Courtesy photoDirector Alexander Payne

Courtesy photoDirector Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne shows tender side in 'The Descendants'

Where has Alexander Payne been? The Stanford graduate and critically adored director of “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” used to churn out a movie every “two, 2½” years, a pace he plans to resume after today’s release of “The Descendants,” his poignantly funny adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel.

But following “Sideways” (2004) and a mostly amicable divorce from one of that movie’s stars, Sandra Oh, Payne immersed himself in the writing process, bogged down in a still-pending project he calls “the Vietnam of screenplays.” It wasn’t until 2009 that he dedicated himself to “The Descendants” in earnest, scheduling a dinner with its eventual star, George Clooney.

“It broke my heart that I didn’t work with Clooney in ‘Sideways,’ though I had a great time with [Thomas Haden] Church,” Payne says. “For ‘The Descendants’ I flew up to Toronto to meet him, outlined the story I had in mind, asked if he was going to be available. I sent him the screenplay in November. We were shooting by March.”

Given his résumé, it’s not surprising that Payne is routinely approached not only by beginners but also “big movie stars” (he declines to name names) with a simple plea: “Please hire me.”

He says the gambit never works, because he doesn’t seek out names so much as actors who fit his vision — hence his decision to cast Church in ‘Sideways’ over the more marketable Clooney.

But the “Ocean’s Eleven” star was right for “The Descendants,” about a Hawaii land baron who discovers his wife’s adultery only after she slips into a coma.

It’s a drama made by a comedy director, Payne says, set in an island paradise that emphasizes “the puniness of man” — in this case, an inadequate husband and father who, as the movie’s title implies, is “just another link in the human chain.”

Payne admits that his earlier works were often cynical farces that poked fun at people. (To this day, he still gets the most compliments for “Election.”)

He considers “The Descendants” a more serious entry, and hopes he can sneak the movie’s tenderest moments by the audience without being accused of sentimentality or “good-guy speechifying.”

Does that make “The Descendants” his most meaningful film? Not according to Payne. “I have an ego that is at once huge enough and nonexistent enough that I consider all my movies minor works,” he says. “I’m 50 now. I hope that one day I’ll make a really good one. The ones I’ve done so far are OK. But stay tuned — the best is yet to come.”

artsentertainmentGeorge ClooneyMoviesSan Francisco

Just Posted

ose Pak and Willie Brown at an event in 2014. 
Rose Pak and Willie Brown at an event in 2014.
Willie and Rose: An alliance for the ages

How the Mayor and Chinatown activist shaped San Francisco, then and now

San Francisco supervisors are considering plans to replace trash cans — a “Renaissance” garbage can is pictured on Market Street — with pricey, unnecessary upgrades. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco must end ridiculous and expensive quest for ‘pretty’ trash cans

SF’s unique and pricey garbage bins a dream of disgraced former Public Works director

Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski is pictured at bat on July 29 against the Dodgers at Oracle Park; the teams are in the top spots in their league as the season closes. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
With playoff positions on the line, old rivalries get new life

Giants cruised through season, Dodgers not far behind

Golden Gate Park visitors may take a survey about options regarding private car access on John F. Kennedy Drive, which has been the subject of controversy during the pandemic.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Your chance to weigh in: Should JFK remain closed to cars?

Host of mobility improvements for Golden Gate Park proposed

Drivers gathered to urge voters to reject an initiative that would exempt Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy companies from state labor laws, in San Francisco in October 2020. (Jim Wilson/New York Times)
What’s the role of unions in the 21st century?

As membership declines in California, economic inequality increases

Most Read