Director's Chair: Alexander Payne: 'The Descendants'
Issue: November 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Alexander Payne: 'The Descendants'

HOLLYWOOD — Over the past 15 years, since his 1996 feature debut Citizen Ruth, director/writer Alexander Payne has created a small but potent body of work, including Sideways (which won him the ’05 Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Screenplay), About Schmidt and Election, that bears his distinctive voice and talent for balancing comedic and dramatic elements — often within the same scene.

His new film, The Descendants, which is already getting a lot of early Oscar buzz, is another darkly humorous look at life and relationships. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaiian land baron whose perfect life falls apart when his wife Joanie (Judie Greer) falls into a coma after a boating accident. When King tries to reconnect with his two daughters, he also learns that Joanie had been having an affair.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Payne talks about making the film, his love of post, and why he’ll be shooting his next film digitally.

POST: Your last film was seven years ago. What took so long?
ALEXANDER PAYNE: “I was pretty busy writing three scripts, one of which I’ll make in the future, doing a pilot, I did a short in Paris, I got divorced, had surgery. Those seven years went very quickly.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
PAYNE: “I never have a vision for my films. I just felt this was a good story that hooked me, and I never question it. I never say, I’m making a drama or whatever, until afterwards, and then it turns out to be whatever it is — in this case, it’s more dramatic than any other film I’ve done.”

POST: As usual, you assembled a fantastic cast. Any surprises working with Clooney?
PAYNE: “Directors don’t hang out together very often, except at awards shows, but we all talk to each other about actors and so on, and everyone had told me how great he is to work with and that you’re lucky to have such an actor, and that was really true. He understands everything about filmmaking and he’s been on a set most of his adult life. He’s more comfortable on a set than he is anywhere else, and he knows how to keep positive energy going and everyone’s spirits up. He’s a total pro.”

POST: He’s also a very accomplished director himself. Was it very collaborative?
PAYNE: “The best actors are always the ones who have directed as well, since they understand all the problems you face. He’s just directed his fourth film; he’s a great collaborator.”

POST: You filmed in locations around Hawaii. How tough was that logistically? PAYNE: “Fairly tough as it was all location work so you’re constantly moving around. We only built one set. But the local crews are great. We got a lot from Lost, who then moved on to Pirates 4 and Hawaii Five-0, so they’re very experienced. And the new governor is a big movie fan, so he’s working hard to increase production and tax incentives, since it’s more expensive to shoot there. We shot 35mm, 3-perf, which shaves 25 percent off the film stock cost. On the other hand, when it comes time to doing the full-frame transfer, you don’t have as much latitude north and south to re-frame. But then not many people watch full frame anymore. Finally, the era of letter-boxing has prevailed.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
PAYNE: “It’s my favorite part of the whole film. Writing is necessary but painful, directing is exhilarating but exhausting — and you have all those egos to massage. Post is where cinema really happens, where montages unique to cinema among the arts come alive.” 

POST: Where did you do the post? 
PAYNE: “We just rented offices in Santa Monica as usual. It was about eight months long.”

POST: Your editor was Kevin Tent, who edited Sideways and Schmidt for you. Tell us about the editing process.
PAYNE: “He’s edited all of my projects since ’95, and it’s a great relationship. He doesn’t come on location; he stays in LA and I call him every day from the set and ask him, ‘How’s it looking? How are the performances reading?’ I trust his taste and judgment totally. After the shoot, I take two weeks off and then we watch all the dailies and start from scratch. I don’t watch an assembly — it’s too depressing. We cut on Avid, and it’s typically about 14 weeks to the first cut.”

POST: Do you ever preview?
PAYNE: “I do, a lot. You have to screen it constantly to get a real sense of what you have.” 

POST: Is it true you have final cut?
PAYNE: “Yes, and I feel very lucky to have it and wish never to abuse it. As Billy Wilder famously said, ‘The Ten Commandments of filmmaking are: 1 through 9, thou shalt not bore; and 10, thou shall have final cut.’ I gather that very few directors really have final cut, so I treat it very seriously and I’ve found that it makes me very receptive to comments and suggestions. But I predict it’ll become an issue if and when I make a large-budget film. I bet they’ll bring it up. I’ll resist of course. But I’m very concerned that my films make money. They don’t have to be huge hits, but they have to make a profit.”

