Alexander Payne, the writer-director of The Descendants, describes his ability to draw humour from dark moments in a wide ranging interview conducted by Screen editor Mike Goodridge at the BFI London Film Festival.

Seven years after Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor won the adapted screenplay Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for Payne’s acclaimed comedy Sideways, the film-maker is wowing audiences and critics with his new film The Descendants. It emerged as an early awards frontrunner after a world premiere at Telluride and a successful screening shortly afterwards in Toronto in September. It has since been one of the hot tickets at festivals in London, New York, Ghent and Thessaloniki.

Backed by Fox Searchlight, The Descendants is Payne’s fifth feature and is suffused with Payne’s signature blend of drama and wry comedy. It stars George Clooney as a wealthy landowner who tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a life-threatening accident.

However, while Sideways was a natural fit for Payne, who ran from a plane to a payphone to tell his agent that the script (based on the novel by Rex Pickett) would be his next directorial project, The Descendants — based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings — was not an automatic choice for the film-maker.

“I sort of resisted it for a couple of years,” says Payne. “I thought it would make a good movie but I didn’t want to cheat on another script I was working on [Downsizing, which is on hold at the moment]. As interested as I am in Hawaii, it is not my world. This is not a personal story for me but I had to ­pretend that it was to find my way in. I read and reread the story looking for a worm hole to put my snout through.”

When he finally connected with the story, Payne decided to adapt it without Taylor, the co-writer on his previous films. “We had just spent two and a half years writing together,” he explains. “And Jim’s wife was pregnant. With The Descendants I wanted to find my own personal way into the story, without speaking. When you collaborate you have to speak, but when you work alone you don’t have to. When Jim and I work together we do a certain thing really well. We elicit very good things from each other, but we always knew that if we wanted to write something personal we would have to do so alone.”

The other credited writers on the film are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Payne showed his usual daring in casting the film. In particular, much has been made of the decision to cast Clooney — who had been considered for the role of Jack in Sideways — in the role of a podgy, dysfunctional family man. The baggage accompanying a star lead didn’t faze the director.

“The fact that Clooney plays a family man for the first time, or a schlup, never entered my thought process, “ he says. “I guess it occurred to me afterwards when I got so many questions about it.

“I was in a similar situation when I paired Jack Nicholson with a woman his own age in About Schmidt. They are actors playing a part. Period. Any other concerns are extraneous. My production designer said to me when I was nervous about directing Nicholson: ‘Remember. He may be fillet, but he’s still a piece of meat.’”

However, Payne credits both Nicholson and Clooney with elevating his game. “Working with Nicholson was like I had been driving a Renault until then and finally I was driving a Maserati. He made me a much better director. One of the reasons I like working with these extremely experienced stars like Clooney and Nicholson is because they are on so many more film sets than I am. I can learn from them.”

Indeed, Payne is eager for self-education and collaboration. The editing process, which gives him important time to reflect, also provides another key working partner.

“If my films are successful it’s because I take the time to edit them. I see a lot of films and can smell if the director didn’t edit it for long enough and that there’s a better film in there. I’ve worked with the same editor, Kevin Tent, since 1995. He is another co-writer as it were, a collaborator. I’m never alone. While I was more alone on The Descendants, I also consider Kaui Hart Hemmings the co-writer.”

Although he has directed relatively few features — five, including Citizen Ruth and Election — Payne has stamped his identity on a particular style of film. The Descendants shares his distinctive combination of black comedy and sentimentality, melancholy and caustic wit — and above all, his habit of affectionately making fun of man’s struggles.

“That’s my style. That’s what I do,” Payne says. “I’m interested in that thick bandwidth of tone that makes comedy out of dour circumstances, maybe a little like Spanish or Flemish painting that first paints the canvas black and then adds colour on top of it.

“I start with the dreary situation and then make light of it. [Jim Taylor and I] have always been attracted to making comedy out of horrific situations.”
Payne cites as his comedy models names ranging from Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton to Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and even Albert Camus.

“You don’t think of them as comedians,” he says, “but I do. What’s a better comedy than Strangelove? What’s more monstrously funny than A Clockwork Orange or Taxi Driver? I read Camus’ The Stranger as a comedy. It starts, ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.’ That’s comedy.”

Payne believes he will not take another seven years between films. His next feature, which has a working title of Nebraska is scheduled to shoot in May 2012. “I’m so grateful because I have the next two projects lined up. I’m hungry to shoot and shoot and shoot right now.”

Nebraska bears a number of Payne hallmarks: “It’s a father-son road trip from Montana to Nebraska that gets sidetracked by a small town where the father grew up. It’s a small comedy.”

This time Payne is handing over writing duties (to Bob Nelson and Phil Johnston) and shooting in black and white. It is a decision he says did not thrill the film’s backers, Paramount. But Payne has had the last word. Phedon Papamichael, the cinematographer on Sideways and The Descendants, will be DOP.

After that, Payne intends a relatively quick turn­around in order to film a Daniel Clowes graphic novel, adapted by Clowes, called Wilson. It is about a misanthrope living in Oakland, Cali­fornia. “I’m growing more confident about the tone of the films I want to make,” he says. “I’m 50 now, I’ve been doing this film thing for a while. If not now, when?”