Alexander Payne is ruminating on death and directors. 'A lot of the great ones die at 70,' he sighs, citing Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Federico Fellini. He stops to correct himself. 'Actually, maybe Fellini was 73.' But his point is well made. It's been eight years since the release of Payne's last film, Sideways, and time is no longer on his side. 'I'm 50 now and raring to go,' he says, when we meet in London's Soho Hotel on an overcast winter afternoon.
Still, with new movie The Descendants just the fifth feature in his career, you get the sense that Payne is a mite frustrated. Sideways, his biting tale of middle-age malaise as two friends drown their sorrows on a wine-tasting trip, won him and co-writer Jim Taylor an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay in 2005. Yet since then, aside from contributing a short movie to the anthology Paris, Je T'Aime, he has not been behind the camera. Life got in the way, with Payne enduring knee surgery and a divorce - from actress Sandra Oh, who was in Sideways. He's produced films for others to direct - including last year's comedy Cedar Rapids - but it was hardly satisfying. 'I'm really uninterested in producing,' he exclaims. 'I really can't stand it.'
It didn't help that he and Taylor spent two years writing an expensive-to-make science-fiction script about shrinking. 'We finished it in the spring of 2009 when the economy was tanking. And it wasn't going to be the right time to make it. And I was so desperate to shoot a movie, I said, 'Is that Descendants thing still available? OK, I'll take it!''
Payne's company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, which he shares with Taylor and producer Jim Burke, had already acquired the rights to Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, hiring writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash to adapt. British director Stephen Frears was 'flirting with the idea' of doing it, but when he pulled out, the desperate-to-direct Payne stepped in, setting out to rework the script. This time, however, he wasn't going to work with Taylor, who was about to become a father. 'The speed with which I wanted to do it, it just wasn't the right time for him,' he says.
More importantly, Payne needed to find a way to relate to the novel and to its protagonist, Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer and land baron whose life is turned upside down when his wife endures a wave runner accident and slips into a coma. 'I just needed to find my own personal way into the material,' he says. 'This one was a little bit more outside my wheelhouse, with respect to the satirical and comic characteristics of the other films. This one plays it a little bit more straight, and I was maybe a little bit more afraid of it.'
Certainly compared with his 1996 debut, Citizen Ruth, which took on the abortion issue, or his high school sophomore feature, Election, The Descendants could be classed as more mainstream. It received two Golden Globes - best drama and best actor (to George Clooney) - and a healthy tally when the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday seems a certainty.
Of course, it helps when your leading man is Clooney, who offers up the most emotional performance of his career. It was Payne's highest-profile casting since Jack Nicholson in 2002's About Schmidt.
Still, if this saga reinforces family values, it more than earns the right to that sentiment. With no miracle awakening for King's wife, he and his two daughters - 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) - must prepare themselves for her death. Worse still, King discovers that his wife had been having an affair with a married real estate broker (Matthew Lillard). Hurt, confused and uncertain, King decides to track him down - not to confront him but to allow him to say his goodbyes.
'One of the reasons I wanted to make this book into a film was Matt King's decision to tell the wife's lover that she's dying and to invite him to go to the hospital,' says Payne. 'He wants to kill the guy. But he has that moment of love where it's difficult. I was interested in that.'
The gracious, messy and complicated situation - because King comes to realise his own mistakes as a husband and father - is what makes The Descendants feel a very human piece of work. It's also why Payne refuses to class it as either a comedy or a drama. 'Rather than seeing them as two different tones, if you will, I'd like my films to have a single, thicker tone, which includes both the sad and the tragic,' he says. 'I think it's all one thing - just a bigger bandwidth of emotion, like real life.' He spent nine months in the cutting room with editor Kevin Tent working on the 'calibration' of that tone. 'On the set we harvest a lot of things, and then Kevin and I work a lot to make sure it's all part of the same movie.'
Aside from this, one of the chief pleasures of The Descendants is in watching the wonderful support cast that help keep the light and dark in balance. Nick Krause, for example, gives a finely judged turn as Alexandra's wiser-than-he-looks stoner boyfriend, Sid. Beau Bridges is a welcome presence as King's cousin Hugh, and then there's Robert Forster as King's sour-faced father-in-law, Scott. 'I find him the most heartbreaking character,' says Payne. 'The old prick who's just in pain, lashing out at everything around him.'
If anything, The Descendants bucks the increasing trend by studios to veer away from intelligent, upscale dramas and concentrate the majority of their firepower on making summer blockbuster movies. 'If this does any business, my prayer is that it serves as an example to other filmmakers and financiers,' Payne says. 'It sounds corny, but I mean it. There is an audience - and a lucrative one at that - for human films.' Indeed, since we met, the film has grossed steady box office in the US - US$39 million and counting - proof that adults still want adult dramas.
Ironically, for all his expertise in this realm, Payne is still harbouring hopes of making his sci-fi blockbuster. 'I'll probably take two more regular movies,' he says. 'And then I'll re-attack that, because I'll have to learn about visual effects and see where the technology is at that point.' When I suggest that it will be a turnaround from his films to date, which rely more on dialogue than high style, he takes slight umbrage. 'I like to think of myself as a professional director,' he says, 'who does the pro job and serves the story.'
Still, those next two 'regular movies' will see him on more familiar ground. First, there's the black-and-white father-son road trip movie Nebraska, which he's looking to shoot in May. 'I've been sitting on it for years. I just didn't want to do another road trip film right away after Sideways,' he says.
Then, he wants to shoot Daniel Clowes' own adaptation of his graphic novel Wilson, about a middle-aged misanthrope loner. With both sounding like Payne projects that fans will fall for, from his frustrating 40s to his fertile 50s, he really is raring to go.
The Descendants opens on Thursday