When Alexander Payne’s turn came to speak in the glow of The Descendants winning best motion picture drama at the Golden Globes, he made sure to thank the people of Hawaii and author Kaui Hart Hemmings.
He did something few directors do by involving Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, in the adaptation, preproduction and production of the George Clooney-starring film. He’s widely credited her vital role in helping him get a fix on the island state’s particular culture, or as much as a mainlander like himself can attain. For all the time he spent researching, writing, prepping and shooting there, he never lost sight of being a visitor in need of expert advice.
Of course, the 2007 Hemmings novel is the reason there’s a movie at all. He knows golden material when he sees it and he remained true to the book beyond her expectations.
“I’ve had the privilege of seeing Alexander making this film, from location scouting and casting to directing and filming. His attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions – I felt like I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a good film. Still, I couldn’t prepare myself for how good,” says Hemmings. “It’s a film that sticks with you, teaches you something without being at all didactical. It brings Hawaii to the big screen in an authentic way. I never insisted on him being faithful to my novel, but he did, and I’m pretty happy about that since it led to results like these.”
His respect for her work and inclusion in his process is why he told a world-wide Globes audience, with some prompting from Ad Hominem Enterprises producing partner and former co-writer Jim Taylor, “…thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings – she gave us a beautiful gift.”
“I don’t need the public thank you but…it sure does please the locals. I spent a lot of time with Alexander, the crew and George, so it was just fun times,” says Hemmings. “I’m a big fan of this movie. I have the privilege of feeling like I contributed to it in some way and so it’s nice to be acknowledged.”
Sticking closely to her tale of a man desperately negotiating personal upheavals, Payne’s film has struck a responsive chord. It’s made $58 million-plus in domestic box office revenue while playing in fewer than 1,000 theaters for most of its run.
The success is not surprising given Payne’s track record, then again this was something of a risk as his first solo feature script after collaborating with Taylor on his first four features and numerous for-hire gigs. It also took Payne far afield from the worlds he’d portrayed.
He did surround himself with a company of long-time collaborators in producer Jim Burke, co-producer-production manager George Parra, production designer Jane Ann Stewart, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and editor Kevin Tent.
On the strength of its robust showing, the film’s pegged a strong Academy Awards contender. Tuesday, it nabbed five nominations – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Editing. Even if it should fizzle Feb. 26, it won’t change the fact Payne’s made arguably his most accessible work without comprising artistic integrity.
Among the reasons to admire the film is the true glimpse it offers of a little-seen Hawaii stripped bare of any gloss. As Payne’s quick to point out, he didn’t arrive at this informed, insider’s look alone. Hemmings became his primary guide in seeing past the surface, touristy Hawaii into the deeper machinations of its internal society.
“It’s not my world. I needed help from her, from a lot of people,” he says. “It’s all about trying to aspire to catch a sense of place. It is very specific and there’s great consciousness about who’s from Hawaii, who’s not, who’s just out there from the mainland.”
The beautiful gift of Hemmings’ debut novel is a multi-layered story anchored in family, heritage, betrayal and forgiveness. Land baron Matt King and his comatose wife Liz are the pivot points around which the drama revolves, yet the pull of Hawaii and the weight of legacy are equally indelible characters. The plot plays to Payne’s strength of peeling away a protagonist’s facade in crisis. In an Odyssey-like journey King tries rectifying the damage of his failed marriage, salvaging what’s left of his family, saving face and exacting revenge. Through missteps and all, he becomes a better man and father. In doing right by his ancestors, he becomes an honorable descendant.
As a mixed heritage islander herself, Hemmings is well-attuned to the delicate balance of Hawaii’s haves and have-nots. As landed gentry by virtue of ancestry King is an object of envy and resentment. He feels guilty about his privileged status and burdened by the riches he controls. When he discovers Liz and her lover Brian Speer were conspiring to manipulate the impending sale of the family’s land, he’s dismayed.
Telling the story through King’s acerbic POV, the author deftly moves from pathos to humor in her book. She’s satisfied Payne’s filmic voice stays true to the material.
“I think my biggest concern was tone. You know, forget all the cultural things, I felt like tone came first and I think I really lucked out with getting a director like him. It could have been either really glib and slick or it could have just been so melodramatic and so focused on culture and setting, and ignoring the fact this is a universal story that’s heartbreaking and funny and true. He gets that obviously.
“So much of the humor depends on these really small observations, a piece of dialogue or what someone’s wearing, their choice in magazines. Alexander makes fun and yet he lets you know he likes the people. It comes across as kind and not condescending at all, which is so great. That makes me appreciative he is the person dealing with my book because there are judgments to be made, yet in the end I love this place and I love the people and I think he does, too.”
Anyone who both reads her book and sees Payne’s film will recognize her characters have been fully realized in the translation.
“I’m so pleased with the script and I definitely think he got them. In fact. I think he improved on a lot of them,” she says. “I think he improved on the older daughter character (Amara) or just added some more layers to the relationship with her father. I think the character of the younger daughter Scottie was hard to translate to screen. I thought she came off as a kid who is precocious but you can also see it’s sourced in this anger and pain.”
Surrendering her book to the adaptation wasn’t traumatic.
