It didn’t surprise anyone that The Descendants has five Oscar nominations this year - Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), and Best Film Editing. Somehow, if the Academy Award has a category for Best Film Location, we have no doubt The Descendants would be up for it also. For now, it comes in at No. 1 on Budget Travel‘s The Year’s Most Inspiring Travel Films.
The Descendants is based on a novel by local author Kaui Hart Hemming who is a long-time resident of Hawaii. Ms. Hemming has a cameo appearance in the movie as Matt King’s (George Clooney) secretary.
When interviewing Alexander Payne (the director), NPR asked what he thought was most distinctive about Hawaiian’s life and culture and how he incorporated that into The Descendants.
“I’ve visited Hawaii many times over the last 20 years, starting in 1990 when I took my thesis film from UCLA to play at the Hawaii International Film Festival,” responded Payne. “So my first trip to Hawaii was not as a tourist but rather as a friend of someone who grew up there.”
“From that point that on, I always got a sense of the complex, social fabric and cultural fabric, ethnically. It’s very unique out there. Capturing a sense of place is very important to me,” Payne continues. “By the time I got to doing The Descendants, I really wanted to show - almost with the eye and sensibility of a documentarian - the right feeling, physically and rhythmically, of Hawaii. It’s sort of become something I’m very interested in, to the point where when I consider a future movie, I audition mentally not just the story, emotional story, but also where is it going to take place because the setting interests me as much as the story.”
To prepare himself for the movie, Payne lived on Oahu for eight months soaking up the local culture and history. As a result, The Descendants shows the Aloha state in a subtle yet realistic light. It also authentically portrays the Hawaiian’s way of life including the local people’s obsession of protecting the natural beauty of their land.
Filmed on location in the neighborhood of Nu’uanu, an enchanting area near Waikiki on the windward side of Oahu, the audience gets a glimpse of a Hawaii that tourists rarely see. “It’s a little rainier up there, up in the hills, but that’s actually where people live,” says producer Jim Burke. “There are no hotels. It’s beautiful; it’s lush.” It’s also where an old kama’aina family like the Kings would live. Not surprisingly, Nu’uanu is the setting of Matt King’s house as well as the house of his two best friends.
Below is a screenshot of Matt’s house, a stately Hawaiian home in Nu’uanu.
If you’ve seen the movie, I’m sure you remember the scene where Matt was running down the hill to the house of his two friends, Mark and Kai Mitchell, who live in the same neighborhood.
The Mitchells’ house in real life belongs to Tiare Finney. When director Alexander Payne saw the house, he lobbied hard to get permission from the owner to use the house for filming. Payne thought the house was a perfect setting for the movie and didn’t want to change a thing, down to Poppy, the pygmy goat living in their front yard.
Here’s Matt King as reached the Mitchells’ residence after a short jog from his own house. Poppy the goat was the first friendly face to greet Matt as he arrived breathlessly.
Originally purchased by her parents in 1941, Finney’s eclectic kama’aina (plantation-style) home has a large collection of tropical-themed art and memorabilia (vintage photographs, glass fishing balls, canoe paddles, shell scapes, and hunting trophies), many of which are from her parents and can be seen in the movie’s backdrop.
“They used the house and my furniture and my art pretty much as is,” says Finney. No doubt it was a strange experience to see her own house on the big screen, but the most emotional part for Finney was when she saw her own kitchen in the movie.
“I was most taken by the personal family photographs on the refrigerator while George Clooney gives his lines in the foreground,” Finney shares. “My deceased mom is there.”
The filming began in rainy March of 2010. The large film crew (of over 80 people) arrived at Finney’s house with their lighting equipments and muddy shoes. The crew worked everywhere around the house - on the roof, on the lanai, in various rooms and hallways, and in the kitchen. Even in the pouring rain, one crew member stood outside holding up giant reflectors as they flapped turbulently in the wind.
Finney admitted that she was worried about the state of her house after all the filming was done. “I had fear and trepidation,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I said yes to this.” But the film crew was meticulous at cleaning up after themselves. When the production was over, her house was even cleaner than its original state.
To maintain the real ambience of the home, Payne even gave Finney’s goat her own screen time. “[Payne] said, ‘Leave the goat right there,’ ” Finney shares. “Alexander lay down on his belly with the camera to get the perfect shot.” As a result, we have a close-up of Poppy standing in the front yard under the 50-foot lychee tree. It turns out to be a family affair since Finney ended up playing one of Matt King’s cousins, Connie.
