BY SILVIA BIZIO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MERIE WALLACE
A BASKETBALL NET IN THE PARKING LOT of a shuttered CompUSA (now transformed into a movie set) is the first hint that George Clooney is here in Honolulu. If there’s anything he’d like to accomplish between scenes, it’s to improve his standing jump shot.
The in-demand actor was on location for several weeks last year during the shooting of The Descendants, a film directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) who adapted the script from a novel written by Hawai’i writer Kaui Hart Hemmings.
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Although Payne had turned down the project more than once, producer Jim Burke convinced him to rewrite it. After Clooney was attached, Fox Searchlight swooped in to cover the budget, as Payne’s cult classic Sideways has earned him the proverbial “gold star” within the vast Hollywood fundraising circles. Then again, $23 million is modest by both Hollywood and Clooney-vehicle standards.
Yet unlike countless films shot here, The Descendants has cast Honolulu and its comings and goings as a silent character. The traffic, private clubs, land heritages and poverty are all not only part of the story’s background, but part of its characters’ motivation.
“It’s a sad story,” says Clooney. “But there are funny moments.”
Clooney assumes the lead role of Matt King, whose beloved wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has entered an irreversible coma following a boat accident. It is King’s burden to decide whether or not to pull the plug on his long-vanished spouse, while at the same time attempting to recover relations with his two daughters. Having not seen them-16year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 12-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller)-in quite some time isn’t playing in his favor. Drama ensues.
Meanwhile, this iconic Hollywood actor (with notable pied-a-terres in Lake Como, Italy, among other locales) tackles surprisingly succinct issues that plague real-life kama’aina (where Hemmings’ localism plays favor). King must decide to whom he will sell the land he inherited: the irresponsible purchasers who dream of McDonald’s and strip malls, or the humble buyer that intends to respect the land and its history.
“There are tormenting scenes in the picture,” Clooney says during a break on the set. “Yesterday we shot a scene where I tell my youngest daughter that we have to go scatter the ashes of her mother-and she doesn’t know what ashes are. Then she asks me if even Mom’s eyes have become ashes, too. How do you explain such a thing to a child? I had never played a role like this. But it was my longing to work with Alexander [Payne] that brought me here.”
Before we are able to delve deeper into this, he’s called to action. From the monitor, I see him conversing and laughing with Robert Forster, who plays the role of the bitter and angry father-in-law (to Clooney’s King). Within a moment, the two have snapped into character, as Forster has just arrived at the bedside of his dying daughter. As soon as the director yells “Action!” the two nail every line.
The scene is dramatic: Forster accuses Clooney of wanting to sell his land and become a millionaire before his wife is even departed. The notion-and emotions-seems to wash over a seemingly void Clooney. As Forster vents, Clooney rises to take his eldest daughter out of the room. Simple enough, yet, it is a turning point in the story: Clooney has just found out that his wife had a lover.
He ventures to Kaua’i in good faith, and to offer the man responsible for bringing some joy to his soon-to-be dead wife the opportunity to say goodbye. This, while his instincts are telling him to kill the bastard.
“It’s an act of love,” Clooney explains to me shortly after the director shouts “Cut!” To my surprise, he’s merry about the whole scenario. As we chat about the nuances of the character’s emotions, he lets me in on a practical joke he’s trying to set up against Brad Pitt. As he talks about revenge for the last one Pitt played on him (it involved spreading a rumor about a fictional gay experience), I realize how light-years away this is from the sorrowful and desperate character he was just acting out with incredible likeness a few minutes earlier.
“Matt thinks his wife would want her lover to know she is dying, even though he’ll never come visit her,” he says. “For me, this movie means all these things. The love of a man for his wife, and of a father for the daughters he’s never known.”
Working in Hawai’i was an added value.
“Let’s just face it: Shooting here is far better than in Detroit,” the actor says. “The place is magnificent, the locals are great. Everyone is relaxed, and this allows us to do our job efficiently and at ease. What’s amazing is how they live above the rules: People go around on motorcycles without a helmet, they crowd up on trucks, go slow when nobody’s on the street. I rented a motorcycle and I love going around, even in the rain,” Clooney adds, noting his fondness for biking along the coastal routes and through the rural neighborhoods. “Once out of the city, you’re in another world full of modest houses that take you back in time, free from the pressure of our life.”
