The last time out as a writer-director, Alexander Payne received an Oscar nomination as best director and shared the Oscar itself with partner Jim Taylor for best adapted screenplay.
Of course, that was seven years ago, with 2004's Sideways. You'd think that, with encouragement like that, the next one would be easy. Not so, says Payne, who returns to theaters this week with his new film, The Descendants.
"I don't want to take so long between films," Payne, 50, says with a shrug, sitting in a hotel suite during a recent press day. "It just happened."
So what took so long?
"I was with Sideways until the spring of '05," he says. "Then I started working on a new script with Jim Taylor (Downsizing) that took a lot longer than I thought. We were working on that until 2008. But that script would have needed a lot of dough because we included a lot of special effects and were working on a broader canvas."
In the intervening years, Payne and Taylor did some script-doctoring (including the Adam Sandler film, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry). They also served as producers for other filmmakers (including The Savages by Tamara Jenkins -- who is Mrs. Taylor -- and Miguel Arteta's Cedar Rapids). Payne directed a short segment of the compilation film, Paris Je T'Aime, and also worked as executive producer (and directed one episode) of the HBO series, Hung.
The Descendants -- in the form of galleys of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel -- reached Payne through Taylor and the two of them began working on it in 2009. The film, which opens in limited release today (11/16/11) and goes wider Friday, is already being touted as an Oscar contender, based on several film festival screenings in the fall.
"When I read it, I thought it was a good solid human story with little contrivance," Payne says. "That upper-class of Hawaii is a milieu I never in a million years would have thought of. I've been to Hawaii a number of times and, having visited friends there, I got a sense of the complex social climate. And then my interest was piqued by the book. I had a desire to get a temporary passport to enter that society and that contributed to my desire to make the film. When I saw my other project was doomed because of the length of finding financing, I was so anxious to shoot something that I put the other one on hold to do this."
The film stars George Clooney as a member of a wealthy Hawaiian family, which owns a large, valuable piece of undeveloped land that it must sell. Clooney's character, an attorney, is in charge of the sale -- but as the deadline approaches, he also finds himself at the center of a family tragedy, when his wife is left comatose by a boating accident. As he tries to deal with his daughters, he also discovers that, in fact, his wife had a secret life he knew nothing about.
Like Payne's earlier films -- including Election and About Schmidt -- The Descendants blends absurdly human comedy with tragic and touching situations. Achieving exactly the right tone from scene to scene challenged Payne as he finalized the film.
"This film is more serious than the other ones I've done," Payne says. "But it's still directed by a comedy director. I write a certain way and, to me, this all seems like part of the tone of life. Life mixes tones all the time.
"Really, that calibration of the tone comes a lot in the editing.
This interview continues on my website.