Two-Time Oscar-winner Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing
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.
Two-Time Oscar-winner Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendnats’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in Omaha Magazine
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’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.
- Alexander Payne Achieves New Heights in ‘The Descendants’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.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)
- Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Producer Jim Burke and Actress Shailene Woodley Discuss Working with Alexander Payne on ‘The Descendants’ and Kaui Hart Hemmings Comments on the Adaptation of Her Novel (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- About Payne: Alexander Payne on ‘About Schmidt,’ Jack Nicholson and the Comedy of Deep Focus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: About ‘About Schmidt’: The Shoot, Editing, Working with Jack and the Film After the Cutting Room Floor (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne named filmmaker of the year (bbc.co.uk)
- From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, Alexander Payne’s Triumphant Cannes Film Festival Debut with ‘About Schmidt’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne Discusses His New Feature ‘About Schmidt’ Starring Jack Nicholson, Working with the Star, Past Projects and Future Plans (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne Get Deep About Collaborating on ‘Citizen Ruth’ and Their Shared Cinema Sensibilities (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)