Exclusive Interview: Filmmaker Alexander Payne on The Descendants

Filmmaker Alexander Payne has been out of the limelight for over six years when his previous movie Sideways was nominated for numerous Oscars, winning for Payne’s screenplay with regular collaborator Jim Taylor.

Now, Payne has teamed with George Clooney for The Descendants, an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about Hawaii-based real estate lawyer Matt King, whose wife ends up in a coma after a boating accident, which leads to him discovering she had been having an affair behind his back. With only days for his wife to live, Matt decides to find the man she was sleeping with to let him know about her condition. Coming along for the journey that takes him to other points on the islands are his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) and 10-year-old Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller), as well as Alex’s dim but well-meaning boyfriend (Nick Krause).

EXCLUSIVE TV SPOT: Watch new footage from the film!

It’s another beautiful mix of humor and drama from Payne, one that takes full advantage of the location and pulls out surprisingly strong performances, not only from Clooney, but also from newcomers and veterans (Robert Forster and Beau Bridges, for instance) alike.

ComingSoon.net spoke with Alexander Payne a few weeks back, the day after the movie premiered at the New York Film Festival to a standing ovation. That in itself was already after many kudos had been heaped on the movie from earlier festivals, which have put Payne’s movie as a frontrunner for many awards in the next few months. Payne is a rather laid-back introspective filmmaker, one who doesn’t just field questions but actually will throw a couple back your way, and not in a rude way either, but simply because he really wants to know what others think.

ComingSoon.net: I saw “Sideways” again for the first time in probably about four or five years on television.
Alexander Payne:
How’d it hold up?

CS: It held up really well. I literally had to stop what I was doing because I started watching it.
Payne:
Good.

CS: I know you’ve been developing other things since then and producing other filmmaker’s movies, so did you end up dropping some of the other things you’d been working on to do this? How did it come about?
Payne:
My little company, which is paid for by Fox Searchlight, optioned this book “The Descendants” in probably ’06 or ’07. I was in the midst of writing a different script with Jim Taylor, something we have yet to produce, but we will. That script took about two years to write. As much as I loved “The Descendants,” I thought, “No, I don’t want to make it right now. I don’t want to stand in the way of it.” Jim Burke, our producing partner, “Go ahead and do something with it.” We hired a couple of writers to take a pass at it and even trolled around for a director and for a spell, Stephen Frears was flirting with the idea of making it. Anyway, long story short, by mid-’09, Jim and I had finished that script, but we weren’t going to be able to get the right financing to get it off the ground. We needed a lot of money, and I was anxious to make a movie. Stephen Frears had dropped out, so I picked up the pen and did “The Descendants.”

CS: Did you actually use anything from that other screenplay or did you literally start from scratch?
Payne:
They did about eight different drafts, and I didn’t read all of them, but I read most of them, and I saw that while I respected their work a lot, I had to start from scratch and find my own way into the story, make it personal to me if I could because it’s not my world, it’s not my story. In a way, my co-writer was the novelist, was Kaui Hemmings because I wound up being pretty darn faithful to the book.

CS: That’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t read the book myself, but I hear it’s very faithful.
Payne:
Pretty darn faithful. You know, you have to exclude a lot, because a book has so much more leeway and isn’t trapped by that analog form and trying to keep it under two hours and still let things breathe and develop, so you have to exclude a lot. A lot of what I excluded was high jinx with the younger daughter.

CS: I loved the stuff with the younger daughter, Scottie, because when you introduce her into the movie, or really any of the characters, it adds another dimension to the movie and takes it to a different place. At what point did George get involved?
Payne:
Early on. I mean, from the get-go I asked the novelist Kaui Hemmings, “Just out of curiosity, have you ever seen anyone in your mind’s eye for the lead? I mean, who would you cast if you could get anyone?” She said, “I like George Clooney and I could believe he would be from Hawaii.” I thought for a minute and I said, “Great, let’s get him.” So he was my first and only choice. I mean, of course I had thought about him too, but it was great to hear it reinforced by the writer. So we went after him and I had dinner with him in September of ’09, gave him the script in November of ’09 and we were shooting by March of ’10.

CS: What’s he like as a collaborator? It must be different, because he is a writer, producer and director and quite successful in his own right on top of being a great actor.
Payne:
He’s one of the most successful humans who have ever lived, I think. He’s great, a total pro, super-gifted actor, nicest guy in the world, a heart of gold. People had told me, “Oh, you’re in for a treat working with him.” And they were right. I had the same experience with Nicholson, too, but it’s always great to direct actors who have themselves directed because they understand the director’s problem. They’re there to serve and help out.

