The Descendants Interview
The Descendants Interview
Alexander Payne is a director renowned for producing films that take a less conventional look at life and relationships. As well as directing Election from 1999, About Schmidt from 2002 and Sideways from 2004, and most recently, The Descendants, he also wrote the screenplays. Talking to View’s Matthew Turner alongside George Clooney, who plays a man recently widowed and suddenly in charge of his teenage daughters, they spoke about filming in Hawaii, how playing Batman can change your life, and why you should take the time to enjoy your career.
How did the film come about?

Jim Burke (producer)

We were sent the book (Kaui Hart Hemming’s The Descendants) by a British agent and we loved it. Alexander and I thought we would find some writers to adapt it and we would produce, and so we went along that path for a couple of years, and the movie started to come together so well and I'd say I coaxed you into directing it, Alexander? Over a period of time.

Alexander Payne

You kept it alive. Another director was flirting with the idea of making it but then he dropped out when he had a conflict and then the timing was right and I jumped in and picked up the pen in July of '09.
It is a sort of a coming-of-age film - unfortunately the person coming of age is a 50 year old man...
How did you draw the line between the comedy and the drama?

Alexander Payne

I don’t really separate them, in my mind, in writing and directing. Rather than seeing them as two different tones, I like my films to have a single, thicker tone which includes both. I think it’s all one thing, just a bigger bandwidth of emotion and tone, like real life. I spent a lot of time editing this film, it was nine months from the beginning of editing to finishing the sound mix, and a lot of the calibration of that tone was done there. I think on set we harvest a lot of different things and then the editor and I work a lot to make sure it's all part of the same movie.

George Clooney

First you have to have a really good script, that does all of those things for you, and then you have one of the best directors in the business handling that. So you just kind of put yourself in his hands and say, ‘Too much? 15% less existential realism?’ He really takes care of all of that, I think. What do you think?

Shailene Woodley

It's all Alexander. At least for me, anyways. I haven't had much experience on many films and I just trusted him. I think we all did, just put our trust in him.
The opening voiceover says Hawaii isn’t paradise and over the next two hours the film shows that – was it difficult to present it like that, did you have to dodge the weather?

Alexander Payne

The weather is constantly changing, for the outdoor scenes it took a lot of waiting and a lot of patience, the weather would cloud over and we would have to wait. These are standard filmmaker problems though. I like the moodiness of the darkened skies and the rain, and I thought it was wonderful to subvert people’s visual pre-impressions of it.

George Clooney

Alexander wanted to see Hawaii not as you normally see it, as all the resorts …

Alexander Payne

Yeah, I didn’t want so much to show Hawaii as I did want to show Honolulu, the street-life, downtown Honolulu. I thought, ‘I had never seen that before.’
After playing a raft of high flying executives, politicians and the odd superhero, did you find any particular challenges playing a more ordinary family man, a father and a husband?

George Clooney

I have played those sorts of characters before, I have been a father in several films, and a husband too, but this was a little different. It was much more emotional and attached to the family. I found it challenging only in the sense that I wanted to serve the material very well. It’s a tricky piece, the movie starts with basically the death of your wife and then it is a sort of a coming-of-age film - unfortunately the person coming of age is a 50 year old man. And there are tricks to understanding how to play this in the right way, but, again, it is really all in the script. The work is a lot easier when the script is really well written.
There is a wonderful scene where your character is given some advice – have your own families offered you any advice over the course of your life?

George Clooney

My father’s best advice was ‘Don’t ever mix grain and grape,’ and truthfully that is the most useful advice he's ever given me. My family has had a mixture of great success stories and cautionary tales in terms of success and understanding how little success actually has to do with you. My aunt was as big as singer as you could be in 1950 but by 1960 she was forgotten about and she didn’t become less of a singer for all of that. And then she had a nice comeback. I got a great lesson in how little it has to do with you and how much it has to do with other elements, including luck, and a 10pm timeslot for a hospital show. Without that you don’t get the kind of career that I have had. The best advice I got was sort of by example from all of my family members.

Shailene Woodley

The best advice - both my parents are in the education system, so this industry is not something they're familiar with – is just to continue being yourself and not get carried away in the materialism involved in this industry.
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Content updated: 24/09/2018 11:28

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