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Payne: Bringing family into focus

Eye on the Oscars: The Director - Alexander Payne

Tropical breezes may be rippling the warm seas and lush Hawaiian vegetation in the background of Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” but the director-writer’s focus is firmly elsewhere, starting with the catalyst of the (never shown) boating accident that, like some surfacing sea monster, gradually reveals its true dimensions and the film’s most deeply-felt themes.

“There’s been a lot of talk about (themes of) family, parenting, coming-of-age and the father-daughter relationships, but they were secondary for me,” says Payne. “They’re in there, but I don’t think they’re very profound. What interested me far more are acts of love when it’s difficult, forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and acceptance of reality — almost in the Buddhist sense, where when you truly accept that everything is transient, only then can you begin to acquire the tools to transcend it.”

Payne, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, says the initial attraction was the book’s “good human story with relatively little contrivance, set in an exotic locale I knew nothing about.”

The director, previously Oscar-nommed for “Sideways,” was particularly taken by two moments that illustrate the key theme of “love when it’s difficult — first, when Matt decides to find his wife’s lover, not to kill him but to offer him a chance to visit her in the hospital, and then when the lover’s wife comes instead, saying that her husband was too cowardly but that one of them should visit.” Both instances offer “complex, mixed emotions, and are very impressive to me,” he adds.

But Payne didn’t hesitate to mold the material to his own needs. “The novel is far more focused on the younger daughter, for instance, and I simply was not as interested in her as in the relationship with the older daughter,” he says. “And there’s also the practical consideration. You can only shoot a minor for eight hours a day, and I didn’t want to go through that.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Director
It’s a matter of ‘life’ and mirth
And the nominees are:
Woody Allen | Michel Hazanavicius | Terrence Malick | Alexander Payne | Martin Scorsese

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