CS: It’s funny you should mention Nicholson because this film feels almost more of a follow-up to “About Schmidt” than it is to “Sideways,” although “About Schmidt” was an original story.
Payne:
Mostly, I had a couple of narrative ideas stolen from Louis Begley’s book. Yeah, maybe this is sort of in a minor key like “About Schmidt” was. Maybe “Sideways” gets I guess dark at times or is a little bit more in a major key.

CS: I’m sure you’ve heard this, but it’s hard when you talk about one of your movies, because you can’t really tell someone “It’s a comedy,” and yet, as I’m sure you also know, there’s always someone trying to market or label a movie to make it easier sell. This isn’t a comedy although there are a lot of funny scenes, and it’s not entirely a drama either.
Payne:
Of course, I feel flattered by its difficulty to pigeonhole. If it somehow achieves a unique or a thick tone, then well, I’m sort of gratified by that.

CS: It must always be hard to capture that both in writing and in all aspects of the filmmaking process because obviously in “Sideways” there were also some very funny moments even when he hits rock bottom, but this one is tougher in some ways because you have a woman dying, and he has to deal with that, but there’s still humor in there.
Payne:
This one plays it straight a little bit more than previous films of mine, but it’s still got some laughs in it. Even some stupid physical humor like when he’s peeking through the bushes at the guy. I have a weakness for just kind of silent comedy at times.

CS: Complete tangent, but have you seen “The Artist” yet?
Payne:
Yeah, I loved it. I loved it. I loved it. I was very jealous that he beat me to making a silent film.

CS: I also like that you tend to go for rather unconventional casting. When you did “Election,” no one really knew who Reese Witherspoon was except for maybe from “Cruel Intentions.”
Payne:
And “Freeway,” she had been good in “Freeway.” You know what I think? I think “Cruel Intentions” shot after I did, but came out before mine.

CS: For this, you have George Clooney, who everyone knows, but then you have a couple of young actors who people may not be familiar with. Maybe Shailene Woodley from her show.
Payne:
She’s going to be a big star clearly.

CS: Then you also have these legends like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges, which is amazing.
Payne:
Yeah, the old lions.

CS: Right, and it’s interesting, because you look at this cast and ask, “How are all these people in the same movie?”
Payne:
Yeah, plus people off the street. Little Amara, the 10 year old, she’s 11 now, who had never even been in a school play.

CS: So how hard was it casting all those other roles?
Payne:
When I picked up the pen to start writing the screenplay in July of ’09, I knew we probably wouldn’t shoot until the spring, but I told the studio, “I’m going to start writing now, but I want you to start paying immediately for scouting and casting because finding those kids is going to be time consuming.” I had some experience in casting young people on “Election,” and I knew that there’s a conundrum because often young people who are well-trained and have the chops and they’ve been doing it for a while and they’re reliable don’t seem like kids anymore.

CS: Right, they seem like they’re acting.
Payne:
Yeah, 16 going on 35. Then if you want someone right off the street, he or she may not have the chops, so need to find that right balance, and I found it in Reese Witherspoon. Look at “Election.” Reese Witherspoon, a trained actress, been doing it since “Man on the Moon,” since she was 12. A huge, huge talent, a total pro up against Chris Klein whom I plucked out of a high school in Omaha. So then Amara Miller, this 10 year old, as I told you, she’d never even been in a school play. What she had was the ability to be comfortable in herself as a young girl. So unleashing her in front of the camera was like unleashing a cat. It only knows how to be itself, but it’s a cat who has memorized some dialogue, and then it’s just comfortable being there.

CS: I spoke to Judy earlier. She said you didn’t even have Scottie cast when you did the first table read.
Payne:
Judy played the part of the 10 year old and she was magnificent!

CS: I know. I was saying, “Why didn’t you just use performance capture, ’cause you could have had her play a CG ten-year-old?” But it ended up working out, When you were writing this, did you actually spend time in Hawaii to pull in the atmosphere and vibes?
Payne:
Yeah, I went twice, and to spend some time with Kaui, the writer, to get to know her world and start to see it through her eyes. I wanted to serve her voice as much as I could and to begin to scout locations and begin other research, meeting other people who could help me. I needed help from trust lawyers, for example, to get that area of the land sale correct, so that trust lawyers watching the film would say, “Oh, he got that right.” So I went once in August of ’09 and I returned in December of ’09. By December, it was actually more for local casting.

