Hollywood, Hawai‘i

At a point early in the novel “The Descendants,” a cheeky 10-year-old girl wears a t-shirt that says “Mrs. Clooney.” Her name is Scottie, and she’s the weirdly precocious daughter of Honolulu attorney Matthew King, the novel’s narrator and protagonist. Scottie wears the shirt when her dad takes her to visit her vivacious mother, Joanie, who lies in a coma at Honolulu’s Queen’s Medical Center.

It’s a funny if minor detail—except that the screen idol himself, Mr. Clooney, played Scottie’s dad in the Hollywood version of the novel, which hit screens in the fall of 2011.

That’s right: George Clooney played a hip Honolulu lawyer. Also a harried father and landowning patriarch, sort of like Charlton Heston in the 1963 soaper “Diamond Head,” except that Matt King is old-line
hapa—that is, he carries some Hawaiian blood in his veins—and, as written by Hawai‘i novelist Kaui Hemmings, is a more nuanced hero than Heston ever was.

Filmed entirely on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i in 2010, “The Descendants” might have been the most eagerly awaited hometown movie in recent island history, at least since James Michener’s epic “Hawai‘i” was put on screen in 1966 with Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow—and a 20- year-old extra from ‘Aiea named Bette Midler. (Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” from 2001 was a bit of a letdown from a local point of view.)

While George Clooney grappled with his role in “The Descendants” and pondered what it means to be Hawaiian, the state of Hawai‘i was in the middle of an unprecedented boom in TV and film production. The year 2010 cashed out with an estimated record-breaking $347 million in production expenditures, according to the state’s film office. The previous record, $229 million, was set in 2007. The boom was stoked by nine feature film productions, four television series and the usual miscellany of independent films, reality shows, music videos, surf films, televised sports events, TV commercials, etc.

Local film crews, used to a feast-or-famine business cycle, were reportedly “shell shocked” by the amount of paying work, whether it was on the latest Adam Sandler picture, “Just Go With It,” co-starring Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman and shooting on Maui; or on “Battleship,” an unlikely high-concept project that’s based on the old board game. Producers had to improvise studio space. By mid-summer, Hawai‘i Film & Video, the local trade magazine was asking, how much is too much?

“The Descendants” cost a modest $20 million. Locations included beaches, schools, clubs and homes. For interior work, the production needed a sound stage, but the state-run Hawai‘i Film Studio in Honolulu was occupied by the ABC-TV monster hit “Lost,” then winding down its last season. So the producers rented a vacant big-box store and retrofitted a studio inside. CBS Television took over a space close to the grand (and recently emptied) news building of the Honolulu Advertiser as headquarters for at least 12 episodes of a brand-new “Hawai‘i Five-0” television series, the much-anticipated reboot of the classic crime drama. For its part, ABC renewed its lease at the state’s studio, where the network is spending $14 million to produce seven episodes of the medical drama series “Off the Map,” set in a remote village clinic in the Amazonian wilds of Brazil. O‘ahu’s wetter locations will stand in for the jungle.

“ABC loves Hawai‘i,” crowed network president Stephen McPherson during a Honolulu event last year marking the final season of “Lost.” “Hawai‘i was a hugely important character in the show and helped make it a hit. The [Hawai‘i] crew is at the top of the list of any location where we’ve filmed. Why would we not want to do another series here?”

Meanwhile, in June of 2010, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, sailed into the Islands aboard the S.S. Black Pearl to do most of its location shooting. Prep time in Hawai‘i was 10 months; shoot time was two. The Disneybacked production, the fourth installment of the $2 billion franchise, anchored itself at isolated bays and beaches around the Islands to shoot a story rumored to involve a mermaid or two and the Fountain of Youth (!).

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer kept his fan club tantalized about the super-secret production with a series of Twitter tweets. “This beautiful rainbow seems to be a sign of good fortune as P4 gets underway in Hawai‘i,” Bruckheimer tweeted. He attached his snapshot of a Kaua‘i rainbow. In August, as location work wrapped up, he tweeted, “Mahalo to everyone in Hawai‘i who made our PIRATES 4 shoot such a great one. You taught us ‘aloha’ isn’t just a word.”

Johnny Depp lived aloha with hundreds of fans who waited in the pre-dawn darkness to catch a glimpse of the star arriving at one of Pirates’ O‘ahu locations. For several days and in full costume, makeup and dreadlocks, Jack Sparrow began his day by shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
In the end, the show contributed an estimated $85 million into the local economy.

“The boom didn’t happen by itself,” says former Hawai‘i film office chief Donne Dawson. She ticks off the factors: first, there’s the late actor Jack Lord, she says, Detective Steve McGarrett of the original and hugely popular “Hawaii Five- 0” that aired from 1968 to 1980, back when most Americans had a choice of four or five TV channels. After “Five-0” wrapped, Lord and his wife stayed in Honolulu, and he went to work building a local film industry. He used his clout and convinced the state to take over the bare-bones, 5-acre film studio that CBS had pulled together for his series. Finally, in 1994, with the construction of the state’s first professional-grade sound stage and an impressive gate, the Hawai‘i Film Studio (HFS) was born.

Dawson also credits the 6-year run of “Lost,” produced entirely in Hawai‘i and headquartered at HFS. She explains that the show forced local production workers and vendors to step up their game. “It pretty much blew the lid off Hawai‘i’s capabilities for location production,” she says.

The show shot every single back story and flashback in Hawai‘i, Dawson points out. “We made Hawai‘i look like Australia, Korea, England, Iraq, Nigeria,” she says. “We had snow trucked to a corner in downtown Honolulu to make it Buffalo, New York. I’ve been to numerous trade shows, and people told me they couldn’t believe ABC shot the entire show in Hawai‘i. ‘Lost’ was Hawai‘i’s best calling card ever.

