Over the past 15 years director-writer Alexander Payne has created a small but potent body of work that shows his talent for balancing comedy and drama including Sideways, which earned Payne a screenwriting Oscar, and About Schmidt.
His new film, The Descendants, which even before it debuted in theaters this week was earning a lot of Oscar buzz, is another look at life and relationships that balances some fairly dark family moments with a lightness that comes simple from human frailty.
George Clooney stars as a Hawaiian land baron whose perfect life falls apart when his wife plunges into a coma after an boating accident. When King tries to reconnect with his two daughters, he learns that his wife had been having an affair. With his daughters in tow, he sets out to confront his rival.
Payne talked to Reuters about making the film and working with Clooney, who was nominated for Oscars for co-writing and directing his Good Night, and Good Luck.
Q: Your last film was Sideways, seven years ago. What took so long?
A: I was pretty busy writing three scripts, one a sci-fi film about shrinking people which I'll hopefully make in the future, and doing a pilot, a short in Paris, and then I also got divorced, had surgery. Those seven years went quickly.
Q: What was the appeal of The Descendants?
A: I liked the story. It's a very human story and I'd never seen it before, particularly set in Hawaii amid that kind of decaying aristocracy. I'm from Nebraska and I didn't know Hawaii at all or the complex social fabric there. It's a very strange and weird place.
Q: What sort of film did you set out to make?
A: I never have a vision for my films. I just felt this was a good story that hooked me. I never say, 'I'm making a drama' or whatever, until afterward, and then it turns out to be whatever it is -- in this case, more dramatic than any other film I've done.
Q: As usual, you assembled a fantastic cast. Casting a family has to be very tricky.
A: It is, but I was able to anchor-in Clooney early and built around that. Casting kids is very time-consuming, as it's so hard to find kids who have the chops but also seem their own age and not like little actors. We saw over 200 girls before we found Shailene Woodley who plays the elder daughter, and she's the cat's pajamas. I knew instantly she was the one.
Q: Any surprises working with Clooney?
A: Directors don't hang out together very often, except at awards shows, but we all talk to each other about actors and everyone had told me how great he is to work with and...that was really true. He understands everything about filmmaking and he's more comfortable on a set than he is anywhere else.
...He's a total pro and he can play anything. I began to compare him mentally to Marcello Mastroianni and higher praise I cannot offer. He is who he is and looks like he does, and yet can still mold himself this way or that. He's just so versatile, and you can plug him into a lot of things.
Q: But not everything. Isn't it true he wanted to be in Sideways and you turned him down?
A: It's true, but he wasn't right for the Thomas Hayden Church part, playing a highly unsuccessful, washed-up TV actor. It would have unbalanced it and become the joke of the film, and I didn't want that.
Q: Did you explain that to him?
A: I didn't get a chance back then, but I've told him why since because he keeps bringing it up. He brings it up all the time in public and at Q&As. I'd never bring up such a thing (laughs).
Q: He's also a very accomplished director himself. Was it very collaborative?
A: The best actors are always the ones who've directed as well, as they understand all the problems you face. He's just directed his fourth film, and he's a great collaborator.
Q: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
A: It'd be fun, but here's the truth about 3D -- it comes around every 18 years for three years. So it'll disappear next year and be back again in 2030.