Producer Jim Burke on Hawaiian state of mind in ‘The Descendants’ [Video]

“I first met Jim Taylor and got to like him and he asked if I’d like to read a new script they were working on, which was called ‘Election,’ and I read it and immediately knew … it was the best script I’d ever read,” producer Jim Burke tells Gold Derby about the first time he worked with Taylor and his writing and producing partner, Alexander Payne, in 1999. In 2005, the trio formed Ad Hominem Enterprises. “Our goal was to make human films,” says Burke. “You start a company and decide to make movies – it’s like planting a crop. You plant your seeds, and one day the mighty oak grows. Now we’re at a point where our trees are bearing fruit.”


That fruit has included 2007’s “The Savages,” starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the 2011 comedy “Cedar Rapids,” with Ed Helms and Anne Heche. Their latest film, “The Descendants,” came about after Burke was sent an unpublished manuscript by Kaui Hart Hemmings: “I knew immediately that it was great and would make a great film.” They met with several writers and eventually settled on Nat Faxon and Jim Rash to adapt the novel; until then Faxon and Rash were better known as comic character actors – most notably, Rash plays Dean Pelton on NBC’s cult hit “Community.”

Filming in Hawaii gave Burke a unique perspective on life in the island chain: “I’ve been there a number of times before, but only as a tourist, and this time I experienced it more as a local … I think one of the big differences that I noticed was that absolutely everybody I met there knew exactly how their family arrived in the islands, and most of the time it was many generations ago … Taking a trip from, let’s say, Europe to the United States was a major endeavor a couple of generations ago, but going out to a small island chain in the middle of the Pacific is even more epic.”

This was Burke’s first time working with George Clooney, of whom he says, “It’s easy to make it look hard, but it’s hard to make it look easy. He makes it look easy … Because he’s such a famous celebrity and philanthropist … sometimes I think that his skill as an actor gets underappreciated.” But Clooney’s performance has been much appreciated this year, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which, including his Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for “The Ides of March,” is his seventh nomination in six years. He won in 2005 for his supporting performance in “Syriana.”

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Payne and Taylor have also been on the awards circuit before, with their films “Election,” “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways,” but this is Burke’s first time in the Oscar gauntlet: “[Payne and Taylor] have more experience in this area than I do, but we all get equally nervous … Maybe it’s like running a marathon. The first time you do it you don’t know how hard it’ll be and the second time you do and it makes it scarier because you know what you’ve got in front of you.” We spoke to Burke a few days before he became an Academy Award nominee for producing “The Descendants,” which has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing in addition to Clooney’s bid for Best Actor. Of the Academy’s recognition, he says, “You just have to go along for the ride, because there’s nothing you can do about it. They will vote for our film, or they won’t, and all I can do is encourage people to see it.”

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