Alexander Payne is in a good mood, or at least a little more chipper than usual. If the consensus means anything, the man behind such noted black comedies as “Election” and “About Schmidt” has yet to break his winning streak. Seven years have passed since his last feature, “Sideways,” and now he’s back with another acclaimed work: “The Descendants,” an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel. Star George Clooney joins a roster of A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson, who have been attracted to Payne’s caustic and emotionally complex style. No one has been let down yet. (This interview was originally published during the 49th New York Film Festival, where “The Descendants” served as the closing night film. It opens this Friday through Fox Searchlight.)
The new movie finds Clooney playing a wealthy Hawaiian landowner coping with his comatose wife’s dying moments. He’s also committed to gathering evidence about her affair with a mysterious real estate broker (Matthew Lillard). At the same time, he has to keep his feisty adolescent daughter (Amara Miller) at bay and face off with her rebellious older sister (Shailene Woodley).
Sentimental yet twisted, “The Descendants” is vintage Payne. The film has been a major crowdpleaser at the Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, setting the stage for Fox Searchlight’s release next month. But over the course of a recent conversation with indieWIRE in New York, Payne reined in his enthusiasm, talked about some of his favorite movies, his love for “The Wire” and why he’s already set the bar higher.
You haven’t made a feature since “Sideways” in 2004. Is it annoying to get back into the game of promoting your work?
Yeah, but it’s still pretty early in the process. It’s only shown at three festivals. I’ve been present at fewer than 10 screenings. Telluride was the first time I saw it finished with a fresh audience.
You’re often asked about the challenge of writing pitiable characters. Do you feel like you have to justify the kinds of movies you write?
I’m completely uninterested in justifying it. The justifications are the films themselves. I’m a practitioner; I just like doing it. Do I like answering the same questions over and over again? Two answers to that: One is, “No,” and the other is, “Depends on who’s asking.” If it’s somebody asking a super-standard question that he or she could have found on 100 online sources, then I may grow quite impatient.
At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, you looked a little flustered when TIFF programming director Cameron Bailey said that none of your movies have heroes.
But that seemed like a natural question to ask of someone who has made these kinds of dark comedies. Are you saying that if someone can figure that out without your help, it’s not worth your time?
No, it’s not that it’s not worth my time. I’m always grateful for the interest in my work. I’m super-grateful for having an audience and having that communication with them. I’m not ungrateful on any level. It just depends on who’s asking. These are kind of pretentious things to cite, but I remember Antonioni saying, “Don’t you know that anything I tell you about the film may limit rather than enhance your experience?” You want the viewer to have his or her own interpretation. Look, I’m a film geek and I like reading interviews with directors. I’m mad that Anthony Mann didn’t do more interviews. I think that there’s only one interview with Henry Hathaway extant. So you look for clues into their work.
Going back to the absence of heroes in your movies…
See, it takes a second for me to catch up to that, because I’m not thinking about those things. I’m just working intuitively.
But you realize where that question is coming from.
Yeah, I just get caught off-guard by it. Actually, that’s why I look to critics and good film writers for clues to how I work, which I hope won’t hinder my creative process but might help articulate something I’m doing, or something that I could do better. This thing that Cameron asked, in his lovely way, about flawed protagonists — that nonplussed me, in a way. As a film viewer and a reader, I wonder: What is Oedipus? What is Michael Corleone? What is Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”? What is a protagonist? What is the guy in “Sunset Boulevard”? He pimps himself out! Isn’t good narrative about people bumping up against their limitations, flaws, hubris, delusions, discrepancies? They’re wanting the wrong thing, or they’re wanting the right thing and going about it the wrong way. That’s what makes drama.
And yet, in the case of “The Descendants,” you have made a much warmer film: There’s a stronger feeling of resolution and life-affirmation than, say, “Election” or “About Schmidt.” Even “Sideways” had a more ambiguous finish. The last shot of “The Descendants” wraps things up more decisively.
Well, I don’t think I’m selling out or making a particularly Hollywood film. Also, the term — not to take you too literally — “life-affirming”: Is it “life-affirming” or “life-observing” to say that tragic stuff happens and we move on?
Well, I also want my films to be charming and entertaining. As for the ending of the film, rhythmically this wouldn’t have worked, but if I could’ve found a way to end the film with that close-up of Clooney on the boat, where he delivers that “Wild Bunch”-style line: “Well, I guess that’s it…” (laughs)
And cut to black.
Cut to black! (laughs) I mean, that would’ve been pretty funny. It’s still in there, this almost semi-nihilist line. By the way, a couple people at the studio said, “Do you really need that line?”
It sort of mirrors that line Matthew Lillard has much earlier in the story, where he says “Everything just happens.”
Yeah, that’s a weird philosophical thing. Thanks for picking up on that; you’re the first person to ask me about it. Nothing just happens? Everything just happens. That’s just a kind of existentialist thought to fling in there.
But it could apply to your entire filmography.
They all involve the avoidance of specific conclusions and meanings. Nobody gets a definitive answer to his or her problems.
Well, I guess I feel like that in real life. We’re not bad people; we’re just doing it all for the first time.
