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Saving the Best for Later: Alexander Payne on George Clooney and 'The Descendants'

Alexander Payne on the set of his new tragicomedy The Descendants, now playing at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

Where has Alexander Payne been? The Stanford graduate and critically adored director of Election, About Schmidt and Sideways used to churn out a movie every “two, two-and-a-half” years, a pace he plans to resume after Friday’s release of The Descendants, his poignantly funny adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel.
 
But following Sideways (2004) and a mostly amicable divorce from one of that movie’s stars, Sandra Oh, Payne immersed himself in the writing process, bogged down in a still-pending project he calls “the Vietnam of screenplays.” It wasn’t until 2009 that he dedicated himself to The Descendants in earnest, scheduling a dinner with the movie’s eventual star, George Clooney.



“It broke my heart that I couldn’t work with Clooney in Sideways, though I had a great time with [Thomas Haden] Church,” Payne says. “For The Descendants, George was my first and only choice.

"I was in the midst of writing the script, and I flew up to Toronto to meet him. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant, where I outlined the story I had in mind and asked if he was going to be available. I sent him the screenplay in November; we were shooting by March.”


 
Given his résumé, it’s not surprising that Payne is routinely approached not only by beginners but also “big movie stars” (he declines to name names) with a simple plea: “Please hire me.”

He says the gambit never works, because he doesn’t seek out names so much as actors who fit his vision – hence his decision to cast Church in Sideways over the more marketable Clooney.

But the Ocean’s Eleven star was right for The Descendants, about a Hawaii land baron who discovers his wife’s adultery only after she slips into a coma. It’s a drama made by a comedy director, Payne says, set in an island paradise that emphasizes “the puniness of man” – in this case, an inadequate husband and father who, as the movie’s title implies, is “just another link in the human chain.”


 
Payne admits that his earlier works were often cynical, crisply timed farces that poked fun at people. (To this day, he still gets the most compliments for Election.) He considers The Descendants a more serious entry, and hopes he can sneak the movie’s tenderest moments by the audience without being accused of sentimentality or “good-guy speechifying.”
 
Does that make The Descendants his most meaningful film? Not according to Payne. “I have an ego that is at once huge enough and nonexistent enough that I consider all my movies minor works,” he says, with a laugh. “I’m 50 now. I hope that one day I’ll make a really good one. The ones I’ve done so far are okay. But stay tuned – the best is yet to come.”

The Descendants is now playing at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. For tickets and showtimes, click here.