One has to understand the philosophy of Clooney to comprehend the astonishing rhythm that propels him into his work. He insisted on working only five days a week; normally films are under such budgetary limitations that every production day-and hour-needs to be utilized. But not on a Clooney-controlled set.
“It’s too hard for the crew to work more,” he attests, adding that they even organized a crew softball tournament. “That’s what I did for Michael Clayton and other movies of mine. Ours are low-budget pictures, so we can work more relaxed, and the crew is happier.”
(Clooney had the last laugh during the softball tournament: He shares how producer Jim Burke said he didn’t want any actors on his team, under the guise that actors “can’t do anything.” Clooney, an all-star baseball player in his collegiate years, proved to Burke the error of his thinking.)
His words of deep admiration for Alexander Payne are not in short supply.
“I worked with many great directors, from Soderbergh up,” he asserts. “But this man is amazing. Great,” Clooney says, pointing to a “mess” that happened on set a few days prior, which hardly even fazed Payne. “I was convinced he was going to go mad. Instead, he simply shrugged his shoulders, as to say ‘Not much we can do about it!'”
When Clooney comes back after another set change, we talk about his finding time to visit President Barack Obama’s school to dig up a yearbook photo. Fodder for another practical joke, perhaps? The actor refused to comment, with a sheepish grin. Showing me the photo he took on his iPhone, I see a cute little kid with curly hair.
“Funny, isn’t it-to see Barack as a child?” No slouch himself, Clooney dove head first into a new project-as director-shortly after wrapping Descendants. The Ides of March, which was chosen as the opening night film at the Venice Film Festival, garners a different buzz than Descendants ultimately will. Already, there’s Oscar buzz around the latter.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this film,” Clooney concludes. “It’s one of those film that Alexander does so well-a comedy with a very sad undercurrent.”
BY MALIA MATTOCH
NOT MANY PEOPLE CAN SAY THEIR VERY FIRST TRIP TO LOS ANGELES was for the test screening of their own movie. For Maunawili-based author Kaui Hemmings, life at present is filled with such unlikely scenarios. Her first novel, The Descendants, is about to arrive in theatres with Oscar-winner Alexander Payne as the film’s director and George Clooney as its main character, Matt King.
King is the sort of established Hawai’i businessman well-known to anyone who has walked Bishop Street at lunchtime. A 50-yearold attorney from an old kama’aina family, he’s in the throes of deciding the fate of his ancestral land holdings on Kaua’i. At home, he’s unraveling the mystery of his wife’s pre-coma affair while reconfiguring his family in the face of her approaching death.
“I wanted to write about a situation I didn’t really know about and imagine the worst possible thing that could happen to someone,” says Hemmings, who was only 25 when she created King’s middleaged male character, who serves as the book’s narrator.
“I initially started the story from his youngest daughter’s point of view, then I changed it to his wife’s, with Matt being the one in the coma. But I couldn’t get her voice. And what’s really at stake with that plot? Caring for children is the norm of most every woman’s life. For some women, it might actually be easier to do with their husband out of the equation,” Hemmings says with a laugh.
Hemmings had pictured Clooney as Matt King while writing the book and suggested him for the part in her early conversations with the producers. On the first day of filming in March 2010, her vision came to cinematic life with George Clooney decked out in a Reyn’s Spooner aloha shirt whilst driving down Kalakaua Avenue.
“It was so funny-the shirt, the high-wasted Dockers,” says Hemmings. “It fit, and it didn’t fit. His character in the movie is a little dorkier than I envisioned, and yet now I can’t envision it any other way.”
Hemmings played Clooney’s receptionist in the film-a notable detail that can be attributed to much of Payne’s work-using snippets of realism to set the tone. It’s a familiar world to Hemmings, whose husband, Andy Lautenbach, is an attorney (with Honolulu law firm Starn, O’Toole, Marcus & Fisher.)
“Alexander asked me where Matt King would go to lunch, and I said, ‘He wouldn’t. He’d make his own and eat it at his desk, just like my husband.’ And the first day of walking into King’s office as his assistant, I see Clooney at his desk with his brown bag lunch and I thought, ‘This is perfect. I feel like I’m hanging out in the office of a Honolulu dude.'”
