy-drama About Schmidt (2002). Payne twice won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for co-writing his directorials Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011). He was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for these two films and for the road film Nebraska (2013). He has since directed the period film The Holdovers (2023).

Early life and education

Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Peggy and George Payne, restaurant owners. He is the youngest of three sons and grew up in the Dundee neighborhood. He is of Greek ancestry. Payne's paternal grandfather, Nicholas "Nick" Payne, anglicized the last name from "Papadopoulos". His family comes from three areas in Greece: the island of Syros, Livadia, and Aegio. Payne's family was part of the fabric of Omaha, which he refers to as part of his upbringing. 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 was later built on the site. Payne's paternal grandmother, Clara Payne (née Hoffman), was from a German Nebraska family from Lincoln, Nebraska.

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. At Prep, Payne wrote a humor column for his high school newspaper and was the editor of the high school yearbook. Payne then attended Stanford University, where he majored in Spanish and History. 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. 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, and eventually passed it on to his son when Alexander was about 14 years old.


1985–1996: Short films and film debut

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. He says that he cleared about $60,000, which was enough to fund his simple lifestyle at the time for about five years. 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. .....

Payne eventually would go on to co-write and direct his first full-length film, Citizen Ruth (1996). ..... The film co-stars Kelly Preston, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren. The film premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival where it received favorable reviews. In Janet Maslin of The New York Times review she wrote, "There's no easy way out of this predicament, though Mr. Payne does beg the question with skill. And Citizen Ruth can easily be forgiven for not finding a fully satisfying ending. It delivers more than enough lively, gutsy satire along the way."

1999–2013: Breakthrough and acclaim

Alexander Payne Cannes 2012
Payne at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012

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 received his first Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay nomination for Election. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four, praising Witherspoon and Payne, and saying, " is a movie that is not simply about an obnoxious student, but also about an imperfect teacher, a lockstep administration, and a student body that is mostly just marking time until it can go out into the world and occupy valuable space". The film became a cult classic with Election is ranking #61 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies" and #9 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "50 Best High School Movies", while Witherspoon's performance was ranked at #45 on the list of the "100 Greatest Film Performances of All Time" by Premiere. According to Payne, it is also President Barack Obama's favorite political film.

In 2000, Payne completed an uncredited polish-up of the screenplay for the comedy film Meet the Parents. In 2001, Payne wrote a draft of Jurassic Park III. In 2002, Payne's film About Schmidt, about a recently retired widower who embarks on a journey to his estranged daughter's wedding, was released. The film starred Jack Nicholson as the title character, Warren Schmidt, and its script was based on the novel of the same name by Louis Begley. The film also co-starred Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, and Kathy Bates. The film premiered at the 55th Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews, with critics highlighting Nicholson's performance. Payne received a Golden Globe for the screenplay, 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, Payne and Jim Taylor were not nominated for an Oscar for the About Schmidt screenplay.

In 2004, Payne followed About Schmidt with Sideways, a film about two middle aged men who embark on a week-long road trip to Santa Barbara County wine country to celebrate Jack's upcoming wedding. The film stars Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church as the two friends with Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival where it received rave reviews. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars, saying: "what happens during the seven days adds up to the best human comedy of the year – comedy, because it is funny, and human, because it is surprisingly moving." Payne won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe in 2005 for Best Adapted Screenplay, while the film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. In total, Sideways received five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.

In 2007 Payne served as an executive producer on the films King of California and The Savages. He also collaborated once again with writing partner Jim Taylor to write a draft of the screenplay for the film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007), 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.

Alexander Payne Munich 2015
Payne at the Munich Film Festival (2015)

Payne returned to directing in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus with the film The Descendants, a film about a man dealing with the aftermath of a boating accident involving his wife, leaving her in a coma. The film starred George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, and Robert Forster. The film premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival where it received near universal praise ending up on many critics top 10 list of the year. Critics' also hailed George Clooney's performance with many citing it as his best. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian praised Payne as a director writing, "Payne knows the difference between lightness and frivolity, between seriousness and solemnity, between different kinds of cloud...Within a single scene the film can tap into deep feelings of pain, switch into comic modes as various as farce and satire, and confront and evade moral challenges." Payne also co-wrote the screenplay along with Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash who all won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Payne executive produced the short film Run Fast. Anna Musso, his long-time assistant and protégé, wrote and directed the film, which shot in March 2014. The project was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Payne was also executive producer of the acclaimed 2014 film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter directed by David Zellner. Payne's Nebraska starred veteran character actor Bruce Dern (who would go on to receive the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor) and Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte. It was released on November 15, 2013. The film received critical acclaim with David Edlestein of NPR describing it as a "superb balancing act" and adding, "it's a special kind of triumph". The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture with Payne receiving a Best Director nomination, ultimately losing to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity.

