London Film Festival: The Descendants
George Clooney pops up at this year’s London Film Festival with not one but two films – political thriller The Ideas of March, his fourth directorial outing, and Alexander Payne’s family drama The Descendants. The latter, marking his first collaboration with the Sideways filmmaker, sees Clooney star as Matt King, a beleaguered family man who’s forced to contend with his two wayward daughters, not to mention a truckload of familial hangers on, when his wife is horrifically injured in a boating accident. Sound Screen caught up with the duo at the festival as they talk about casting for young roles, how improvisation didn’t even come in to the shooting of the film, and why they wanted to show a different side of Hawaii to the one usually seen on the silver screen.
How did the film come about?
Jim Burke (producer): We were sent the book (Kaui Hart Hemming’s The Descendants) by a British agent and we loved it. Alexander and I thought we would find some writers to adapt it and we would produce, and so we went along that path for a couple of years, and the movie started to come together.
Alexander Payne: Another director was looking at it but he dropped out and so the timing was right and I jumped in.
After playing a raft of high flying executives, politicians and the odd superhero, did you find any unexpected surprises playing a more ordinary family man, a father and a husband?
George Clooney: I have played those sorts of characters before, I have been a father in several films, and a husband too – I played a father in One Fine Day, in Syriana, I played a father in Fantastic Mr Fox – but this was a little different. It was much more emotional and attached to the family. It’s a tricky piece, the movie starts with the death of your wife and then it is a sort of coming-of-age film, unfortunately the person coming of age is a 50-year old man. And there are tricks to understanding how to play this in the right way, but, again, it is really all in the script.
AP: Plus, he [George Clooney] also has a wonderful capacity to learn.
There is a wonderful scene where your character is given some advice – have your own families offered you any advice over the course of your life?
GC: My father’s best advice was ‘Don’t ever mix grain and grape,’ and, truthfully, that is the most useful advice anyone has ever given me. My family has lots of great success stories and cautionary tales about success and how little it actually has to do with you. My aunt was as big as singer as you could be in 1950 but by 1960 she was forgotten about and she didn’t become less of a singer. And then she had a nice comeback. I had a great lesson in how little it has to do with you and how much it has to do with other elements, including luck, and a 10pm timeslot for a hospital show. Without that you don’t get the kind of career that I have had. The best advice I got was by example from all of my family.
The film deals with a plethora of emotions– did it have an effect on you at all?
AP: No. I was affected like an audience member is affected, but it didn’t get under my skin in some way which has changed me. I think…
GC: Alexander’s set is such a fun place to be. There are people who like to work in chaos, and some people work better under that, and create that sort of chaos, but that makes a set not necessarily very fun. I like to work on sets that don’t have that. I feel it is more creative and more welcoming, and Alexander makes the most welcome set you have ever been on. And so there are difficult scenes to do, scenes where you are kissing your wife goodbye, basically yelling at a corpse essentially, but when you are finished it is a really friendly, fun place to be.
How did you draw the line between the comedy and the drama?
AP: I don’t really separate them, in my mind, in writing and directing. Rather than seeing them as two different tones, I like my films to have a single, thicker tone which includes both. I think it’s all one thing, just a bigger band-with of emotion, like real life. I spent a lot of time editing this film, it was nine months from the beginning of editing to finishing the sound mix, and a lot of the calibration of the tone was done there.
The opening voiceover says Hawaii isn’t paradise and over the next two hours ythe film shows that – was it difficult to present it like that, did you have to dodge the weather?
AP: The weather is constantly changing, for the outdoor scenes it took a lot of waiting and a lot of patience, the weather would cloud over and we would have to wait. These are standard filmmaker problems though. I like the moodiness of the darkened skies and the rain, and I thought it was wonderful to subvert people’s visual pre-impressions of it.
GC: Alexander wanted to see Hawaii not as you normally see it, as all the resorts…
AP: Yeah, I didn’t want so much to show Hawaii as I did want to show Honolulu, the streetlife, downtown Honolulu. I thought, “I had never seen that before.”
What do you look for in a film, and what appealed to you about this project?
GC: First of all, I learnt after a series of very bad mistakes early on in my career, that I should probably read a good screenplay once in a while before I say yes. You can make a bad film out of a good script, but you can’t make a good film out of a bad script, so you need to start with a good screenplay. And Alexander is someone I had wanted to work with for a long time and we got the opportunity. We had dinner in Toronto and he said he was going to send me script and I had sort of decided that I was going to do it no matter what the screenplay was.
There are two things that kind of influence the choices that you make – there is the director and the script. I had been on the Batman and Robin and Peacemaker run where you, as an actor, you just take jobs. At that point, I had been on a TV series, done a lot of TV series, and I had done a couple of films and I was very excited. I called my friends saying, “I got Batman!” “What part are you going to play?”, “Batman!!!…”, “Wow!”. I didn’t know it was, “Yeah, I’m in Ishtar, Woohoo!!” Then I understood that I was not only responsible for the roles I was going to play but for the films that were going to be made, and the next three scripts I got were Out of Sight, Three Kings, and O’ Brother, Where Art Though. And so since then I have really tried to focus on the best screenplays as possible. You can really protect yourself as an actor by working with really good people. You can hide a lot of flaws along the way….
