TORONTO - The lights came up after the gala screening of "The Descendants" at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and Alexander Payne and his star, George Clooney, trotted onto the stage - greeted by an especially rapturous standing ovation.
And then Cameron Bailey, the festival's codirector, led off the audience Q&A with a seemingly innocent comment about Payne's movies - "Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways" - and how they all seem to center on "flawed characters."
The filmmaker clearly did not appreciate this approach. For a moment, Payne's rather sharp response threatened to turn the whole lovefest sour. Clooney even mockingly took a few steps away from his director as Payne delivered his testy reply, gesturing as if to say, "I don't know this guy.
"I was thinking about it overnight," Payne said the next morning. "I was thinking, "God, was I being a jerk to that guy? I don't know. And I guess my films are a little bit about people who create crises based on their own limitations. The films are about somehow overcoming, or accepting, one's own limitations in life and trying to transcend them that way. I guess I can see that. But heck, Hamlet - a flawed protagonist, right? Or Oedipus. I don't know, it just seems rampant.
"You know, would you say to Stanley Kubrick, 'Yeah, your "Clockwork Orange," why do you have such a flawed protagonist? He's a psychopath!'"
In "The Descendants," a smart, funny, and emotionally turbulent film set in Hawaii, Clooney does, indeed, play a man struggling to overcome his limitations.
In fact, he needs to do so, urgently. A well-heeled lawyer who can trace his roots back to the first commingling of native Hawaiians and white settlers, Clooney's Matt King has to deal with a wife in a coma and two daughters - a wild teenager (Shailene Woodley) and a bratty pip-squeak (Amara Miller) - who are understandably distressed. It's one of Clooney's best performances, and Payne knows it.
"I wanted George from the get-go," says Payne. "He's a really brilliant man in many ways, very capable, and he just understood this character intuitively. ...
"The other thing about George is that he's a genuinely lovely guy. He's not doing an impression of a lovely guy. He really IS that guy."
In "The Descendants," Clooney has to try to hold things together, reconnect with his girls, deal with the older daughter's goofball boyfriend (Nick Krause), negotiate the sale of a parcel of unspoiled land that's been in the family forever, and track down the cad who has been having an affair with his wife. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Kaui Hemmings, "The Descendants" is full of comedy and heartbreak. It also beautifully captures the kicked-back culture of the Aloha State. The soundtrack, featuring the great Gabby Pahinui and other Hawaiian musicians, is likewise perfect.
"Early on, as I started work on the screenplay, I went out to Hawaii for 10 or 12 days to meet the writer - Kaui Hemmings. It's her world that I was seeking to represent," Payne says.
"I wanted to see Hawaii and that class of people through her eyes, and acquaint myself with places and individuals that she was thinking about when writing the book. ... And that informed what I was writing.
"And I would say, too, in finally making the film, one thing that reflects what I was feeling about Hawaii and life there as I saw it is, not so much the locations, as presented, but also the rhythm of the film. There's a certain floaty rhythm - like 'Yeah, we're going to go look for the lover, but we're also going to go to the beach, and you know, if we just walk along the beach, we'll probably run into him.'
"That's very true to the place. You always just bump into people. ... Everybody knows everybody. And if you tell somebody something in the morning, it's going to come back to you in the afternoon from a completely different source.
"They call it the Coconut Wireless."