©by Leo Adam Biga
(As published in The Reader, www.thereader.com)
Alexander Payne’s version of Paradise Lost, by way of Terms of Endearment, describes the emotional arc of his new $24 million George Clooney vehicle, The Descendants, which wrapped shooting in Hawaii at the end of May.
Arriving to interview Payne at his swank new downtown digs, he gave this reporter the nickel tour of his pad; more properly termed a penthouse loft that overlooks the Gene Leahy Mall. The place has a movie-movie look straight out of a Hollywood art director’s sketchbook. Workmen finished making fixes around the condo while we sat at a heavily lacquered round wooden table. As the tape started rolling, a thunderstorm unleashed wind and rain, enveloping the downtown canyon in sheets of gray. The curious director noted the commotion, but quickly carried on.
A premise of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, which Payne adapted for the film, is that life’s messiness proceeds the same in a supposed paradise as it does in, say, drab Omaha. Eden doesn’t exempt one from loss or burden. Payne revealed as much in Sideways, where errant pals turned nirvana into a pitiful wasteland.
It’s clear the writer-director prefers protagonists undertake an ironical journey. Whether Ruth Stoops (Citizen Ruth), Jim McAllister (Election), Warren Schmidt (About Schmidt), Miles and Jack (Sideways), or Clooney’s Matt King, Payne plunges anti-heroes down a rabbit hole of self-discovery.
A seriocomic odyssey writ small unfolds, ending with the beleaguered character completing and/or embarking on a trek, wizened or not along the way.
Matt King is the most emotionally mature adult male seen in the Paynesian world, but he’s not without issues. The middle-aged a-hole is a well-off attorney troubled by his identity as a landed descendant of a white missionary who married into Hawaiian royalty. What’s worse, he’s pining and worrying over his wife, who’s in a coma after a boating accident. This was not how their golden union was to end. They were the couple others envied. But we learn that things between them had been less than idyllic for a while. Matt settled for things; Liz did not. Beautiful, free-spirited, attention-grabbing Liz always got her way. Even in her vegetative state, Matt feels betrayed by her restless, reckless vibe.
Two thankless deadlines hang over Matt: to pull or not pull life support, and sell or not sell the valuable land entrusted him and his large extended family.
Much of the story revolves around Liz in the ICU. Payne does not shrink from depicting her fragile, wasted away existence.
“It’s meant to be startling,” he said, adding that actress Patricia Hastie went to extremes — losing weight, growing her body hair and nails, skimping on sleep — to achieve stark realism. Even when not on camera, her presence is felt, lending a more serious tone than usual to the satiric Payne universe.
“It’s more of a drama than I’ve done before and I’m curious to see how that turns out,” he said. “I think it’ll be OK, but I haven’t seen a lot of the footage. I thought in the past I would be afraid of drama, because I’d always made comedies. Often comedy directors have the best touch with pathos. The jury’s still out with this one.”
Then there are the two strange creatures in the form of Matt’s daughters. He tries making up for lost time with them contemplating how they should deal with their mom’s condition. It turns out the older one, Alexandra, and her father, have reasons to hate Liz. Not that Liz didn’t have her reasons for her actions.
Payne predicts big things for Shailene Woodley, who plays Alexandra. He said the chemistry she and Clooney developed “totally shows up on screen.”
Matt’s also put upon by cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) eying a windfall land sell, and by his feisty father-in-law (Robert Forster), who blames him for Liz’s accident. It would seem an imploding family could send Matt off the deep end, but it doesn’t — except for getting back at Liz by making a brave, albeit misguided trip with the girls and a slacker hanger-on. It’s a risky venture, full of pain and humor.
Clooney as Matt King, said Payne, “is asked to run a full spectrum of emotions and ways of presenting them. I already admired him as an actor in movies but I didn’t know how good he was until I got to watch him live and see what he could do with certain scenes, how nimble he is as an actor, how nimbly he can do emotions and turn emotions on a dime. He’s a really good actor.”
The ruddy good looks and exasperated charm of Clooney made him everyone’s choice as Matt, who’s wounded but not the damaged goods of other Payne protagonists. He comes out of his crucible fairly whole and ready to meet an ambivalent new reality.
Payne went on a literal and figurative journey of his own to make Descendants. After his Oscar-winning buddy road picture, Sideways, hit big in 2004, he spent the next few years, if not in self-imposed exile from features, distracted from making another. He got divorced (from Sandra Oh), he formed his own production company (Ad Hominem), he produced films (King of California, The Savages), he and longtime writing partner Jim Taylor did script doctoring work (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry). Payne also directed a short (14th Arrondissement) and an HBO pilot (“Hung”).
The project he and Taylor labored on three years, Downsizing, became a casualty of the recession when its $65 million special effects-laden budget scared off investors. Then Payne producing partner Jim Burke asked him “for the umpteenth time” to helm Descendants. Payne liked the material but wouldn’t commit with Downsizing still in play.
The Hemmings book was among the first properties Ad Hominem optioned. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote a script, which director Stephen Frears was slated to make. When Frears bailed, Payne gave the novel another read. This time he said yes to adapting it himself.
“I basically threw out the draft other writers had done and then started anew,” Payne said. He wrote it, alone, without Taylor. “All writing is scary, with someone or without someone, and in this case it was fine,” said Payne. “Jim and I had spent so much time writing on Downsizing together that I think we just needed a break. It’s not my story. Hawaii exists in a different dimension. It’s a different country. So I sort of wanted to find my own personal way into that story by adapting it myself.