AP: And great actors can make really bad dialogue work.
There is talk already of an Oscar nomination, how do you feel about that?
GC: I have had that a few times, and been on both sides of that equation, and I have learned that whenever someone says that they are really complimenting the work. It is a very nice thing to say and it is the result of a lot of other people doing a lot of other work too. But I don’t remember who wins awards, and I have won one, or two. What I remember is movies, I really love movies. I remember 1976 where it was Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Network, Bound for Glory and Rocky. I know that Rocky won but I love those movies and I watch them constantly. So I am not so concerned with speculation about winning things because I enjoy being in films that last more than their opening weekend. That is my goal. I don’t want to be the guy they wheel out when he is 70 years-old and they say “you’ve been in 15 number one films.” That is not my goal in life, to be the richest guy in the cemetery.
How did you cast Shailene Woodley (daughter ‘Alex King’)?
AP: It is tough to cast young characters. The ones who have a lot of experience often aren’t believable as the age that they are. I can’t tell you how many girls her age who read [for the role] who have a lot of experience but were seventeen going on thirty-five. I’d had some experience of that casting Election, a high school movie ten years ago. To be believable as George Clooney’s daughter, I wanted someone like a young Deborah Winger, who had great fire and great vulnerability. And Shailene came in to read at an audition in 2009 in New York and two minutes into her reading I knew she was the one, she knocked my socks off. Which was good because I didn’t have a second choice.
Was there any room to improvise the dialogue?
GC: It was all improvised. Alexander didn’t write a word! (laughs). The truth is, when you have a really good screenplay, part of your job as an actor is to perform the lines. And these lines were really well written and I don’t think there is a single line that was…
AP: We came up with the gag in the conversation with Brian Speers (Matthew Lillard), that was on set. When Matt says, “Have you ever been inside my bedroom?” and Brian says, “Yes,” he replies, “You could have had the decency to lie.” And then on the set we came up with, “Oh, okay, twice.”
How has directing changed you as an actor?
GC: I have been directing and involved in producing and the creating of films for quite a while now as well as acting. I always think in terms of what the director needs, and not just for this scene but for the film.
On television, you would have a different director come in every week and when I’d be doing ER every week I would have a kid. And every director that would come in would say ‘this is a scene that really gets you, maybe you could cry a little bit.’ But if I was crying in 22 episodes it would be too much and so you have to adjust towards the long term and that also works in film. You understand that there are some scenes that you have to lose in order to win something at the end. A good director will keep pointing you that way, but it is also your job as an actor to understand that there are scenes that you do, particularly when you are the lead, where other people get to come in and steal and you have to let them. I understand that but a good director always reminds you where those moments are.
Some of the film’s most affecting scenes are the ones without dialogue. Is the dialogue or the visuals more important for you?
AP: Visuals, by far. They are my favourite scenes to direct. In this my favourite scene is the one where George is going along the beach and crosses paths with Brian Speers and spies on him and it cuts to the beginning of that scene where he is waiting with the three kids, but not only because there is no dialogue but also there is no music. Just the sound of the waves left a mysterious quality to it.
GC: We live in an age and a time now where we are trying to show 500 things going on at the same time. You turn on Bloomberg and there are fifty things on there all at once. And I find that silence or stillness… if you flick the channels and find someone just staring at the camera and it is quiet, they’ll stop. That seems to be the new unusual thing. I enjoy the quiet moments in films, they are important. You have to earn them, and Alexander is very good at earning those moments. By the end of the film, there’s a scene with all three of us sitting there… you could not have done that scene, for that long, at the beginning of the film. To watch the stillness of that particular scene speaks volumes.
You have turned fifty this year, how has that changed your approach to work? Do you find success difficult to deal with sometimes?
GC: I hope to trend towards directing more because, as we all know, as you get older, there are less and less roles for 50-year olds. And I want to be part of this business for a long time. I remember when I was a young man living in Kentucky. We were broke, my mum was making my clothes for me, and I was doing some dull job and I remember hearing some famous actor, who will remain nameless, on television complaining about how hard it was for them. I thought ‘what a jerk!’ I thought, ‘You’re living the dream and you should enjoy that. And we should think you enjoy that because you got lucky, you got the brass ring.’ And that’s important to continually remember because I got the brass ring along the way and I am going to enjoy it. There are things that aren’t fun, and we all know them, but I am not going to complain about that to anybody. I get a very easy ride and I understand that so I enjoy my life.
The Descendants is released January 2012.
The Londo Film Festival runs until the 27th October and more information, including ticket information, can be found at http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff/