‘The Descendants’ Interview: Author Kaui Hart Hemmings Chats Alexander Payne, Acting Alongside George Clooney

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The Descendants has resonated with audiences this season and has received well deserved recognition at the Oscars. Compared to others this year, the unique story of Matt King trying to re-connect with his children after his wife suffered a major injury showed great depth and fantastic raw acting. It gave actors like George Clooney and Judy Greer a chance to show an even bigger range than they already had and introduced new talent to the big screen like Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause.

With a win for Best Adapted Screenplay still sinking in I got the chance to speak to author Kaui Hart Hemmings on what it was like to see her novel transformed into a major motion picture. She details on working with Alexander Payne, Hawaii, and what it was like to have a minor role on set.

The Descendants is such an original plot. How long did it take to write and what was your inspiration for it? 

HEMMINGS: I started writing it as a short story while I was at Sarah Lawrence in New York. I just wanted to write about Hawaii so that’s where it all started.

What were the beginning stages like for getting the novel noticed and ultimately having it end up in Alexander Payne’s hands?

It was scheduled to come out in May 2007, the book. And all books end up in producer’s hands it’s just a matter of getting them made, but it went out to a bunch of film companies and Alexander was kind of at the top of our wish list. Jim Burke, one of the producers, found it and sort of championed it.

What was your initial relationship like with Payne?

He came to Hawaii and when he decided to make it his next film he emailed me and said, “I want to make this my next film, can we meet this weekend?” So he flew out to Hawaii and we had dinner and the next day he came over to the house and we just sort of hung out for a while and then he came back and lived here for about eight months before shooting. During that time he really got to know the place, meet people and start to collect life here before he shot it.

The cast is fantastic with actors like George Clooney and Judy Greer. Did you ever think talent like that would re-create something you wrote?

I never before really thought about that but I had the privilege of seeing their casting tapes! So I saw these actors and actresses who we all know audition for these roles and the people who ended up playing the roles were indeed the best ones back in auditions. Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard blew me away in these tapes so its like I could imagine it because I saw them and it just made perfect sense that they be in these roles. And the same for George Clooney—while he didn’t have to audition of course—it just made sense that he play this role.

While writing the novel did you find yourself attached to a certain character?

I’m attached to many of the characters but one I think in particular is the father in my novel…Also Elizabeth the mother. Her children are mad at her, her husband is conflicted and through him [the father] we see her as a little child, a little girl. For me it just gives me such sympathy, especially seeing the father say goodbye to her. I really like my minor characters if I have to be proud of anything. I really like my minor characters and I really like them in the film as well. The minor characters—Beau Bridges and Robert Forster as the father—were so good. Many of the moving moments for me in the film were because of him. [Forster]

Hawaii is a character all on its own. How long did it take you to write and would you write outside of that setting in the future?

It took me about a year or less for me to write the book, which is weird and it’s never to be repeated! [Laughs] My daughter was a year old at the time when I wrote it. So whenever she would take a nap I would write like crazy! It was a desperate momentum or something. And as far as Hawaii, I’m writing a new novel right now set in Colorado. It’s set in a specific part but I would write in Hawaii again. You write what you know and what you remember and what you want to know.

The storyline is something I don’t think audiences have resonated with before, which is great. What do you think about the Oscar nominations and win for Best Adapted Screenplay?

I was there all week for the Writers Guild Awards and it’s so great. I’m not so focused on awards and celebrity and all of that but it does feel good to win something! It was really wonderful that it got so much attention and awards for the script based on the novel. So that felt really good. But I have to say the most exciting part of this whole process for me was seeing the film get made and seeing people work on this film with such energy and joy and that was before we even had any inclination of what it would become and the reviews that it would get. That was my joy and in seeing George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Alexander Payne just working and just enjoying their work.

You acted too! Many may not know that you actually played Matt King’s secretary Noe in the movie. How was it to step away from what you’re used to and jumping into the dressing room?

Yeah, I mean forget writing. I just want to act! [Laughs] No, that was so fun! I mean here I am like, “Oh God, here these people just say their lines and they get paid millions of dollars.” And there I was just like so nervous! With all they had to do and then you know me saying this shouldn’t be too hard, but I was just so nervous. It was very fun. It was just George and I in this office and behind me the whole crew. “I don’t want to waste their time.” That was what was on my mind.

Were you able to come by set whenever you wanted?

Yeah, I was. I was able to drop in whenever I wanted and Alexander would set up certain shots and say, “Does this look right to you?” I would say yes or oh gosh—one time I said, “You know that extra doesn’t really look like they are from Hawaii.” And he took the extra out! And I just thought, “Oh my God.” I felt so bad. [Laughs]

I actually talked with Judy Greer and Nick Krause before the film premiered. Do you have a favorite memory with the cast?Nothing super specific but just that they were all such strong individuals. I think what was great about this or different was that it was sort of everyone’s first time doing something. It was sort of George’s first role that was like this and Judy’s—not her first film but I’d say that she was very memorable in this film. She was more of a big player in this film instead of some best friend that she usually plays. She’ll admit that too. It was Nick’s first film and it was Amara Miller’s first film and it was Shailene’s first film. I can go on and on. It was Alexander’s first film sort of about families. I think everyone just had a good time. When I first met Nick I went to parties with him. He would play guitar. He’s a great musician. And Judy has the most energy that I’ve ever seen in one person.And what would be three other passions you have besides writing?

Well, I guess my passions or what I spend the most time devoted to is reading books. I love books. I go through about one a week. And the other is my children! I have a 7-year-old and a 19-month-old and a wonderful husband.

Keeping busy!

Yeah, that’s sort of my passion right now. Is doing things with them and going to the beach and traveling with them.

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