Phedon Papamichael, Jim Burke and Shailene Woodley Discuss Working with Oscar-winner Alexander Payne on ‘The Descendants’ and Kaui Hart Hemmings Comments on the Adaptation of Her Novel
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Producer Jim Burke and Actress Shailene Woodley Discuss Working with Oscar-winner Alexander Payne on ‘The Descendants’ and Kaui Hart Hemmings Comments on the Adaptation of Her Novel
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The festival favorite follows a Hawaiian clan set askew by trauma, infidelity, greed and legacy. Feeling the weight of it all is reluctant land baron Matt King,(George Clooney), who tries salvaging what’s left of his family and life by practicing forgiveness and finally growing up. Clooney’s called the film a coming-of-age tale for his 50-year-old character and his estranged 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley.
For this project that’s put Payne back in the game after a seven-year feature hiatus he reunited with producer Jim Burke, who goes back with him to Election, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who lensed Sideways. Payne and Papamichael use Hawaii’s natural beauty to inform its prevailing island insouciance and to counterpoint its hard realities. Burke is a partner with Payne and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Jim Taylor in Ad Hominem Enterprises, which produced the project. Woodley worked with Payne for the first time on the new film.
Descendants also marks the first time since Election Payne’s worked with two young actors in crucial roles in Woodley and Amara Miller as her younger sister Scottie.
“It’s all about casting,” Payne says of getting kids’ parts right. “Shailene is a total pro. She’s on a TV show (The Secret Life of the American Teenager). She’s going places. She’s excellent. Amara, who turned 10 while we were shooting, had never been in anything. She’s just a complete natural.”
Payne collaborated once again with his longtime casting director, John Jackson (an Omahan).
Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, who authored the novel the film’s based on, closely vetted the script at Payne’s request to ensure authenticity and was on set for the duration. She praises his “attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions,” adding that the adaptation “brings Hawaii to the big screen — something’s that’s never been done before in an authentic way.”
Whether bucolic wine country gone sodden or stolid Omaha’s underside revealed or paradise undone, Payne indelibly places broken characters in their milieu. Rather than Hawaii Five-O gloss or native exotic allure, here he focuses on the mundanity of familial disputes, personal tragedies and inconvenient truths. In the Paynsian scheme, life happens messily everywhere and comedy springs from desperate people making mistakes.
Burke says Payne’s deft sardonic touch has, if anything, ripened.
“My feeling is Alexander has made his finest film. It’s sort of a maturation of filmmaker that is actually beautiful to see. Tonally, it still has many of the hallmarks of Alexander’s previous work but it is a bit more emotionally penetrating. I think the stakes are sort of serious in this picture.”
The stakes are high for Payne, too, after being away so long and failing to get his Downsizing project made. He needed this.
“Well, I mean from a straight kind of careerist point of view it’s important,” says Burke, “but that’s not really what he is, he’s more of an auteur. He’s going to make movies when he’s ready to do that and when he’s ready to work on something he feels a connection to, and sometimes that takes awhile.”
Woodley experienced the warm, laid-back set Payne’s famous for. “He really gives you the freedom to express in whatever way you want to,” she says, “and you don’t feel weird being vulnerable around him because he creates such an accepting and open environment.” She says Clooney was equally comfortable to work with and she now regards the two men as her industry “mentors.”
Papamichael says Payne betrayed extra “nervousness” at the start but soon fell into a rhythm. Despite having worked only once before they quickly hit their stride.
“It was pretty instant. We were able to dive right into it. On Sideways it took about 10 days for me to figure out the way he sees things and understands coverage. Sometimes the camera is not as intimate as I’d like to place it. He’s very much an observer — he likes to stay a little wider, a little distant, and I pushed it a little bit and we got in tighter.
“We’re still exploring our aesthetic as our collaboration continues. It’s all very subjective, all very personal. Everybody sees things a little differently.”
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.
- Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: A Hollywood Dispatch from the set of Alexander Payne’s Sideways – A Rare, Intimate, Inside Look at Payne and His Process (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: A Road Trip Sideways – Alexander Payne’s Circuitous Journey to His Wine Country Film Comedy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Shailene Woodley Is New Class’ ‘Most Likely To Surprise’ (mtv.com)
- Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants’ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne Achieves New Heights in ‘The Descendants’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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