HANALEI, Hawaii — It was precisely the kind of day that drives Hawaii’s $10-billion vacation business. The sun sliced through the clouds along the coast of Kauai, a windward breeze blowing across the bay as children played in the warm ocean waters. Alexander Payne couldn’t help but notice the spectacular setting, but as he directed a key scene in “The Descendants” in spring 2010, his cameras were aimed on a far less idyllic sight: a man looking for redemption.
Even though every minute of “The Descendants,” opening in limited release Wednesday, unfolds in the Hawaiian islands, there are no luaus, no hula dancers and no surfing competitions in Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ obscure but well-reviewed novel of the same name. As in his other tragically comic films — “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” — Payne’s interest rests squarely on the common problems of ordinary, frequently overwhelmed people, and Matt King, a lawyer and soon-to-be single father in “The Descendants,” is an exemplar of the filmmaker’s humanist preoccupation.
When the film opens, King’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is in a coma after a boating accident. Her brain injury prompts an existential crisis in King (George Clooney), who has been absent from his family’s life. Neglected by her husband, Elizabeth has had an extramarital affair with a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and King is similarly estranged from his daughters, the wayward Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the brokenhearted Scottie (Amara Miller). “I’m the backup parent, the understudy,” King confesses in a voice-over. Suddenly handed a starring role in his own life, he quickly realizes he doesn’t know any of the lines.
King is determined not only to become an engaged father but also a better person, which has brought him to Hanalei Bay in search of Speer, whom he ultimately finds running along the beach, the scene Payne was filming that March day. Any number of movies would have the cuckolded King pummel Speer, expose his dalliance to his family and stomp off with some imagined victory.
But Payne said that what drew him to “The Descendants” was that King tracked down his wife’s lover for a selfless reason: so that Speer could return from Kauai to Oahu to say goodbye to Elizabeth before she dies.
“Of course he wants to kill the guy, but this is the right thing to do — an act of love,” Payne said after he filmed the sequence. “I thought that was beautiful, and it intrigued me: Love when you don’t want to, love when it’s very difficult. That’s what made me want to do it.”
In many ways, the finished sequence in Speer’s beachfront bungalow is classic Payne, weaving this way and that with unexpected tonal shifts. “It’s like a coming-of-age film, but the person who is coming of age is a 50-year-old guy,” explained Clooney, who hoped to be cast (but was passed over in favor of Thomas Haden Church) for Payne’s “Sideways.” “There’s a much different kind of vulnerability to this. This is a character who loses almost every argument,” said the actor, who for the first time since 1996’s “One Fine Day” has a starring role as a parent.
“He finds love and forgiveness by accepting his role in his failures,” Clooney said, relaxing between takes by playing football with the cast and crew. (“Make sure you say he rarely throws a tight spiral,” Lillard said, tossing the ball back to his costar.)
Like many memorable moments in Payne’s previous films, the meeting between King and Speer is untidy. It’s both amusing and bracing, conciliatory and confrontational. And it’s a scene Payne, one of Hollywood’s few remaining true auteurs, was not originally supposed to direct.
Payne hasn’t made a movie since 2004’s “Sideways,” his popular road movie about friendship and Pinot Noir set in California’s Central Coast. Since then, the 50-year-old filmmaker directed the pilot for television’s “Hung” and a segment for the episodic feature “Paris, Je T’Aime,” wrote on the Adam Sandler comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck&Larry” and produced “King of California.” Yet his next movie proved elusive.
For three years, Payne, writing partner Jim Taylor (with whom Payne shared the adapted screenplay Oscar for “Sideways”) and producing colleague Jim Burke developed “Downsizing,” an original idea for a satirical comedy about scientists who shrink themselves to 4 inches tall. Their environmental utopia — imagine how many people one ear of corn could feed — turned out to be a visual effects and budgetary nightmare. Said Burke, “How do you make it look real so you’re not taken out of the movie?”
Payne said the project was further threatened by Hollywood’s recessionary caution. “Everybody is going to use the global economy to justify their traditional stinginess,” he said. “I realized ‘Downsizing’ would be a little bit of a long road.”
Like much of what he says, Payne offers this analysis of an apparently devastating decision — three years working on a movie, and suddenly they ditch it — as dispassionately as if he were discussing lunch. Even though his scripts are extremely literate, he’s remarkably guarded when talking about his work. And he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. At one “Descendants” question-and-answer session, he grew so frustrated with an interviewer’s questions that he began responding monosyllabically.
A graduate of Stanford (Spanish and history), Payne chose UCLA’s film school over Columbia University’s journalism school for his graduate studies. He either prefers to be vague about his movies’ messages or would rather audiences figure them out on their own (or both). “My primary urge is not to express something,” said the director, who is divorced from “Sideways” actress Sandra Oh. “It’s to make a film.”
