The below originally appeared a couple of weeks back in the now-defunct Wide Screen, an online publication from Nomad Editions. It turned out pretty well, I thought, so I figured I might reprint it here before it went down the virtual rabbit hole. I have an only slightly dated Michael Fassbender interview from that publication I might want to post here in time for A Dangerous Method and/or Shame; let me know in comments if, as Francis Bacon once said to Kingsley Amis in a very different context, this sort of thing interests you.
The writer and director Alexander Payne has a quietly elegant presence that’s a comfortable match for his penetrating intelligence, an intelligence that’s a sparkling feature of his conversation and, of course, a crucial component of his films. With producer and frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, Payne has made five feature films (and one notable short, in the omnibus picture Paris, Je T’Aime) that are searching and sometimes sardonic studies of unique but nevertheless representative American characters in unique American settings. The social-activism satire Citizen Ruth, the high-school-as-metaphor-for-cursed-life comedy Election, the dying-of-the-light road picture About Schmidt, and the wine-dark story of love for possible losers, Sideways, have all made their mark in both the critical and commercial realms. And now Payne delivers his most accomplished, and moving, film yet, The Descendants. Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants begins with a lyrical image of a woman enjoying some power boat time in the blue, blue Hawaiian waters. But all is not well for long. The moment we see is directly before a disaster that puts the woman, Elizabeth, into a coma, and sends her husband, affluent lawyer Matt King, into a frenzy of emotional turmoil as he tries to deal with his two young, troubled daughters; the sale of a large parcel of land owned by his family, and the various pressures concerning that sale that his less-prosperous kin are bringing to bear on him; and finally, the knowledge that his wife had been conducting an affair. Funny, wise, deeply sad and deeply compassionate, The Descendants may just be the film of the year. Wide Screen talked to Payne about its themes and creation as the film was premiering at the New York Film Festival in early October.
GK: I have a couple of questions to start with, to which the short answers would invariably be “It’s called acting, stupid.” But I’m hoping you’ll indulge me with longer answers. To begin with, I’m just blown away by the way that George Clooney and Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, who play his daughters, achieved this dynamic that is so seemingly natural and so present. Despite, say, that Clooney himself is not a dad, and so on. So I’m wondering how you were able to lead the performers through the creation of that particular dynamic.
ALEXANDER PAYNE: Part of the answer is “it’s what I do,” and part of the answer is “it’s what Iobserve.” My other experience in doing this sort of thing was in Sideways, when I had to have those two guys, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, appear as though they had been friends for years, even though they had only met two weeks before shooting. Because in that case, if you didn’t believe their friendship, there was no film. So I had them come out to Santa Barbara County two or three weeks before shooting, not just to have rehearsals with me but so they could spend time together and go play golf and see movies. They were as eager to forge a relationship as I was, because they wanted the movie to be good. So the same thing applied for this film. I brought all those players out about two weeks before shooting and we got together at the house I was staying at in Hawaii, and on locations. It’s always important to take actors to locations before you shoot. And we just hung out. And then they just hung out. And then it started to show up on screen. The process of making a film is so long that each day is a bit of rehearsal for the whole rest of the shoot. And the only compliment I really pay myself in filmmaking is that I cast well. And I think that, a), they were well-selected, and b), I thank the film gods that those particular actors reached me because for none of those three parts — Clooney, Shailene or Amara — was there an also-ran for the role. It was really them, those three specifically. It’s as if, for example, well, who else is going to play you?
GK: I think Clooney goes as deep as he’s ever gone. In part it’s because of the themes. Did you discuss this beforehand, or did you just keep it specifically related to the character and the narrative?
PAYNE: The latter.
GK: Because he’s a smart guy. He doesn’t need you to lay that stuff out…
PAYNE: No, he gets it. He knows what’s going on. Then it’s just a matter of what you get day by day on the set and take by take. Little surgical instructions I might want him to find helpful, like what I tell him between takes. And then decent editing.
GK: I wanted to ask you about the editing.
PAYNE: Thank you. I’m real proud of the editing in this one.
GK: I wanted to talk about how long it took, because you have this narrative through line that’s incredibly strong and never feels over-determined. You’ve got the engagement of the audience at all times without ever over-emphasizing any one thing. How’s the process go for you and your editor, Kevin Tent?
PAYNE: Kevin and I typically edit for a long time. Election we edited over a year. I still think it’s my only film that’s not too long. Sideways and Descendants were each about 36, 37 weeks total. It’s not all just picture cutting, it’s also sound and sound effects, music and stuff. But start to finish, it was about 37 weeks, so just over 9 months, 10 months. And we screened a lot. Actually, we had a couple of those Hollywood screenings. I forget what they call them – you know, recruited-focus-group-type screenings – we had two of those. But I screen constantly for friends and people who come into the cutting room, or rent a small screening room, watch it, cause that’s really the only time when you know what you have or how it’s functioning. And then we just go on, continuing to calibrate tone. And it takes a while.
GK: There’s a real looseness—
PAYNE: I just think many films today are under-edited.
GK: Well, you get the emotions to resonate without hammering them.
PAYNE: Thank God. I can’t stand being hammered in a movie. I get it. I’m there. I want the viewers to bring their part, their component, to the film-watching experience.
GK: Right. You lead them through it and it feels loose, but I think there’s also a real meticulousness to it and a real consciousness of the way you’re using the devices and you have — this film has the confidence where it can start off with this voiceover narration and then just dispose of it.
