If there’s a common thread underlying Ad Hominem Enterprises’ first three features, it’s the narrative of ordinary people reacting to disruption in their everyday lives. In The Descendants, opening locally Nov. 18, this idea takes shape in Matt King (George Clooney), a father of two forced to come to terms with his wife’s indiscretion following a boating accident that’s left her in a coma. As the premise suggests, King’s odyssey is one of somber reflection; but despite the pervasiveness of disheartening familial drama, producer Jim Burke, a Minnesota native, insists that this film is not a downer.
The A.V. Club sat down with Burke before a screening of the new film at the Walker Art Center to talk about the film’s Hawaiian foundation, issues of responsibility, and director Alexander Payne’s suffusion of lighthearted moments through life’s most dismal events.
The A.V. Club: Could you talk a little bit about the importance of setting in The Descendants?
Jim Burke: I think [setting] is really important, because it puts you into a world, because it roots you there. Not just what it looks like, but what it sounds like. We went to extremes. There’s little gecko sounds that you don’t notice, but they’re in there. We try to make it as authentic as possible, almost like a documentary.
Oftentimes you see films that are shot there, and Hawaii is a substitute for some other place, like the Caribbean or the jungles of Southeast Asia, or Jurassic Park. Or sometimes you see it as some resort hotel, and it is, too, but that’s the version of Hawaii that it is to a tourist, like you or me. We wanted to make a movie that depicted what it would be like if you lived there.
AVC: To that effect, how many locals and non-professional actors did you have in the film?
JB: I don’t really have a head-count for you, but quite a few. The man that played the doctor, the woman that played the dorm mother, the hotel clerk... These are all—they do that for real, and they just did it for the movie.
AVC: At the post-screening Q&A, you mentioned the title of the film in relation to this idea of being a “link in the chain.”
JB: To me, that’s one of the main themes of the film—Matt King’s acceptance that he is a link in the chain, and that he has to take responsibility for being a father, which he had sort of become disengaged with through the course of his marriage. And part of that, for me, is that—here he’s this guy born into some version of privilege; he has a trust that he’s responsible for, and my experience with knowing a number of people like that in my life that have had that—it’s a great thing to have, but oftentimes there’s this sort of hidden shame or guilt they carry with it. They have what I consider to be, maybe, survivor’s guilt. So Matt is sort of wrestling with that, while at the same time wrestling with the circumstances of his real life—his responsibility to not be the link in the chain that breaks this thing for his family, for the next generation, his daughters, who he now feels a closer connection with.
AVC: Do you think the film has more resonance if you’re a parent?
JB: Well, I only know what it’s like as a parent, and I’m a parent of a daughter. So I know that it speaks to me in that way, but I also know a lot of other people that are affected by the picture that aren’t parents, don’t have daughters, aren’t fathers, and they can access the film from a different point of view.
AVC: Responsibility is another key theme here. Not just responsibility to your family, but also your friends and even people you don’t know.
JB: That’s what I love about this movie: You get to decide what the theme is for you. If you’re working on areas of forgiveness, this movie will talk to you; if you’re a father who has a daughter—and you may love your daughter and you may feel so close to her, but she may also be mysterious to you—this movie will talk to you; if you’re considering your place in your family—not just your mom and dad and kids, but your place in a larger family—this film will talk to you.
AVC: You said last night that you cut this movie somewhere around 25 times. Is that standard practice?
JB: Because tone is so important, [director Alexander Payne] does take a lot longer than other filmmakers, because the process of shifting tone like that is just harder to do. If you’re making an action movie or something like that, as long as a car explodes every five minutes, you’re good.
AVC: Nobody really gets out of this movie alive, so to speak, but there is levity amidst the drama. Is it difficult to find that tonal balance?
JB: It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes you cut a movie and it’s too funny and not emotional enough, or maybe it’s too heartbreaking and not light enough, so it’s hard to find where it locks in. It’s a process; you need to take your time, keep combing through it. That part is sort of exciting, and it’s frankly what Alexander does, really, better than anybody—shifting tone and making a movie be precise.
AVC: After the screening, some people were discussing the film and their perceived influx of “more depressing movies” in the recession era. Is it fair to say The Descendants fits into this category?
JB: I don’t look at this as a dark movie. If you’re looking to sort of check out and see something entertaining that you’ll see on Friday night and wake up Saturday morning and not remember what you did, then you shouldn’t see this movie.
This is a movie that will cause, one would hope, you to reflect on your life and your family and relationships and things like that. It makes you look at yourself and your own life and sort of assess it. I think that’s great. I love that. That’s what film does for you, or do for you. It can do other things, too, but this is the real value of film in our times.