An Interview with Citizen Ruth Director Alexander Payne
Of all the holy cows in American culture, one of the biggest is
undeniably abortion. People ponder it, fight about it and have
even killed over it--which makes it the perfect topic for a sly
Enter Alexander Payne, the director and co-writer of Miramax's
new film, Citizen Ruth. His film stars Laura Dern as the
unforgettable title character Ruth Stoops, a paint huffing homeless
dimwit who ends up in jail and pregnant--and not for the first
time. By sheer synchronicty, Ruth shares a cell with a passel
of pro-life protesters just after a judge offers her a reduced
sentence if she "takes care" of her pregnancy. Weekly
Alibi had a chance to discuss this unique film with Payne.
Do you think the subject of abortion will affect the film commercially?
Do you think you'll have a hard time getting it screened in some
You know, I have no idea, but I think Miramax is appropriately
trying to sell it as a movie, not an abortion movie. It's a movie
that has as some of its subject matter, some of its backdrop,
the world of abortion protesting. But it's about other things,
I hope: homelessness, drug addiction, a woman taking some degree
of self-awareness for the first time in her life and Americana.
And then it's funny, and everyone loves a comedy. ... There's
a certain American spirit that says, "Fuck it ... let's laugh
Why do you think people want to ask what you personally think
I think people want more clues as to how to read the movie. But
I think that's inappropriate because people should have their
own reaction to the work and not base it on the words of the director.
I have faith in viewers, and I think they should come to react
to it however they want to, or can't help but to, because of their
individual histories. ... This film is about a lot of things for
me. And you know what? I may not even know why I made the movie
or what it's about until I'm 50 and look back. And it may constantly
change, why I think I made the film at a certain time. It's not
a political thing. For me, it's a human and irrational process,
the creative process.
One of the film's most interesting scenes was when Harlan (a
pro-choice Vietnam Vet) is guarding the clinic and telling the
pro-lifers, when they cross the clinic's property line, "Go
back ... you know the drill."
Well, that comes from real life, in observing pro-life protests
against abortion clinics. Everybody gets routine, and it struck
me like those Warner Brothers cartoons with the sheep dog and
the coyote: You know, "Morning, Ralph," "Morning,
Sam." They punch their cards and then go (try to) kill each
other all day then come back and say, "See you tomorrow,
Ralph," "Okey doke, Sam." And it's just like
that. They all know one another's names, and say, "That's
so-and-so, she's always here, does she have her baby picture today
or her fetus in a jar? No, she left them at home." It's like
a constant banter back and forth and a sense of the banal and
the routine. I think when you get out in real life, things are
much more banal-feeling than what you've seen on TV, and that's
kind of what I wanted to get across in the film.
Do you think Americans have a hard time with satire as a genre?
The only film I can think to compare Citizen Ruth to is
The Player. It's satire but not terribly broad satire.
It's more pointed.
I love that movie. It's fantastic. ... I think actually that Americans
have a long tradition of satire. English letters, all the way
back to Jonathan Swift, have a long tradition of satire. But somehow
satire has disappeared from films recently, in the last 10 or
15 years. But there's The Player, and before that Network,
before that The Loved One or Dr. Strangelove. I
think this film is both maybe in (that tradition), and also I
hope it's a brand new movie because I really have a hard time
comparing it to any single other movie I've ever seen.
What do you think your next project will be?
I just finished a script, also with Jim Taylor, called Election
about a high school student council election. ... It's about all
these people and how their lives fall apart, and these affairs
between a teacher and student, and between another teacher and
a guy's ex-wife. All these pathetic occurrences.
Is it a comedy?
A painful comedy.