Descendants - Writer/Director Alexander Payne and George Clooney
Writer/Director Alexander Payne and George Clooney who plays “Matt King” on the set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

From the Oscar winning writer/producer/director of Sideways, comes a dramedy set in Hawaii, The Descendants, which follows a family at a crossroads.

Matt King (George Clooney), has to reevaluate his life when his wife is in a boating accident off Waikiki, placing her in a coma with no chance of recovery. As he attempts to repair his relationship with is two daughters, 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17 year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), he is also under pressure to sell his family’s land, handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries, to a developer that will destroy the tropical beaches on the island.

How did you find this book, were you looking for a project to do and someone recommended this novel?

Descendants -Director Alexander Payne
Writer/Director Alexander Payne on set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

My flag is always flying, my shingle is always out. I’m always looking for movie ideas.

The hardest part of this whole moviemaking endeavor is finding ideas. That’s the real goal. My producing partners and I optioned this book in 2007.

You probably read hundreds of books, what was it about this book you thought, ‘I could do a great adaptation, this would be a great movie?’

Just a nice, human story in an exotic locale.

You’ve had this streak of doing adaptations. What is it that you like about taking existing work and making it into a film?

A book suggests a whole world and a story I could have never thought of in a million years. I could have never thought of Sideways. I could have never thought of this guy whose wife has been steppin’ out on him and the aristocracy of Honolulu, who the hell would ever think of that?

Rex Pickett with Sideways and Kaui Hemmings with The Descendants, are writing in a way autobiographically, or at least about a world that they know. I’m then able to get something really specific and hopefully make it into something universal. It allows me to travel to a place I never could have thought of, but still be able to put my personal stamp on it.

How close did you work with the author on this?

Descendants - Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley and George Clooney
Sid (Nick Krause), Scottie (Amara Miller), Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Matt King (George Clooney) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

I did my own adaptation, but I would say it’s by far the most faithful adaptation I’ve ever done. I relied upon her a lot to open some doors for me in that upper class world in Honolulu.

George seems to joke a lot about how he wanted to be in Sideways, but you didn’t cast him.

Yeah, I never bring that up myself!

Why did you think he was right for this role?

Because he’s perfect. First of all, even before I had met him for Sideways, I thought that he and I would work well together. I was sad that I didn’t think he was right for Sideways, and that I’d missed that opportunity to work with him.

When I began work on this film, he was my first and only choice. He’s the right age, he’s the right look, and I thought in as much as sometimes in his films we audience members feel he’s maybe a little emotionally detached, I thought that would work well for this character, which is the kind of emotional awakening of someone who’s been asleep or unaware.

Can you talk about what Shailene brought to this and why you picked her?

Descendants - Shailene Woodley
Actress Shailene Woodley as “Alexandra” on the set amoungst the cameras © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Boy, she’s the cat’s pajamas. Have you spoken with  her yet and had a dose of her seemingly fake enthusiasm and positiveness? But it’s for real, it’s kind of creepy! No, she’s a positive human but, boy, what a good actress.

Between my casting director and me we probably looked at well over a couple of hundred gals for that part. I wanted someone who had equal parts fire and vulnerability. My mental model had been a seventeen-year-old Debra Winger, that’s whom I would have cast in that part.

Did she do a screen test with George?

No, I’ve never done that in my life.

Do you just feel like once you’ve got the actors you can sense the chemistry of what’s going to happen between them?

Descendants - Director Alexander Payne
Writer/Director Alexander Payne checks out a camera angle on set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

I’ve just had good luck. Those two guys in Sideways, (Thomas Haden) Church and (Paul) Giamatti, they’d never met until about two weeks before we started shooting. I figure as long as I’m picking them all, it’s going through a certain sifter and it will be okay, and thank Christ I haven’t been wrong yet.

Also, consider that the cinema has a remarkable capacity to lie. And you say, ‘Here’s father/daughter,’ ‘Oh really, okay,’ even if they don’t have all the chemistry.

Shailene said that part of your style on set when you get excited is to jump up and down and hug people and she loved that – where does that come from? Do you just love your work that much?

Yes, beneath this cruel, foul exterior lurks a jumper-up-and-down and hugger. Yes, that’s true. I just love making movies, it’s the funnest darn thing in the world, and I love it when [the actors] do a really good job. My number one job is to foment the creativity of others, and when I feel they’re on fire, well, it just sets me ablaze! (he laughs)

Alexander Payne’s movies spotlight a different kind of love story, between buddies in Sideways, and between family members in The Descendants. He was asked what interested him in these other kinds of love stories? Click here to hear what he said.

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Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.