"If I could say I'm proud of any of my films, I would say that one," says Payne. "I think it does everything in six minutes . . . it's a little line drawing." This proved the key to unlocking Payne's work for me: Whereas once the closing shot of a teary Nicholson in About Schmidt had seemed like money-shot sentimentality, now it felt like the last stroke in that rare portrait to acknowledge its subject's ignoble and sublime aspects, with neither overriding the other.
The Descendants is Payne's first feature in seven years. "It just happened; '05 was a washout, '06, '07, '08, a lot of that time was spent writing a screenplay with Jim Taylor that we haven't made yet. Late '08 I was so anxious to beat up on actors that I did a pilot [HBO's Hung]. And then in '09, I started work on this. It just happened, I don't know where the time went."
In March, the director returned to what he calls "River City" after a year divided between shooting in Hawaii and editing in L.A.; he's preparing to shoot a new Nebraska-set film, the abovementioned Downsizing, next spring. A cheap flight brought me to Omaha early, two days before my lunch with Payne was scheduled. This gave me ample time to hoof it around the setting of Payne's first three features — and on foot one can still find the grotty Omaha of those films, the city he gladly left behind for Stanford years ago. "At the time, there was a lot less going on in Omaha than there is now, and young people definitely felt a lot more 'Get me out of this cowtown,'" he says. "Now people want to stay, and young people come back, but at the time it was ... really great to leave."
Omaha's rising fortunes have matched Payne's. The Woodmen Tower where Warren Schmidt wasted his life has been surpassed in height and corporate impersonality by the First National Bank Tower, seen going up in Schmidt. Another recent construction: Film Streams' Ruth Sokolof Theater, the nonprofit repertory/arthouse film space founded in 2007, where Payne sits on the board of directors. He is, in middle age, a shameless booster. When I visit Payne at his downtown apartment, he is enthused at finding frozen guanabana at a newly discovered Peruvian grocery, a first in Omaha, and another testament to the city's burgeoning cosmopolitanism. (Payne is appalled by my previous evening's restaurant choice: "Can you believe that this guy ate at the fucking Bohemian Café?") Later, from his rooftop deck, he traces the geography of Old Omaha over a panoramic view of the New: A block north, there is the site where his grandfather and father operated a restaurant for 50 years; all around, the ghosts of long-ago-razed theaters, some of whose names, recited with pleasure, give a clear sense of moviegoing as Payne's personal universe: "In the old days, that was The World, that was The Moon, and that was The Sun ..."
Payne's universe expanded exponentially when he left town. From Stanford, he went to UCLA's film school, finishing the education begun in now long-gone movie houses. From here, he could've very easily left Omaha in the rearview — but instead he came back to film it as he saw it. "Jason Reitman came out here to shoot a couple days on Up in the Air — because the character was supposed to be based in Omaha. And he asked me later, 'So what did you think of how I treated your city?' And I said, 'You didn't. I didn't see Omaha in there at all. I heard the name, but I didn't see it.'"
As we're increasingly asked to accept the outskirts of Vancouver or Toronto as Anytown, USA, Payne remains dedicated to pinning down regional particularities. The specificities of his last two source novels — Nebraska is not famous for its pinot — have taken him abroad, but he retains a keen eye for local variants. "I don't know why; I'm very interested somehow in 'a sense of place' . . . I hadn't ever really seen Honolulu in a film, and that was one of the appeals of doing [The Descendants]." This meant Payne's usual process of populating the film with locally sourced non-actors, all toward "getting that very specific, complex, kind of intimidating social fabric out there."
Based on the debut novel by Hawaiian — born Kaui Hart Hemmings, much of the film's humor comes from the antagonism between King, molded by old-money dictums of responsibility and never, ever drawing on his principle and the island's prevailing "hang loose" attitude. Regardless of location, Payne brings certain Midwestern values with him: "By the way, that line where [King] says, 'I agree with my father, you give your kids just enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing'? That's stolen from Warren Buffett. That's an Omaha line."
Although not so confrontational as Election, Payne's latest retains his wicked sense of humor rooted in discord — the friction between different class-based social expectations, between a purposeful past and a aimless present, between intensity of feeling and ridiculousness of expression. Payne pays great attention to the sound in his films, those little subversive elements in the mix that undercut the most dramatic moments with absurdity, like the flap-flap-flap of King's docksides as he sprints out of his house, faced with the fact of his wife's unfaithfulness. "For me, the funniest cut in The Descendants is when Judy Greer goes to the wife's bedside, says 'Hello, I'm Julie, I'm Brian's wife.' And then it cuts to the woman's face" — here Payne tosses his head back, mouth-agape, imitating the comatose Mrs. King — "That always makes me laugh. That's a grim cut."
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