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September 2nd, 2014

Alexander Payne Interview, The Descendants

George Clooney’s Matt King joins the characters of Alexander Payne’s previous films as a flawed individual finding his way through a world of lunacy, bittersweet emotion and surprises. He is neither a hero nor anti-hero. Like Matthew Broderick’s envious teacher in “Election,” Jack Nicholson’s glass-half-empty retiree in “About Schmidt,” and Paul Giamatti’s muddling, middle-aged wine country tourist in “Sideways,” King is not the man he would like to be. His mischievous daughters don’t trust him, his imperiled wife has been cheating on him, and his broke cousins see him and the land trust he controls as a piggy bank. To add insult to injury, he’s surrounded by a lush, fertile, awe-inspiring landscape that defies his inner turmoil. Yet all of this leads Matt to a tumultuous awakening that might be awkward, comical and sometimes absurd, but nevertheless changes his concept of love, fatherhood and what it truly takes to be a man.MoviesOnline sat down with Alexander Payne at a round table interview to talk about why he’s always been drawn to these peculiar situations in everyday life that can be experienced as comical, devastating and revealing all in the same breath. He told us what it was like directing seasoned actors like George Clooney alongside relative newcomers Nick Krause, Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley, how he intended the film as a gift to the Hawaiian people, and why he wants to make a Western once he finds the right story. He’s also looking forward to returning to Nebraska next year  to shoot his next film, “Nebraska.”Q: How long did it take you to finally get this to the screen?

AP: Exactly two years. I began the screenplay in July of 2009 and was shooting by March of 2010, finished editing in March of 2011, and then I’ve just been waiting for its release, until today, November 15th.

Q: The book came out two years earlier. Did it attract you from the very beginning?

AP: Correct. Although I was amid the process of writing a different script so I didn’t jump into this immediately. I finished this other project first. I haven’t shot it yet, but I finished the screenplay, then did this one.

Q: How did you get George Clooney’s attention?

AP: Well I asked him. Clooney and I had met on “Sideways.” He had expressed interest in playing the part which eventually went to Thomas Haden Church and I’d always wanted to work with him too because he’s one of the few American stars that I really like. This thing came around a few years later and he was my first choice.

Q: Did he say ‘yes’ right away?

AP: Well almost, not quite. I told him about it in September ‘09 over dinner and then I sent him the script in November ’09 and we were shooting by March so it went fairly smoothly. He’s been very delightful.

Q: How come there are so few American stars you like?

AP: I don’t know. There aren’t that many stars in general. I like stars in whom I feel, in whom I detect a true full person, a human who laughs and cries and suffers and makes fun of himself and is funny. My favorite movie star of all time is Marcello Mastroianni. I love him and then amid a ton of other stars too, but we don’t have today whom I consider good, old fashioned full human being movie stars, and I’m so happy we have Clooney.

Q: There’s this neat thing Mr. Clooney does which Cary Grant used to do which is he’s the handsome man who knows how to look foolish and in doing so makes himself somehow even more handsome.

AP: I would add Marcello to that list, too.

Q: When you tell Mr. Clooney, you have to peak out from behind this bush, do you just let him go or do you direct him down to the level of “One, two, three, up!”?

AP: Yes. Pretty close. For that particular bit of cheap physical humor, I had a pretty specific idea as to how it should be timed.

Q: Did you have any challenging scenes with him?

AP: I didn’t. He was just very professional and very accommodating and did pretty much whatever I asked. He was a real delight. He’s like driving a Maserati. When you have these big actor stars, they’re pretty good.

Q: What was it like to direct a film set in Hawaii in terms of the cultural and social milieu in which it’s framed?

AP: It was a little tough because I constantly had this mental pitchfork behind me of “Am I getting it right?” “Is it accurate?” When I make one of these films like this one or “About Schmidt” or “Sideways,” I always consider that the primary audience for those films is comprised by the people who live there. I made “About Schmidt” for Omahans and “Sideways” for residents of Santa Barbara County and for sure this film for Hawaii. I wanted it really to be a gift to that state because I knew it would also become a document. One hundred and fifty years from now those poor students at UH who take a class in Hawaii as portrayed in film and literature over the centuries, they’re going to have to watch this film and I wanted to make sure it had some degree of accuracy. I was constantly asking questions, constantly having the open eyes and ears I would say of a documentarian, so that what’s behind the story rings true. Even in front of the story, the casting, those cousins of one of those fancy families, some of the casting is from those actual fancy families. They’re from people who really look like that.

Q: You put things in there that give it that authentic sense, like the expression ‘haole.’ Do you worry that people are going to wonder what this means?

AP: Some people will know what it is you did and other people don’t. You have to have things in your movies that not everyone understands. If you have your movies so that everyone understands everything, I think that’s probably not a very good movie.

Q: It seems like so many studio films are exactly that. They feel like they can’t risk people not understanding or not getting it.

AP: Look, I make comedies and I always try…I don’t try but I allow to have at least 5% of the jokes or have some jokes that I know will be understood by only about 5% of the audience. It’s that guy in the corner who gets it and laughs. But he has to have his jokes too. That’s part of my audience. Part of my audience is the people who will only get certain things. They have to be addressed as well.

Q: When you have Mr. Clooney putting on a pair of moccasins and running in them ungainly and then being chased by Mr. Huebel who’s also in horrible, undignified footwear, is that something that you write into the script?

