By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Eighteen years is a long time for two people to stay together in Hollywood. Keeping a screenwriting duo together that long is even rarer than a solid Tinsel Town marriage.
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor appear ready to be together until death parts them, two minds on the same idiosyncratic wavelength.
As a team, they create intriguingly flawed characters: an aging grump on a road trip in About Schmidt, the mutually destructive teacher and student in Election, an unwed mother and media martyr in Citizen Ruth, and the middle-aged misogynists of Sideways.
The latter film won best adapted screenplay Academy Awards for Payne (who also directed) and Taylor. This weekend, they'll visit St. Petersburg along with their Oscar-nominated star Virginia Madsen to present Sideways at benefits for Studio@620, a downtown arts center.
"I think it's amazing what they do there" at Studio@620, Taylor said during a telephone interview. Artistic co-director "Bob Devin Jones is an old, old friend of ours, and I've wanted to go there for a long time."
Taylor, Payne and Madsen will discuss their crafts Saturday in a free discussion at the studio. How the two writers have maintained their close relationship, personally and professionally, is certain to be a topic of discussion.
"We do get along, and that's unusual," Taylor said. "It's too bad that it's unusual. I think that especially in writing partnerships, it's tricky. Lots of times there's eventually discord. It's all about the right kind of communication and not having an attitude.
"The first thing that Alexander and I literally say while we're writing — and we'll say it a hundred times — is: 'Okay, here's the bad version of what I'm writing.' People get in trouble when they're writing if they think they're brilliant and nothing can touch what they're doing."
It doesn't hurt that Payne and Taylor share the same cockeyed sense of humor, enabling them to transform serious issues like abortion, death and chronic failure into something like comedy. Their movies don't usually provoke guffaws, but wry smiles and twinges of self-mocking recognition.
"We definitely have a shared sensibility," Taylor said. "Getting each other to laugh is where the juice comes from.
"When I'm writing alone is the hardest. I think everything I've done is terrible. If there's somebody there whose sensibility you admire, and he says it's good, that makes a difference."
In a separate interview, Madsen called Taylor and Payne's bond "totally unique."
"They're like Elton (John) and Bernie Taupin, or John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney)," she said. "Because they work so well as a team, they bring that dynamic to the film set."
Madsen also cited Payne as one of her favorite directors to work with.
"Alexander is a consummate man in the workplace," Madsen said. "In filmmaking, there aren't a lot of confident people. Alexander is someone who becomes the fearless leader, and he instills confidence in others, a creative confidence that becomes infectious. He sort of invites everybody to come and play in his sandbox.
"There's a real sense of creative freedom on his film sets, for people behind the camera as well as in front of it. They can do their best, and they feel that if they do their worst, he'll help them get out of that. That's what the best directors do."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.