You’ve had a lot of luck with finding existing material and adapting it. The majority of your movies are adaptations of novels.
The big example here is Kubrick. I think 11 of his 13 features were adaptations. You get from books the suggestion of a storyline or a world that you yourself never could’ve thought up in a million years. This Kaui Hart Hemmings book, “The Descendants,” I could never have thought up any of that stuff, but I’m sure glad I that I found it. I’m sorry to use a cliché, but these are more the types of moves we had in the ’70s, movies made in a modern cinematic vernacular that are just about life, and seeking to avoid the movie contrivances that so dominate our cinema today.
You’re very much a story-driven filmmaker, which leads people to discuss your characters and the world they live in, as we have been doing here. And yet you also have a distinctive visual style. “The Descendants” has a number of memorable shots: The repeated motif of George Clooney running somewhere, the underwater shot of Shailene Woodley crying and the overall serenity of the Hawaiian landscape juxtaposed against the family’s grief. These kinds of things are often not noticed in your work.
I think so, too. As written as my movies are — I’ve gotten compliments on my dialogue — I’m really just interested in visual storytelling. With all respect to Louis Malle, I never would’ve taken on “My Dinner with André.” On Saturday at the New York Film Festival, when I shared clips of my favorite movies with [Film Society of Lincoln Center programming director] Richard Peña, I showed the last 10 minutes of “La Notte.” I was astonished, yet again, at how [Antonioni] was able to make a lot of yakking work with relatively static visuals, but you’re not bored for a second.
I still watch a lot of silent film. I’m very much interested in wordless storytelling. It’s just more cinematic. When I watch “The Descendants” and I get to scenes like [Clooney] running on the beach and crossing paths with [Lillard] and then spying on him — no words, no music, just the washing of the waves for about six minutes. That, to me, is more welcome in the proceedings. It creates a foggy mystery to enter the next part of the film. [Clooney] talks to the wife on the beach, played by Judy Greer, and then there’s a brief, interstitial montage of darkening clouds and rain appearing, which is saying, “Aha! The plot is thickening.” And it’s getting weirder, moister.
There’s a line at the beginning of the movie that you lifted from the book: “Fuck paradise.”
I would say that’s pretty much the theme of all human experience, is it not? Fuck paradise? (laughs) Isn’t that the theme of Adam and Eve? They’re given paradise and they fuck it up.
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You’re taking this movie to Hawaii for a screening there soon. What’s your own relationship to that setting?
My very first trip to Hawaii was in 1990 to show my 50-minute-long thesis film from UCLA. It was accepted into the Hawaii International Film Festival. I stayed at a friend’s house from film school in a far-flung part of Honolulu. So my first experience there was film-related, not as a tourist, feeling a little bit on the inside. So for me it will be a very lovely circle to come back to that same film festival 20 years later with a film about Hawaii.
How have your expectations evolved since those early days?
I’m obviously the same person, but I remember at that time, I had just gotten out of film school and of course had high hopes for being able to forge a career in a very difficult métier of filmmaking. I was five years away from my first feature. Now, 20 years later, I’m extremely happy and lucky about being able to have a career in filmmaking. Like you, I desperately love movies. I’m so glad that my love of watching movies as a film geek was able to translate into a career. I’m very mindful of film school friends and other colleagues who have not had some of the same breaks I’ve had. I’ve gotten some praise for my first five features, but I hope in my life to now make one really good one.
So the existing films are what? Just OK?
These are all fine, but I personally consider them minor works. That might seem like a statement of humility, but also great ego.
Do you have some kind of abstract ideal to which these films pale in comparison?
Yeah, I watch a lot of great films and think, “Boy, it would be nice to make one good one someday.” Look, you can’t even get film students to easily watch “Citizen Kane” these days.
You directed the pilot for the HBO series “Hung.” Do you think there’s similar potential in cable television?
Well, that’s a broad question, but I will say this: TV is doing a lot of stuff that we used to get from features. I’m currently re-watching “The Wire.” I’m up to episode 10 of season one. Re-watching it is so much richer than watching it the first time. You have this vague memory of loving “The Wire,” but do you really remember it, character by character? And then you watch it again and go, “Fuckin’ A! This is just off the hook.” Something like that, so deeply intelligent, I mean, talk about making cinema. I hired the director of photography on “Hung” who shot the first two-and-a-half seasons of “The Wire,” Uta Briesewitz. They used to do those one-hour shows in six or seven days. She ended up marrying the location manager. Nowadays, everybody’s like “Breaking Bad” this, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” that. I don’t have time to watch everything when I’m trying to watch Jean Renoir and everything else I need to catch up on.
You talk about those filmmakers as having legacies. You certainly have made a name for yourself as well. Does being considered an auteur have an effect on getting your movies made?
The auteur status helps financing because my previous films have made money. But I think about movies in terms of directors and their bodies of work. If I get to enter that group, I’ll be very grateful. Bringing this back to Cameron’s question about anti-heroes: Some of that comes from a generous urge on the part of the questioner to piece together what might be a body of work, which is still finding its way, and I’m grateful for that.