Magazine article Screen International

Alexander Payne

Magazine article Screen International

Alexander Payne

Article excerpt

Alexander Payne, the writer-director of The Descendants, describes his ability to draw humour from dark moments in a wide ranging interview conducted by Screen editor Mike Goodridge at the BFI London Film Festival.

Seven years after Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor won the adapted screenplay Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for Payne's acclaimed comedy Sideways, the film-maker is wowing audiences and critics with his new film The Descendants. It emerged as an early awards frontrunner after a world premiere at Telluride and a successful screening shortly afterwards in Toronto in September. It has since been one of the hot tickets at festivals in London, New York, Ghent and Thessaloniki.

Backed by Fox Searchlight, The Descendants is Payne's fifth feature and is suffused with Payne's signature blend of drama and wry comedy. It stars George Clooney as a wealthy landowner who tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a life-threatening accident.

However, while Sideways was a natural fit for Payne, who ran from a plane to a payphone to tell his agent that the script (based on the novel by Rex Pickett) would be his next directorial project, The Descendants -- based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings -- was not an automatic choice for the film-maker.

"I sort of resisted it for a couple of years," says Payne. "I thought it would make a good movie but I didn't want to cheat on another script I was working on [Downsizing, which is on hold at the moment]. As interested as I am in Hawaii, it is not my world. This is not a personal story for me but I had to ­pretend that it was to find my way in. I read and reread the story looking for a worm hole to put my snout through."

When he finally connected with the story, Payne decided to adapt it without Taylor, the co-writer on his previous films. "We had just spent two and a half years writing together," he explains. "And Jim's wife was pregnant. With The Descendants I wanted to find my own personal way into the story, without speaking. When you collaborate you have to speak, but when you work alone you don't have to. When Jim and I work together we do a certain thing really well. We elicit very good things from each other, but we always knew that if we wanted to write something personal we would have to do so alone."

The other credited writers on the film are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Payne showed his usual daring in casting the film. In particular, much has been made of the decision to cast Clooney -- who had been considered for the role of Jack in Sideways -- in the role of a podgy, dysfunctional family man. The baggage accompanying a star lead didn't faze the director.

"The fact that Clooney plays a family man for the first time, or a schlup, never entered my thought process, " he says. "I guess it occurred to me afterwards when I got so many questions about it.

"I was in a similar situation when I paired Jack Nicholson with a woman his own age in About Schmidt. They are actors playing a part. Period. Any other concerns are extraneous. My production designer said to me when I was nervous about directing Nicholson: 'Remember. He may be fillet, but he's still a piece of meat.'"

However, Payne credits both Nicholson and Clooney with elevating his game. …

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