AP: I don’t think that was in the screenplay. No. I wouldn’t say horrible. That’s your word. It’s just footwear.

Q: You describe George Clooney as a star and not just an actor.

AP: He sure is and a great actor. Yes.

Q: But in this role you strip away any of the star artifice, the tools, the little tics that stars sometimes use because it works well for them. How do you pare him down to that essential actor?

AP: I had questions similar to that one much more frequently with “About Schmidt” when I had Jack Nicholson who was genuinely stripped down from the very commercial Jack Nicholson of the last 10 or 15 years, you know, “The Joker,” “Witches of Eastwick” and those films. Both these guys, these somewhat iconic stars, I’ve just had really good luck. They realize that when I’ve asked them to be in a film of mine that I’m asking very much the actor’s side and that they have to fulfill the requirements of this role. And then, I’m very much interested in showing real life characters in a way as much as you can in a commercial Hollywood film. They just do it. They get with the program. I think working on location helps too because it cuts them off from the pack a little bit.

Q: You pair accomplished actors with young actors who are relatively new to the game like Nick Krause, Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley. Do you approach it differently when you have somebody who hasn’t been on a film set as much as George Clooney?

AP: With the most seasoned professionals, and with the newest tyros, you have to make them all feel comfortable and have a very relaxed, open, ‘there are no mistakes here’ feeling on the set. I mean, the young actors may not be seasoned enough to have the insecurities of the accomplished star. You have to have a super fun, creative atmosphere. You’re constantly telling everyone it’s fine, just go try it, and if you fuck it up, don’t worry, because that’s why God gave us Take 2 and we’ll just keep going. Acting is a lot easier than people think it is. (laughs) There’s really nothing to it.

Q: What proved to be the biggest challenge in shooting this film?

AP: The biggest challenge was shooting that lovely, delicate boat scene when they’re spreading the ashes towards the end of the film. To shoot from boat to boat turned out to be extraordinarily difficult, time consuming and hideous because most of filmmaking, as you may know, is lugging heavy equipment around. But, to get all of that equipment into Waikiki Bay with swells of water coming in, unpredictable swells, and a 10-year-old girl in a tiny boat wishing she were anywhere but there, I hope never to repeat that experience.

Q: A number of years ago you expressed your love for Anthony Mann and Westerns. Down the road, do you want to direct your own Western?

AP: Yes.

Q: Is there anything in the offing right now?

AP: I always have the word out, “Send me a Western script, send me a Western book.” It could be that one. But I still have not found anything I think is good enough, at least for me. I may just have to start doing my own research and write my own. But I’m not going to have time to do that for a couple of years. But yes, I would. And I hope people are still interested in seeing Westerns. I was with Richard Pena who teaches film at Columbia among other duties, and he said he has a hard time getting his Columbia grad students to watch Westerns. Of course, I got into it. I said what Westerns are you showing them but he said they’re not so interested in them anymore. But I’d love to see, if not make, another great Western. We haven’t had one I feel since “Unforgiven.” That was the last great Western.

Q: What are you looking for in your Western?

AP: A good, unusual story. I would say what I would do will probably have to be …The trouble with that genre is it began to have a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy. You’d probably have to treat it like simply a period historical film in the American West and return to primary sources for the research and not so much to other Western films.

Q: A lot like “Meek’s Cutoff” directed by Kelly Reichardt then?

AP: Yeah, it did have that. I wasn’t a huge fan of that film much as I’m an admirer of hers. The other thing I would maybe want it to have too is a way … I mean, the way a genre stays alive is its ability to comment about issues in whatever age it’s being made. And so, I thought the 70s had some interesting Westerns like “Little Big Man” which is a rousingly entertaining story and a totally political film about what was going on at the time. And, it was funny. It was a good movie.

Q: You grew up in flyover country, in what used to be the frontier.

AP: For me, it was land in country, but okay.

Q: What I’m saying is on the coasts they say “Omaha? What’s Omaha?” You grew up in land that had that Western spirit that once was the frontier. Does that give you a different take on it?

AP: I don’t think so. I think a lot of people around the world like Westerns. I like Westerns. I mean, I make these little comedies, these American comedies, but what do I watch at home? I like action films, not exclusively, but I like Samurai films. I like Westerns. Not so much war pictures, but a few. I like kinetic cinema. So I’m not alone in admiring Westerns. And the other thing, too, is if you’re not making epic, archetypal films on some level, I think you’re wasting a great potential of cinema. Cinema really lends itself well to big, archetypal stories, you know, classic old stories and you need kind of a weird, big terrain like the Japanese plains for Samurai movies or the West. You need that for these giants to walk around.

Q: What is your next movie going to be?

AP: Thank you for asking. I hope to begin shooting in May of 2012. It’s just a little comedy. It’s a father-son road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. And then, they get waylaid at a small town in central Nebraska where the father grew up and where he has some old scores to settle. It’s just a little comedy.

Q: Do you have someone in mind for it?

AP: I have a couple of people in mind but it would be too early for me to suggest who they are because I’m not in official pre-production yet.

Q: So you’re back to Nebraska again?

AP: Yes, I’m anxious to shoot in Nebraska again. I’ve not done so in 10 years.

“The Descendants” opens in theaters on November 18th.




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