'Descendants' is latest from Minn. moviemaker Jim Burke

Jim Burke
Jim Burke grew up in Minnesota and moved to Hollywood after graduating from the University of Minnesota. He says he realized a while ago that his strength lies in making movies that he himself would like.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's a big weekend for movie producer Jim Burke. His latest film "The Descendants" opens in select cities, including his hometown of Minneapolis.

"The Descendants" is Burke's latest collaboration with Oscar winning director Alexander Payne, and began its journey towards becoming a movie when in 2007 Burke read the unpublished manuscript of a novel about a man in crisis in Hawaii.

The story follows the misadventures of Matt King, a lawyer whose wife is in a coma following a powerboat accident. King, played by George Clooney, struggles with his grief, and that of his two daughters, Alex, 17 and Scottie, 10.

Alex is away at a boarding school after acting out, and when King brings her back home, she is not impressed with her father or her sister. Then Alex tells her father that her mother was having an affair just before the accident. It's one of many twists in the story which mixes a little comedy with a lot of pathos, which Burke says appeals to him.

"Life is often not a straight line," he said. "And so things happen and things that you expect to happen, and things you don't expect to happen. And those both exist in this movie."

Even after producing more than a dozen features Burke said he is still learning.

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"And the book knocked me out," Burke said. "It was funny. It made me laugh out loud, by myself. And it made me cry."

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"The Descendents" is highly anticipated in some circles, because it's the first feature in seven years directed by Payne, Burke's production partner. Payne's past hits include "Election," "About Schmidt" and the wine buff comedy "Sideways." Payne has worked a little in television, and with Burke on producing films, including last spring's Midwestern comedy "Cedar Rapids."

"But aside from that, no, he hasn't been working, and nobody knows that more than him. And he was itching," Burke said.

The delay between projects, Burke said, was in part because of Payne's pickiness. Payne looks for human characters, often flawed, and sometimes desperate, Burke said.

"He shows those sorts of aspects, which if you are an honest person you can recognize those things in yourself," he said.

Burke said Payne's characters try to do their best in difficult circumstances, and these are the stories he wants to tell, too.

Burke grew up in the Twin Cities and went to the University of Minnesota. After graduating, he decided he wanted to get into show business, so he jumped in his Ford Pinto and headed to Hollywood. He didn't have a job lined up, nor did he really know what he was going to do.

Looking for Answers
In "The Descandants" George Clooney plays a Hawaiian lawyer whose life is thrown into turmoil when his wife is badly injured in a boating accident.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures/Merie Wallace

"The one thing I had going for me is that I didn't know it would be hard," Burke said. "I think I was born with this incredible kind of belief in myself and it's often unfounded. But I just do. I have a confidence where some people question themselves, and I sort of don't."

He got a job at Warner Brothers selling movies to TV stations. He took the opportunity to watch every film in the company library. His big break came when he and a friend set up a company which secured the syndication rights to a relatively unknown teen sitcom, "Saved by the Bell."

"As they say we ran the sprockets off that thing," he laughs. "I mean, we sold it a hundred times." They made so much money Burke was able to avoid the usual ladder-climbing required in Hollywood. He began producing movies. There was the cult bowling hit "Kingpin," made with the Farrelly brothers; the thriller "Two Days in the Valley", "Election" with Payne, "Walking Tall" and "The Savages."

Burke's career so far is a neat and tidy example of how to do it right in Hollywood, said Josh Dickey, Variety Magazine Film Editor.

Alexander Payne
"The Descendants" director Alexander Payne is Jim Burke's business partner in Ad Hominem Enterprises. This is the second Payne film Burke has produced.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures/Merie Wallace

"He attached himself to some folks that have been moderately successful, sticking with low-risk small budget films that have done very well," Dickey said from Los Angeles.

Dickey said there is even some talk of Oscar possibilities for "The Descendants."

Asked what he has learned about the business, Burke said he first had to have confidence in his own taste and make films based on that. Making movies is complicated, he admits, and he and his colleagues are often left scratching their heads as to why one film is a hit and another a bust.

"I work in a mysterious business and it's a mystery to all of us," he said.

Burke believes "The Descendants" is Payne's finest work so far, and he's betting audiences will agree.