Throughout their time filming in Hawaii, the cast and crew became friends with many of the locals. “You can go to any one of them and ask them about their own ancestry, their own lineage, and they all know,” shares the movie producer Jim Burke.
According to the novel, there are a few scenes taking place at the Outrigger Canoe Club. But since the club doesn’t allow filming, these scenes were filmed at the Elks Club next door instead (also known as the Elks Honolulu Lodge, No. 616).
One of the scenes filmed at the Elks Club has a humorous moment, if you’re familiar with the surfing world that is. Remember the scene when a tall, blond surfer named Troy approached Matt King and his daughters? The actor who played Troy is Laird Hamilton, a real life surfing legend (“Riding Giants” 2004) and a friend of the author’s father. Coincidentally, Hamilton was a featured guest in Oprah’s Master Class aired a few weeks ago on February 12, 2012.
Below is a vintage postcard of The Elks Club (from Penny Postcards).
Founded in 1911 and located at 2933 Kalakaua Avenue on the South Shore of Oahu at the foot of Diamond Head Crater, the Elks Club is an expensive, members-only club. It’s also one of the film locations for Magnum P.I. in the 1980s. During the show’s first season, the setting for the King Kamehameha Club were filmed on location at the Elks Club.
After her boating accident, Elizabeth King (Matt’s wife) stays at the Queen’s Medical Center, off of the Pali Highway. The hospital scenes were also filmed on location at the real Queen’s Medical Center (or Queen’s Hospital as the locals call it). It is the largest private hospital in Hawaii.
PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo of the Queen’s Medical Center is from here.
Looking out of the window in Elizabeth’s room, we can see a nice sweeping view of the Hawaii State Art Museum, the state library, and Iolani Palace.
Not a filming location per se, but the Kahala Hotel and Resort is famous for another reason. During the filming in Oahu, the cast and crew of The Descendants stayed here. Frequented by celebrities since its opening on January 22, 1964, the Kahala (nicknamed “The Ka-hollywood”) boasts a huge famous guest list from celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby, Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler, John A. Michener, Janet Jackson, Cameron Diaz, to heads of states such as Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the Sultan of Brunei, and many U.S. Presidents (from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush).
The resort has a dolphin lagoon four feet above sea level. It houses three Atlantic bottlenose dolphins named Uku, Nihoa and Kui - all from Gulftport, Mississippi. A couple of penguins, the Kahala’s most endearing guests since its opening, came to surprise the dolphins on their birthday in 1984. They ended up staying at the resort until 1995.
Here’s the dolphin lagoon:
PHOTO CREDITS: Above photos of the Kahala Hotel & Resort is from the resort’s website.
There’s a scene in the movie in which the King family stands on a cliff looking down to a stretch of beautiful land belonging to their family. The land in real life is the Kipu Kai Ranch, a 3,000-acre private cattle ranch on the south shore of Kauai owned by the missionary-descended Rice family.
For years, Hollywood has been filming on Kipu Ranch. Some of the movies that used the ranch as a film location include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Diamond Head, The Hawaiians, Islands In The Stream, The Lost World (sequel to Jurassic Park), Outbreak, and Mighty Joe Young.
Today, the ranch has partnered with Kipu Ranch Adventures to offer daily ATV tours for the public. The 3-hour tour enters the property through a pine-covered road where cattle, wild boar, pheasants and peacocks roam freely. Visitors get a brief history of the ranch before their ATV training begins.
How to get to the Kipu Ranch? The Kipu Ranch Adventures folks have provided us a good map:
PHOTO CREDIT: Above map is from the Kipu Ranch Adventures’ website.
The tour shows visitors stunning views of the majestic Ha’upu Mountain Range, the Hu’leia Valley, and the Menehune Fishpond. It also takes them to the banks of the Hu’leia River and the location used in the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark when Harrison Ford attempts to escape from a band of Hovito Indians by swinging on a rope into the river and a waiting seaplane.
Many scenes from The Descendants were filmed in the stunning Hanalei Bay area. “Hanalei Bay is unique just by the enormous size of it, very raw and mostly untouched,” says the movie’s co-producer George Parra.
