Cover Story

Clooney and Woodley trap a liar.

True Hawaii

The director/screenwriter, producer, a star and local members of the cast and crew--including the author herself--talk about making The Descendants.

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Cover image for Nov 23, 2011

The Descendants is a stunning movie, full of surprises, its visual sweep and rhythm tied to Hawaiian music, its pacing as changeable as the weather and tragicomic adventures of our days. She knew it would be true to Hawaii, author Kaui Hart Hemmings told the Weekly, when they were filming on Kauai and it rained. And they kept filming in the rain.

For Hawaii’s people, living in a place that’s unrelentingly misrepresented in mainstream media as a perennially sunny, welcoming vacation paradise in which locals only get the supporting roles, this small, quiet film will feel profoundly different. In it, locals of all backgrounds will recognize ourselves, our families, our neighbors, the gritty stuff of our real lives. Not only that, it’s the first popular film to see us through an insider’s eyes. We’ll be talking about The Descendants for a long time, and, whether we love it or not, what we’re talking about will be ourselves.

How did this come about? We asked some of the key participants in this family-style production.

It could be a Waikiki scene from the movie: Around a beachside table, producer Jim Burke, director Alexander Payne and Hemmings sit on the shaded terrace of the Halekulani, leaning back in their chairs with the relaxed air of old friends. They are sipping water, without a coffee pot or cup in sight.

Burke and Payne have flown here direct from London, where the film was screened at the film festival. Yesterday evening, at the Hawaii International Film Festival screening, Payne accepted the Vision in Film Award.

The rising breeze seem to carry voices from the past of Helemoa, home of the alii from whom the characters in the book and film are descended.

“I’m hungry; I’m going to eat something,” Burke says. “Does anybody want anything?”

Hemmings shakes her head. She is young and natural and cool in a strapless, blousy print dress.

“I’m not hungry, I don’t want anything,” says Payne, who appears to be reeling from jet lag, listing a bit to his left. He is much handsomer than in his photographs. Looking down his aquiline nose at the table, he is clearly exhausted and, while resigned, not happy to be facing another reporter, coming off an hour and a half interview with the previous one. It seems cruel, really, to submit him to more.

Burke, in an open-collared blue button-down shirt, perspiring slightly in the humid heat of morning in late October, has the blond, snub features of, say, a James Fox, and a more stoic air than Payne.


You both must be tired.

Burke: Yeah, we are. Alexander more than I. He got in yesterday and had to go straight to the event. The film’s played at five festivals: this was the fifth.

How was it received in New York?

Burke: It got a standing ovation, which I’m told is not par for the course in New York. We had a 10 minute standing ovation in Toronto.

Payne: Not 10 minutes!

Burke: Maybe not. How long would you say?

Payne [shrugs]: I don’t know. Three minutes maybe? A lot longer than in New York.

Burke: So New York was, what? 15 seconds?

Payne: Maybe it was 10 minutes in Toronto.

Burke: The overwhelming reaction from the five festivals has been very, very positive for this film. As a producer, I don’t put my own money on it, I raise money from investors, and I told them I believed in this book and that this film would be a popular success. And I’m happy [with] the reception so far, that it seems it will be.

Payne [sits up straighter in his chair, his thick, wavy hair almost standing on end]: Of course, there are a few detractors, there’ve got to be–a tiny percentage, minute really–one expects that.

After the screening, many cast and crew members told me they were very proud.

Payne: I’m really happy to hear that reaction from the cast and crew. That means a lot to us.

Did you have preconceptions about Hawaii before coming here?

Payne: It’s good in life not to have preconceptions.

Locals have all praised the way you worked to get Hawaii right, brought the cast and crew together with softball games, family-style meals. Is this the way you always work together?

Payne: This is the first time [Burke and I] made a movie together. It may be the first time I’ve worked this closely with a local cast and crew, but as with Sideways, I like being woven somewhat into the fabric of the society where I’m shooting–to get the people, the rhythms into the film.

Burke: I rented a house in Lanikai for 9 months before we started production. I spent a week on Kauai.

I like the way the pacing slowed when you got to the family meeting, building that scene, taking time to let the landscape, the house, the photos sink in.

Payne: It’s a funny thing about rhythm, pace. Some complained, you take the time to go to the land, [in] Kauai, where’s the sense of urgency? His wife is dying, why do you pause at that overlook over the valley when he’s supposed to be chasing down her lover? I interpret it as a time out of war, finding a true moment–people don’t act in certain set ways, according to our preconceptions.

How did you choose that overlook at Kipu Kai?

Hemmings: I knew Kipu Kai from my friend growing up.

It’s on the South Shore, but in the book they’re supposed to be overlooking Hanalei.

Payne: I think a book is freer–no one expects a book to have a certain pace. A movie has a sharklike pace–it has to move forward or it dies.

You’ve both said what drew you to the book was the family drama, the intimate human conflict.

Burke: That’s what I reacted to. It has the right tone, it mixes humor and pathos. I also loved Hawaii–had visited many times. When I read the book, I knew this was going to be a great movie. I’m a single father, of a daughter, who felt at times not prepared for that–reading Kaui’s book, I see my daughter at 10 and 17. I was surprised when I met Kaui, I asked her, how did you write from the point of view of a 50-year-old man?

The directing is amazing. So many closeups, and Clooney looks different in every one. When he finally meets with his wife’s doctor, he looks like a hurt child. Next scene, he looks like his father-in-law.

Hemmings: I thought, “he’s aged.”

Payne [teasing]: He looks like an amoeba!

Your screenplay stays quite true to the book, but what were some changes you made?

Payne: I like the interior monologue when he says goodbye to his wife. In the novel, where he’s thinking, “Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my happiness…” I read it over and over, I found it so touching, it got me every time. I wanted to try having George saying it out loud. It was taking a risk, but I think it worked. Even with the land thing–the family meeting–in another director’s hands it could have been the moment. I hope we didn’t come across with that Hollywood moment.

You didn’t. And I liked the way you changed the Lanikai mom to a Kaimuki mom and casted different ethnicities.

Payne: That’s who’s here. I had fun with race in the film. Barbara Higgins, the Japanese mom in Kaimuki, she tells King her husband was from Hanapepe, Kauai. His family worked on a sugar cane plantation. It could have been [King’s] family’s plantation. And at last she gets to talk down to him. We film her standing three steps above him. I added that. Plus, I like to say Hanapepe.

Are you drawn to characters in states of transition, the leads in Sideways and About Schmidt?

Payne: [frowning] I’m not conscious of that. Others have pointed out the thematic connections through the characters lives.

You’ve no conscious sense of your oeuvre?

Payne: I think that would be horrible! I never think about expressing anything. I just like making movies: the plasticity, the rush, what I learn in the process. I read Willie Nelson’s autobiography. He said, after forty years he realized all his songs were sad, and he wanted to be positive. I’m a comedy director.

Burke: The movie improves with each subsequent viewing. The same as with Kaui’s book: The more you read it, the more you notice.

You lived here and researched Hawaii for nine months. Did our history of dispossession, our current land-use wars inform the film?

Payne: I was aware of most of that, and even though it isn’t in the film, it gives us a comfort level, that we know what we’re talking about. We’re outsiders, but we tried to be quick studies–and the more we stayed, the more everything we looked at was in context.

Burke: We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to come here in advance. I credit Alex. He said he needed plenty of time. It doesn’t always happen that way.