By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 18, 2011 at 4:23AM
Of all the fall movies, the one that hit me in the solar plexus, made me laugh and cry, and struck me as a likely Oscar contender in multiple categories, was heartfelt low-budget comedy The Descendants (November 18), Alexander Payne’s return to the screen, after winning best original screenplay (with Jim Taylor) for 2004’s Sideways. “Alexander should make more movies,” George Clooney told me at Telluride. Of course he should, but this is the one Payne was able to get made. And it was worth the wait. (Here's my Telluride review.)
In Telluride, I interviewed the laconic writer-director as we walked from one theater to another. He'd rather watch movies than talk about them, and convinced me to check out Serge Bromberg's night of rare silent films, including a wonderful rare Buster Keaton short and George Melies' magically restored Trip to the Moon. Payne and I had never talked at any length before; he's a funny, thoughtful, intense writer/observer who is confident yet diffident, clearly comes from Nebraska (he splits his time between Omaha and Los Angeles), yet maneuvers to get movies made as a director/achiever in Hollywood. He doesn't give it up easily. (New trailer below.)
One thing Payne was willing to admit at the The Descendants Q & A: “I cast well.” Clooney is perfect in the role of the hapless Matt King, a sad sack real estate lawyer and leading member of the landed gentry in Hawaii who is dealing with his comatose wife and his two lively daughters. He considers himself “the back-up parent, the understudy.”
Many characters in this story are hiding deep emotion. In one scene, lovely teen Shailene Woodley reacts to news of her mother’s worsening condition by silently losing it underwater in a pool, away from her father’s gaze. Payne often opts for restraint when others would overplay a big moment by hitting it on the head. I cried frequently in this movie. You care for these people, who get to say great lines like “paradise can go fuck itself.”
The slapstick moments often come out of left field or at moments of intense feeling, as when King, learning he has been cuckolded, flaps down the street in flats to glean details from a neighbor. “Why do all the women in my life want to destroy themselves?” asks King, who at one point turns to his daughter’s callow young boyfriend for advice.
Robert Forster as King’s father-in-law is an old prick who still hits us hard with his abiding love for his daughter. The movie recalls James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment, with its hairspin turns from comedy to tragedy. Neither Payne or Clooney have children, yet this film adapted by Payne (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote an early draft) from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings rings true, as do the various Hawaii island settings—“all alone, part of some archipelago drifting apart.”
Anne Thompson: You wound up adapting a book--when you were writing something else original that was more difficult to get funded.
Alexander Payne: Jim Taylor and I worked for two and a half years on a script, a film which hasn't been made yet. It's kind of a large canvas, science-fiction social satire.
AP: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. We finally finished it around May or June of '09, and it looked like we had grim prospects to get financing for it. Around that same time The Descendants, another director was going to do that, and he fell out. So somehow the gods were telling me, 'why don't you do it?' Because my little company had optioned it for the previous two years and I had not expressed interest in doing it because Jim and I were writing this epic masterpiece. So we hired two other writers, who are the two guys credited. But when I decided to do it, I didn't overhaul it—I started from scratch. I did my own. And then of course the way the Writers' Guild works in Hollywood, they adjudicate it and things are often in favor of people who did even previous drafts, even if not used, so we all got credit. So I wrote it between July and October of '09.
AT: So is it your hope now that you will get this other epic movie, Downsizing, made?
AP: That's still going to be a couple years away. I'm so anxious to just shoot movies now, just regular human old films, I want to do about two more before I enter that time suck of pre-visualization and visual effects and all that kind of stuff. I just want to shoot.
AT: Do you know what you're going to do next?
AP: Yep. Next is a film for Paramount, and it's tentatively called Nebraska, but that title may change. It'll be the first thing I direct (it's too obvious), that I have not written. It's written by a guy out of Snohomish, WA, and it's a father/son road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska that gets waylaid at a crappy town in central Nebraska where the father grew up, and where he has scores to settle.
AT: And modestly budgeted?
AP: Especially because I want to shoot it in black and white.
AT: Have they said OK to that? If you do it for a price, is that their deal with you?
AP: For a price. But it'll be black and white for theatrical, DVD and streaming. If they need a color version for their TV output deals, they will have it.
AT: That's great. Did you see The Artist?
AP: I did. I couldn't wait to see it! I stayed after my first screening of The Descendants to see it. So that's another new film I saw, and enjoyed it immensely.