“About the only thing I have in common with the story ostensibly is the protagonist and I are the same gender and age. So it’s a little bit like acting — if I had been born or somehow brought into that set of circumstances who would I be, how would I react? I wanted to do that a little bit just to find my own way into the story emotionally.”
Working with Jack Nicholson on Schmidt schooled Payne on the superstar factor. Though he hung out more with Jack, he and Clooney, both 49, have more in common.
“We both got to L.A. more or less at the same time, I in the film school circle, he in the acting circle … so we have many of the same cultural reference points. It was nice having something more of an alter ego in the lead part.”
The project reunited Payne with veteran collaborators, including director of photography Phedon Papamichael from Sideways.
Beginning last summer, Payne did Hawaii — “getting to know that world so I can represent it accurately,” he said. “I took three or four one-to-two week trips between August and December. That’s time I was dividing between sniffing around Hawaii, finishing the screenplay in Los Angeles, and casting in Los Angeles and in New York (with casting director John Jackson of Omaha). Then on Jan. 10 I moved to Hawaii full-time,” remaining there for the duration of the March 15-May 26 shoot.
Throughout, he relied heavily on Hemmings, a Hawaii resident, to “vet things in the dialogue.” Hemmings said, “It was as much about getting the lingo right as anything.”
“I often asked for her input, even on casting,” said Payne. “Sometimes I’d be stuck between two people and I’d ask, ‘Who rings more true to you?’ Again, it’s not my world, I needed help from her, from a lot of people. And I’m sure I still have a million mistakes in the film but I’m sure I would have had more had I not gone out there. It’s all about trying to aspire to catch a sense of place in a film.”
Hawaii, he said, “is very specific and there’s great consciousness about who’s from Hawaii, who’s not, who’s just out here from the mainland.”
Ultimately, it comes down to interpretation.
“What does getting it right mean?” Payne said. “It’s so subjective. It’s still going to be this white guy from the mainland going out to tell this Hawaii story, although the emotional story could be set anywhere. But, of course, the land is everything. Land and power, the whole setting of it, the landed upper class of Honolulu, which I then had to do a kind of thesis paper on in a way.”
Researching his subject, he became friends with noted Hawaii historian Gavin Dawes, who impressed upon him the complexity of the place.
“At lunch he told me, ‘After living here for more than 50 years it’s more mysterious to me than ever,’” Payne said.
Oddly enough, Payne said capturing Hawaii “all comes back to Omaha,” adding, “It’s an exciting, logical extension of my process begun here in Nebraska, of — how do you tell a story in the foreground and have a place in the background? Starting with About Schmidt I began to get the hang of that. I took those skills and learned some new ones on Sideways. So I pretty much see The Descendants as an extension of that same work, in a place where I haven’t been before. It’s telling a personal story in the foreground and maintaining a sense of the landscape in the background. There’s one director in particular whose work I’ve studied, Anthony Mann, who was very good at that. But he went one step further by having the changing physical landscape often mirror, like a projection, the protagonist’s inner landscape.”
Payne said he didn’t even try muting Hawaii’s stunning beauty, just as he didn’t suppress the splendor of Sideways’ Santa Barbara wine country. “I went with it. It’s just so pretty. We were shooting in Hanalei Bay on the island of Hawaii and I didn’t realize how beautiful it was until I saw it on film watching dailies.”
Owing to the newness of it all, he was more open to script revisions on set than ever before. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done a little bit of rewriting of scenes, because I would learn new things along the way.” He also re-shot a scene, again something he’s rarely done. It’s a “money” scene with Matt and the two girls on a boat.
“It turns out shooting on boats is very difficult,” he said. “I’ve done road movies, which has taught me how much I hate shooting in cars. It’s just a drag. George Clooney, who had done A Perfect Storm, said boat work is car work on steroids, and he was right. You know, most of filmmaking is hauling equipment around, so just getting the equipment out there, securing the actors, one of them a little girl, on a small boat, then dealing with the swells, and how to shoot it. The light continuity was very different shooting one side of the boat to the other. It’d be in clouds and then in sunlight. It’d be a calm ocean and then rough. The little girl got tired easily. It was laborious.
“We shot that first, toward the beginning of the schedule, and then it just didn’t look so good in dailies, so I said we should just re-shoot it and get it right. In doing so it turned out to be a gift. When I came back to re-shoot it at the very end of the schedule I had learned more about the emotional journey of the characters and so I was able to have that inform more specifically their attitudes.”
Happy accidents. More than once, he said, he or the actors or the DP or all three were inspired during a take to do something unscripted that made magic.
“In filmmaking you’re supposed to have a day of shooting be executing a preconceived plan, and that’s fine, it makes everybody feel secure you’re getting done what you’re scheduled to do. But it’s nice also where within that structure you’re able to have moments that are as spontaneous an act of creation as painting or writing, and I had some of those, and that felt good.”
Descendants proved a welcome break from Downsizing and the green screen work it would require. “It was a breath of fresh air to get away from it for a bit. It was nice to just have a camera and shoot people. That’s where it’s at,” he said. He fully expects to still make Downsizing one day, he said, “because it’s a good one.”
After spending early June in Omaha, Payne joined his longtime editor Kevin Tent in L.A. to edit. Payne wants an all-Hawaiian soundtrack. The film’s due for a 2011 release.
As for his next project, he intends coming home to make, what else? — a road pic named Nebraska.
The interview complete, Payne ushered me past some freshly arrived white cane chairs he bought in Hawaii and bid me adieu with a hearty “Aloha.”