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When author of The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings, found out Alexander Payne was interested in adapting her book, she could hardly believe the news. “I just about died,” she laughs. “I mean he is my favorite director, I love the kind of movies he makes.”
After discussing the adaptation of Kaui Hemmings‘s book with many screenwriters, the producers at Ad Hominem selected the writing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Wonderful actors who continue to be fixtures at the Groundling Theater, Faxon and Rash had written a much admired screenplay, ‘The Way Back’, that suggested an ability to handle shifting tones of humor and pathos as would be required by ‘The Descendants’. All who read their elegant adaptation admired it. But when he decided to direct the film himself, Payne determined that the best way for him to forge a personal connection to the material was to adapt the book himself.
In his voice, Payne turned the focus in the screenplay on two dove-tailing journeys: the King family‘s trek to Kauai on the hunt for Elizabeth King‘s unwitting lover; and the pilgrimage of diverse friends and relatives to Elizabeth‘s bedside, where she becomes, in her comatose silence, a kind of grand confessor, bringing out secrets and suppressed emotions that might not otherwise see the light of day.
“One of the many things we learned in Hawaii is that people here know their genealogy like they do in no other place,” explains producer Jim Burke. “Everybody knows when their family first arrived on the island, and some go back six or seven generations and they feel a deep, deep connection to this place. We learned all this by meeting authentic descendants who have inherited land a lot like Matt.”
Hemmings was impressed with the adaptation. “I wasn‘t concerned about Alexander changing this or that, because he really got the tone of the book and that‘s all I cared about. He got that it‘s funny and it‘s sad at the same time. I also loved that he took the time to really get to know Hawaii.”
From the beginning, Payne and the production team felt it was essential to venture far from the well-beaten tourist paths to get to know the authentic Hawaii only locals ever see. As they did so, they developed a more nuanced understanding of what the term ‘descendants’ means on an island where ancestors have always been an important link in the chain of living history.
This helped to bring into focus Matt King‘s realization that he has become disconnected from his own feelings about the land he owns — and its past and future. Payne also relied on Hemmings to serve as an insightful guide into the alluring blend of American and Hawaiian cultures that imbues island life, from its politics to its traditions and relationships. “When we came over to the islands to start making the movie, Hemmings became a really big part of it, because this is her land. She knows these people.”
“She was able to give us a reality check and at the same time, Alexander was able to run all his ideas past Kaui to make sure they seemed right for the characters,” Burke continues. “We wanted to protect her story because we believed in it.”
“Alexander‘s voice is absolutely unique,” notes Burke, who reunites with producer Jim Taylor for their fifth collaboration with Payne. “You don‘t need to be told you‘re watching an Alexander Payne movie. And yet, each of his films is also quite different. I feel like The Descendants is the most different from his previous work.
It‘s a great story with great characters, but I think the thing that sets it apart is that it is very open to interpretation: none of the characters are entirely right and none of the characters are entirely wrong. It‘s not a movie everyone will view in the same way. It‘s a film that allows the viewer to participate and connect in their own way.”