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Payne imagined they would be done with the screenplay before 2006 was out. “That is about when the economy collapsed,” says Payne, “and Hollywood people were beginning to use the state of the economy to justify their normal stinginess.So it just wasn’t going to be the right time to make that film.” He smiles wryly and takes another slug of coffee.It is now a firm front-runner for next month’s Academy Awards. The project that he and his regular screenwriting partner Jim Taylor embarked on in 2006 seemed just the thing to capitalise on their Oscar triumph, at once both more ambitious and tonally of a piece with what they’d done before.
“And then, to think of an even more pretentious comparison, there’s Chekhov.
In its clash of tragedy and comedy, heroism, haplessness and middle-aged angst, this is prime Alexander Payne territory.
However, more than any film he has made before, The Descendants has a forgiving heart: it shows a greater generosity towards its protagonists than his previous somewhat detached satires.
Some years ago, when he was still a recent graduate of both Stanford University and UCLA film school, Payne told a journalist that he was “afraid of straight drama”.
It’s tempting to see The Descendants as proof that he has conquered this particular phobia.
Talk to almost any director who has got his hands on one and he will tell you how it brought with it a torrent of opportunities – scripts, funding, marriage proposals, that sort of thing.