Fox Searchlight’s The Descendants opened in New York and Los Angeles in five theatres (2 in NY and 3 in LA) last night. The buzz began with the sellouts of the special screenings and tribute to George Clooney in Telluride, and continued to the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the closing night at the New York Film Festival and the London Film Festival and the recent Gotham Award nominations. It goes into the awards seasons with tremendous momentum. The Alexander Payne-directed film starring George Clooney and supported by newcomers Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller will add 11 new markets playing in 29 theatres on Friday. For the Thanksgiving period it expands into nearly 450 theatres. Jim Taylor is Payne’s lesser-known writing partner and shares credit on such films as Election and About Schmidt, and an Oscar for 2005’s Sideways. For The Descendants, Payne wrote solo while Taylor stuck to producing alongside Jim Burke, his longtime partner in Ad Hominem Productions. On the eve of the film’s release, Awardsline contributor Ari Karpel spoke with Taylor and Burke about the film’s favorable festival start, editing at Clooney’s Lake Como villa, and why Taylor sat out the writing of this one:
AWARDSLINE: Fox Searchlight optioned the book The Descendants for your production company, Ad Hominem, about four years ago. Tell me about the process that followed.
JIM BURKE: I read a manuscript that was sent to us by a literary agent in London. I forwarded it to Searchlight. I think the agent who sent it to us, also mailed it to a number of production companies like ours since there was a lot of interest from the competition. Fox Searchlight acted quickly on our behalf to acquire the option on this book before we had fully decided who would even direct it. Jim and Alexander at the time were writing an original screenplay called Downsizing which was intended to be Alexander’s next film to direct. So we figured The Descendants would be our next picture to produce at Ad Hominem and we proceeded along those lines. We went out and looked for screenwriters to adapt the book and arrived at Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. They did a terrific job but it became clear at some point along the way that Downsizing was going to be too big a movie, and take too long to be ready. Alexander became more anxious about starting a production shoot and we realized it was going to take longer to get Downsizing made. He became more and more attracted to Descendants and he decided, ‘I’ll take this one on.’ Because he decided that it could be done more in the style that he’s used to, with very little green screen.
AWARDSLINE: Did Alexander take the script that those guys had written and start revising it?
JIM TAYLOR: No. They wrote a great script, but the way Alexander works is he needs to make what he directs, his own. He went in and made it more personal for himself.
AWARDSLINE: So you’re saying that no matter how good their script was, he had to throw it out and start from scratch in order to write in his voice and make it his own? And there’s that WGA rule, as there always is, where they get credit as well.
TAYLOR: Yeah, and they wrote a great script, but that is exactly what happened.
AWARDSLINE: Jim Taylor, why didn’t you collaborate on this script as you have with Alexander in the past?
TAYLOR: This is a little less comedic than our other collaborations, so this didn’t feel right for me. Together we tend to write more comedy and the plot of this was more emotional.
AWARDSLINE: The film received a good response at festivals. How important is it to launch the marketing at a festival like Telluride?
TAYLOR: I don’t know. I think that if it’s a strong movie, no matter where it emerges, it’s still strong and people talk about it, whether it’s Sundance, Toronto or Telluride or whatever. Telluride’s such a great festival to be at. It’s such a filmmaker-oriented event. We like it because it’s easy to see films there.
AWARDSLINE: It’s so hard for an adult drama to get attention now. It seems like a festival like that really helps it.
TAYLOR: Definitely, it does. And Fox Searchlight, you know, they’re some of the only people really making movies like that anymore, so we’re incredibly lucky to have our home there.
BURKE: And I think that they’re equipped to deal with films that are not easily categorized. I mean, they have many times in the past. It’s not a marketer’s dream (this movie). A marketer’s dream is something from a comic book.
TAYLOR: But it doesn’t hurt to have George Clooney in the movie. In a lot of different ways, not the least of which is what a wonderful collaborator he is. But also, I think that if people are just going looking for another Sideways, they might be thrown a little bit. So, it’s nice that the only draw isn’t another Alexander Payne movie. It’s also that a lot of people go to movies to see George Clooney’s performances.
AWARDSLINE: How do you divide your responsibilities? Was one of you more on the ground in Hawaii and the other holding down the fort in LA?
BURKE: Aside from being business partners, all three of us are very close friends. I think it’s safe to say that we’re always there for each other,
whatever we need. It’s never been any kind of an issue, like you do this, you do that. I’m not an artist. Jim and Al are, so they have an artistic
relationship, but they also value what I do for them and for us; and I, of course, value and highly respect both of them. We just do what comes naturally to all of us.
TAYLOR: Yeah, I think the term partners really implies what…you know, we’re not always doing the same thing, but we’re a team, and we make sure that everything gets done.
AWARDSLINE: This movie was edited by your longtime editor Kevin Tent, but I read that it was actually edited at Clooney’s Lake Cuomo villa. Is that right?
BURKE: It’s sort of right. It was really edited in Santa Monica at our office, but they went over there to his villa for a couple of weeks in the midsummer, just to sort of work and, obviously, hang out with George.
AWARDSLINE: The leading actor doesn’t usually host the post-production so does that shift the dynamic a little bit? Don’t you need to shut yourself out and make decisions and not be worried about what the actor’s going to think?
BURKE: Yeah. George, though, is more than just an actor. Not that that’s not enough, but he’s also a filmmaker himself. He just said, “Hey, listen, man, I have an Avid in my villa. Why don’t you just come on over and be in Italy for a few weeks and cut it there?” He wasn’t intrusive at all. All he did was host dinner parties and things like that. And when Kevin and Alexander had a little sequence that they were prepared to show him, they did.
AWARDSLINE: I’m curious, of course, about the Oscar campaign for the film. Clooney is certainly a natural contender; but he also has Ides of March. Is there a bit of a balancing act with those two?
BURKE: Here is how I’d say we feel about an Oscar campaign: It’s like the way I feel about getting on an airplane. I don’t pay too much attention to it because I know it’s out of my hands. I believe we’ve made a really excellent film and that knowledge alone just edifies me. I hope other people think that, but it’s so hard to make a movie that even you like, and often, one of our goals for the three of us at our company is to make movies that we like, that we would actually pay to see. I think we’ve done it; and whether it wins an Oscar, I don’t know whether it will or not. It’s hard to know. As for Ides of March, we’re really cool with George, too. I know that George understands what a great performance he gave in The Descendants. I just marvel at it and I feel like he understands that. He has to. Everybody’s telling him that.