Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) was filmed in Hawaii. And much like 1999’s Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, or more recently, 2011’s Soul Surfer, The Descendants is both filmed and set in Hawaii. As it shares its storytelling between the islands of Oahu and Kauai, as you can imagine, there are plenty of The Descendants filming locations waiting to be discovered.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a native Hawaiian attorney whose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), ends up in a coma after a boating accident. But Matt must come to terms with the revelation that Elizabeth was having an affair, while also dealing with his two troubled teenage daughters. On top of that, he faces the pressure of selling virgin Kauai land – for which he’s the sole trustee – to real estate developers.
Within the film, Clooney’s character is one of many descendants of King Kamehameha (whose statue, by way of some trivia, can be seen outside Ali’iolani Hale in television’s Hawaii Five-0). Putting all the family drama aside, this element of the plot makes for some meaningful commentary on Hawaii. In short, the film spends almost as much time celebrating and appreciating Hawaii as it does on the King family’s tribulations.
To begin with, the film takes place on Oahu, with one of its very first shots being offshore Waikiki (which appears again near the end of the film) where Elizabeth is engaged in the ill-fated powerboat race. Subsequent Oahu-based scenes feature the King residence, which was filmed in Nu’uanu (Old Pali Road, to be precise). This idyllic neighborhood is sat in the hills of Nu’uanu Punchbowl on the island’s windward shore, just north of Waikiki.
Before long, the family head over to Kauai (an animated Indiana Jones-esque map of the Hawaiian Islands neatly shows us the family’s aerial route). As you’ll probably already know, Kauai is no stranger to film, and for decades it has served some true cinematic juggernauts like Jurassic Park. But while this human and family-focused drama is of course worlds away from such films, The Descendants filming locations are no less epic when they fill the screen.
We first see Lihue airport, before the Kings make their way up to Princeville on Kauai’s North Shore. As they skirt the coast going from east to north, the film momentarily loses itself to mist-choked mountains and dramatic coastlines. Once at Princeville, Sandpiper Village appears as itself, and the family stay here for the remainder of the film. But Princeville even served the actors off-screen, as they stayed at the St. Regis Princeville Resort during filming.
Hanalei Bay’s Tahiti Nui Restaurant appears as itself, too, for the scene where Matt meets one of his cousins (Beau Bridges) to discuss the sale of the land. Many extras seen here are real locals, and the live band is as real. In fact, most of The Descendants filming locations are the real thing, too, which helps authenticate the film as a “true” Hawaii picture. On the topic of cameos, pro surfer Laird Hamilton (no relation to Soul Surfer Bethany Hamilton) also appears in the film.
For its third act, the film settles into the gorgeous, crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore. A scene in which Matt sets out for a morning run on the windswept beach perfectly encapsulates the tranquility Kauai has to offer. Of course, this is likely intentional, given that the spirit of Kauai is integral to the story, hence all those thoughtful shots during the family’s time on the island.
There are many other times where Hawaiian scenery lingers onscreen, though. In the film, Kipu Ranch doubles for the King’s privately-owned pristine Kauai land. Soon after arriving on Kauai, Matt and his family look out over a majestic valley and beach from a high rise. The beach seen here is Kipu Kai Beach, and the small distant mountain is the south-east coast headland Kawelikoa Point.
In real life, just like Oahu’s Kualoa Ranch, Kipu Ranch is a working cattle ranch and has also served many films over the years. And, like in The Descendants, it is indeed privately-owned (just not by George Clooney). However, like its Oahu-counterpart, the 3,000-acre ranch (not 25,000 acres as portrayed in the film) does offer its own excursions, with an opportunity for you to enjoy one of the most memorable of The Descendants filming locations.
So, it’s fair to say that The Descendants boasts a cast that’s as colorful as its settings. Alongside Clooney, it stars Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer (who stars in Jurassic World, which was also filmed in Hawaii). But if neither the cast nor The Descendants filming locations are enough to convince you to watch this film – a film that’s as good-looking as its main actor – then perhaps its accolades are.
The Descendants ingeniously weaves wit with real family drama, and with the help of some authentic Hawaiian music, it also captures the spirit of Kauai’s precious cultural preservation. Consequently, the film picked up a number of awards after its release. It won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, having been based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Golden Globe for Best Actor – Drama (Clooney), and one for Best Picture – Drama.
While The Descendants is set in “paradise”, despite its breath-taking landscapes, life in Hawaii is as real as it is anywhere else. So perhaps then, upon seeing the film, you might agree that paradise isn’t always perfect. And if this film is to teach us anything, it’s that real paradise comes in the form of a family. With that said, you can still enjoy your own little slice of it by visiting The Descendants filming locations.
Dan is a freelance writer from the UK who works for a number of online publications. He’s also working on a science fiction novel, and believes the impression Jurassic Park made on him as a child – both the Spielberg film and the book by Michael Crichton – to be the source of his passion to write. He previously critiqued theatrical releases for his local radio station, while his blog ‘Curious Rookie’ remains his platform for sharing film, travel and book reviews. Dan has also visited some of the most iconic film locations around the world, and his favorite destination is the island of Kauai in Hawaii.