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Two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

February 10, 2012 12 comments

UPDATE: Alexander Payne has added to his growing legendaric status by picking up his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  He, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash shared the Academy Award for their work on The Descendants.  Payne shared the same award with Jim Taylor for their Sideways script.  It seems only a matter of time before Payne is recognized with a Best Director Oscar.

Here’s a capsule take on Alexander Payne and The Descendants, the latest in the filmmaker’s seriocomic forays into the existential angst, folly, fragility, and yearning of the human condition.  If you’re a fan of Payne, the film, or of cinema in general, then check out the batch of stories on this blog about about him, this picture, his other movies, and a slew of other films and filmmakers from cinema’s past and present.

Alexander Payne In this handout photo provided by NBC, (L-R) producers Jim Taylor, Jim Burke and writer/director Alexander Payne, accept the award for Best Motion Picture - Drama 'The Descendants' onstage during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Jim Taylor, Jim Burks and Alexander Payne accepting Best Picture Golden Globe

 

 

Two-yime Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Until The Descendants opened to golden reviews last fall, seven years elapsed between feature films for its celebrated writer-director Alexander Payne.

The Omaha native and Creighton Prep grad came of age as a film buff here. He made his first three features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) in his hometown, each moving him up the ranks of elite moviemakers. His surprise 2004 hit, Sideways, took him to Southern California’s wine country. The combination road-buddy picture and unconventional love story confirmed Payne as a film industry leading light, earning him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

He then busied himself writing-producing films for other directors. When he couldn’t find financing for his own pet project, Downsizing, he made The Descendants. Before shooting it in late 2010 the only directing he did in this period was a segment of Paris, I Love You and the pilot for HBO’s Hung.

The Golden Globes won by Descendants star George Clooney for best dramatic actor and by Payne and producing partners Jim Burke and Jim Taylor for best drama harbors well heading into the Oscars, where the film will be well-represented with five nominations (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Actor). The three friends share their own production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, which produced the picture for Fox Searchlight, with whom Ad Hominem has a first-look deal. The pic’s strong showing with critics and award shows is reminiscent of Sideways. Like that film, this one took Payne far from the Midwest – to Hawaii. A decade after working with iconic Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt, Payne teamed with another icon, Clooney.

As land baron attorney Matt King, Clooney is a man in crisis. His wife Liz lies in a coma after a boating accident. After years of indifferent parenting he’s suddenly in charge of his two girls. He’s burdened, too, by the valuable land entrusted to his care by ancestors. When his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) reveals her mother’s infidelity, Matt sets off on a journey that begins in retribution but ends in forgiveness. Payne says “two acts of love” are what drew him to adapt the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel.

The story shares in common with Schmidt and Sideways and Payne’s forthcoming Nebraska a beleaguered protagonist trying to mend an unraveling life.

“It’s just the comic archetype Jim Taylor (his producing partner and former co-writer) and I came up with and I’m continuing of the middle-aged guy who’s really unconscious and has a bunch of anguish and frustration in life,” says Payne. “It’s a guy with good intentions but who’s bought the wrong package. I think it’s funny.”

Extracting equal amounts pathos and humor from human folly is what Payne does.

“I’m just always drawn to material that remains human. You don’t need guns and spaceships and great contrivance to have a movie and a meaningful one. I don’t think those elements are necessarily bad – I like movies of every genre, but what I’m drawn to is trying to somehow explore and express and mock the human heart.”

Descendants is being called Payne’s most fully realized work. “I hope so,” he says, adding that any new maturity reflects his more accrued life experience at age 50 and his evolving film craft. Some observers note he seems more comfortable letting tender emotions play out on screen.”Well, that’s what this story called for,” he says. “I mean, it could be a new vein of filmmaking in me or could just be I was serving this particular story as a professional, workman-like director. I have no idea.”

Staying true to his Omaha roots, he attended the movie’s local premiere at Film Streams, where Descendants smashed box office records. Payne enjoys sharing his work at the art cinema whose board he serves on. Before an appreciative crowd of friends and supporters he announced the film was among the highest grossers nationally its first week. By early February its domestic take stands at $66 million-plus, makeing it the top indie flick released in 2011.

Exuding grace and humility, Payne personally greeted audience members before and after the opening night screenings here. In accepting his Golden Globe, Payne deflected praise to cast and crew, to the people of Hawaii and to Hemmings, whose “beautiful gift” of a novel he made his own.

“He made this movie that’s hugely successful and he made sure that success was also Film Streams’ success, and hopefully Omaha’s success,” says Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson. “We had so much fun at the premiere. It was just a blast. I wondered if we should do it at a bigger venue, and he said, ‘We’ve got to do it at our home.’ Getting the exclusive from Fox Searchlight was all him. That was huge for us.”

He’s conquered Cannes, Toronto, New York, Hollywood, but he proves he can come home again. Payne, who keeps a condo here, plans shooting the father-son road pic Nebraska in various Panhandle locales come spring. Home is where the heart is and he’s always happy to return where his cinema dreams were first fired.

