George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in <em>The Descendants</em>.

Alexander Payne’s latest directorial effort, The Descendants, is by far one of the best films of 2011 and one that is destined to garner plenty of awards, including possibly a Best Actor Oscar for star George Clooney. The movie, which is adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, deals with a lawyer who tries to keep his family together after his wife suffers a boating accident while at the same time struggling with the choice of selling family land handed down from Hawaiian royalty.

Payne, the Academy Award-winning creator of Sideways, delivers a poignant and humorous and look at how untidy and unpredictable life can be. I sat down with the auteur, as well as young actress Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s daughter in the movie and who will certainly be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Welcome back to Santa Barbara. Our wine country owes you a lot.

Alexander Payne: It’s good to be back.

What was it about this novel that attracted you?

AP: I liked the story and I thought it would make a good movie, and the idea of shooting in Hawai’i sounded fantastic — not just for the obvious, but to get a passport into the very specific and intimidating, unique, and often judgmental society there I thought would be interesting and challenging. I’ve never seen — really seen — Honolulu in a movie. I wanted to see it.

Why did you choose to shoot this film in widescreen. You haven’t done that since the Election.

AP: Thank you for noticing. I wanted to shoot widescreen because I thought the vistas in Hawai’i merited it, and I also wanted the challenge on a purely filmmaking level to explore widescreen again.

It seems that this man’s inner turmoil is in contrast to the landscape. There is this amazing directorial sequence when, for five minutes, you only hear the sound of the waves. It’s such a pivotal moment.

AP: How many times have you seen the film?

Three times.

AP: Really? Wow. You’re good. Well, I would say, in general, that as much dialogue that are in my films today, I am much more interested in how bodies move in space and visual filmmaking and visual storytelling, and, as you know, theater loves dialogue and cinema resists dialogue. I’m always looking for passages in film with no dialogue and, in that case too, no music, so thank you for noticing it’s just the sound of the waves. You know, early morning just after daybreak when he’s running along the shoreline and crosses paths with Brian Speer, who’s played by Matthew Lillard, that communicates the feeling just hearing those waves and a little bit of footsteps, and the inter-statial sequences, thank you.

Did you do a lot of research about the Hawaiian culture?

AP: We went over there and made it our business to learn everything about Hawaii, about its people, its history, just everything. We met with ordinary people, academics, trust lawyers, and, for me, I’m a very curious guy so it was fascinating. The process of making the film itself it was delightful not just because we were in Hawai’i but because everyone we worked with was just delightful.

So Shai, what was it like getting this opportunity and this role?

Shailene Woodley: Well, I’m actually very uneducated when it comes to good movies and good directors. I actually didn’t know who Alexander Payne was. I was excited to do this movie for the reasons of the screenplay and the realness. It was human, it was raw, and it was messy. Alexander didn’t try to cover anything up, and being in Hawai’i for four months and getting to know Alexander, and George Glooney….I just feel like the luckiest person to be a part of it.

How challenging was it to shoot the sequence in the pool. It seemed so emotionally and physically challenging…

SW: The above-water part was a lot harder than the underwater part. I actually really like the underwater part — I got to go underwater and scream. But swimming through the pool, we talked about how logistically it would work, how it would feel real for me to receive that kind of news, and how I would recede under the water and, when the timing was right, you kind of immerse yourself in the character and in the moment. You don’t think about if it’s hard or enough — you just stay present.

The music in the movie is so unusual and rich.

AP: Even before shooting, I had decided to attempt to score the film with 100-percent Hawaiian music, which ideally would have been 100 percent preexisting Hawaiian music, so I was prepared to have some musicians do a tailor-made score. But in the end, it was a very minimal process: 98 percent was taken from records, and it was months and months of work to get the final score between the music supervisor, the music editor, the editor, and myself. The four of us had a process where the music supervisor sifted through heaps and heaps of Hawaiian music and then filter down some and then send it to the music editor that would place it against the picture, and then send it to Kevin Tent and me and that process went on for months until we finally nailed it. The key voice, who has about five songs in the film, is a performer who is now deceased named Gabby Pahinui. I had fallen in love with his music and wanted his to be the anchoring voice of the film.


The Descendants opens in Santa Barbara theaters this week.


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