The New York Film Festival went out with a bang on its last day, Sunday, October 16. Not only did George Clooney make a surprise visit to the press conference of Alexander Payne’s new comedic drama, "The Descendants,” but the entire cast came out to support the film including two newcomer leads, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, but also Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard and Nick Krause.
Mature, restrained, melancholy and funny, “The Descendants” has Payne’s carefully calibrated funny/sad tone all over it – it is through and through distinctly one of his pictures. Moderated by THR chief critic Todd McCarthy, the afternoon was mostly a light and chummy affair, but occasionally peppered with some insights into the picture, which largely centers on the notion of forgiveness and coming to terms with anger.
"The Descendants," which hits theaters on November 18th in limited release, is about a father who takes off with his two rebellious daughters to track down his wife's lover on the island of Kauai when his wife falls into a coma. Here’s a few highlights from the evening (warning, some spoilers below).
1. While “The Descendants” is Clooney and Payne’s first onscreen collaboration, they almost worked before on "Sideways"
While Payne said that George was his “first and only choice” to lead the film, the “Ocean’s Eleven” actor joked that, “Alexander failed to find me fascinating when I met with him for ‘Sideways,’ which I’ve not let yet go,” he said with a smile.
Clooney remembered the duo met two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and Payne had given him a head’s up about a role coming his way. “I have a script coming that I’d like you to look at,” he said. Clooney responded with, “I’m doing it whether I read the script or not.” He then added with characteristic lightheartedness, “Which didn’t work with ‘Batman and Robin’ by the way, but that happens.”
2. Even though their scenes are brief, this wasn’t Judy Greer’s first time working with George Clooney.
The two of them shared a rather furious and therefore awkward sex scene off the top of David O. Russell’s “Three Kings.” “I had worked with George before, so thankfully I wasn’t a nervous about him, but he keeps everything so fun and yet professional,” she said. “He’s always the first person on set and he’s ready to work so I was impressed.”
“Do you remember what our first scene was ever?” George asked wryly. “Uhh, yeah,” Greer said, blushing. “Our first scene is us having sex up against a desk.”
“Yeah, like crazy sex,” Greer said laughing. “Having sex I had never even know about. So this is how grown-ups do it”
3. Matthew Lillard appeared very grateful to have a comeback part in the film, even if his crucial role in the picture is small. *Note some spoilers begin here.*
“I have the greatest role in the history of films,” Lillard said, cracking a smile. “I steal George Clooney’s wife! There’s 'Rocky' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' and there’s my character! That’s never going to be duplicated again. I literally looked at him and thought, ‘I’m better than you.” The audience howled with laughter, but Lilard then got very serious.
“I’ve been gone for a long time [from acting],” he admitted. “And to do the greatest movie that I will maybe ever be involved in – to be a part of that something that’s an instant classic, and to be with one of the greatest filmmakers in America right now? It changes your life. And it changes your perspective on the work and your career and it gives you something to be proud of and that doesn’t happen very often in the business that we’re in right now. To be able to work with this crack cast and crew and director – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
4. Alexander Payne admits he might have gone overboard with the voice-over.
“I’m a big fan of voice-over and I’ve had it before in ‘Election’ and ‘About Schmidt,’ a short in Paris, and a TV pilot. It’s also helps propel the narrative a bit,” he said. But the nature of the novel is such that Payne was forced to deliver a lot of background at the top of the film to get it started.
“I think the first reel of this film is slightly too voice-over heavy,” Payne admitted. “There was a lot of exposition that I had to get across to the audience and I was aware of it. But the audience had to know all that stuff and I didn’t want to waste time in a scene to have to get that information across. So I did have to rely on voice-over, but it also anchors us – even though the voice-over disappears and tapers off by the third reel – into Matt King, his voice and in his head. This is actually the first time I’ve ever used voice-over with someone’s thoughts.”
However, always the class-act, Payne was generous about his contributions to the film, describing “The Descendants” author Kaui Hart Hemmings his “co-collaborator” on the script even though he didn’t actively work with her.
5. The relaxed pace of Hawaii was a groove that George Clooney had to eventually find.
Clooney’s Matt King character is essentially a schlub, and his costuming was a floral-pattern-nightmare, both for him and the DP. But the filmmakers said this dress was authentic. More difficult was the pace of life on the islands.
“On the freeway the speed limit is like 45 mph and it takes you awhile to get into that rhythm,” Clooney explained. “So I’m driving behind am like, ‘Move it!’ and they’re like ‘Heeeeeeeeeey,’ [makes a “hang loose” sign with his hand]. That was totally alien to me, but that’s just my problem and eventually you get into their rhythm.”
6. Spoilers abound here, be careful. While the center of the film is the misguided attempt to find the guy who was cheating with his wife, Clooney and Payne noted that at the end of the day, the film is about forgiveness.
“A big part of the film is forgiving yourself. Because so much of [the tragedy that occurs] in this film is his responsibility,” Clooney explained. “And a big part of that release when he’s with his wife at the end, when he’s saying goodbye, is understanding his part in this as well. Yes, she cheated on him, but he wasn’t there and he wasn’t a good father as much as he thought he was. He was busy working and that happens, so part of that was coming to understand that and so forgiving yourself is a very big part of that.”
“It’s about love and forgiveness,” Payne echoed, alluding to two scenes in the movie that were the hooks that drew him in (which we won’t get into here). “Having to rise above the occasion, and forgive and deal with also the murderousness inside oneself, but overcome that. Forgiveness is difficult. Forgiving self for many people, at least for myself is extremely difficult.”
And then surprisingly, Payne got slightly political at the very end. “And then the in a larger context, I’m constantly astonished by those that pray daily, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me and then beat very loudly the war drum,” he said to much audience applause.
“The Descendants” hits theaters November 18 in limited release. Watch for it to be a sizable Oscar contender this fall.