AT: Is writing a painful thing for you? You're awfully good at it.
AP: Yeah, but it's getting better. Thank you. It's always painful but it's getting a little less so.
AT: You've been with Searchlight a long time, they're backing you. This wasn't hard to sell to them?
AP: Well, they wanted me to do it. When they read it, because they helped my little company option it, they said, 'why doesn't Alexander do it?' Well, because he's busy writing his epic masterpiece. So I'm so lucky, and I'm not just saying that. Because I couldn't care less about needing to say nice words about the studio for some political reason. I really feel, I'm so grateful to them for the opportunity to make a film such as this today. And with great support. The whole budget I needed. For George Clooney wanting to be in it.
AT: So George. He gives one of the best performances he's ever given in this. He managed to navigate the shoals of deep emotion and slapstick comedy, and sometimes in the same scene. Was there one scene that was more difficult than any other, along those lines?
AP: It's all easy and it's all hard.
AT: I'm a parent; the relationship between the father and kids in The Descendants rang true. Do you credit the original source material for that? Or your own observational abilities? It feels authentic.
AP: Good! Yeah, and everyone involved has lent an eye that it's happening correctly. And the actors. But if I were to credit any real co-writer on this, it would be Kaui, because I was very faithful to the book. I felt, not just because of the parental concerns but the whole Hawaii aspect of the film, it's not my world. I was entering as kind of a documentarian. So I had to rely on her because not just Hawaii in general, but that class, that corner of Hawaii, this kind of largely, not entirely, but white upper-class. Who are somehow involved with the branch of the eight or ten families who have kind of controlled Hawaii for 180 years.
AT: So when you developed this material, you must have seen different threads that you could play with. But there was also a challenge: you don't fall into the sentimental abyss, and you don't seem to be preaching to some environmental choir. What were those hazards?
AP: Well, you just said them. You want emotion without sentimentality in your films, and no pamphleteering.
AT: But you're timely. You're addressing something that still matters. And we're all dealing with families, estate and inheritance issues…
AP: Yeah, and these are issues going on every day, so it's not a dated issue. The link between the two stories I saw more as an emotional one for the lead guy. He just witnessed one death, and he doesn't want to be a part of another.
AT: And yet with all the deep emotion you found great comedic opportunity with Clooney, who makes you care about him--as he's being a complete schlub. What was your challenge with this character?
AP: I don't think about it at all! It's what the story is, who the guy is, he's got to be believable.
AT: Well, there are moments where you're putting him in flats and he's running around looking like an idiot.
AP: Yeah, well, that's my weakness for visual humor. It is! I just thought, 'oh that would be funny.' In the script it was this: 'Matt runs down the street.' That's all it was in the script. But I wanted to invent a little comic sequence out of it. I didn't think, 'oh this will make him a schlub and more likable.' I just thought, 'that's funny.'
AT: And you said that you were good at casting: where did you find the kid (Nick Krause) who plays Shailene Woodley's boyfriend?
AP: He lobbed a taped audition to our office from Austin, TX. His mom is a casting director, she heard it about it, went home and told him, he put himself on tape, we (meaning my casting director and I) follow every single lead that comes to our casting office—we'll watch anything—and we found him and said, 'please.' We were doing some casting in NYC, his mom flew him to NYC, he auditioned, that was it.
AT: Some moments are intense and emotional, as when the kid reveals--and you play with our expectations as he evolves as a character--SPOILER ALERT that his own father died. Matt King reacts, says nothing, just silently walks away.
AP: For me there's more than nothing. For me, he sees what the audience sees. 'Alright, there's more to this kid than I thought.' He's not going to go put his arm around the kid. But he says, 'he wasn't putting me on, and I get it why Alex wanted him,' and all that stuff. That's why we saved the close-up on George.
AT: That's what they're for. It's not all about talking, is it?
AP: Cinema avoids dialogue. Theater laps up dialogue like a kitten with warm milk. So even though it's still a talking film, you want pictures, not words as much as possible.
AT: And you want actors' reactions?
AP: Yeah. An actors' face can say...It's not anything that hasn't been said for decades.
AT: Terrence Malick, at the end of every scene, he shoots a silent version. And Gus Van Sant has adopted this as well.
AP: Oh, I didn't know that.
AT: Are there significant differences between the book and the movie--a question of tone or some change you made?
AP: There's a lot more in the book to do with the younger daughter. And I just wasn't as interested in her. You have to do some selection for an adaptation, and I opted to do a lot more with the older daughter because I was a lot more interested in that story.