POST: How many visual effects shots were there?
PAYNE: “Not that many. Mark Dornfeld’s Custom Film Effects in LA did them all and it’s my third film with them and they’re really good. Visual effects now are what we used to call opticals and I’m pretty old-fashioned about it, except when it comes to digitally removing a boom mic or cleaning up stuff. It’s great for all that, and combining takes. 
“If you’re doing ‘overs,’ and what I do is better in one take on my back, we can switch that out. We can also speed up and slow down performances, which is another great thing. It’s really important editorially, so you can combine different takes and overs.”

POST: Tell us about audio and the mix. How important is it in your films?
PAYNE: It’s hugely important, a huge part of any film. In terms of post, I have a really tight team of people I’ve worked with since the beginning, Election, like my sound designer and sound supervisor Frank Gaeta. It’s a big advantage, and we’re still happy working together. I love doing all the mixing and I’m there for every moment of it.”

POST: Did you do a DI?
PAYNE: “Yes, and it was my first time. It was great, though to be honest. I think people can go a little crazy with it if you’re not careful. You have all these windows and possibilities, and I finally felt I got the hang of it when I just decided to throw away all the tricks you can do and just treat it as though I was still doing it photo-chemically. 
“So I’d go, ‘That shot should be four points more cyan and a little denser,’ instead of saying, ‘Can we make a window there and brighten that one spot?’ Because I also wanted to trust what my DP, Phedon Papamichael, did, and not screw around with it too much. But every once in a while it’s great to be able to change the color or de-saturate something that came out a little too vibrant or add a little light to an actor’s face without brightening the whole shot — that’s when the DI really works for me. And, obviously, DI is here to stay. It’s hard to do it photo-chemically anymore.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
PAYNE: “My second unit director is a trained philosopher, and he says I have phenomenological approach to film, meaning that I’m a bit like a documentarian. You go in to see what’s there and then shoot that and order it. I don’t have some vision I pursue. But I do have my own innate sense of rhythm which you impose on the project — in all phases, from the writing and directing to the speed of performance and number of angles shot so you can then control all that later in post and the editing. So rhythm is very important, and part of it is being able to find the film’s rhythm. There’s that great 1956 film, The Mystery of Picasso — not to compare myself in any way with him (laughs) — and you see him painting and it goes through so many different stages until he finally says, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m done.’ It’s kind of like that. He’s not like Edward Hopper who’s painting one thing very carefully that he’s had in mind for months and months — he just figures it out as he goes along, and I work more like that.”

POST: You also co-produced. Do you like producing?
PAYNE: “It’s the first film of my own I’ve produced, and it was a good experience — the inmates get to take over the asylum. I’ve produced quite a lot, but basically for friends and their projects, like King of California for Mike Cahill, an old film school buddy. 
“We now have a production company, Ad Hominem, under Fox Searchlight, and we have two projects coming out this year. The first was Cedar Rapids, a little comedy with Ed Helms and John C. Reilly, and the second is The Descendents. But I intensely dislike producing for other people.”

POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
PAYNE: “It’d be fun, but here’s the truth about 3D — it comes around every 18 years for three years. So it’ll disappear next year and be back again in 2030.”

POST: The digital world rules in post. Do you think film is dead?
PAYNE: “I think we’ll probably keep shooting film for a long while even as digital cameras replace film cameras. But the moment the film runs through the camera, it’s all digital from then on. Even projection is going digital finally. I was just in Norway and 99 percent of all their cinemas are digital. I still contend that flicker is better than glow. Flicker is more hypnotic and compelling. But at least digital gives local projectionists less chance to fuck up the film and show reels that are wildly different in brightness and color.”

POST: Will you shoot digitally?
PAYNE: “Absolutely. My next film will be shot digitally on the Alexa, precisely because I want a filmic look. It’s a B&W film, but in order to get the different degrees of contrast and grain structure that I want, we have to shoot digitally because they don’t make enough B&W film stock anymore. 
“So ironically, you have to go digital so you can dial in how much contrast and grain you want. It’s a father-son road trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, that gets sidetracked in a crappy town in central Nebraska where the father grew up and where he’s got some scores to settle, and I thought it’d be really cool to do it in B&W.”