Alexander Payne’s works include Election, the Oscar-nominated About Schmidt, and the Oscar-winning Sideways. Now the 50 year-old’s latest film is the drama The Descendants.
The film stars Oscar-winning actor George Clooney as Matt King, a land baron who tries to reconnect with his two daughters, played by Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley after his wife suffers a boating accident. Payne talked about how he first approached the Oscar-winning actor to do the film.
“I was in the midst of writing the script,” Alexander says, “George was my first and only choice, I flew to Toronto to grab dinner with him, he was there promoting a couple of movies.”
“This was exactly two years ago in September,” he adds, “And I said “I’ve got a screenplay coming your way in November,” I explained to him the story, he received the screenplay in November, and we were shooting by March.”
The film was based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Alexander talks about what made him decide to do the film.
“I liked the strange emotional story that had little contrivance in it and that took place in a beautiful setting,” he says of it, “And if I were to say one more thing about why I wanted to do it I would say the two anchors in the story that really attracted me were the two decision, one by his character, Matt King, when he decides to find the lover and tell the lover that the woman’s going to die.”
“He wants to kill him,” Payne adds, “But he decides he’ll do it anyway, an act of love, and I liked the wife of the lover shows up at the hospital and says “My husband was too cowardly to come, but that didn’t seem right to me.” I like those two moments; those are my two ins in this story.”
One of the places that The Descendants is shot is in Hawaii and it shows the state in a different
“Well, I have to say approaching Hawaii in general, Honolulu specifically, because I like cities,” he says, “I wanted to see Honolulu, it’s not just differently from other movies, I really haven’t seen it in other movies. And I didn’t watch the old Hawaii Five-0, which for all I know might have been a great location show but I’d just never seen it.”
“Yeah, that was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to make it, because I am so interested in location and having that certain physical documentary aspect to film.,” he continues, “And I wanted to see Honolulu. I had never seen Honolulu in a film.”
It was mentioned that Payne’s choice of attire during the interview did not explain George Clooney dressed in what was considered the ugliest pair of pants ever.
“I remember when we did the costume test the first day and the camera test,” Alexander recalls, “George came out in his outfit with the aloha shirt tucked into his khaki pants and he said ‘You know I’m never going to get laid again?’ I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ I think the way the costuming is in the film is fairly accurate to what you see when you’re in Hawaii.”
“Have you ever been out there?” he adds, “Pretty much what you see is a big floral cacophony, and the costume designer had a pretty good eye in replicating what she saw. It caused some consternation for the DP (director of photography), who saw this clash of color in his frame and he just had to go with it.”
A unique aspect of The Descendants is the use of voiceover narration, which is not very commonplace in modern films.”
“I’m a big fan of voiceover,” Payne says, “And I’ve had it before in Election and About Schmidt and I did a short in Paris, a voiceover film.
Payne also talks about the significance of how he uses voiceover as a writer and director.
“Well, it’s maybe different in every case, but two things.” he explains, “I very much like first-person literature and I like first-person cinema and entering a story more or less through the eyes of the protagonist and using devices of subjectivity, not just voiceover but visually as well. It’s also can just help propel the narrative a bit. I think the first reel of this film is slightly too voiceover-heavy.”
“There was a lot of exposition I had to get across to the audience and I was aware of it, but the audience had to know all that stuff and I didn’t want to waste time in a scene to have to get that information across,” Alexander adds, “So I did have to rely on voiceover, but it also anchors us. Even though it disappears, the voiceover tapers off and disappears by about reel three, but I wanted to anchor the audience very much into Matt King, into his voice and into his head. Because sometimes he’s sort of speaking in that kind of omniscient way, but other times it’s his thoughts. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever used voiceover with someone’s thoughts.”
Alexander also recalls the process of adapting the original novel into a script.
“This was about my third adaptation, third or fourth, “ Payne says, “And it’s the closest I’ve ever worked, in fact I’ve never worked with the writer ever before. Sideways came closest. I had him give Jim Taylor and me a tour of wine country to see it through his eyes, because that was very much autobiographical to him, and then I had little to do with him during adaptation. But I would really consider Kaui Hemmings, that’s the writer’s name, my collaborator on this, unspoken
“I mean for example, in the scene between George and Judy [Greer] on the beach and she says “Do you live here?” and he says “No, on Oahu,” and she says “Oh so do we,’” he adds, “I had originally put in “No, in Honolulu,” which you don’t say in Hawaii, you really refer more to the island than to the city on the island, even if it’s a big city like Honolulu. It can be little turns of phrase like that, or morays in that canoe club set. So I really relied upon her a lot.”
One of the big subjects of The Descendants is the notion of forgiveness. George shared his thoughts about forgiveness as it pertains to both the film and to real life.
“I think what I said at the beginning of this discussion about the two acts, two acts of love, when it’s difficult that interested me in making this film on some level,” Payne says, “I think it’s love and forgiveness. Having to rise above the occasion and forgive and deal with also the murderousness inside of one but overcome that, because I think forgiveness is difficult.”
“Forgiving self may be for many people, at least for myself, extremely difficult,” he continues, “And then about in a larger context I will say I am constantly astonished by those who pray daily ‘Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me,’ and beat very loudly the war drum.”