2017–2022: Career slump

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. In March 2016, Witherspoon was replaced by Kristen Wiig and Giamatti by Matt Damon. Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Sudeikis also starred. Paramount Pictures released the film on December 22, 2017. It has received mixed reviews, with many critics describing it as the weakest film of Payne's career.

2023–present: Resurgence

In June 2021, it was announced that Payne will direct Paul Giamatti in the David Hemingson-scripted film The Holdovers for Miramax. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim. Peter Debruge of Variety compared it to the films of Hal Ashby describing it as feeling as though it was a "lost 70s classic". Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as "an engaging and often touching comic drama that builds power as it moves toward its immensely satisfying conclusion."

While promoting the film, Payne announced that he was collaborating with screenwriter David Hemingson yet again on a long-time dream to make a Western film. "I finally found a creative partner who shares the same zeal that I have for Westerns," Payne said. The film is said to be set in 1880s Nebraska.

Unrealized projects

In 1999, it was reported that Payne was in talks to direct Esquivel, a biopic starring John Leguizamo as Mexican musician Juan García Esquivel.

In 2000, it was reported that Payne was to co-write and direct an untitled film inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray however nothing more was heard of this project.

At one point, Payne was in talks to direct the remake of the 1966 heist comedy Gambit, after the Coen brothers did a rewrite of the film in 2003. He planned to reunite with Reese Witherspoon for the project, but he ultimately decided against, reluctant to direct a script he didn't write.

In November 2010, it was reported that Payne would possibly direct the film adaptation of Daniel Clowes's graphic novel Wilson. Then in November 2011, Payne confirmed that he was to direct Wilson next after Nebraska (2013). However, Payne officially confirmed in a 2014 interview with Parade that he was no longer attached to the Wilson project.

It was reported in 2011 that Payne was to direct a film titled Fork in the Road. That project was to have been an adaptation of a novel by Denis Hamill.

In 2012, it was reported that Payne and Jim Taylor wrote a script titled The Lost Cause, which was said to be an expansion of Taylor's 2004 short film of the same name.

In November 2013, Payne was in talks to direct a film titled The Judge's Will for Fox Searchlight Pictures. The project was to have been based on a New Yorker article written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala about an elderly judge from Delhi who wants to make sure his much younger wife will be taken care of after his death. In May 2018, it was reported that James Ivory would write the screenplay of the project for Payne. In June 2018, it was reported that Payne will possibly shoot The Judge's Will in Chicago.

In November 2014, it was announced that Payne would direct a film titled La Vida Norteña. The project was to have been about a Latin music promoter who befriends a Nebraskan mayor.

In April 2015, it was reported that Payne was interested in directing Septillion to One, a contemporary romantic comedy inspired by the true story of Joan Ginther, who won the Texas State Lottery four times. Adam R. Perlman and Graham Sack's spec script was purchased by OddLot Entertainment, who intended to produce and finance the film. Payne was not officially committed to directing at the time, due to his preoccupation with the production of Downsizing (2017). In September 2016, Mark Romanek signed on to direct the film.

In February 2016, it was announced that Payne was to direct a film titled My Saga, which is based on a pair of articles written by Karl Ove Knausgård and published by The New York Times Magazine. The articles cover Knausgård tracing the Vikings' voyages in North America. The film was to have been distributed by Netflix and star Mads Mikkelsen. 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.

