Alexander Payne, the director/co-writer/co-producer of The Descendants, hates road-trip movies even though he keeps making them; he doesn’t give a damn if people don’t like voice-overs; and he doesn’t think he’s a brand — at least not yet. He spoke with AwardsLine’s Ari Karpel about his George Clooney-starring drama Descendants, which is up for five Oscars including Director and Adapted Screenplay for Payne (the latter including Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) as well as Best Picture.
AWARDSLINE: In The Descendants, we see a Hawaii that we never get to see in movies and on TV. Was the author of the book [Kaui Hart Hemmings] singular in knocking on those doors for you?
PAYNE: She opened a lot of doors for me and the production designers, to get the houses right and the sense of place right. It’s not a film about tourists, as most movies are. It’s about people who live there. The nice thing about making a film on location is that you begin the process of superficially weaving yourself into that fabric of society, just enough to be able to make the film with accuracy and verisimilitude.
AWARDSLINE: The music in the film is uniquely Hawaiian.
PAYNE: I thought, again, capture a sense of place. I also thought it would be inelegant of me not to attempt to score the film with 100 percent preexisting Hawaiian music. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to do that. By “we” I mean the music supervisor, music editor, the editor and myself (Dondi Bastone, Richard Ford and Kevin Tent, respectively). It became a very long process of trial and error, clawing our way through mountains of Hawaiian music. I had begun listening to Hawaiian music when I was scouting locations, and the voice that had caught my ear belonged to Gabby Pahinui; I fell in love with his music and for a while I thought I could score the whole film with his songs — like McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Leonard Cohen or Harold And Maude with Cat Stevens — but then I found that I couldn’t. So, we’ve got five or six of his songs in the film as a kind of anchoring voice.
AWARDSLINE: There’s a recurring road-trip motif in your films — in Sideways and About Schmidt, and then in this film it’s road tripping by air as the family flies from island to island within Hawaii. What is it about road trips that speak to you?
PAYNE: I don’t know because I don’t even like road-trip films and I find I keep making them. I swear to God, I hate shooting in cars, that’s why increasingly in my films, you have scenes in Sideways and The Descendants where they’re talking in a car, but you just see a drive-by and I put their voices on the soundtrack over them. I don’t know. Consciously, I dislike them, but unconsciously I seem to be drawn to them. In real life, I myself am kind of a rambling guy. I like to travel. Maybe there’s something that appeals to me on that level.
AWARDSLINE: [Your producer] Jim Burke told me that you’re a frequent flier of Up In The Air proportions.
PAYNE: I just got my three-millionth mile on American.
AWARDSLINE: Where do you go?
PAYNE: I split my time between a home in L.A. and a home in Omaha, so I do go back and forth a lot. I’ve gone to New York a lot over the years. Then of course when you do a publicity tour for a film, you accrue a lot of miles that way.
AWARDSLINE: Another recurring element in your films is the voice-over. Why?
PAYNE: I think voice-over, when well used, is an extremely delicious device.
AWARDSLINE: So, unlike the road trip, it’s a very conscious device.
PAYNE: I refuse to conform to any narrative conventions that say, “Well, if you begin a film with voice-over you at least have to bookend it, have it at the end. You can’t just have it at the beginning and let it taper off.” I’m thinking, I’m 50 and I’m going to use whatever cinematic device I want to. So, voice-over was useful in the first half-hour, 40 minutes of the film, and then it had no more utility. So, I jettisoned it.
AWARDSLINE: Why did you cast George Clooney in this and not in Sideways?
PAYNE: In the case of Sideways, it would have been too much that the most handsome and successful movie and television star is playing the most washed up TV actor. I don’t want contextual jokes. I want to be completely internal to the film. Plus, when the hell else are you going to get Thomas Haden Church in a part just built by the gods for that guy. But Clooney is right for this one. He has the good looks that those rich guys out there in Hawaii have. A few people have said, “Clooney is playing the closest he’s ever come to playing a regular guy in this.” I don’t entirely agree with this. His emotions and carriage may be that of a regular guy and the character aspires to be more of a regular guy, but he’s meant to be more of a patrician. I think also that there’s a patrician-ness to Clooney.
AWARDSLINE: Sideways established you as a brand. When an advertisement says, “From the director of Sideways,” people know that they’re getting a certain kind of movie. Does that brand resonate with you?
PAYNE: I don’t think it’s a brand when they say, “From the director of …” I think you’re a brand when they say “from Alexander Payne,” “from Pedro Almodovar.” Then you’re a brand. I’m still “From the director of…” So, I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse, or neither or both. But one thing, and certainly with The Descendants, when they say “From the director of Sideways,” well, it’s dangerous. On one hand, I guess the studio wants to monopolize the popularity of that previous film. On the other hand, you don’t want to lead people to believe it’s going to be a laugh riot like that one was to some viewers. This one is a little bit more somber for long passages. So, I don’t know, I appreciate that people are beginning to see a throughline in my films, to use a pretentious term, an authorial voice. That’s flattering. … I’ll tell you this much, it helps keep me in business. My only goal in all of this is just to keep making movies. Notoriety, box office success, those things are flattering, but they’re useful exclusively in being able to keep me making films.
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