Alexander Payne’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” was a scathing satire of abortion politics that took on pro-life and pro-choice shibboleths with equal amounts of skepticism and well-aimed bile.
The 1996 film, which Payne wrote with Jim Taylor, was searingly original, announcing the arrival of an acidly observant and fearless new voice in Hollywood. So early fans of Payne might have been surprised that his next three films — “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” — were adaptations of novels. Actually, make that four: “The Descendants,” which opens Friday, is based on yet another book, by Hawaii-based author Kaui Hart Hemmings. What happened to the hottest young auteur of the 1990s?
Payne, 50, has a two-word answer: Stanley Kubrick. “I think 11 of his 13 films were adaptations,” he said during a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, shortly before “The Descendants” made its world premiere. “And yet he’s considered the great cinematic auteur.”
In fact, the original/adapted distinction is all but irrelevant, a truth that all of Payne’s films, but especially “The Descendants,” make blazingly clear. The film might hew faithfully to Hemmings’s story of a Hawaii land baron trying to reconnect with his two troubled daughters while his wife is in a coma. But its blend of irony, pathos and sharply observed humor bear what might be called the Touch of Payne — deft, assured, happy-sad and utterly free of false or facile sentiment.
Payne spent a week with Hemmings’s book “to discern whether I could find my own personal way into it.” That process, he says, always involves a series of aesthetic and philosophical questions.
“Do I feel that I can enter into a cinema-to-literature dialogue, [or] find cinematic equivalents of literary techniques which I think can create nice new cinema?” he says. “Are there things that are already ready-made which will make the adaptation easy? Are there things that I think can be improved or changed to make a better movie than a very straight adaptation? . . .
“I need that complete freedom to make the movie I think it should be. I would be very frustrated with my hands tied by the writer needing to have approval or the studio so worried about alienating the fan base that they require essentially a filmed book on tape. Like the first ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ With all respect to those filmmakers, the job they have is to satisfy first and foremost a fan base, which means not having too much cinematic leeway.”
What’s more, Payne observes, basing his movies on other people’s source material takes him out of his immediate world — which for a long time has been his home town of Omaha, Neb., where he still has a condo in addition to a home in Los Angeles.
“The great thing about [adapting] a book is that it suggests a world. I never in a million years could have thought of ‘Election,’ I never could have thought of ‘Sideways,’ two guys going wine-tasting in [Santa Barbara]. It’s so beautiful that I can take that story conceived by someone else and then stretch it like taffy into a movie.”
The taffy Payne has confected with “The Descendants” has already earned him rapturous reviews and Oscar buzz out of Toronto — including for George Clooney, who plays the embattled Matt King, the scion of Hawaiian royalty who is juggling complicated family dynamics not only with his daughters but with a sprawling network of cousins who are pressuring him to sell a pristine plot of land on Kauai. Clooney delivers an alternately funny and heartbreaking performance as a man feeling the past slip from under him like so much beach sand. Remarkably, although Clooney commands the screen with the same charisma that made him a huge star, somehow Payne has been able to submerge that presence to find the star’s inner character actor.
Payne recalls a story about working with Jack Nicholson on “About Schmidt,” in which Nicholson’s outsize persona was tamed and he became, again, simply a gifted actor. Before filming began, Payne’s production designer took him aside. “She said, ‘Remember, he might be filet, but he’s still a piece of meat,’ ” Payne recalls, breaking into laughter. “The main reason those two guys are stars is that they’re brilliant actors,” he continues. “And they don’t just skate through the parts based on the gift of having a face the camera loves and onto which the audience projects things.”
Payne and Taylor had spent two years on an original screenplay called “Downsizing,” which Payne describes as a “large-canvas science-fiction social satire,” when he decided to direct “The Descendants.” Although he promises that “Downsizing” will be made someday, his next project has taken him back to the Midwest, where he’s been scouting locations for the upcoming film “Nebraska.” The script, by Robert Nelson, tells the story of a boozing father and his estranged son on road trip from Montana to the filmmaker’s home state — all the elements, in other words, of a movie ripe for that Touch of Payne.