INTERVIEW: ‘The Descendants’ Producer Jim Burke

The Descendants re-unites director Alexander Payne with producer Jim Burke for the first time since Payne’s 1999 film Election. Burke and Payne along with Jim Taylor together formed a production company called Ad Hominem Enterprises that seeks out a certain type of film to produce. That type of film is pretty obvious when you see that Burke’s other credits include independent comedies Cedar Rapids and The Savages. He is slated to work alongside Alexander Payne in numerous upcoming projects over the next several years.

Jim Burke is a Minnesota native and he returned to his home state to promote his latest film The Descendants. I had the pleasure to meet him in a coffee shop to talk about his latest film, his producing experience, working with Alexander Payne, and their upcoming projects.

Q: What is your reaction to the reaction of the film so far after Telluride and Toronto and the Gotham Awards, does it go to your head at all?

A: Oh yeah, it’s gone straight to my head. No, not at all. I actually just love watching it with an audience, but I’m never at peace. I always have a little bit of butterflies in my stomach, because you just don’t know. I’m very happy about the reaction. I love the movie and I’m happy to see that other people are seeming loving it to. I’d say that this is Alexander Payne’s finest film.

Q: How did you meet up with Alexander Payne?

A: We met about 15 years ago, around the time of Election. He’s from the Midwest, too, so we shared that common bond in a business that doesn’t have a lot of people from here. Also we share the same film sensibility. We want to make the same kind of movie. There may be other people from the Midwest, but they want to make horror movies or slasher movies, but that’s not our aim. We just like to make human films that change tone.

Q: What is Alexander Payne’s process like? What’s it like on set with him?

A: I’ll tell you that out of all the directors I have worked with, he is the most prepared, the most sure of what he wants on any given day. That doesn’t mean he’s not open to creative spurts, but he gets that only after he gets what he knows he’s got to get. He has a real voice in film and he knows how to exercise that and get what he needs. That’s a comfort to everyone who works on a movie including the actors, and especially the actors because there are a lot of filmmakers who get on a set and feel like their process includes a certain amount of chaos. You know like “put the camera there, no there, now switch sides, now let’s change the script.” He doesn’t do any of that. He and Jim write a script and that’s the movie.

Q: Does he allow for improvisation?

A: A little bit, but only after he gets what is written.

Q: Interesting. I know George Clooney is one who likes to add his own bits, so was there any issues working with him?

A: No, he was great, man. The thing about George is, he is also a filmmaker on top of being an actor so he has been in Alexander’s shoes and he also, I know because he said so, is a big admirer of Alexander Payne. It’s not his place to say “I should be doing this or that.” His job is to play Matt King and he did so fantastically.

Q: One of the things I really liked about The Descendants is that in a normal death movie, when somebody is dying or recently dead, you don’t see them and they are kind of spoken about with reverie. In The Descendants, the person who is dying, not only do we see her in a very disgusting state, but the characters are revealing all of these dark demons about her. Talk about the process of showing that and why you were attracted to a movie that did that.

A: I sort of don’t look at it as a story about her. She’s part of it. She never speaks and we only know about her from what other people say and we found that interesting. In the book and in earlier drafts of the script we had flashbacks of what her life was like, but we felt that was sort of conventional. We wanted to bust those conventions, which is something we do often. When we detect something that might be familiar we try to find another way to do it. [Patricia Hastie] was a fantastic actress, she lost 20 lbs and she never uttered a word, but gave a great performance. I think it’s interesting to learn about a person only by what other people say about her. You could listen to her dad talk about her and understand her from one perspective, you could listen to what her daughter says about her, or her other daughter a different way, you could listen to what Brian Speer says about her, he thinks she’s great. That’s a lot like life. You get a group of 10 people to talk about me and you will get 10 different stories.

Q: I liked that you showed them each individually reacting to her. He berates her and then his daughter comes in and he criticizes his daughter for doing the exact same thing.

A: Exactly, but that’s human and I relate to that, as a father.

Q: There’s a natural human tendency to have utmost respect for somebody who is dying, so for this film to go a different direction I thought was fascinating.

A: Yeah, and there are times when Matt King protects his wife. He protects her when his daughter is yelling at her, he protects her when Julie Speer comes in. You may have a brother or sister or wife who is a total pain in your ass and you know she’s a pain in your ass, but when somebody else criticizes her you need to protect her.

Q: I know Alexander Payne likes to use real people. What was your favorite performance by a local actor?

A: It would be Patty [Hastie], the lady who plays Elizabeth. Laird Hamilton is a local guy, he’s the guy who plays Troy, a famous surfer who has never acted before. The doctor who played Doctor Johnson is a real doctor who gave [Matt King] the news. The lady who is the dorm mother is the real dorm mother at that school. Pretty much everybody you see at that movie who is what we call a “day player” is acting in a role that they hold down in real life.

Q: What can you tell us about Fork in the Road, you’re upcoming movie with Alexander Payne?

A: It’s probably not the next movie. We’ll make a movie called Wilson next year, which is a great, just hysterically funny movie that is adapted from a graphic novel written by a guy named Dan Clowes. It’s really funny and it’s about a guy who is a misanthrope, but is trying his best to change his ways every day.

Q: Do you have any cast lined up yet?

A: Not yet, no. We cast in a very methodical way.

Q: Are you going to be setting a film in Minnesota anytime soon?

A: Yeah, we have a movie called Keep Coming Back that is about a man who really lived here named James Faring. He was the first person, as far as I know, that was an interventionist as a job. Somebody who gathers a family together for drug interventions or drinking. It’s a period piece set in the early 90s, which is when he got going and there was nobody better than him at doing this. Celebrities, big law firms would call him in when they didn’t know what to do. It’s a funny movie about serious subjects.

Q: Sounds very Alexander Payne.

A: Exactly.

Q: Sounds like a lot of your work, too.

A: We like the same films. We have a company together, Alexander, Jim Taylor, and I so we make movies through the same lens. They’re not all going to be the same, just like The Descendants is not the same as Sideways. They won’t all be directed by him, but they will all have our imprint and be the same kind of human films.

Q: Thanks for talking to me.

A: Thanks for seeing the movie.

To hear an extended audio version of this interview, check out the most recent episode of the Film Misery Podcast.

The Descendants is currently playing in limited release across the U.S.

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  • The Descendants is my most awaited movie of the year right now followed by Shame and Moneyball :)

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