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Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants” and how she helped get Hawaii right

January 23, 2012 12 comments

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants and how she helped get Hawaii right

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Alexander Payne‘s turn came to speak in the glow of The Descendants winning best motion picture drama at the Jan. 15 Golden Globes, he made sure to thank the people of Hawaii and author Kaui Hart Hemmings.

He did something few directors do by involving Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, in the adaptation, preproduction and production of the George Clooney-starring film. He’s widely credited her vital role in helping him get a fix on the island state’s particular culture, or as much as a mainlander like himself can attain. For all the time he spent researching, writing, prepping and shooting there, mainly in Honolulu, he never lost sight of being a visitor in need of expert advice.

Of course, the well-received 2007 Hemmings novel is the reason there’s a movie at all. He knows golden material when he sees it and he remained true to the book beyond her expectations.

“I’ve had the privilege of seeing Alexander making this film, from location scouting and casting to directing and filming. His attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions – I felt like I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a good film. Still, I couldn’t prepare myself for how good,” says Hemmings. “It’s a film that sticks with you, teaches you something without being at all didactical. It brings Hawaii to the big screen, something that’s never been done before, in an authentic way. I never insisted on him being faithful to my novel, but he did, and I’m pretty happy about that since it led to results like these.”

His respect for her work and inclusion in his process is why he told a world-wide Globes audience, with some prompting from his Ad Hominem Enterprises producing partner and former co-writer, Jim Taylor, “…thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings – she gave us a beautiful gift.”

“I don’t need the public thank you but…it sure does please the locals. I spent a lot of time with Alexander, the crew and George, so it was just fun times,” says Hemmings. “I’m a big fan of this movie. I have the privilege of feeling like I contributed to it in some way and so it’s nice to be acknowledged.”

In adhering closely to her tale of a good man negotiating personal upheavals, the film’s struck a responsive chord with critics and audiences…

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: HIs Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective  1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings

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Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, George Clooney and Co. find love, pain and the whole damn thing shooting “The Descendants” in Hawaii

June 29, 2010 1 comment

Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, George Clooney and Co. find love, pain and the whole damn thing shooting “The Descendants” in Hawaii” 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from story tht originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alexander Payne’s version of Paradise Lost, by way of Terms of Endearment, describes the emotional arc of his new $24 million George Clooney vehicle, The Descendants, which wrapped shooting in Hawaii at the end of May.

Arriving to interview Payne at his swank new downtown digs, he gave this reporter the nickel tour of his pad; more properly termed a penthouse loft that overlooks the Gene Leahy Mall. The place has a movie-movie look straight out of a Hollywood art director’s sketchbook. Workmen finished making fixes around the condo while we sat at a heavily lacquered round wooden table. As the tape started rolling, a thunderstorm unleashed wind and rain, enveloping the downtown canyon in sheets of gray. The curious director noted the commotion, but quickly carried on.

A premise of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, which Payne adapted for the film, is that life’s messiness proceeds the same in a supposed paradise as it does in, say, drab Omaha. Eden doesn’t exempt one from loss or burden. Payne revealed as much in Sideways, where errant pals turned nirvana into a pitiful wasteland.

It’s clear the writer-director prefers protagonists undertake an ironical journey. Whether Ruth Stoops (Citizen Ruth), Jim McAllister (Election), Warren Schmidt (About Schmidt), Miles and Jack (Sideways), or Clooney’s Matt King, Payne plunges anti-heroes down a rabbit hole of self-discovery.

A seriocomic odyssey writ small unfolds, ending with the beleaguered character completing and/or embarking on a trek, wizened or not along the way.

Matt King is the most emotionally mature adult male seen in the Paynesian world, but he’s not without issues. The middle-aged a-hole is a well-off attorney troubled by his identity as a landed descendant of a white missionary who married into Hawaiian royalty. What’s worse, he’s pining and worrying over his wife, who’s in a coma after a boating accident. This was not how their golden union was to end. They were the couple others envied. But we learn that things between them had been less than idyllic for a while. Matt settled for things; Liz did not. Beautiful, free-spirited, attention-grabbing Liz always got her way. Even in her vegetative state, Matt feels betrayed by her restless, reckless vibe.

Two thankless deadlines hang over Matt: to pull or not pull life support, and sell or not sell the valuable land entrusted him and his large extended family.

Much of the story revolves around Liz in the ICU. Payne does not shrink from depicting her fragile, wasted away existence.

“It’s meant to be startling,” he said, adding that actress Patricia Hastie went to extremes — losing weight, growing her body hair and nails, skimping on sleep — to achieve stark realism. Even when not on camera, her presence is felt, lending a more serious tone than usual to the satiric Payne universe.

“It’s more of a drama than I’ve done before and I’m curious to see how that turns out,” he said. “I think it’ll be OK, but I haven’t seen a lot of the footage. I thought in the past I would be afraid of drama, because I’d always made comedies. Often comedy directors have the best touch with pathos. The jury’s still out with this one.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

 

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