In the interim, Payne took two monthlong trips to the islands to soak up the culture, explore locations and pick the brain of the novel's author, who had grown up in the Oahu town of Kailua and moved back there four years ago, after grad school.

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Comedy and tears ensue -- and, because this is an Alexander Payne movie, often in the same moment.

The project got its start in 2007 when two London agents handed a galley copy of the novel, written by native Hawaiian Kaui Hart Hemmings, to Payne's producing partner, Jim Burke.

In his dark, two-tone blue cardigan, smart black penny loafers and professional side parting, he could be, what? Since his insightfully intelligent dark-chocolate eyes don’t miss a trick, I’m betting he’s the kind of fella who goes to parties mainly to people-watch. ’ he admits, confessing how he will often ‘store’ a party in his ‘well of knowledge’ for when he needs to direct a party scene in the future. ‘Breaking Bad, Mad Men – that constantly peeling onion of character and story, which is so delightful.

Like all Payne’s films, from Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) onwards, Nebraska is an understated, bittersweet comedy rooted in wry character observation. [But] there is something to be said for compressed narrative.

He and Payne loved it and optioned it through their Fox Searchlight deal a week before it hit bookstore shelves, though at the time they only intended to serve as producers.

Payne, based in Omaha, Neb., was deep into writing a much bigger project titled instead.

But when Payne, script in hand, met with Clooney again at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2009, the actor enthusiastically came on to play what he calls a "schlub," an emotionally detached man who can't even win an argument with his teenage daughter.

Shailene Woodley, 19, and Amara Miller, 11, who play King's daughters, flew to Oahu 10 days before the 10-week shoot to develop a believable family dynamic with Clooney.

When George Clooney won a Golden Globe – and a best actor Oscar nomination – for The Descendants last year, his director, Alexander Payne, cemented his reputation as ‘the actors’ director’.

Every A-list star and their agent was hammering on Payne’s inbox. The biggest ‘name’ in his latest Oscar-favourite, Nebraska, is 77-year-old Bruce Dern, the veteran character actor who’s probably best known, if at all, as father of Laura.

Boat work is car work on steroids.' " George Clooney, the star of Payne's new movie might have been small -- a grieving father and his two daughters floating in a canoe off Oahu's Waikiki Beach -- but it required tons of heavy equipment and 40 crewmembers on several boats rocking in big swells, not to mention a preteen actress in a meltdown and seasick focus pullers.