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Some of the filming for Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ took place off terra firma – in swimming pools and the ocean. Legendary underwater photographer Don King came in to help with the scene where Shailene Woodley releases a primal scream while at the depths of the family swimming pool.
Recalls Woodley, “He waited for me underwater with this crazy-looking camera. I would submerge myself and swim towards him and he would swim backwards super quickly, timing it perfectly with me. It was a fantastic scene to shoot.
Note: The following may contain spoilers.
One of director of photography Phedon Papamichael‘s favorite experiences on ‘The Descendants’ was filming the climax of Matt‘s road trip as the Kings arrive at their ancestral land on Kauai and young Scottie makes Matt rethink the idea of selling it to strangers. “We designed the shot so the family drives up the mountain but you‘re not really aware of what‘s coming.
It almost feels like a normal tracking shot but then, as they come to the edge of the land, we boom up and reveal this spectacular view, and suddenly, the characters are overwhelmed by the beauty. That was one of my favorites,” sums up Papamichael.
Payne also reunited with production designer Jane Ann Stewart, who has worked on all of his films since the very beginning of his career. Stewart says that Payne‘s aesthetic instincts jibe with hers. “His sense of humor is very much like mine – absurd, a little macabre and where nothing in the human condition is above comedy,” she says.
She knew her work was cut out for her when Payne approached her for this film. “We both had to learn a lot about Hawaiian culture, and really immerse ourselves in it, so we could get to the history, the sense of place and the texture behind the story,” she explains.
In creating Matt King‘s house, Stewart consulted both with the novel and its author, Kaui Hart Hemmings. “Kaui‘s advice was invaluable,” says Stewart. “For example, she introduced me to the punee [the casual Hawaiian daybeds often used as sprawling sofas] and helped us to reflect the family‘s history in the details.”
When Stewart found a local house that had the right feel, it was missing one key element – the sprawling banyan tree that graced the front yard in the book. So Stewart had one transplanted. “It kind of reflects the idea of family because of the way each branch reaches in and plants itself,” she observes.
As with the cinematography, Stewart‘s challenge was to keep things in Payne‘s favored realm of stark reality, but with a tropical twist. “Alexander always wants the veneer to be authentic, even a little bit banal. But this film was a chance for me to stretch things a bit with the colors and exotic essence of the place. I just had to have a very good reason for putting anything, a piece of furniture or painting, in a room. It had to support the characters and stay true to the place.”
That authenticity to Hawaii deeply moved Hemmings when she visited the set — and she could see her story coming to life, reflecting the funny and fraught ways that families, on or off the islands, really interact and bond. “It was amazing for me to be back in Hanalei Bay, where my own descendants first landed,” she says, “and it meant a lot to see the cast and crew getting to know this special, special place.
It was a chance for me to reconnect with my own family and it brought the community together. Writing a book is such a solitary thing, but with a movie, the beauty is in sharing the experience.”