His influences are eclectic. He said his favorite movie at Labor Day weekend’s Telluride Film Festival, where “The Descendants” made its world premiere, was “Trip to the Moon and Beyond,” a compilation of restored and colorized silent films, including Georges Melies’ famous short about a rocket flying into the moon. When he served as the festival’s guest director two years ago, he selected for special presentation Andre De Toth’s 1959 western “Day of the Outlaw,” Michael Curtiz’s 1950 crime story “The Breaking Point” and Leo McCarey’s 1937 family drama “Make Way for Tomorrow.”
What Payne had to say about the McCarey film in the festival’s film guide goes a long way to explaining his sensibility: “Only a narrative artist capable of comedy is truly capable of pathos.”
Originally adapted by screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Descendants” was going to be produced by Payne and Burke’s company, Ad Hominem. Stephen Frears was set to direct at one point, even offering the King part to Brad Pitt and Clooney, and Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) briefly flirted with the project. When “Downsizing” was shelved, Payne reexamined “The Descendants.” “I was desperate to make a film,” he said, even though, unlike his other movies, he had not developed “The Descendants” from the start as his own movie. “I was so anxious to shoot something.”
Payne nevertheless had several concerns. Like the book, Faxon and Rash’s script emphasized King’s relationship with 10-year-old Scottie (played by newcomer Miller, 11) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Woodley, 19) in nearly equal measure. Payne’s revisions reoriented the story toward Alexandra, whose problems are greater and insights more knowing.
“I thought that’s where the greater relationship is — the older daughter. She’s the one who begins petulant and resentful and ends up a team player,” he said, adding that his storytelling preferences also were governed by logistics. “If you work with a minor, you can only work eight-hour days, and who wants to work eight-hour days?” Not Payne, apparently.
He retained the novel’s allegory about an inheritance — King is the sole trustee of a 25,000-acre tract of undeveloped land that his relatives want to be turned into a coastal resort, yielding them an unearned windfall of some $500 million. (The novel’s land story is loosely based on the Damon Family Trust, whose assets were recently sold for $860 million and distributed to some 20 heirs.) With King’s sleepwalking through much of his life, his various kin assume he’ll take the path of least resistance and sell. “But he’s just midwifed one death,” Payne said of King’s hesitation. “And he does not want to midwife another.”
Months before he started filming, the director traveled to Hawaii, using novelist Hemmings as a guide. “Hawaii is not my world, and I don’t understand that world,” said Payne, who grew up in Omaha, Neb., the setting for “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “About Schmidt.”
Just as he labored in his early work not to depict the Midwest in convenient cliches, he said he wanted to show Hawaii as it is, not as it has been romanticized in tourist board-friendly fare such as “Fifty First Dates,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” or “Blue Crush.”
“He wanted to see what it was actually like to live here,” said the island-born Hemmings. She drove him around working class neighborhoods, to markets — to daily life. “He and production designer Jane Ann Stewart wanted to get every single detail right,” she said. “What people wear, what’s on our countertops, what kind of quilts people have.”
In the film’s opening minutes, where King uses a four-letter word to describe his take on the island paradise, “The Descendants” flashes past a few of Hawaii’s infirm, its elderly, its homeless. “I had never seen Hawaii,” Payne said, “in a movie like this.”
At Hanalei Bay, Payne was working closely with Lillard, who was both thrilled and terrified to act for the filmmaker. The veteran of the “Scooby-Doo” movies, videos and television shows was selected over what Lillard recalled “was a room full of Adonises” because Payne not only found his audition the best but also believed that Elizabeth King would be attracted not to someone better looking than Clooney but someone who paid her more attention. “I’ve never seen the ‘Scooby-Doo’ movies anyway,” Payne said.
Though Payne is reluctant to philosophize about his work, anyone who looks at his output can detect recurrent ideas, often variations on estrangement. His protagonists may be less adept at negotiating personal problems than some people, but Payne rarely passes judgment on, or sentimentalizes, their mistakes.
What stands as heroic behavior in his films is someone’s fleeting act of insight — Matthew Broderick’s teacher in “Election” seeing that he doesn’t really know the difference between morals and ethics; Jack Nicholson’s actuary in “About Schmidt” realizing that for all of the calculations he’s made about others’ lives he has not accounted for his own; Paul Giamatti’s “Sideways” oenophile starting to see that his romantic and literary failings are not someone else’s fault.
“You have to judge that there’s an emotional story that feels as if it’s real life but can be told more or less originally.” Payne said, edging up to a theory.
For his next feature, “Nebraska,” a road movie about a father and his estranged (of course) son collecting a sweepstakes prize, he was able to persuade Paramount Pictures to let him shoot the film, which he’s now casting, in black and white.
For all of the messiness in King’s life and the unflinching way it depicts his wife dying, “The Descendants” ends on an optimistic note. With consistently strong early support from critics and enthusiastic reception from awards voters, the film has been building momentum as a leading Academy Award contender.
But don’t expect holiday cheer. “I just don’t want it to be,” said Payne, “too heartwarming.”
His movies, in the end, are not necessarily intended to make you feel good — the more profound goal is just to make you feel.