CS: Do you expect to have a big audience of trust lawyers seeing this?
Payne:
Or lawyers who would understand and who have heard the term rule against perpetuities and that kind of stuff – or rather estate lawyers, trust lawyers, yeah.

CS: I want to ask about working with Shailene and the younger actors. Do you have a very different process or approach for working with actors depending on their experience?
Payne:
Yeah, I gotta say in general that of course, even with actors with great experience, it’s part of the director’s job to see what those individual actors need in terms of support or reinforcement or discipline or whatever it is. Then, as a director too, you have to know if you’re going to have two actors in the same shot, and you know that one actor is better and takes one or two and the other one is better typically in takes four and five. How do you figure that out? All that stuff is part of the job. But whether the actors are very beginning, if they’re complete tyros or if they’re very experienced, I really just tell ‘em what I want them to do and tell them the truth. Say, “That one wasn’t so great. Just try it a little bit more this way or do it like that.” I have an extremely direct style. I just tell ‘em what I think.

CS: I don’t know if you consider yourself a visual filmmaker, but sometimes when you have an amazing location like this one and you have an idea of what you want in the background, some directors might storyboard things, while others just go to the location and then try to figure things out on the day. Which one of those are you?
Payne:
I’ve never storyboarded in my life and am very location-based. I don’t shoot on stages. Very often locations will tell you how they themselves want to be shot, or if you find a location and you see that it itself is suggesting, “Shoot me here, shoot me here, shoot me through this window. You can get great depth here.” It tells you. It informs you, and I really like that. I like locations telling me how they want to be shot.

CS: I love the last shot of the movie, the end credits.
Payne:
Thanks a lot. What do you like about it?

CS: There’s just something about it. Tony Gilroy did it in “Michael Clayton” and you just have this single shot and suddenly the credits role and you stay on them. Normally, it would fade out or cut away, but you’re just watching these people continue to live their life after going through so much.
Payne:
Were you surprised by the moments the credits started? Were you expecting something else?

CS: Yeah, very much so; I think everyone is. I think you have this amazing scene with George and his wife and something about that last scene is sort of uplifting.
Payne:
La vie continue.

CS: Did that just come out of shooting the last scene and just letting cameras roll?
Payne:
No, it’s in the screenplay. I wrote that.

CS: What about this stuff you’ve been working on? “Downsizing” was something which I know you’ve already gotten going.
Payne:
That’s comfortably aging in an oak cask, and we’re going to get back to it. The Latin poet Horace used to recommend eight years is the perfect time to let a poem lie uncorrected before picking it up to correct it. We won’t take eight years, but we’ll get back to it. In the meantime, I have my next two movies lined up. April or May I’ll start shooting a father-son road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln. I’m hoping to kick that one out pretty quickly. After that, I’m going to do the adaptation of a Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”) graphic novel, which he himself has adapted called “Wilson” about a misanthrope up in Oakland.

CS: I’m a fan of Daniel Clowes’ work but don’t know that one.
Payne:
Oh, it came out probably the year before last. Look it up. It’s a good one.

CS: So you’re working with him on adapting that?
Payne:
Yeah, I love the guy. We’re exactly the same age, very like-minded, and he’s doing his own adaptation. He’s a terrific screenwriter. He’s as gifted a screenwriter is he is a graphic novelist. He’s just very talented, that guy.

CS: It’s interesting that you’re doing another road trip movie. This, you shot on Hawaii for four months.
Payne:
Yeah, and it’s kind of a road trip movie.

CS: It is, yeah. “Sideways” was also a road trip in this beautiful Northern California wine country…
Payne:
And “About Schmidt”.

CS: So you’ve found all these beautiful locations and it seems like, “I’m going to make a movie here.” Is that just kind of a coincidence that you’ve ended up doing so many road movies in these gorgeous locations?
Payne:
I guess so, though the next one is going to have a much more austere visual sense. It’s going to be in black and white and shot in the late spring in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. I want it to have a certain stark visual style.

CS: You’re going to shoot it in black and white?
Payne:
We’ll probably shoot digital, but it’ll be released on black and white film.

CS: Are you going to use the same DP?
Payne:
Yeah, Phedon Papamichael.

CS: Did he shoot George’s movie “Ides of March” before or after?
Payne:
After. He and George really hit it off well making “The Descendants,” then he hired Phedon for “Ides of March.”

CS: Both movies look amazing, though they have different looks.
Payne:
Yeah, very different.

The Descendants opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, November 16 and in other cities on the 18th. You can see interviews with George Clooney’s young co-star Shailene Woodley sometime next week and with actress Judy Greer sometime down the road.

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