Culture

Getting Lucky with George Clooney

George Clooney © iStock/Kaui Hart Hemmings photo courtesy of the author
George Clooney © iStock/Kaui Hart Hemmings photo courtesy of the author

Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of the novel The Descendants, adapted for the big screen by Alexander Payne and starring Clooney, shares with Signature what the process has really been like.

Last March, I sat on the beach at Hanalei Bay in front of my cousin's cottages near the Pier. The beach stretched toward the Napali Coast. The rippled cliffs across the bay were a bold emerald green. It was just as I had known it my whole life, coming here with my family, surfing, walking, and reading on the soft sand, but this time, there was George Clooney standing at the shore break, inhabiting the character of Matt King.

"I am so damn lucky," I thought to myself. This is my first novel; my favorite director, Alexander Payne, has adapted it into a screenplay that compliments and honors my story; George Clooney stars; my friends and family are extras; I've been granted complete access; it's like a perfect storm of luck. Added bonus: The film is fantastic. It beautifully captures the real Hawaii and the color and complications of the King family.

The plot of the novel and the film: Matt King, a Hawaiian royalty descendant and uninvolved father and husband is forced to become the full-time parent after a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. In a short amount of time he needs to reacquaint himself with his neglected daughters, tell loved ones his wife isn't going to make it, decide what to do with a voluptuous swath of land, and track down his wife's lover. Did I mention it's kind of a comedy?

Fortunately, the director, actors, and producers understood this. They understood the novel's tone and my tendency to blend humor with sadness. They knew my intent on showing a Hawaii rarely seen before, and they came to Hawaii fully armed to immerse themselves into its climate. For a novel about infidelity, they were entirely faithful.

The dialogue from the book is the dialogue in the film, The Pier is the Pier, the Napali Coast stars as the Napali Coast. In fact, it was very surreal to see so much of my novel and my own life on the big screen, playing out before me. Throughout it I can say, "There's my mom," "There's my childhood haunt," "There's my friend's house," "There's her goat!" "That's my Aunt Merrill's hula skirt," "That's my cousin's cottage."

There was one day during filming when George Clooney was wearing his surf shirt and board shorts. My six-year-old daughter was in the background as an extra, playing in the sand, playing herself. They looked equally Hawaiian, equally related to the place I call home. I was watching my life, Hollywood, my memory, and my book collide.

It was flattering to be used this way. To see fact and fiction, my life and a movie merge so seamlessly, and to be taken along for the ride. Playing George's secretary was pretty fun, too.

"How do you feel about what they've done to your book?"

I get this question all the time.

"I feel good," I always say. "Really, really good."

Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection House of Thieves. Her work has been published in Zoetrope, Best American New Voices, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Hemmings grew up in Hawaii and lives with her husband and daughter in San Francisco.