GK: Nobody is going to ask, “Where did the narration go?” But that’s the sort of thing that somebody else might worry and say, well no, we need to bring that back at the end, to close the parenthesis or what have you. Or we need to bring it back in the middle. But you —
PAYNE: You know, I thought of all that. But I’m 50 now, and I think I’m at a stage where I can use whatever film techniques I need at whatever time for whatever efficacy. There’s only one wipe in the film. Typically you’d say, well, no, if you’re going to have a wipe, you need to have more than one wipe. But I didn’t need more than one wipe. The wipe worked well there, the one place I needed it. And you’re right about voiceover. It worked well to get us into the story and then I jettisoned it. I didn’t need it anymore. The film just uses what it needs.
GK: So you begin with Matt in voiceover giving you a bit of a reality check as to what life in Hawaii is like. It’s paradise but it’s not paradise. And then, it’s not as if you’re not aware of the landscape, but there’s that one shot where the characters look at the land they own, and it’s beautiful.
PAYNE: You cannot deny that there are jaw-dropping vistas out there. I think the land in that shot is, like, the land owned by Matt and his family, actually in a trust, that will elapse at some point. It’s on Kaua‘i, I forget the name of the family who owns it; a huge, huge ranch. They make money at that ranch by allowing ATV tours. These old estates have to resort to a lot of commercial tricks like that to keep afloat.
I did do a lot of research about Hawaii history cause inasmuch as a history is even implied in the title of the film, but he’s from one of those fancy old families in Hawaii. I needed to know what I was dealing with. And then get a larger sense of that complex and sometimes intimidating social fabric.
The book on which the film is based, a novel by Kaui HArt Hemmings reached us, and by us I mean my producing partners, Jim Burke and Jim Taylor, about four, five years ago. And Jim Taylor and I were in the midst of writing something else, which I haven’t shot yet. And so I eschewed it for the moment, even as I recognized its merits. And so Jim Burke went ahead and he hired a couple other writers to just get the thing up on its feet. And then they lured another director who was involved for a while, Stephen Frears, who was very interested in doing it. And the writers did a couple drafts for him. But anyway, finally, in ’09 I decided to do it after Stephen Frears dropped out. He had a conflict with something else. So then I did my own adaptation. And there we were.
GK: Did you like the idea of going to Hawaii?
PAYNE: Absolutely. I think more and more my filmmaking, not that I’ve made that many films, but each one takes a lot of effort and time. And I find myself now auditioning place as well as much of the story there. So yeah, recently — for example, recently, I’ve been flirting with a book that would half take place in Dublin. I had never been to Dublin, so I flew over to Dublin a few weeks ago, just to sniff around. And it was lovely, but I didn’t find it particularly inspiring to me on a superficial visit. So I don’t think I’m going to do it. But Hawaii was a place I had loved already. I’ve been there many times and had a sense of that complex cultural fabric. And not just Hawaii, the island itself. I was interested in seeing Honolulu, which is a real city. I had never seen Honolulu in a film.
GK: And you do get this really engaging sense of place, not unlike the sense of place you brought to bear on Sideways.
PAYNE: Which is a skill set I finally began to get a handle on in About Schmidt. And the short I did for the omnibus film Paris, Je T’Aime was a kind of a reinforcing exercise for me about humans in foreground, place in background. Even when I did a pilot for Hung…I didn’t go quite as deeply, but even that, I think, has a genuine redolence of Detroit, where it’s set and was shot.
GK: People are going to ask why has it taken so long between this and Sideways. And obviously you do other things. But for a filmmaker who does the kind of films that you do, is it just more difficult to get things going?
PAYNE: No, I think it’s just … it’s always about material. Everything is always about material. The fact that it was essentially four years between when I was able to put Sideways to bed and picked up the pen on The Descendants — that was about, well, most of that time was spent writing. Writing the script that Jim and I have yet to see shot. And for dough we script-doctored a couple of other things. And I did the Hung pilot. Time just went by fast. But I rue that, because I am in this to make features. I like it! Fun.
GK: In terms of the casting, how much were you aware of playing a little bit with iconography relative to George Clooney’s celebrity status and having him cuckolded?
PAYNE: Every once in a while I’d hear, and even maybe now you might — before someone’s seen the movie — “Well, who’s going to cheat on George?” Well, everybody cheats on everybody.
GK: Matthew Lillard, who plays the character with whom the wife had had an affair; it’s interesting because Matthew’s so often played a goof, and there’s a scene where he has to deliver one of the film’s more profound moment, when his character steps back and admits, in so many words, “I didn’t do it for this reason, it happened.”
GK: It’s a beautiful moment, painful and true.
PAYNE: He does a good job, that guy Lillard! See, though, I hadn’t seen him in anything else. I saw Scream a million years ago, but I didn’t remember it. I’ve never seen him. He just auditioned really well.
GK: Patricia Hastie, who plays Elizabeth, the comatose wife — what was she like?
PAYNE: Thank you for asking about her. I am so proud of her work. She was a local hire in Hawaii. She was really, technically, a “featured extra,” because she was a local hire with no dialogue. But I ended up bumping her up to giving her front-end credit and full scale, or however much she was paid. That woman took it very seriously. She lost a bunch of weight. She would stay up all night, come in to work the next day, go through hair and makeup, climb into bed, get hooked up to the IV’s, take a melatonin and say, “Don’t wake me even for lunch.” She was out a lot of the time. And we’d have to re-adjust her body, because they’ll get bed sores. She really showed up for work. There’s an old Latin phrase, Dum tacet clamat. "Although silent, she speaks."