PHOTO CREDIT: A behind-the-scene look of George Clooney (as Matt King) running on the beach by the Hanalei Bay - photo from here.
To take advantage of the beauty of the bay, The Descendants stationed and filmed at two of the rental cottages on the shore of Hanalei Bay. Nalu Beach Cottage (which currently rents for $750 per night or $5,000 per week) and the Kauikeolani Estate (a historic house owned by the author’s family, currently rents for $15,000 a week with a one-week minimum).
The Nalu Beach Cottage
Here are photos of the Nalu Beach Cottage, the film location of the cottage where Brian Speer and his family stay while on vacation in Kauai. Remember when Matt follows Brian to this cottage and catches him resting by the front steps after a run on the beach?
The hedges fencing this huge lawn looking out to the bay were prominently featured in the movie. Matt King hides behind them during his stakeout at the cottage.
Here’s the living room where Matt confronts Brian Speer:
PHOTO CREDITS: For more information and photos of the Kanu Beach Cottage, visit the Hanalei Land Company’s website. Above photos are also from the website.
The Kauikeolani Estate
The six-bedroom Kauikeolani Estate, where the author spent many of her childhood holidays, served as the homebase and gathering place for the cast and crew of The Descendants. The Estate’s ground includes a series of mature gardens, expansive lawns, grazing pasture, and an ancient Hawaiian fishpond.
The below description is from the website featuring the Kauikeolani Estate:
“The Estate is comprised of six separate accommodations. Kauikeolani, once the residence of Albert and Emma Wilcox (read about its history), remains as the central structure upon the land. The original home dates back to 1800s, at which time it was a comparably modest structure of only three bedrooms. However, as the Wilcox generations grew, so did the walls of Kauikeolani. Today, the main house is comprised of six bedrooms and six bathes, comfortably accommodating a total of twelve guests.”
The expansive living room of the Kauikeolani Estate is tastefully decorated with antique furniture reflecting the opulent tastes of a late 19th century missionary lifestyle. It’s a living museum almost.
Being the basecamp for the production, we can almost see the cast gathering here at this long dining table, rehearsing their lines for filming the next day. What a cozy, perfect place for everyone to bond during the making of the movie!
We especially love the kitchen and the lush views from its windows.
PHOTO CREDITS: For more information and photos of the Estate, visit the Hanalei Land Company’s website. Above photos are also from the website.
When The Descendants’ co-producer George Parra says “Every location [used in the movie] is the real place,” he wasn’t kidding. For example, pick the bar that Matt King’s Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) hangs out in. It’s a real-life Hanalei bar called Tahiti Nui, a favorite local hang-out.
PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo of the Tahiti Nui Bar is from its website.
Beau Bridges himself is a regular at the Tahiti Nui. “All the guys you see in the scene in the background are just local folks who were hanging at the bar,” shares Bridges. “The Hawaiian band in the scene play there every Thursday night. Tahiti Nui is a legendary hang.”
This world-famous beautiful resort was where the cast and crew of The Descendants (and Just Go With It) stayed when they were in town filming. Not only that, the resort itself was also featured in the movie. The scene where Matt King is jogging along the beach by Hanalei Bay was filmed on the beach adjacent to the St. Regis Princeville Resort.
Built into a cliff at the east end of Hanalei Bay, it was the film location for a few scenes in The Descendants, including scenes in the hotel lobby . . .
. . . and at the Princeville Fountain.
PHOTO CREDIT: Above photos of the St. Regis Princeville Resort are from the resort’s website.
In the movie, Matt King and his family fly to Kauai so he can take care of an important personal business. When they arrive at Lihue Airport, they bump into one of Matt’s cousins. This scene was actually filmed at the real Lihue Airport.
The airport is no stranger to Hollywood since it was the film location for other films such as Honeymoon in Vegas and Six Days, Seven Nights.
Hawaii offers a generous 15-20% film tax credits for productions filming in the state. The incentive is icing on the cake since Hawaii’s breathtaking natural beauty on its own is probably enough to lure Hollywood to the islands.
For a detailed list of movies filmed in Kauai, visit the Kauai Film Office’s website.
Visit the Honolulu Film Office’s website in case you’re interested in filming in Honolulu.
For more information on filming in Hawaii, visit the Hawaii Film Office’s website.