In March 2018, Payne was in talks to direct a legal drama film for Amazon Studios titled The Burial. The project was based on the true story of Mississippi-based lawyer Willie Gary, who takes on the case of Jeremiah O'Keefe, an owner of a chain of funeral homes who claimed he was swindled by a major funeral parlor conglomerate. Maggie Betts took over as director and the film premiered in 2023 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It was reported in February 2019 that Payne was attached to direct the comedy horror film The Menu for Gary Sanchez Productions. The plot concerns a young couple that attends an exclusive restaurant in a tropical island only to experience some "shocking surprises." By April 2019, Emma Stone and Ralph Fiennes were set to star in the film. By May 2020, Mark Mylod replaced Payne on The Menu.

On December 2, 2019, it was announced that Payne was attached to direct an American remake of the 1987 Oscar-winning Danish film Babette's Feast. Payne's version is said to be set in Minnesota.

On December 20, 2019, it was announced that Payne was going to direct the HBO miniseries Landscapers. However, in October 2020, it was announced that Payne dropped out of the project due to a schedule conflict and was replaced by Will Sharpe.

In 2021, Payne said that one of his upcoming projects which he would try to make as his next film following The Holdovers would be a comedy set in Paris based on the true story of rival antique chair dealers, and that he was using the pandemic downtime to craft the screenplay. In 2023, Payne told IndieWire that he was working with Jim Taylor and a French screenwriting team, and that their script is "maybe 65 percent there".

In 2022, soon after the publication of Tracy Flick Can't Win, a film adaptation was announced to be in works at Paramount+ with Reese Witherspoon set to reprise her role as Tracy and Payne returning to direct and co-write.

On a 2023 episode of Happy Sad Confused, Payne revealed that one of his favorite scripts which had not been produced was a rewrite with Jim Taylor on a film called Tucker Ames as Himself, which he described as "sort of a parody of a Bill Gates guy who gets his comeuppance in some way."


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.

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

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 collaborating with her in Sideways. On March 12, 2005, a publicist announced their separation. The divorce was officially finalized on December 22, 2006, although the former couple took more than two years to settle their finances. In 2015, Payne married Maria Kontos, whom he met while visiting the Aigio region of Greece where some of his ancestors originated. They welcomed a daughter in 2017, and later divorced. In 2022 he received Greek citizenship.

Philanthropy and business ventures

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

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

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


Feature films

Year Title Director Writer Producer
1996 Citizen Ruth Yes Yes No
1999 Election Yes Yes No
2002 About Schmidt Yes Yes No
2004 Sideways Yes Yes No
2011 The Descendants Yes Yes Yes
2013 Nebraska Yes No No
2017 Downsizing Yes Yes Yes
2023 The Holdovers Yes No No

Executive producer

  • The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
  • Gray Matters (2006)
  • The Savages (2007)
  • Sideways (2009)
  • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)
  • Crash Pad (2017)
  • Small Town Wisconsin (2020)


  • King of California (2007)
  • Cedar Rapids (2011)

Writer only

  • Meet the Parents (2000) (uncredited)
  • Jurassic Park III (2001)
  • I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

Short films

Year Title Director Writer Producer Notes
1985 Carmen Yes Yes No
1990 The Passion of Martin Yes Yes Yes
2006 14e arrondissement Yes Yes No Segment of Paris, je t'aime


Year Title Director Executive
2009 Hung Yes Yes "Pilot" (S1 E1)

Awards and nominations

Over his career Payne has received numerous accolades including two Academy Awards, a BAFTA Award, three Golden Globe Awards, and five Independent Spirit Awards. He has also received a nomination for a Grammy Award. In 2017, Metacritic ranked Payne 2nd on its list of the 25 best film directors of the 21st century.

Year Title 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
2017 Downsizing 1
2023 The Holdovers
Total 19 2 8 1 24 6

Directed Academy Award performances

Payne has directed multiple Oscar nominated performances.

Year Performer Title Result
Academy Award for Best Actor
2003 Jack Nicholson About Schmidt Nominated
2012 George Clooney The Descendants Nominated
2014 Bruce Dern Nebraska Nominated
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
2005 Thomas Hayden Church Sideways Nominated
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
2003 Kathy Bates About Schmidt Nominated
2005 Virginia Madsen Sideways Nominated
2014 June Squibb Nebraska Nominated

In 2012, he was named as a member of the Jury for the Main Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. His 2013 film Nebraska was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. 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.

See also

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