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Alexander Payne on ‘The Descendants’

Eye on the Oscars: The Director - Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne wasn’t sure he was the man to make “The Descendants.” At the time the novel came into his office, he was busy writing another project called “Downsizing” and found it difficult to “dislodge” from it. But after that script proved tough to finance, Payne says, “I sat down anew with the book, reading it and re-reading it to see if I could climb inside.”

“It was a big job,” Payne says. “One thing was the emotional story of a fellow 50-year-old, but was I also ready to take on this documentary project, of presenting Honolulu and that class of people correctly? It’s a unique social cultural fabric and I was daunted by it. And I felt a pitchfork constantly behind my back to get it right.”

But “The Descendants” afforded Payne the opportunity to employ one of his favorite storytelling devices: first-person narration. “I like voiceover; I like literature and film,” says Payne, referencing a slew of classic examples from the history of cinema, including Billy Wilder, Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. “I think it’s one of the greatest contributions to film.”

“The Descendants” also may be considered far less cynical than Payne’s earlier social satires, such as “Citizen Ruth” and “Election.” One wonders, at middle age, is Payne going soft?

“I do what the story requires,” he responds. “This one is not ‘Election.’ It’s made by the same guy, with the same light touch.”

Indeed, the film still includes Payne’s familiar tonal mix of dark humor and sensitive humanism — which requires a lot of work to get right. “It’s all about refining,” says Payne, who recalls they were in post for a year on “Election.” “The Descendants” took no fewer than nine months to edit.

“Getting the music right took a long time,” Payne says. “It was an interesting challenge that the editor and I had put to ourselves: Can we score this movie entirely with Hawaiian music, and can it be used appropriately to support comedy or support pathos or a weird combination of both? It was a lot of trial and error.”

EYE ON THE OSCARS: THE DIRECTOR
Helmers hot to globe trot
Woody Allen | Stephen Daldry | David Fincher | Michel Hazanavicius | Terrence Malick | Bennett Miller | Alexander Payne | Jason Reitman | Martin Scorsese | Steven Spielberg
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