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Director and writer Alexander Payne in Toronto during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Director and writer Alexander Payne in Toronto during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Movies

Sideways director back in midlife-crisis mode Add to ...

It’s traditional to have a wrap party at the end of a film shoot. But it’s not often that the players re-unite for a second bash a year later – as did the cast of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants last May.

Held in Los Angeles – with a Skype hookup to local talent in Hawaii, where the film was shot – the party was attended by George Clooney, his young co-star Shailene Woodley and about 100 others, who got together to celebrate what Woodley recently described as one of the most amiable sets she’s ever worked on.

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“Alexander is one of my top five human beings on the planet,” says the 20-year-old actress, who plays Clooney’s rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra, in the film. “Regardless of whether you were craft service or a dolly grip – we were all equal artists coming together to paint a blank canvas.”

An almost blank canvas, that is: Expectations were high for the follow-up feature to Payne’s sleeper hit Sideways. He won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the film about two middle-aged men who are disappointed with what they’ve accomplished in their lives.

This time, he’s back in midlife-crisis territory with a candid, surprisingly comic drama starring Clooney as Matt King, a world-weary Hawaiian land baron who finds himself at a crossroads when his wife is left in a coma after a serious boating accident.

Until that point a disengaged dad of two troubled daughters (Woodley and 10-year-old newcomer Amara Miller as Scottie), King struggles to come to grips with his wife’s condition and re-connect with his kids – all while learning his wife had been having a torrid affair and was planning to leave him.

So, no, this isn’t Clooney at his highest wattage. He’s a guy with a slight paunch in unflattering Hawaiian shirts. One particularly poignant scene has Clooney running clumsily, his topsiders smacking the pavement, to confront old friends about his wife’s infidelity. His face is panicked, his gait painfully awkward to watch.

But his movements are hilarious and speak volumes about how lost his character has become.

“I have a weakness for silent, physical comedy,” explained Payne at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall, where his film premiered. “Dialogue-less sequences have always been my favourite stuff to direct.”

From the outset, Payne says he adapted the script, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel, with Clooney in mind. They pair have long wanted to collaborate. Payne auditioned Clooney for Sideways, in fact, but decided the Oscar winner wasn’t right for one of the roles (which went to Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) in his bromance road movie.

Still, says Payne, “I’ve always thought – and I guess George did too – that he and I would be a good match. I flew here to Toronto during the film festival two years ago and told him I had a screenplay coming his way. I got it to him in November, and we were shooting in March.”

What actor wouldn’t jump at the chance to be cast in a Payne vehicle? The director has brought out critically acclaimed performances from everyone from Jack Nicholson ( About Schmidt) to Reese Witherspoon ( Election).

Payne doesn’t just cast big names, though. He hand-picked Woodley, who had mainly worked on TV in the series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and he chose Miller to play Woodley’s precocious, younger sister even though Miller had never acted before.

For The Descendants, Payne says he felt the Californian actress Woodley “got it right away.”

“I learned making Election how to cast believable high-school kids. And hers was a tricky role. You had to believe her evolution from a head case to a mature, young woman,” he says. “The only direction I really ever gave her was, ‘say it slower.’ Working on TV, she often read six to eight pages a day. So I told her to slow it down because by rushing through her dialogue, she was cheating the emotion.”

As for that magic film shoot? Maybe it’s best explained by Payne’s reflections on his rapport with Clooney.

“We’re from the same generation. We’re exactly the same age. And I think the characteristic we share about filmmaking is that we both believe it should be fun, playful, relaxed, joyous and stress-free. In other words, keep it light while still being completely professional.”

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