“Finally the sun is out,” director-screenwriter Alexander Payne enthused. “L.A. suffers from what people out here call ‘June gloom.’ Yesterday and today were our first days of sun.”
Payne, an Omaha native and an Oscar winner for the screenplay of his last feature, “Sideways,” might also have been feeling sunny last week because he’s making a feature-length movie for the first time in six years. “The Descendants,” based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and starring George Clooney, shot in Hawaii from mid-March to late May.
It’s the story of Matt King (Clooney), a native Hawaiian descended from missionaries and Hawaiian royalty, who ponders selling the family land. When a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma, he gathers loved ones before pulling the plug.
Learning that his wife had been unfaithful, he takes their daughters, ages 17 and 10, on a road trip to find her lover in this family drama with touches of humor. He finds there’s a lot he doesn’t know about his own kids.
Payne sounded relaxed and upbeat as he chatted about the just-completed movie shoot and the post-production process he’ll be immersed in for the next seven months.
Q. How does the movie in the can compare with the one you had in your head before shooting began?
A. Impossible to tell, because I’m only three or four weeks into editing. I’m just beginning to acquaint myself with the footage. I don’t really start with the movie in my head as much as the question “What will this movie be?” Specifically, that depends on what the actors bring, what the locations are, what the gods have in mind on a particular day of shooting. It’s more of a discovery process than the execution of a plan.
Q. Were any big changes made in the script while you were shooting?
A. Nothing big. There are always a lot of little tweaks, though.
Q. How well did you know George Clooney before you shot this film?
A. I had met him twice, once over lunch when I was casting “Sideways.” He was interested in one of the roles. And another time just in passing.
Q. How would you describe working with Clooney?
A. I can’t imagine a better working relationship with an actor. He’s really a terrific star, a terrific actor, a terrific guy. I’ve been telling people who ask that he is who you hope he is. People hope he’s as cool and funny and personable as they glean from his personality onscreen, and he is. I will say he’s so funny, and sometimes so goofy, that you realize his cool persona onscreen is something of an act.
Q. What qualities did Clooney bring to the role of Matt King that you thought enhanced the movie?
A. It’s not a super-specific answer, but he brought great humanity to the part, the humanity the part calls for.
Q. Clooney has a reputation as a practical joker. Any evidence of that on the set of “The Descendants”?
A. Oh, yes. His brain functions in terms of prank. He’s extremely clever. There’s kind of a game people play on set. It’s too difficult to describe, but a constant ‘Gotcha!’ game, forcing someone to look at a certain place. He was the most professional player at it. He didn’t play any major jokes on me. I was fearing that, was constantly on guard. Maybe (he will) now that we’re finished shooting. He can think in terms of long-term prank.
Q. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller play Clooney’s daughters. Miller is an unknown. How do you find the experience of working with young actors?
A. Well, each was different. Shailene has been acting since age 5, and she’s 18 now. She has a lot of experience in front of the camera and is very at ease. Amara was the complete opposite, with no experience whatsoever. But she’s such a natural. It’s like casting a cat. A cat can only play a cat. Of course, it’s sometimes difficult to corral a cat, but when you need a cat in the film, there she is.
Between my casting director, John Jackson (of Council Bluffs), and myself, we probably saw 300 girls for that role. Their mothers and fathers over-rehearse a lot of them, and by the time they reach me, I don’t see any genuine behavior. My line now to stage parents is: “Make sure your kids know the dialogue, but don’t rehearse them.”
But this girl is a complete natural. I found her through the sinewy fibers of fate. Three weeks from starting filming, I was at the house of some Los Angeles friends. I talked about how hard it was to cast this role. After I left, that wife called a friend, who called another friend, who had a sister in Monterey (Calif.) with a daughter. They got hold of the audition scene, put her on tape and e-mailed me the audition. Twenty seconds in, I knew she was right. When you’re casting a difficult part like that, you follow up every single lead.
Q. Tell us a little about the roles played by some of your other widely known cast members.
A. They’re not huge roles. Only Clooney and the girls have big parts. But they’re all important roles.
Beau Bridges plays a cousin of Matt King. Matthew Lillard is a lothario. Judy Greer plays the wife of the lothario. Robert Forster is Matt King’s father-in-law. Mary Birdsong is King’s wife’s best friend. Nick Krause is a good friend to Matt’s older daughter.
Q. You had not shot on the water before. Talk about the challenges that poses.
A. There’s only one scene on the water, a canoe scene toward the end. It’s difficult. You have to get all that equipment out there in other boats. In Hawaii, even in a calm place like Waikiki, the swells are unpredictable and ever-changing. It was a bit of a drag. My advice to young filmmakers: Don’t have any boat scene.
Q. Any other challenges you found shooting this particular movie?
A. I think shooting a movie is always a big challenge, in a really great way. It’s a challenge to try to capture something of a different culture when you’re not from that culture. Hawaii is so complex and unique, I had the constant fear I wasn’t getting it right.
I ask a lot of questions before and during shooting, and I’ll still get things wrong, but hopefully some things right, too.
Q. Did cast and crew for this movie find opportunities to socialize?
A. Oh, film crews are basically a bunch of carnies. They’re always socializing at the hotel. I typically throw a big party halfway through the shoot.
Q. Did George Clooney show for that?
A. Oh, yeah. Remember, he’s been on film sets most of his adult life. He loves film crews. That’s his home, where he feels comfortable. He never acts like he’s above those activities. He correctly feels the actors are part of the crew.
Q. When did post-production work begin in earnest, and when do you hope to complete the film?
A. Post-production began June 14. I predict I’ll be working on it until January or February.
Q. Is my guess correct that you like filming more than post-production?
A. No. I prefer post-production. Editing is where you really make the movie. Everything before is just harvesting footage to tell the story. It’s really all about the editing.
Q. Who’s on your film-crew team that you’ve worked with on past films?
A. Almost everyone in key positions. My cinematographer (Phedon Papamichael) was on “Sideways.” The production designer (Jane Ann Stewart) and editor (Kevin Tent) I’ve used on all my films. The costume designer (Wendy Chuck) is from “Election.”
Q. What music will be used on the soundtrack?
A. I’m planning to use 100 percent Hawaiian music. I’m still figuring out what mix of contemporary and traditional. I have a music supervisor and editor. At this stage, I don’t plan on working with a composer — but that could change.
Q. When do you hope to release the movie?
A. That’s up to the studio (Fox Searchlight). Because this film has more adult themes, they might hold it to fall of next year. We haven’t held those conversations yet.
Q. Was novelist Kaui (pronounced KOW-ee) Hart Hemmings involved in the writing or on set during the shoot?
A. She’s one of the people I consulted with a lot. She visited the set a lot, and I liked having her around, but it wasn’t to oversee anything. She was just happy to be there. Often when I tweaked the screenplay or revised a scene based on new information about the locale, I’d run those tweaks by her. Hawaii is not my world. It’s hers.
Q. This was your first full-length feature in years. How did it feel to climb back into the director’s chair?
A. Fantastic. I like making movies.
Q. Is it too soon to look ahead?
A. I expect to film my next movie in 2011. If all goes well, I’ll be back in Nebraska shooting again next year.
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