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Trouble In The Tropics
"My friends on the mainland think because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation, we're all just out here drinking Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they nuts?” -- Matt King

George Clooney‘s Matt King joins the characters of Alexander Payne‘s previous films as a flawed individual finding his way through a world of lunacy, bittersweet emotion and surprises; he is neither a hero nor anti-hero. Like Matthew Broderick‘s envious teacher in ELECTION, Jack Nicholson‘s glass-half-empty retiree in ABOUT SCHMIDT, and Paul Giamatti‘s muddling, middle-aged wine country tourist in SIDEWAYS, King is not the man he would like to be. His mischievous daughters don‘t trust him, his imperiled wife has been cheating on him and his broke cousins see him and the land trust he controls as a piggy bank. To add insult to injury, he‘s surrounded by a lush, fertile, awe-inspiring landscape that defies his inner turmoil. Yet all of this leads Matt to a tumultuous awakening that might be awkward, comical and sometimes absurd, but nevertheless changes his concept of love, fatherhood and what it truly takes to be a man.

Alexander Payne has always been drawn to these peculiar situations in everyday life that can be experienced as comical, devastating and revealing all in the same breath. When he read Kaui Hart Hemmings‘ acclaimed debut novel, The Descendants, he was immediately lured by its sharp contrasts. Here was a portrait of a man grappling with some of the worst news, most difficult people, and most impossible decisions of his life.

"The novel appealed to me because it‘s an emotional story unfolding in an exotic locale," Payne says. "It‘s a story that perhaps could be told anywhere, but what made the book for me was its completely unique setting among the landed upper-classes in Hawaii. It‘s very specific to this place, yet it is also universal."

On a filmmaking level, it was very interesting to me because I‘ve never seen a filmic Honolulu. We see New York, Chicago, L.A., Miami and Seattle, but this is a region we never see in films. There‘s a whole distinctive social fabric to life in Hawaii and that intrigued me. I love films with a specific sense of place. I started making movies in Omaha, then I went to Santa Barbara and now I have ended up in Hawaii.

Hemmings was able to entwine Hawaiian culture into her story of a bewildered man lurching towards redemption because she herself grew up in a not-so-conventional Hawaiian family, as the step-daughter of well-known champion surfer and local politician Fred Hemmings, Jr. When she started writing short stories, she began entwining themes of family, soil, history and inheritance. The Descendants began as a short story (published as The Minor Wars), which Hemmings started writing in the voice of youngest daughter Scottie, but decided to take a daring leap for a young, female writer: into Matt King‘s middle-aged, male POV.

The risk changed everything. The story, and then the novel, were no longer just about a clan of fierce individualists doing their own thing but about a father learning to hang on to his family. As soon as I switched into Matt‘s voice, the story found its rhythm, Hemmings recalls. There was so much at stake for him.

Those stakes gave the novel‘s title a double meaning, referring not only to King‘s comic descent but also to his discovery of what it really means to be a Hawaiian descendant and what his own descendants mean to him. Hemmings created Matt to reflect a distinct subset of the Hawaiian populace, a generation who trace their births back to the intermarriages of white missionaries and landowners with native Hawaiian royalty and their wealth back to the spoils of the colonial Hawaiian plantation system. As Matt explains, his great-great-grandmother was Princess Margaret Ke‘alohilani, one of the last direct descendants of King Kamehameha, who fell in love with her haole (Hawaiian for white or foreign) banker, Edward King, leading to Matt‘s current life as a Honolulu lawyer with deep, tangled roots in the islands. Like many Hawaiians, he is a hapa-haole, or half-white, who has never quite come to terms with his cultural identity.

This gave Hemmings‘ novel another layer, because underneath Matt‘s worries not only about what his wife has been doing behind his back or how he‘s going to raise his daughters, but about how his life might be seen by his Hawaiian ancestors, or his own descendants. The book, published in 2009, was an instant hit with critics, with the New Yorker praising the way Hemmings channels the voice of her befuddled middle-aged hero with virtuosity, as he teeters between acerbic and sentimental, scoffing at himself even as he grasps for redemption.

When Hemmings found out Alexander Payne was interested in adapting her book, she could hardly believe the news. "I just about died," she laughs. "I mean he is my favorite director, I love the kind of movies he makes."

After discussing the adaptation of Kaui Hemmings‘s book with many screenwriters, the producers at Ad Hominem selected the writing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Wonderful actors who continue to be fixtures at the Groundling Theater, Faxon and Rash had written a much admired screenplay, THE WAY BACK, that suggested an ability to handle shifting tones of humor and pathos as would be required by THE DESCENDANTS.

All who read their elegant adaptation admired it. But when he decided to direct the film himself, Payne determined that the best way for him to forge a personal connection to the material was to adapt the book himself.

In his voice, Payne turned the focus in the screenplay on two dove-tailing journeys: the King family‘s trek to Kauai on the hunt for Elizabeth King‘s unwitting lover; and the pilgrimage of diverse friends and relatives to Elizabeth‘s bedside, where she becomes, in her comatose silence, a kind of grand confessor, bringing out secrets and suppressed emotions that might not otherwise see the light of day.

"One of the many things we learned in Hawaii is that people here know their genealogy like they do in no other place," explains producer Jim Burke. "Everybody knows when their family first arrived on the island, and some go back six or seven generations and they feel a deep, deep connection to this place. We learned all this by meeting authentic descendants who have inherited land a lot like Matt."

Hemmings was impressed with the adaptation. I wasn‘t concerned about Alexander changing this or that, because he really got the tone of the book and that‘s all I cared about. He got that it‘s funny and it‘s sad at the same time. I also loved that he took the time to really get to know Hawaii.

From the beginning, Payne and the production team felt it was essential to venture far from the well-beaten tourist paths to get to know the authentic Hawaii only locals ever see. As they did so, they developed a more nuanced understanding of what the term ¯descendants means on an island where ancestors have always been an important link in the chain of living history. This helped to bring into focus Matt King‘s realization that he has become disconnected from his own feelings about the land he owns – and its past and future.

Payne also relied on Hemmings to serve as an insightful guide into the alluring blend of American and Hawaiian cultures that imbues island life, from its politics to its traditions and relationships. "When we came over to the islands to start making the movie, Hemmings became a really big part of it, because this is her land. She knows these people. She was able to give us a reality check and at the same time, Alexand

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