Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor collaborated on "Citizen Ruth" (1996), "Election" (1999) and "About Schmidt" (2002) -- all directed by Payne. Along the way, Payne and Taylor also wrote "Jurassic Park III" (2001), directed by Joe Johnston.
Casual observers will note that a major difference between Payne's directing projects and "Jurassic Park III" lies in their U.S. box-office numbers.
"Jurassic Park III" grossed $181.2 million -- more than twice as much as the other three combined. However, Payne's directing efforts show steady -- actually spectacular -- growth in the marketplace.
"Citizen Ruth" -- starring Laura Dern as a pregnant woman caught up in abortion politics -- took in just $285,112. "Election" -- starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in a story of small town high school politics -- grossed $14.9 million. "About Schmidt" -- starring Jack Nicholson as a man re-evaluating his life after a career in the insurance game -- became a hit, taking in $65 million and raising Payne's profile considerably in Hollywood.
Nicholson was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and Kathy Bates was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a Bohemian woman who helps provide the jolt that Nicholson's character needs to gain his footing in his new circumstances.
The movie -- newly released on home video -- was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama. Nicholson won for best actor in a drama and Payne was nominated for directing. Payne and Taylor won for Best Screenplay.
People congratulated Payne for getting Nicholson to be "un-Jack-like," but Payne said comments like that unfairly assess Nicholson's work.
"A lot of people, including Bob Rafelson himself, said this performance was in the vein of Nicholson's '70s performances, beginning with 'Five Easy Pieces,'" said Payne.
Rafelson directed Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), as well as "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972) and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981).
In addition to Nicolson and Bates, "About Schmidt" benefited from the performances of a strong ensemble that included Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney and Len Cariou. In an interview with United Press International, Payne acknowledged that the cast was terrific -- mostly.
"There was only one bad actor in the whole film," he said.
He wouldn't say which one.
Payne noted that up until now, his features have been released at three-year intervals. He's hoping the success of "About Schmidt" will help him shorten the process.
"'About Schmidt' overall helps give my career a bit more momentum," he said, "so the hideous times when I seek financing is shorter."
Securing financing is just one factor in the long lag between writing-directing projects, said Payne. Another is that he and Taylor do not work especially fast when they're writing their own projects.
Writing drafts for "Jurassic Park III," "Meet the Parents" and "a movie that hasn't been made yet" -- which he did not identify -- didn't take much time at all.
"They're short jobs and the paycheck is pretty good," he said. "When the clock is ticking we want to give our employers their money's worth."
The compensation for those projects may provide Payne and Taylor with the luxury of time for their own pursuits, but Payne insists they don't go out of their way to line up that kind of work.
"We don't peddle ourselves as script doctors," he said. "For each of those three we've probably turned down 20. It's nice that we have a solid reputation as screen writers."
Payne is more than willing to pick up writing jobs, but he has no intention of directing anything other than his own projects.
"I don't ever want to have to direct one for 'the man,'" he said, "but I will write one for 'the man.'"
"Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt" might be thought of as Payne's "Omaha Trilogy." They were all set, and all filmed, in Omaha, where he was born 42 years ago.
Payne is frequently asked about his preference for shooting there. He wonders why interviewers are curious about that.
He is well aware that his projects are welcome additions to the local economy. On the other hand, he said some local critics have complained that his movies don't make Omaha look so good.
"But most of all people were very happy," he said. "Nobody's going to get 'About Schmidt' more than Omaha. Now, Omaha is many cities rolled into one, but there's a certain mood in Omaha that 'About Schmidt' begins to capture."