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Born in Omaha, Nebraska, director Alexander Payne established himself early as a comic voice for Middle America, staying close to home for his first three features: 1996’s Citizen Ruth, a scathing satire about the unseemliness of abortion politics; 1999’s Election, another political satire, this time in the cutthroat world of high-school student-council elections; and 2002’s About Schmidt, about the seriocomic adventures of a newly retired Omaha insurance salesman. But for his last two films, Payne left his Midwest comfort zone without losing his keen sense of locale or his talent for observational humor. An Oscar-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, 2004’s Sideways followed two middle-aged buddies through California wine country. Now, after a seven-year absence from feature directing, Payne has returned with The Descendants, a richly textured comedy-drama that captures, among other things, the way everyday Hawaiians live on the island paradise. Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, the film stars George Clooney as a widower who grapples with the fallout of his wife’s catastrophic injury in a boating accident. This means being a better father to his two daughters (the eldest, played by Shailene Woodley, proves especially troubled) and processing the revelation that his wife was having an affair. Meanwhile, as the trustee to a heavenly piece of ancestral land in Kauai, he’s under pressure from his extended family to sell it off. Payne recently spoke to The A.V. Club about balancing comedy with drama, emulating Chuck Jones, and making most of his films too long.
The A.V. Club: Jim Rash and Nat Faxon initially adapted the book. How did the project come to you, and how did it change once it got into your hands?
Alexander Payne: My producing partners and I optioned it in ’07, and I was in the middle of writing a script with my writing partner, Jim Taylor. I liked it. I admired it very much, but didn’t jump on it immediately. Our other producing partner, Jim Burke, hired Rash and Faxon to adapt it, and they did their own adaptation. And then finally, when I decided to jump in to direct this film myself, I did my own adaptation, starting in July of ’09. How did it change? From the book?
AVC: No, from the material you got. You got this script, and you have a writing credit as well.
AP: Both the book and their adaptation had a lot more to do with the younger daughter, with Scottie. I was far less interested in her than I was the man’s relationship with the older daughter. Plus, as a director, I know when you work with minors, you only have eight hours per day to work with them, and who needs that?
AVC: What excited you about this book?
AP: I just thought it would make a good movie. I had never seen exactly this story in a movie before, and then the fact that it was told in Hawaii, and not just generally in Hawaii, but amidst that decaying aristocracy, made it very interesting to me. I wasn’t so much interested in Hawaii as I was Honolulu. I had never seen Honolulu in a film. So I was eager to see it. As the years go by and I make more films, I am increasingly interested in capturing place as a vivid backdrop for my films.
AVC: One of the compelling things about the film is how you look at Hawaii not as a tourist destination, but as a place where people actually live.
AP: It’s not a story about tourists. It’s a story about people who live there, so that point of view comes automatically with the story. I wasn’t wishing to evoke anything. There’s a bit of a joke made at the beginning of the film, “Paradise can go fuck itself.” The voiceover and the images tell the viewer right off the bat, “You’re going to be seeing a different side of what you consider Hawaii.” So yeah, I took care of that right away. After that, it’s telling that story.
AVC: Have you spent much time there? Maybe it’s different in Honolulu, but the impression you get as a tourist is that the tenor of life there is not as fraught as other American cities.
AP: You mean not as fast-paced and all that?
AVC: Right, not as tense. Even if you’re a resident, there’s a different feel.
AP: I would say that’s true, even though people from the rest of Hawaii accuse Honolulu of being that fast-paced monstrosity, just as I talk to people—I’m in Omaha now, and you meet people from small towns of Nebraska, “You’ll never catch me driving in Omaha! They drive like crazy!” So it’s all relative. Out of a state of 1.2 million people, Honolulu has 800,000 to 900,000. It has many of the problems of a big city, but for sure, it’s more leisurely paced. And I think the film is more leisurely paced. Not because I wanted to make a slower film, but I think the rhythm one feels out there found its way into the film, and I’m happy about that. I remember when I was showing the film to some filmmaker and he said, “Why, if the wife is dying and there’s such an urgency to find her lover, are they stopping to go to the beach, or see this land on Kauai? I don’t believe that.” Having lived there, I completely believe that. Plus the fact that when you’re amid a family crisis, you treasure having times out of war.
AVC: You mention finding the rhythm of the film. Does that take place in the editing process? This is a very tricky tone you’re trying to manage in this film.
