"If you were interviewing Stanley Kubrick, would you ask him about his gaps?" Sitting in a London hotel suite, Alexander Payne is a little put out that I've just questioned why it's taken him so long to bring us his new film, The Descendants. Admittedly, the hiatus between this and his last movie, the Oscar-winning 2004 film Sideways, doesn't compare with the 12 years between Kubrick's last two films. Still, the last thing fans want is to see one of America's most talented directors go missing in action.
Since making his debut with 1996's acidic satire Citizen Ruth, Payne has steadily built an impressive reputation. Election (1999) was a marvellous antidote to the American Pie-style high-school comedies of the time. About Schmidt (2002) saw Jack Nicholson deliver one of his most heartfelt turns of the decade as a retiree estranged from his daughter. While Sideways - which saw Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor take an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay - was a pathos-fuelled tale of middle-age failure.
His CV is certainly why George Clooney wanted to join forces for The Descendants. "We had dinner in Toronto," recalls the actor, "and then he said 'I'm going to be sending you a script.' I thought I'd do it no matter what the script was. Quite honestly, I haven't seen him miss yet as a filmmaker. And then I read the screenplay and thought I was very lucky." Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film sees Clooney play Matt King, a lawyer living in Hawaii whose wife slips into a coma after a jet-ski accident.
With no hope of her pulling through, King must break the news to his two daughters - 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) - who he's barely connected with. But matters become even more emotionally wrought when King discovers his wife had been cheating on him. Yet, against his better judgement, King sets out to track down his wife's lover (played by Matthew Lillard) to tell him she's dying, and allow him to say his goodbyes.
"One of the reasons I wanted to make this book into a film was that," says Payne. "I was very touched by that. It's very gracious - an act of love. You can talk about forgiveness. And it's messy, too. He still wants to murder the lover. But still that feeling is there - I like that."
Clooney has his own perspective. "It's kind of a coming-of-age film," he says. "Unfortunately, the person who is coming of age is a 50-year-old man." Curiously, both Clooney and Payne were born in 1961 - just three months apart - making them the same age as King.
Not that the Nebraska-born Payne will admit The Descendants is a particularly personal film. "Not really," he shrugs. Or particularly emotional. "Is a surgeon emotional when sewing up a patient? No - it's a job." Still, like King, he's suffered his own woes since Sideways. Knee surgery, together with a divorce from the actress Sandra Oh, meant his personal life had to take precedence over his work. It didn't help that he and Taylor spent two years writing a sci-fi script about shrinking, only for the global economic recession to make such an expensive project untenable.
"I was so desperate to shoot a movie," he recalls, "I said, 'Is that Descendants thing still available? OK, I'll take it!'" At the time, his Los Angeles production outfit had hired two writers, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, to adapt Hemmings's book, with Stephen Frears lined up to direct. When Frears dropped out, Payne jumped in. "It was a little bit more outside my wheelhouse, with respect to the satirical and comic characteristics of the other films," he admits. "This one plays it a little bit more straight, and I was maybe a little bit more afraid of it."
At its heart, The Descendants feels like an emotional cry for family unity, seemingly far more commercial than Payne's previous work. Yet, as Clooney points out, to get to this point, King must come to terms with issues of grief, infidelity and, most importantly, the consequences of his own actions. "Matt is equally responsible for a lot of things that have gone wrong - the loss of his family in general, his wife's infidelity, all those things. It's about forgiving yourself eventually for it. And finding forgiveness, not just of her but for her. And I found that was a big theme all the way through the film - releasing that kind of anger."
As the title suggests, the film also deals with what we inherit - emotionally, psychologically, financially - from our ancestors. It transpires that King is the sole trustee of hundreds of acres of family land, the sale of which will net him and his numerous Hawaiian cousins (led by Beau Bridges) millions of dollars. Never mind that they all wear shorts and floral shirts. "Some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen," says King, in his cutting voice-over.
A line taken directly from the book, this sideways glance at Hawaiian society was another element that tickled Payne's interest in adapting the novel. "Rich people don't have to dress up for anybody," he laughs. "I remember years ago, Jim Taylor and I were walking down the street in New York, and we were hungry, and he said: 'Let's go in here.' I said: 'Nah, it's too fancy a place. Look how we're dressed.' He goes: 'They'll think we're big shots!'"
Now, with their production company behind films such as The Savages and Cedar Rapids, they could be considered such. Thanks to his time out from directing, Payne has a raft of projects lined up "for the first time in my career". First, there's the black-and-white father-son road-trip movie Nebraska, which he's looking to shoot next May. Then, with that sci-fi film still jostling for attention, he also wants to shoot Daniel Clowes's own adaptation of his graphic novel Wilson, about a middle-aged misanthrope loner. Don't expect another gap like before. "I'm 50 now," he says, "and raring to go."
For a Q&A with the actress Shailene Woodley, visit www.thenational.ae/national-blog/scene-heard