'Descendants' director talks to Variety

Alexander Payne recently spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz about “The Descendants,” the difficulties in finding naturalistic child actors, star power, and why he abhors shooting scenes that take place inside a car.

Grosz: Do you spend time rehearsing before shooting?

Payne: Not too much. I like to accompany the actors to the locations. It’s not fair to begin shooting a man in his house (when) he only went to that house the day of shooting. The actor should ideally visit the locations well in advance, even rehearse on site. Rehearsing is sort of casual. You read through lines, you talk about it, but I’m not a hardcore rehearsal director like Sidney Lumet was or Kurosawa was or Coppola is. I think it came from the fact that I never had the budget to bring actors to the location, to pay their hotel room per diem for very long before we started shooting.

CG: You famously rejected George Clooney for a role in “Sideways,” even though he really wanted to be in the film. What made him the right choice this time around?

AP: Well, he’s the right age, and second, his dark coloring leads me to believe that he could be one-sixteenth Hawaiian and maybe have a little Portuguese blood in there somewhere. But ever since I met him on “Sideways,” I thought he and I would work well together, and I really like him as an American star and actor. I think we — meaning we film viewers and film practitioners — are lucky to have him in our midst. He’s a good, disciplined, professional, generous actor, and he’s got that star quality where women wish to be with him in one way and heterosexual men wish to be friends with him. And plus, he’s just good human being.

CG: How many younger actresses did you end up auditioning before you found Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley?

AP: Amara was cast three weeks before shooting, maybe even two weeks before shooting. Shailene I had about three months before shooting. I auditioned her in December of ’09; we started shooting in March. Between John Jackson, the casting director, and me, I’m sure we saw over 200 girls for Shailene’s part and certainly over 300 for Amara’s part.

CG: Is it a matter of finding a more naturalistic actress?

AP: I feel like actors, the ones who are 17 are 17 going on 30, and the 10-year-olds can just be irritating in how precocious and cutesy they are when they come in. The main problem with the 10-year-olds was that by the time they auditioned for me, they would be so overly rehearsed by the stage parents that their performance for me was lifeless. In the audition, I asked them to try it a little bit this way or a little bit that way, and they are unable. My advice to parents: “Make sure your child knows the dialogue, but do not rehearse the child.”

CG: Your last few films have had locations that almost have served as ancillary characters in the plot. Do the characters inform the locations during the script process or is it the other way around?

AP: Both. We knew that Matt King needed to have one of those rambling old plantation-style houses that people inhabit in Hawaii, but actually picking the house is the result of tons and tons of searching and discussion between the production designer and myself. “Sideways” and “The Descendants” have one thing in common, which is that I wanted to use real locations mentioned in the novels. Here’s a very good example of what you’re asking about. I wanted to cast Robert Forster as the angry father-in-law. Well, Robert Forster speaks with a very strong Rochester, N.Y., accent, so then (casting director) John Jackson and I think, “How does this man fit in this world we’re showing?” Clearly he’s ex-military because there’s a lot of ex-military in Hawaii. So then that has a ripple effect on location scouting and production design to suggest where an ex-military man might live in Honolulu. We found a neighborhood where they live, and of course it has a ripple effect on costume. That all came from choosing the right actor.

CG: You found a creative solution to a problem.

AP: But they’re not problems. To use another overused word, in fact, they’re opportunities, and that’s what film is. “Who is he? Oh he’s this.” It’s a wonderful new color to put into the film. Making a film is not executing everything that has been predetermined. It’s discovering what the film is, discovering who these people are. Through the act of making the film, you find elements which you yourself never could have thought of and which enrich the film.

CG: Where does your next project, “Nebraska,” stand in terms of shooting?

AP: I started casting but have made no offers or decisions. I cast for about six or eight weeks over the summer, and then we put a pause in the process because we hadn’t quite figured out the black-and-white question. I’m making the film in black and white. It’s just as well, anyway, because I had a lot of promotion stuff and lovely festivals to attend for “The Descendants.” I actually say that without irony. I’m going to start to gear up to shoot in May. After the first of the year, we will begin in earnest in pre-production.

CG: The story sounds like it has one of those middle-aged, damaged characters that seem to pervade your work.

AP: What I think it has more in common with previous stuff I’ve done is a road-trip aspect, which puzzles me because I can’t stand road-trip films, and I can’t stand shooting in cars, yet all I seem to do is make them.

CG: What’s so horrible about shooting in cars?

AP: The hardest thing in the world is to shoot people eating dinner around a table. Similarly, people driving in cars. There are no new angles. They’ve all been done a thousand times, plus the mechanics of doing it are hideous. The camera car, the walkie-talkie, trying to keep it realistic looking, the police motorcade that must accompany you — all of those things conspire to mar the intimacy of what you’re shooting. I think they had it right in old Hollywood where they would do it in the studio with rear-screen projection.

CG: Earlier in your career, some critics accused you of mocking your characters, but that argument doesn’t seem to come up anymore. Have you changed or do you think critics have come around to your way of thinking?

AP: I have no idea. I reserve the right to mock anyone at any point. But I will say this, and this might sound slightly defensive, but sometimes, and I’ll mention “About Schmidt,” I accused some of the critics who accused me of condescension. I thought they were themselves the snobbiest and most condescending critics. The same charge has sometimes been leveled against “Fargo.” “Oh, they’re mocking those Minnesota people.” Well, (the Coen brothers are) from Minnesota, and Minnesota people were peeing in their pants at that film it was so funny. The thing is, I don’t think (writing partner) Jim Taylor and I put ourselves above the characters. If we make fun of them, we include ourselves on some level. It’s never with a feeling of superiority. (Pauses, deadpan) Except sometimes.

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