Hemmings grew up with prominent local male figures that might seem likely inspirations for Matt King. Her grandfather was Honolulu Federal Judge Martin Pence. Her stepfather is surfing legend and politician Fred Hemmings. But it was her husband, a Wisconsin native who shares nothing in common with Matt King’s missionary/Hawaiian ali’i heritage, whom Hemmings thought of while writing her main character.
“I thought about Andy’s integrity, his desire to do the right thing, and being a quiet force,” she says.
Hemmings calls her process of creating her book’s characters and settings “something like Mr. Potato Head,” a combination of various details of her family and friends combined with imaginary touches. Matt King’s house was likened from her own grandmother’s home in Maunawili (in the film, the home’s location is Nu’uanu). A beloved longtime bartender at Outrigger Canoe Club as well as the club itself will be recognizable to readers who know the club (though the neighboring Elks Club was used in the movie).
While a few locations changed, the story remained true in Payne’s hands, who moved into a Manoa home months prior to shooting. He and Hemmings quickly formed an artistic kinship. “We have a similar sense of humor and commitment to tone,” she says.
Hemmings joined Payne, producer Jim Burke, the cast and crew in Hanalei, Kaua’i, for three weeks that proved to be the highlight of filming for Hemmings, whose ties there go to the Wilcox family.
“Our main base was Kauikealani Estate, which belongs to my cousins. We stayed at Mahamoku, which was the first house on Hanalei Bay to have electricity. It’s still untouched, mosquito nets at all. The cast and crew had serious awe for this little spot of the world. My cousins … were in the film as extras. The fictional and real worlds sort of collided in Hanalei.”
That collision paid off when Hemmings first saw the film nearly a year ago at a test screening.
“Watching the film, I was just struck at how lucky I am. Matt King is a different character than Clooney’s usual role. Even when Clooney isn’t playing a stud he’s playing someone powerful, and this time he wasn’t. I loved it.”
She was particularly satisfied with the film’s portrayal of her book’s 18-year-old female character, Alexandra, Matt King’s older daughter.
“The actress who plays Alexandra is Shailene Woodley, and she was incredible. It is so rare now to see an 18-year-old girl not being super sexed-up. They allowed her an innocent beauty and her own voice, and they made it this wonderful love story between father and daughter, them becoming allies for life. In the book, his relationship is primarily with his youngest daughter. In the film, they focused on the older, and it worked better for the movie.”
They also focused on a Hawai’i rarely, if ever, seen on-screen. A Hawai’i that feels the way living here actually does.
“Hawai’i is not scenery or a prop,” says Hemmings. “In most movies set here tourists are the stars. They’re about a visitor who comes to this exotic location, peopled by one-dimensional characters. This film is about people who live here and work here, live and die here. For the first time in film we see Hawai’i in all its beauty and all its complications.”
As the film’s release approaches, Hemmings’ work life continues with new writing projects. Her home life in Maunawili took a happily dramatic turn in June when she travelled with Lautenbach and their 6-year-old daughter Eleanor to Ethiopia, where they completed their three-year process of adopting a little boy, now named Leo.
“It has been a full year. Two things have happened that have changed the course of my life, and yet there are little things that change your life, too, in ways we may never know. Life is both huge and mundane. I hope to not look back too much. Hopefully something both huge and mundane will always be happening.”
ALEXANDER PAYNE CAPTURES THE HUMAN CONDITION
BY JEFFERSON FINNEY
ALEXANDER PAYNE IS THE SCREENWRITER AND DIRECTOR OF The Descendants, a highly anticipated film soon to be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is based on the novel by kama’aina writer Kaui Hart Hemmings. The Descendants is the first film for Payne since Sideways, a now cult-classic tale about male buddies in search of wine, women and themselves during a ramble through California’s Santa Ynez Valley, and for which Payne received the 2004 Oscar for Best-Adapted Screenplay.
Dressed in jeans and exuding the comfortable demeanor that seems to accompany well-traveled observers of life and living, Payne arrived at our agreed location for a chat. Following general pleasantries, a splash of pinot noir and a hunk of Queso Manchego, we sat down to talk.
HILuxury: I really enjoyed reading The Descendants. I felt sort of voyeuristic at times-annoyed at King for his lack of connection with his kids, empathy for the overall situation, the humor and the realness of it all. Will the film be similar to the book?
Alexander Payne: The shifting sense of identification with the protagonist-one of the great things about books is that books are infinite, the images of the characters, the tone of the narrative-the relationship changes from reader to reader, where you are in you life. The trouble with cinema is that it takes that infinite potential and makes it concrete and finite.