Dawson also credits Act 88, passed in 2006 and in effect through 2015. The law offers refundable tax credits of 15 percent for O‘ahu-based productions and 20 percent for productions that film on the neighbor islands.

Lastly, Dawson believes Hawai‘i is uniquely situated to take on more and more functions as Hollywood’s backlot of choice. While other American states compete with each other to woo Hollywood, Hawai‘i is competing with the world—New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Costa Rica—because of its exotic and infinitely photogenic natural resources. “We are relatively close to the continent and the epicenter in L.A.,” she says. Once a crew gets to Honolulu or Kahului or Hilo or Lihu‘e, it’s a short trip by car, boat or helicopter from hotels and other havens of civilization to the most remote locations. She notes the tagline used by the film office: “The Hawaiian Islands: As Close As Far-away Gets.”

By the state’s count, 240 feature films have shot at least some of their footage in Hawai‘i since 1913, and when Hollywood meets Hawai‘i, when the dream machine meets paradise, the myth-making is irresistible. A tiny cove with its surf sloshing around Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s passionate embrace equals swept-away sexuality in Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity,” winner of eight Academy Awards in 1953. On the other hand, there’s “Goin’ Coconuts,” starring Donny and Marie Osmond in 1978. John Wayne stood tall in the wonderful “Donovan’s Reef” (1963) and in the gritty, realistic Navy drama “In Harm’s Way” (1965). Elvis Presley carved his own suave kitsch into Hawai‘i film-making with his Hawai‘i trio: “Blue Hawai‘i,” “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and “Paradise, Hawaiian Style.” Consider these classic titles, all released in 1957: “Forbidden Island,” “Naked Paradise,” “Voodoo Island” and “Jungle Heat”; or these, from the pre-World War II era: “Passion Fruit,” “His Captive Woman,” “Bird of Paradise,” “White Heat,” “Waikiki Wedding” and ”South of Pago Pago.”

During pre-production for “Bird of Paradise” (1932), producer David O. Selznick famously summed up Hollywood’s working attitude toward the Islands: “I don’t care what story you use,” he snapped at his director King Vidor, “so long as we call it ‘Bird of Paradise’ and [Dolores] Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish.”

It’s hard to describe the pride and yearning the people of Hawai‘i feel when confronted with Hollywood’s images of themselves on film. Longtime Honolulu entertainment columnist Wayne Harada gave it a shot when he penned a tribute to the original “Hawaii Five-0” on the occasion of the death of Jack Lord in January 1998.

“‘Five-0’ became a part of us,” Harada wrote, “even if it didn’t reflect real life in the Islands and often caused controversy. We watched because our front yard had become a global phenomenon.”

Harada waxed ruefully nostalgic about a time when “the Hawaiian renaissance was just getting started. We still thought of the mainland as the most important place, and of ourselves as being way behind them.” He acknowledged the show’s howler inaccuracies—of McGarrett driving the wrong way on Diamond Head Road after he just told Danno on his car radio that he was on his way to the airport—and datedness, particularly its ham-handed treatment of non-Caucasians. The show’s formula couldn’t be replicated today, he observed, “not least because of the way non-Caucasians often were portrayed as exotic beauties, as hard-working, not very bright thirds-in-command, as Chinatown prostitutes and aunties who spoke in fractured syntax.”

Harada quoted a wise, part-Hawaiian salesman, Keiki Lee: “We would get so excited when that music came on,” Lee said. “We always watched it in our house, and we would laugh like hell at the lines they would give people like Zulu and Al Harrington and Uncle Moe [Keale]. I wouldn’t laugh now because, you know, that show was really disrespectful to local culture. But that was then. You gotta respect the show as it was then.”

If there were negative afterthoughts about the original “Hawaii Five-0,” they weren’t reflected in the open casting call for the new production. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that it drew an estimated 2,000 hopefuls to the Aloha Tower Marketplace in late August of 2010. Perhaps the big turnout happened because Hawai‘i, one of the most complex and blessed places on earth, is still looking for the truth in its cinema. Maybe that’s why George Clooney is so attractively compelling and “The Descendants” so anticipated. With his dark glinting eyes, can Clooney play a convincing hapa-haole? As upper class as his character is, will we hear the faint pidgin sing-song of every local boy in his voice? Will he wear the right clothes? Will Honolulu as it is right now be magically conjured?

The director of “The Descendants” is the acclaimed Alexander Payne, who also adapted the screenplay from the novel. Payne has made a name for himself with his humane storytelling in wonderfully detailed films like “Sideways” (his screenplay won the Oscar), “About Schmidt” and “Election.” His prestige as a director gives him complete creative control of his films.

In a phone interview, Payne dismisses the notion that Hawai‘i is subject to cliché and instead focuses on what interested him about the place as a location. “The geographical reality of where the islands are on the planet,” he says from his editing table in Los Angeles, “of where they’re situated. Hawai‘i has a unique story to tell, and I’m interested in where it is right now in its history. Of course, Hawai‘i is unique, certainly, in the United States, but also on the planet. The social fabric of the place, the people…it’s just a very sui generis place, don’t you agree? I mean, I met a writer in Honolulu, a very good one, who’s been writing about Hawai‘i for over 50 years, and he finds it more mysterious than ever.”

The director is asked if the sweetness of Honolulu will seep into the film. “I don’t know,” he says, “I haven’t finished editing yet. I‘ve just started!”

What attracted him to Kaui Hemmings’s book? “It’s a good human story,” he says. “I would have liked the story, I think, no matter where it was set, but that it’s set in Hawai‘i and amid that monied upper class makes it unique and interesting to me. And I would have to say, the other reason I want to make it is that I’ve never seen Honolulu in a movie.” Bless you, Mr. Payne, bless you.