Payne earned a degree from the Stanford University (BA) and University of California (MFA). He received four Academy Award nominations. His latest film, Downsizing, starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Downsizing has received generally favorable reviews. The New York Times has described Downsizing as “a deft satire on a peculiarly American phenomenon: our tendency to put up a stock of what’s most important to us as an identity, before the bonds of life have us, kicking and screaming, scurrying into the dark.”
Outside of the United States, Alexander Payne has been a member of the jury for the Cannes Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. Payne’s most common screenwriting technique is to describe the protagonists in broad strokes in the screenplay. The writer is then encouraged to explore these characteristics in much greater detail in the dialogue scenes. Alexander Payne suggests that even in the most minimal of dialogue scenes, there should be a mixture of dialect and idiomatic expressions. The result is a language reminiscent of vaudeville, which reflects the characters’ personalities and prejudices.
Payne finds the greatest satisfaction in watching other writers; including his collaborator and long-time friend Jim Taylor, struggle with the dialogue scenes in his films, whereas he has great difficulty coming up with new dialog to include in his films. Alexander Payne has been credited as a pioneer of cinematic techniques that includes the comedy–tragedy dichotomy, parallel narration, and stop motion animation. His work is known for its use of humor, absurdist humor and some dark, satirical elements. He often uses natural, unvarnished landscapes and minimal sets.
Alexander Payne has often used improvisation as an effective form of dialogue. Payne is known for his ability to create stories and characters that follow familiar ground, and yet his films often surpass their potential as a conventional “comedy.” Alexander Payne learned to direct in film school at USC, which is how you know that he knows his art, and film better than anyone else who’s ever taken a class there. The low-budget film Cedar Rapids proved he could make people care about people, despite being mostly a mystery story in which the most attention paid to the main character is the reason why he’s in the story in the first place.