The film will be different than the way people interpret the book. When a book is transformed into a movie it becomes something else, and there is a certain way I interpret the book, and then my ideas are executed in the process of filming. And then there is another way which it blows through me and I watch this thing come to life-the actors, the location, my sensibility and my tone all play a part. One’s style and one’s tone is oneself and who you are-it’s not something you think about-it’s just what comes out in the end.
HILuxury: Are there surprises in this process?
AP: There are surprises. It’s always interesting how it turns out. I always gear it toward what makes me laugh-even if it’s the type of laughter that isn’t laughed out loud. The Descendants has more drama in it than I’ve ever done before-I found directing dramatic scenes, even horrifying ones, to be like comedies. I think it is good to have a certain sprightly comic approach in dramatic scenes-it makes scenes even more dramatic when you are directing a film as if it were a comedy.
HILuxury: When editing, do you find it necessary to clear your head? Do you go for a run, go cycling or take a brisk walk in order to come back with fresh eyes?
AP: I’m so much not interested in having fresh eyes-I’d rather be immersed-it’s a concentrated effort. I’ll take two weeks off when we’re done shooting and then start the editing process-I’ll approach the film anew in the editing room and watch it as though I am just an editor.
HILuxury: In making this film, what steps did you take to make sure that the vibe and culture of Hawai’i are portrayed correctly?
AP: First of all, I feel very lucky to have found this project-the characters, the story and the strong sense of place really spoke to me. To make sure Hawai’i is portrayed correctly, I shot in Hawai’i. You are in a place and you turn the camera on and it records time and movement in that place-so hopefully you’ll see Hawai’i in the film. Casting? I cast here as much as I could. I asked a lot of questions-mostly of the author Kaui, as the film is based on her novel.
Look, when I made Sideways-for me it was a slight little wine movie-I never had any idea that it would have any impact on the wine business-I had no idea. You cannot foresee the outcome. Who knew in 1934 when Clark Gable removed his shirt and revealed he had no undershirt on that undershirt sales would plummet in the U.S.? But they did. (Payne is referring to the film, It Happened One Night. In what was considered a racy scene, Gable removed his shirt, revealing his bare chest, and sales of undershirts were said to have dropped 75 percent)
HILuxury: The anticipation of the film coming out and the reaction to it-are you on pins and needles waiting for the moviegoers’ response?
AP: When asked at studio meetings-‘whom will this film appeal to?’-my answer is, my friends and me. That’s who I make films for, my buddies and myself. Then luck comes in and what occurs to you as being a good movie will also occur to a significant amount of the public so as to enable you to continue making films-like with any artistic endeavor. Many people can be doing art-you can be working in a medium and doing really beautiful, honest, soulful work which never reaches an audience-painters, writers, poets-they are not lesser artists. I think that the fact that I make comedies helps sell my films. I have a good filmmaking sense of what a movie is. That it’s cognitively made with a good sense of rhythm. Also, I make the types of films that aren’t made a lot in America. Human comedy, not plot driven or easily summarized. Life is not easily summarized.
AP: I was a teenager in the ’70s; films that were adult commercial American Hollywood films are now considered art films or that ‘Golden Age of the Seventies.’ Films by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), George Lucas (American Graffiti) Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Alan Pakula (All The President’s Men), Hal Ashby (Shampoo), just about all of the films of that whole decade. There is masterpiece after masterpiece. I insist that we can still strive to make these films.
HILuxury: You were raised in Omaha; do you think your unique talent might not have bloomed had you been raised in another environment?
AP: There are many very thoughtful, well-read people in Omahapeople really interested in the world. Omaha is the birthplace of many film luminaries, including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Fred Astaire and Nick Nolte.
I like Omaha-it’s like The Little Prince and his rose. (Referring to Antoine de Saint ExupÃ©ry’s most famous novella in which the Prince is compelled by his love for the rose he has left on his home planet). There are many towns in the world, but this one is mine.
HILuxury: What projects do you have lined up in the immediate future?
AP: Projects in the future-I’ve been sitting on one for a while-it will be the first thing I will direct that I haven’t written. It’s a father-son road trip film from Billings, Mont. to Lincoln, Neb., passing through Rapid City, S.D. A father and son get waylaid in a crappy (laughing) little town in North Central Nebraska where the father grew up and where his relatives still reside.