AP: Right. Are you talking about pace or rhythm?
AP: All three parts of filmmaking [writing, shooting, editing] contribute to that. It’s a search for economy. You want the script to be a tight as possible, you want the acting to be as efficient as possible on the set, and you have enough coverage to manipulate the rhythm in the editing room, and then in the editing room you want to find the quickest possible version, even if it’s a leisurely paced film. I definitely in filmmaking more and more find writing and directing a means to harvest material for editing. It’s all about editing.
AVC: The Descendants is a film about grief and other difficulties, and yet it’s a comedy, too. Was managing the tone a challenge? Was it difficult to know when to go for a laugh and then to pull back?
AP: No, not really. I’m 50 now. I can do whatever the hell I want. [Laughs.] I think if you look at my other films, it’s just a style that for some reason comes out. I guess I’m complimented when people say “There’s a tricky balance between comedy and pathos, how do you do that?” There’s no how, it just comes. I would say it especially comes when you have a comedy director like me doing dramatic material. I want material like this to still have a certain charm and nimbleness to it, a certain buoyancy. Some good old laughs.
The other thing I was going to say about tone-mixing is that it’s often comedy directors who do that. Make Way For Tomorrow has a lot of pathos in it for a comedy director [Leo McCarey]. [Yasujiro] Ozu is known for his melodramas, but he started off as a comedy director. Or even The Apartment. I wouldn’t say it mixes comedy and pathos, I’d say it mixes comedy and skeeviness.
AVC: You forget the director of Make Way For Tomorrow is the same guy who directed Duck Soup.
AP: Yeah, and “Big Business,” my favorite Laurel and Hardy short.
AVC: So many of today’s comedies are verbally very strong and visually indifferent. But that isn’t the case with your work. What were you trying to accomplish visually with The Descendants? Were there films you were looking at as a model?
AP: I don’t think so much about verbal comedy. I always think about visual comedy. I was raised watching silents, and I’m always thinking about how to make cinema, not good talking—although I want good talking. I’m much more interested in framing, composition, and orchestration of bodies in space, and so forth. My goal is always what Chuck Jones wanted his Warner Brothers cartoons to be, which was if you turn down the sound, you could still tell what’s going on. I think if you watch most of my films with the sound off, you could still tell what’s going on. As for models, I could tell you some other films, but I didn’t have any concrete influences for this one. Sideways was very much trying to emulate, in some ways, [cinematographer] Gordon Willis in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. Not in all scenes, some scenes. Sometimes I have those visual references, but not in this one. We just winged it.
AVC: You talked about the importance of a tight, economical film, but this film does embrace some longueurs, where you hold on shots for longer than expected.
AP: I think you need that. I think it could have been longer in some ways, too. You need to give people time to think about things during a movie. I know I appreciate that. But you don’t want to bore the shit out of them. You have to find the balance. The worst thing for people to say about your movies is, “Yeah, it was pretty good, but it was too damn long.” I think About Schmidt is too long. I actually think all my movies are too long, except for Election. Election is probably the only one that’s just right.
AVC: Does it become a problem of continuity or finding scenes that you just like too much to get rid of?
AP: No, no, no, no. I don’t think it’s any of that. My editor and I remain very disciplined. It’s just sometimes when you’re making a film, you get into the cutting room and you see a scene that’s slowing you down in a certain section, but if you remove that scene then, emotionally or story-wise, another scene a half-hour later won’t have the same impact. You just get stuck with it. This one’s pretty close. It’s slightly brisker, but also slightly more languorous in areas, too. But anyway, what the hell?
AVC: Were there any happy accidents in the film, moments that occurred on set that you didn’t expect that wound up shaping the film in a different way?
AP: No. [Laughs.] It’s all shot pretty much as scripted. The one thing that’s very lovely that I had as a kind of visual spice rack was those interstitial shots of landscape, which my second-unit director curated, and which I feel have made a very significant contribution to the film. I would call it an accident, but when I was shooting A-unit, he was shooting B-unit, really covering the islands and doing a bang-up job. Accidents? Nope, no accidents.
AVC: So you come to the set with things pretty much planned out. You’re not like Robert Altman. It’s not a controlled-chaos situation, right?
AP: No, I think so far, my style has been pretty controlled, which is not to say I don’t invite constant input for the actors and the creative people. I absolutely do. I want all the right views. The moment we shoot, we know what we’re doing. There’s no improvisation.