“I never saw it as a book that’s so sacred it can’t be touched…so if anything I freely gave it up, put it on the altar and said, Do what you will, because the book is done and no matter what a movie does to it it’s still there, it’s not going anywhere, it can’t be ruined. It’s been enjoyable to see how others interpreted it. I just sort of sat back enjoying the ride and helping where I could.”
She confirmed an earlier script by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash “was a lot different” than Payne’s. “I enjoyed both, but enjoyed his a lot more.” Payne’s other Ad Hominem producing partner, Jim Burke, optioned the novel for Payne to produce. Faxon and Rash wrote a script Stephen Frears was once attached to. When Payne couldn’t find financing for his pet project Downsizing he revisited Descendants at the urging of Burke. Once committed to it, he delved into Hawaii and wrote an entirely new script.
Notably, he wrote the script alone, not with Taylor.
“I needed to find my own personal way into Matt King, just to feel him a little bit more,” he says. “The other thing was I needed this one to be a little bit more personal to me because I thought the story was so outside of me. I’m not from Hawaii, I’m not from one of those families, I’m not married with kids. So somehow to find personal connections to Matt King I wanted to write it alone and by that I mean without speaking. When you write with someone you have always to speak: ‘Oh, why don’t we try this..what if the scene was this?’ But often the best writing is without speaking because you’re just working, at least the more personal writing.
“To give an example of it, I think I would have felt more rage than how Matt King felt at the betrayal and finding out about Brian Speer so I wrote that scene not in the book where he yells at her (Liz). He tells the girls, ‘Let me alone for just a minute,’ and he lays into her. That came from a kind of personal place. I’m not saying I would have the courage to do that, or I might…”
The grace note the film ends on of King and his girls joined at the hip is a Payne invention that packs a punch without going overboard.
“I’m getting lots of compliments on the final shot where they’re all together on the sofa, of course covered with the mother’s blanket (quilt). I’m happy that worked out. That’s a movie ending. It’s a landing strip.”
The accumulated weight of all the storylines becomes distilled in this living family portrait of redemption, reconciliation, mourning, togetherness and moving on.
“The other thing I added that’s not in the book, because this is a movie I thought we should see the land, is that scene in Kauai where they go, ‘Let’s go see the land.'”
A largely wordless scene plays out between King, Amara, her friend Sid and Scottie as they take in the beauty and enormity of the coastal land entrusted to Matt and his fellow heirs. It’s a perfectly nuanced blend of profundity and emotion.
Just as director of photography Phedon Papamichael helped Payne capture the wine country of Sideways, he subtly brings out Hawaii’s splendor. He’ll presumably do the same for the Sand Hills and Panhandle when the two film Nebraska this spring.
“It’s a nice feeling too to be working with someone I like working with so much,” Payne says of Papamichael. “You need to feel great complicity with your DP. You have to have a great unspoken, wordless communication, where something an actor’s doing with just a quick look at each other we indicate we have to find a way to trick him into another take, that the acting wasn’t very good. Or just the shared excitement at executing a great shot. You both have to be really excited about filmmaking, and of course the DP has to give the actors the impression he’s making them look fantastic.
“And we have the Greek thing in common…”
Before filming commenced Hemmings acted as Payne’s editorial eye.
“I feel like I set him up on little play dates where I set him up with different people. I sent some people his way who I thought would fit the role of some minor characters. We went over the script on two different occasions, where we’d just go through it line by line and I would add my two cents. Again, it’s just all about these small details that you think are mundane, but for me that’s what makes a story.
“And as we’d go through the script he’d have specific questions: ‘Who do you see as Shelley?’ I’d go through a bunch of actors I was thinking of as I was writing it. When I first met Jim Burke in 2007, before the book was even published, he asked, ‘Who do you see in this role?’ (of Matt King) and I was sort of shy to say George Clooney. It felt sort of presumptuous. But that’s the only person I imagined. I had no idea they would actually consider that and he would actually be cast in it.”
Hemmings, who plays King’s secretary, is in two scenes with Clooney. In one, she utters a line about his cousins arriving. Later, she’s among friends of the family he admonishes to visit Liz in the hospital. Members of her family also appear as extras.
But her main role was off-camera. She says, “A lot of things were just the lingo. Nobody really says, ‘Are you from the island?’ It’s just these stupid little things, and yet for someone from Hawaii it’s jarring when you say it the wrong way. You want to be authentic. Alexander was really concerned about getting things right as far as place.”
She says Payne “had a bunch of questions about land.” He explains, The emotional story could be set anywhere but of course the land is everything. Land and power, the whole setting of it, the landed upper class of Hawaii.” Hawaii historian Gavin Dawes impressed upon him “the complexity of the place.”
In the end, he says capturing Hawaii “all comes back to Omaha. It’s an exciting, logical extension of my process begun here in Nebraska of – how do you tell a story in the foreground and have a place in the background, Starting with About Schmidt I began to get the hang of that. I took those skills and learned some new ones on Sideways. So I pretty much see The Descendants as an extension of that same work…”
If Descendants should score at the Oscars Payne is sure to express appreciation again to Hemmings and Hawaii. Her novel was a gift, and now his film is one in return. The film’s success certainly can’t hurt its sales.
“I don’t know exactly,” Hemmings says, “but I know this is the best thing that ever happened to my little book.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com