Hawaii serves as a pivotal character in The Descendants, director Alexander Payne‘s story of death and legacy. To fulfill such a role, establishing a strong sense of place became a primary objective for production designer, Jane Stewart, who spent approximately eight months in Hawaii with the production, including time in advance of the shoot location scouting and absorbing the unique culture and history of the islands.
Continuing her long-term collaboration with Payne, which began before his debut film, Citizen Ruth, and lasted through all of his features, Stewart reveals she had to take a different approach to stay true to this story because Payne prefers a plain realism in his settings, or as she says, “He is the king of banal, but the thing about Hawaii is that it’s really beautiful. I wanted to bring a lot of that in.” It’s not the kind of look that is found in the Midwest with its strip malls that were the setting of Payne’s films like Election and About Schmidt.
Stewart and Payne talked about how to open up the script and show the land, which is pivotal to the hero’s journey. “He is about saving the land,” shares Stewart. “The character reveals the history of the family. We are also seeing it visually. It’s very luxurious and has a kind of divine decadence to it. It’s very spiritual and you get the feeling there is a lot of history there.”
In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) and his family are among the elite of the islands, descended from Hawaiian royalty and the early settlers that arrived with their bibles and missions. Stewart incorporated that history and class distinction into her design. “They live in these old plantation houses that used to be a half hour away from Honolulu by buggy,” explains Stewart. “These places up on the hill were houses they would go to live in because of the breezes that came through. They were of a certain architectural time.”
The partially restored house used as the King residence in the film had belonged to the Robinson family, which were truly descendants of the type depicted in the movie. “It had an integrity to it that was real to me,” reveals Stewart. “That was part of what drew me to it.” However, the home had been striped of the original wood and painted shiny semi-gloss white. Because the film was the closest she had ever gotten to a period piece, Stewart pushed the envelope to give the home an old plantation style, having the art department completely restore the old woodwork. Following the trend of the late 16th century and early 17th century of using wallpaper depicting explorer Captain Cooke’s early experience with the Hawaiian Islands, the team also painted an illustration in the dining room, which, when combined with family paraphernalia, added to the historic authenticity needed for the story. “I wanted it to feel like it had been there since the ships arrived,” says Stewart. “I want people to want to go back to that house over and over again.”
Stewart credits her “other-half,” long-time set decorator Matt Calahan, as “a master at soaking up the different stores and shops and finding ways to do things with the amount of money they have.” During her research of Hawaiian lifestyles, Stewart took note of interesting details important to creating the story world. “Every house I went into was loaded with stuff. Everyone is a hoarder. I say this with love. I don’t know if people think that they’re on an island so they need to keep all these things,” comments Stewart. “When you’re dressing a set, you just layer it with lots of history, a little bit of the orient, some Americana – especially from the ’50s and ’60s – and that’s how it is.”