AVC: But in order to shoot material to harvest once you get to the editing room, do you wind up on set saying, “Well I need to have this done in a lot of different ways?”
AP: Yes, yes. That’s exactly right. Earlier when I said that writing and directing is just a way of harvesting things to edit, that’s exactly what you do. There’s some things on the set where that seems exactly right, let’s not get a variation. But there are other times when you want the actor to do it two or three different ways, because you’re not exactly sure how you want to modulate it in the editing room.
AVC: You’ve used voiceover narration in many of your films. What do you think makes good or bad voiceover and why did you chose to turn to it for The Descendants?
AP: The novel is in first person, and I like first-person literature, and I like first-person film. I even like third-person voiceover in a film when it’s well done, like Barry Lyndon. You think about how first-person is used by Sissy Spacek in Badlands or the dead guy in Sunset Blvd. or the first-person omniscient narrator in A Clockwork Orange. It’s just so fucking delicious, so great to see those proceedings through the point of view of your protagonist. It’s just delicious. Probably the most creative use of voiceover I’ve had was the “Dear Ndugu” letters in About Schmidt. That was a nice little device for that. Here’s one [in The Descendants] that served a slightly more exclusively expository purpose than I’d normally like. There’s a lot of exposition in the first reel, reel and a half. I tried to do it as delicately as possible. It anchors us in George Clooney’s character and how he’s viewing the proceedings. I think it invites the viewer to watch the rest of the film through his eyes, and care for him and what he’s going through. It’s slightly more expository than my taste usually is. However, the viewer had to have all of that information, and to try to get that information into scenes would have been far more time-consuming and uncinematic.
AVC: These are the problems you face when you adapt books, right? Books can do that so easily, and here you’re like, “I can’t really explain the situation about this piece of land without—”
AP: If you watch the first 10 minutes of Kurosawa’s Ran, it’s a bunch of guys sitting around. They don’t move, the camera doesn’t move, and they’re talking. They’re getting across all the exposition, which is going to set the whole rest of the film cinematically into motion. There are certain films where the filmmaker and the audience have to take their medicine and then be scot-free.
AVC: Let’s talk about your approach to adaptation. Is fidelity important to you?
AP: No. Not at all, not at all. I could never be a part of an adaptation of a film where there’s pressure to not disappoint the immense fan base. In those cases, they often wind up with filmed books on tape, quite uncinematic. Having said that, I’d say all the adaptations I’ve done are quite faithful to the original, with the exception of About Schmidt, which is only titularly an adaptation, and is actually an original with some narrative threads borrowed from Mr. Begley’s book. All the other adaptations I’ve done are pretty darn faithful. You have to pick and choose which storylines and plot threads, because you don’t have the time to kill in the film as they have in novels. All those pages with detours and plots and different storylines. But films add a lot, and you gotta keep it moving. I am happy to change names from what the author had originally. I like having the dialogue come from the material, but I’ve chosen that dialogue because I like the book a lot, and want to make it into a film.
AVC: Are there awkward conversations with the authors of these books about this process?
AP: No, no. Never had an awkward conversation. On Election, I had never even met Tom Perrotta until the film’s première, I think. This one, though, is the adaptation that most involved the author, because I’m not from Hawaii—that’s not my world, that’s not my state, that’s not my class. I really relied upon her, not so much for the adaptation, because that was all in the book, but more so when I went to direct the film to get tips on how faithfully to portray that work. She was very involved, and I’m super-grateful to her.
AVC: You dabbled in television a couple of years ago by directing the pilot for Hung. Do you see yourself returning? Are there opportunities in television now that might not be there for film?
AP: Interesting question, because as sucky as a lot of American cinema is today, we’ve been living in a golden age of television for a few years now. My directing the pilot for Hung was just as a hired hand. I was in the midst of writing this other screenplay, I hadn’t made a feature in a couple years, and I was eager to just go roll some film and beat up some actors. So I agreed to do a pilot. There are a couple of TV-show ideas I do have, and we’re going to be exploring, probably some time in the next couple years, with Jim Taylor, my co-writer.
AVC: What’s the status of your adaptation of the Daniel Clowes book Wilson?
AP: Oh man, thank for asking! I’m really excited about that. I’m doing that two films from now. Dan Clowes turns out to be a very fine screenwriter, and he adapted his own book. And damn if he didn’t come within striking distance on the first draft.