Alexander Payne is a keen observer of the human condition and passionate filmmaker. His latest endeavor, The Descendants, is set for release on Dec. 12, 2011.
BY KAUI HEMMINGS
BEFORE MY FIRST NOVEL WAS MADE INTO A MOVIE,
before Alexander Payne and George Clooney, there was Jim Burke, the producer. I remember being afraid to meet him, thinking I was about to encounter a slick, cigar-smoking, name-dropping dude who would make my face cramp up, as it does when I’m feigning interest in people who care and talk too much about themselves.
We met at a coffee shop in Cole Valley in San Francisco. This was in 2007 right after his and Alexander’s company had optioned my book for Fox Searchlight. We sat down and he talked about my novel, clearly familiar with every character and even snippets of dialogue. He had an enthusiasm for my work that even I didn’t have; I liked him immediately. Not because he flattered me, but because this was a person who was clearly passionate about work, film and life. One (among many) questions he asked that morning was, “Who do you see playing Matt King?”
“George Clooney,” I said, then shy and embarrassed I added, “Or whoever.”
Since then I have moved to Hawai’i, The Descendants has been made into beautiful film, George Clooney soars as Matt King, and Jim Burke has become a wonderful friend.
Exclusively for this publication, I had the opportunity to reconnect with him. The first thing I felt inclined to ask, donning my reporter hat-recalling all-too-vividly my preconceptions about producer-types-was, “What’s the biggest misconception about being a producer?”
“That we’re the money guy,” he says. “I mean, we are, but it’s not like it comes out of our checking account. We have to speak to the investors … but money is just a part of what happens, not that it isn’t a big part.”
When I consider my interactions with Burke-his inquisitiveness on Hawai’i’s history, quirks and details-I press further, wondering if this truly a “norm” for producers, or just him.
While this would make for an opportune time to dismiss other producers, I have no recollection of Burke ever talking badly about someone, no matter how I’d try to goad it out of him. He didn’t take the bait this time either.
“There is no wrong or right way to do it,” he said. “Same with directors-I know directors who don’t even talk to actors. You just have to be yourself. You can’t copy somebody else’s style. You have to do it your way,” Burke adds.
His way seems to be marked by a genuine connection to the material, which, I learned, hasn’t always been the case. “I am more and more focused on sorts of films I want to make. Pictures where I would buy a ticket. I hadn’t had that revelation. I would do what a lot of people do-try to make blockbuster hits. Relied less on my own taste, and more on collective taste.”
Burke continues by reminding me just how deeply he needs to be into a story, solely because of how long he has to remain active with the project until it’s completed.
“I have to connect to it in some way. And it’s cool if it teaches you something,” he adds, a notion that I have long subscribed to as a writer. Naturally, I need to know what made him think he could be with The Descendants for the long run.
“I related to Matt King,” he says. “I couldn’t believe you wrote this. I’m a father. I became a single father, a full-time one and it’s more unusual than you think. There aren’t a lot of single dads. There’s a steeper learning curve.”
Besides connecting to the material it was obvious to me that Jim (as well as so many of the cast and crew that worked on the film) formed a relationship with Hawai’i.
“My favorite thing about Hawai’i is the people,” Jim says. “I love the diversity-it’s a natural diversity-not a lot of attention is paid to it, which is cool. I love the attitude, I really love all of the tradition.”
“Like pau hana?”
“Like pau hana, and how just about everyone can tell you their lineage-they can all tell you how their family got to Hawai’i. I’m from Minnesota. I love it, but no one can tell you how they got there.”
I remember observing the progress of his full immersion into Hawai’i. I don’t think many producers land here then take it upon themselves to delve into the complex cultural and social system-at least, those beyond the pools of their 4-star resorts. Burke pulled the curtain back far behind pau hana, reading all of the Hawaiian history books he could get his hands on, listening to countless recordings of Hawaiian music. He (along with Alexander) dissected Hawai’i with precision and care. In my humble opinion, we will all benefit from it.
“I think The Descendants is Alexander’s finest film,” Jim says. “I know this movie will stand the test of time.”
It’s a big statement, yet I didn’t hear him stutter. But that’s part of the job, too, right? Conviction and perhaps a little cheerleading on the side. How perfect that Jim Burke has found a team and a game he so genuinely supports.