Paradise Found: A Q&A with author Kaui Hart Hemmings

By Tim Ryan Executive Editor

The Descendants, a 2007 novel written by author Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a dark comedic story about Hawaiian land baron Matt King, who struggles to unite his fractured family after his wife slips into a permanent coma.

Director Alexander Payne and author Kaui Hart Hemmings.

The novel, Hemmings’ debut, showed her as a writer more than capable of translating short stories to the long-form narrative. The New Yorker described The Descendants as “audaciously comic”—but the novel garnered only modest commercial support.

Then Academy Award winners Alexander Payne (Sideways) and George Clooney (Syriana) decided to turn the book into a movie. And in 2011, The Descendants became one of the year’s most acclaimed films, receiving five Academy Award nominations, and winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, which Payne shared with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

The film’s success means celebrity has finally found Hemmings, a fifth-generation Hawaiian whose ancestors were missionaries and whose father is part native Hawaiian. Hemmings has a similar lineage to Matt King, the story’s main character, except that she’s not a land baron and not a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. However, she has witnessed land being held through generations, heavy decisions about how to use the land, and whether or not to sell it.

“It’s a unique situation to Hawaii that I wanted to put into the book,” explained Hemmings, “so I could talk about these issues, but also incorporate them into the plot as well.”

Hemmings, who lives on Oahu’s Windward side, is currently working on a new novel and script, both set in Colorado. Hawaii Film & Video Magazine caught up with her to discuss The Descendants and more.

Hawaii Film & Video Magazine: How did you come up with the idea of writing The Descendants?
Kaui Hart Hemmings: I was living in New York, attending Sarah Lawrence Graduate School. I was putting together a collection of short stories. Then I thought about a father and a daughter who act in a way toward each other like they’re the same age.

HF&VM: How did you actually start the writing process?
KHH: I started with a sentence, and built on that. That sentence turned into the story that led to the novel. I’m still not quite sure how it came about, the origin of this thing. My feeling is that it came about with that first sentence.

HF&VM: Was connecting Hawaiian history to a personal family story a conscious decision on your part, or did that come out while you were starting to write this?
KHH: It came out much later during the rewrite. I always just plow through the first draft. Then I look closely at what I’ve come up with, and then I go back and fill it in. As for its Hawaiian texture, I wanted to write a book that showed something different about Hawaii and respected the atmosphere of the Hawaii I know and people know—the Hawaii that people live in today.

HF&VM: This isn’t a broad approach to Hawaiian history?
KHH: No, which is why I created this lineage for the Matt King character. I created this issue for Hawaii and the land. It makes an actual issue, versus just a theme.

HF&VM: How much input did you actually have on the final script?
KHH: It ended up being very active, and not because I really wanted it that way. That’s just the way Alexander (Payne) is.

HF&VM: Didn’t he move to Hawaii for several months prior to filming and just hung out?
KHH: Yes, he wanted to feel the rhythms of this place. I helped him, from mundane details—showing him the houses that I had in mind while I was writing the book, and he ended up using the houses—to just looking at his script and giving him pointers, like, “Oh, in Hawaii, no one would say that.”

Hawaii is a very different place from what he used as a setting in Sideways. Though my story is fictional, he just wanted to get it right. It’s almost logical that he would consult me… because he wanted to get this particular world right. He came here and took his time and really opened his eyes and ears. He didn’t come here with preconceptions.

The collaboration was very friendly. I went to the set, not every day, but when I wanted to. I brought some of my friends and my family to the film. I think I had a different experience than most authors (have).

I had heard that the authors aren’t allowed on set. This can also apply to screenwriters as well, or they’re just not consulted at all. I was fully prepared for that version… Now I’m so spoiled. It was great seeing one of my favorite directors at work.

HF&VM: Did you have any worries when the book got optioned?
KHH: No, and I really don’t understand the “worry” thing. My book is always going to be there; it can’t be destroyed. An adaptation is only going to add a different layer to it. Paired up with Alexander Payne was the best pairing I could hope for.

HF&VM: How did your story develop through the different script phases?
KHH: I think Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote the first draft, and then I think Alexander came on after that. Faxon and Rash wrote a draft, then Alexander started from scratch and wrote his own. It’s Alexander’s version that you see on the film.

HF&VM: What changed from the drafts to the actual film?
KHH:  I really only went over Alexander’s draft. It was almost weird for me to read because it was so similar to the novel. The dialogue scenes were just pulled right out of the book, but they were still their own things.

In my case, no one read my book, so there was no one to please. Alexander had that freedom to detour, and I encouraged it. It ended up being very faithful to the novel.

I added notes when I could, just to service his version. I’ve always liked it from the very start—when he got his hands on it, he was gracious enough to take my advice. It was more about terminology, and I added some lines of dialogue I thought were funny. Just helping him get Hawaii right, but I have to say, he didn’t need my help that much.

HF&VM: What did you think of the final product?
KHH: I saw a very early screening in this little dingy screening room, and then I saw another screening a long time after that, so I had seen it a few times before the final cut. I was blown away by the final product, especially by that music. The music unites the movie. I was just very moved.

The film is a major complement to the book. After seeing it, I felt like someone gave me this huge gift, like I was some sort of queen. I handed it to Alexander, and he handed the film back and said, “Here you go.” As an author, to love the adaptation of your book—to truly love it—it just makes me incredibly grateful.

HF&VM: What did you first think when Alex told you he wanted to direct your book for his next film?
KHH: I was so thrilled—if I could’ve picked one director in the world, it would’ve been him. And if I could pick one actor to play Matt King, it would’ve been George Clooney.

HF&VM: The film is very much about what it means to be Hawaiian. Was that important to you that this would be in the film?
KHH: It was important to me in the book. The land we’re from is inextricable from our lives. I wasn’t concerned that he would overlook that, as setting is pretty big to Alexander as well. That was part of the draw of the story to him. He managed it wonderfully.

HF&VM: Were you involved with casting?
KHH: I knew about Clooney right away since Alexander asked me whom I envisioned as Matt King—I said George. Alexander let me watch audition tapes, so all these roles played by Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Shailene Woodley—I got to see all their auditions. Then I got to see auditions from other actors who are quite famous who didn’t make it. That was entertaining—my husband and I would have dinner and a glass of wine, and then watch these auditions, which was great.

They let me do so much, even suggesting people for background roles—I handpicked the cousins. Even location scouting, and being in the movie since I played George’s secretary, and I have one line.

HF&VM: Have to ask, what was Clooney like?
KHH: Terrific fun, makes everybody laugh, and just brings a great energy into a room. When it’s time for him to perform and work, he’s on it; he’s the last person to leave the party and he’s the first person to show up for work.

HF&VM: The book and film open with Matt King saying how everyone thinks you live in paradise because you live in Hawaii. Did you want to dispel misconceptions with that?
KHH: Hawaii is different to every person. For the book, I wanted to create a character that was disenchanted by beauty and paradise. I don’t think it’s news to anybody that we have pain and problems. I definitely wanted to showcase the beauty in the book, but also showcase real life.

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