AT: Woodley was terrific, where did she come from?
AP: Well, I know it. She auditioned. And she is on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, fairly popular with teenage girls. ABC family TV show. So she has chops but still reads like an actual honest-to-God kid. A lot of people you audition who have chops are too polished. And a lot of people who aren't polished at all don't have the chops. So thank God I found her. And she's the only one—there was no also-ran.
AT: And when did you come up with the idea of having her emote under water?
AP: It's in the screenplay. I don't think I'd ever seen that in a movie before. I wanted to see how that would play.
AT: Now, you're often showing us emotions that characters are trying to hide.
AP: Like her and the father-in-law.
AT: Right. He's a tough bastard, a prick, and then he's incredibly loving, and that breaks your heart, that scene when he says goodbye to his daughter. With Forster, you did some unexpected things, like clocking the kid, to shock us out of our seats.
AP: Yeah, that's in the book. He's definitely the most heartbreaking character for me in the whole film. The prick who's in such pain, that guy. Ex-military guy.
AT: How many takes would you go for on any given scene, usually?
AP: I'm a three-to-six kind of guy.
AT: Let's go back to the period where you were putting this follow-up to Sideways together. What's making it so hard for people to do the movies they want to do, what are the constraints?
AP: I had dinner about a year ago with a venerable older director and his wife. And I told them what sort of film I was making, and they said, 'you're so lucky to be making a drama right now.' Hollywood is not making dramas. It's a genre which has fallen out of fashion, at least as far as the financiers/studios are considered. So, empirically, I don't know. I'll see what comes out this fall to verify if what they say is really true.
AT: So you consider this to be a drama. It is, even if it is funny.
AP: Yeah, I guess so. On PBS Sunday morning there was a lead story about four months ago—and not just one of the stories buried in the midst of the 90 minutes, but it was the lead story---about the disappearance of the tearjerker, that we used to say, 'oh you should go see this movie and have a good cry,' and how much the country enjoyed Terms of Endearment and Kramer vs. Kramer. And I never saw it, but Beaches is apparently something of a tearjerker. And I was just finishing editing when I saw it—we were mixing—and I thought, 'huh, I wonder if this film might somehow satisfy a part of that hunger.' For an adult drama this does have a bit of emotionality. Not sentimentality, but emotionality at the end. And so I'm very curious to see if that happens. And if it does satisfy that hunger to some degree, I'll be very happy.
AT: That's what happens. And that's why The Help is doing so well. There's so little of that kind of filmmaking around, so few movies are feeding the hunger for women's material.
AP: Or adult material.
AT: Or what you're talking about: emotions, real people dealing with trials. We all have parents, we all have to deal with death at some time or another.
AP: During the year, there are very few modern American films that I go to see. I watch old films. I go to the cinema, but I would say one out of five films I see are old.
AT: Which films do you admire that hold up really well? You're watching Netflix?
AP: Netflix and TCM. Good stories! It's hard for me to pin just one or a director, because there are thousands and thousands of great films.
AT: You're watching this stuff because you want to learn something? Or you want to enjoy what's good? Because you have nothing to learn from the bad stuff that's made now?
AP: I put on a film when my Mom was over. She was recovering from surgery in May and she was living in my apartment in Omaha because there were no stairs. So each day at 4pm we'd watch a movie together. And one day I put on a movie, a modern film which had been nominated recently for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I thought she'd like it. We got ten minutes into it, she turned to me and said, 'I don't find this interesting.' I said what I often say to myself: 'alright, let's put on a real movie.' So we put on Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway and just had a great afternoon.
AT: The one I watched recently, just to treat myself, was Now Voyager. Incredible. Because they were making movies for adults back then.
AP: Oh yeah. Fantastic. But I often say to myself, 'I'll try to watch something modern,' and then I'll say, 'OK, I have to watch a real movie now, and put on some great old Hollywood—like a good film noir from the 50s. I've got to watch a real movie.'
AT: And you made a real movie. Do you ever test? Do you show it to people?
AP: Yeah, but not finished. That's done while it's a work in progress.
AT: So you do that to see where the laughs are?
AP: Oh yeah. I love screening. After I have a first cut about 14 weeks in, I screen constantly. We only had two of the studio-financed, official card preview screenings, but I'm always screening for different groups of friends. It's the only way to be able to get a grip, to take a step back and then go back in with a magnifying glass in the eye.