Alexander Payne, director of Downsizing

Acclaimed filmmaker on making his first sci-fi movie

Jan 10, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

With two Oscar wins and an additional four nominations, Alexander Payne is among the most celebrated writer-directors of his generation. He made his feature debut with 1996’s Citizen Ruth, but it was 1999’s Election, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, which was his breakthrough and earned him his first Oscar nom alongside longtime co-writer Jim Taylor. It was followed by further acclaimed films, including 2002’s About Schmidt, 2004’s Sideways, 2011’s The Descendants, and Nebraska in 2013.

His latest feature, Downsizing, is quite different from any of his past films. Best known for crafting small-scale, character-driven movies, Downsizing is a science fiction feature with a budget bigger than his last three films’ combined. Now playing in theaters, Downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a middle class Nebraskan who signs up with his wife (Kristen Wiig) to undergo a shrinking process referred to as “downsizing.” Created by Norwegian scientists as a way to combat climate change and overpopulation, the idea is that if mankind averages around five inches in height, its impact on the planet will be dramatically reduced. A side effect making it attractive to the average person is that, because a small individual requires fewer resources than their normal-sized counterpart, a downsized person can live like a king with only moderate wealth. The film also stars Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, and Jason Sudeikis. You can read our full review of the movie here.

Alexander Payne took some time to talk to us about the film’s genesis, ideas, and casting. You can read part of our conversation below, and look out for another feature in issue 63 of Under the Radar.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): Something that really impressed me about the movie was how quickly I would forget that the characters were small. In many films, that would have been the gimmick that everything revolved around, but Paul's story would probably still work just as fine without that element. The idea originated with your writing partner, Jim Taylor, and his brother. Do you recall your first reaction when he came to you with the shrinking people idea?

Alexander Payne: I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t connected to anything real at the time. I thought the idea was interesting, but it was frivolous still. It hadn’t been fleshed out enough. My contribution to the conception was to think, “If this were really to happen, how would it come about?” And so I thought, perhaps scientists seeking a way to prevent climate change and overpopulation would conceive of it as a crazy, but sane, solution. That was our entry point into the story. Once Jim agreed to that, we saw that it was an entry point not just to talk about climate change and overpopulation, but a host of other things. It became a science fiction-slash-political metaphor. Now, within it we had to find a protagonist to carry us through the world in which this is happening, and we settled upon this schnook from Omaha. And yeah, he has his own issues that he’s trying to deal with: a wife whom he can’t satisfy, and a world in which he feels uneasy and where he’s come to accept his own unhappiness. You’re right to suggest that he would be going through that even were he to remain big, but the fact is his decision to become small squeezes out of him kind of a new life, in a way, ultimately to default back into himself. The self that he had lost. We were telling the story of the world itself, but also the story of a man.

It was a decade ago when you first sort of started thinking about this project. From what I understand, it was put on hold by your last two films.

Yeah. We couldn’t get financing for it, and we were still tinkering with the script, anyway.

What part of the script took you the longest to crack?

Well, how to bring it full circle. We began it with the Norwegians, and we thought we should end it with the Norwegians somehow. That would involve a discussion for the aspirations with the idea in the first place, and perhaps how – because the more things change, the more things stay the same – that even a brilliant solution like miniaturization would not solve the problem it was meant to solve. And, how would our protagonist lead us into that world? So, figuring all of that out, and how to do it within a two-to-two-and-a-half hour film structure, proved really challenging. Really, it’s a big enough idea that we could have done a mini-series or something, a much longer narrative, but we wanted to make a movie. So, coming up with hijinks in the first place, and then figuring out a way to do them in a concise fashion: that was the challenging part of the screenplay.

Was there something that consistently scared producers when you were looking for financing?

Not producers, but financiers. And specifically, studio heads, because I was looking for studio financing. One or two of them said – not my words, I stress – they said the script was “too intelligent” to merit the budget I was asking for. And I can understand that. I don’t take them to task about their point of view. It’s a business. The nature of the American commercial film industry is such that they’re very risk-averse at that budget level. Things change, but I’ve certainly been able to make the films I’ve made to date because I keep my budgets low. This one was a different story, but I didn’t want to make it on a lower budget level. And so I just stayed at it until I found the one sap who said yes. [Laughs] He said, like, I know it doesn’t make sense on paper, but we’re making it anyway. That lovely gentleman was Brad Grey at Paramount. He has since deceased and was not able to see the final film, but I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me the greenlight.

What was your biggest challenge, as far as the visual effects were concerned?

Like many things in life, it’s not that the visual effects are so difficult. They’re just very time-consuming. You want to make sure you have the time and the budget and the right personnel to effectuate the FX that are best for the film, and are most believable. It was a new world to me; I’d never worked with them before, so I had a very steep learning curve. I had a visual effects supervisor who helped me out, through repetition and giving information to me in bite-sized chunks. Without getting too into the technical details, the difficult part was my basic charge to the effects department, which was “I want [the effects] to be so believable, as to be banal.” I’m not trying to make an eye-popping film except in certain sequences. I wanted the film to be impressive precisely because it feels so lived-in.

Matt and Kristen are both wonderful here, and it’s nice to see Matt play an average dope. How did you connect with him? Was he recommended to you?

I called his agent and said I wanted to meet him and talk to him about a script. We had a meeting. I told him about the script, and he thought it sounded pretty crazy. [Laughs] I said, “Just read it, will ya?” I handed it to him, and he got in touch with me a week later and said “Sure, I’ll do it.”

Was there something specific you saw him in that made you think, “Oh, he’d be great for this project”?

Well, everything! Among stars of his age who can bring me the budget I needed, there’s really only Matt Damon. He’s a wonderful movie star who looks like a human being; he doesn’t necessarily look like a movie star. You know? He looks like someone I might have known in Omaha. I also knew that he was an extremely talented and versatile actor – extremely versatile. He can play the gay lover in the Liberace movie, he can play Jason Bourne, he can play the fat schlub in The Informant. There’s really nothing he can’t do, and nothing he won’t do. I just thought he’d be good to work with, and he was!

The actor who I feel stole the show was Hong Chau. Was her role a tricky one to cast?

Yes. God brought me Hong Chau. [Laughs] I had the character written as this Vietnamese dissident who shows the difference between being nice and being kind. Hong Chau showed up at the audition and she was the real McCoy: she was born in Vietnam, understood the screenplay, understood the comedy, understood the drama, and just nailed it, as you see.

This film was bouncing around in yours and Jim's heads for such a long time. Were the writing sessions different than those of the other projects you’ve done together?

I can’t really say that it was very different from our other projects. The only thing that made it really different was that it took a long time to write. We started from a whole cloth, with a massive premise. Finding out how to bottle it into a manageable, analog, and satisfying story took a while. But our process has remained the same; we’ve written more than ten screenplays together. We have a good working method. I’m sorry to give a boring answer, but there was nothing really different about it but the length of time.

Ultimately, do you feel the movie was better served by taking as long as it did? Is the film better now than it would have been, had you been able to make it a decade ago?

Maybe. I wouldn’t have had Hong Chau before this. Who knows if she would have been able to come my way? I may not have had Matt Damon. James Price, the special effects czar, told me that had we made the movie in 2009, we wouldn’t have had all of the visual effects tools we have now. Who knows? If I made it six years ago, maybe it would have been better despite the things I just listed off. But we made it now, and I focus on what was positive about the experience. You can’t change destiny. 



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