In a shrinking Hollywood, Payne aims big in ‘Downsizing’
TORONTO — There are rituals to an Alexander Payne production. Movie nights on Wednesdays during pre-production at Payne’s house, with pizza and soft drinks. Friday night screenings during post-production with martinis. And, reliably, an endless struggle to secure financing.
“Only one studio guy said what I needed him to say, which was: ‘I know it doesn’t make sense on paper. We’re making it anyway,'” Payne said of his latest, “Downsizing.” “Those are the words on which my career has hung.”
At a cost of $68 million, “Downsizing” is double the budget of any previous film by Payne. He originally intended the film, in which scientists have invented the ability to shrink people to 5-inches tall, to be his follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2004 film, “Sideways.”
“But it was not be,” Payne sighs. Years seeking studio backing followed, even as Payne made other things (“The Descendants,” ”Nebraska“). He calls “Downsizing” his Vietnam, a label his writing partner, Jim Taylor, modifies. “Except we won,” he says, chuckling.
For a director who has always made modest, human-sized comedies — many of them set in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska — it’s especially fitting that Payne’s most ambitious film yet is about people turning small. He is, almost certainly, the only director who would spend millions making special effects appear mundane.
“I wanted the visual effects in this one to be so noticeable as to be banal,” he said in an interview over coffee shortly after the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I mean, I’m just trying to make a regular movie. I’m not trying to make a visual effects movie.”
“Downsizing,” which Paramount Pictures is to release Friday, is the rarest thing in today’s movie industry: a big movie for big people — adults, you could call them. In a shrinking Hollywood, “Downsizing” is a clever inversion of scale: a high-concept, large-canvas science fiction from a filmmaker who specializes in the lives of profoundly ordinary schlubs.
In “Downsizing,” miniaturization not only lessens human impact on an overcrowded, overpopulated Earth, it gives people the opportunity for grander lives. “Get small, live like kings,” is among the selling points for Leisure Land, one of the “small” communities that pops up, and just one of the myriad ways the world-changing invention is quickly capitalized upon.
“Plus ca change, plus c’est la memes chose,” Payne said with a melancholy Midwestern twang. (It’s usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”)
It begins with a Nebraskan couple (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) who, saddled with mortgage payments, decide to undergo the process. But the film will surprise many moviegoers by just how far it travels from its initial premise. Going from the Omaha plains to Norwegian fjords, “Downsizing” wanders a near-future, looking for meaning in a dying, upside-down world. “Ultimately,” said Payne, “we’re just interested in people, not so much in plot.”
Taylor, who has worked with Payne since their 1996 feature debut, the abortion-rights satire “Citizen Ruth,” said the two consciously try to find less predictable directions.
“We think, ‘Well, the obvious way is to go this way, but maybe that’s just our movie-memory working,” said Taylor. “Heroism for us is more about getting through the day than saving humanity, even though there are people literally trying to save humanity in our movie.”
The existential journey of Damon’s character in “Downsizing” is partly triggered by the entrance of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a heavily accented Vietnamese dissident who was miniaturized against her will.
“It’s a character that we don’t often see and it’s a character most filmmakers would not be interested in or just not know where to begin to know how to do the character quote-unquote correctly,” said Chau. “I appreciate that Alexander and Jim Taylor had the cojones to write this character.”
Though some have questioned the strong accent, Chau’s performance — comically prickly and tenderly sweet — is easily among the best of the year. (She’s nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe.) She steals the movie, raising its trajectory.
“I’m very happy to play a character who is specifically Asian, who is up against very real obstacles in an environment that feels very familiar and realistic to what people are actually experiencing right now,” said Chau. “For people who have a problem that I’m speaking with an accent or whatever, my question is always: ‘Did she seem intelligent to you?’ And the answer is always yes, so I’m like: ‘What’s the problem?'”
Payne is himself a mix of sardonic and romantic. He’ll accept the praise that his “Paris, je t’aime” short is his finest work, but only because it’s 6 minutes long. “You can get on with your life,” he said. He’s a precise and perceptive cinephile with an expert Robert Ryan impression and a strong devotion to Milos Foreman films, but he frequently chafes at the extreme attention Hollywood moviemaking brings.
“The movies will never die,” Payne says. “But I think they’re too expensive to make and that’s a drag, at least in the U.S. I wouldn’t mind, and in fact I will, seek to make movies in other countries just to get away from the pressure.”
Payne, a third-generation Greek-American would like his next one to go quicker, though his fondness for filmmaking sometimes makes him inclined to stretch the experience — at least location scouting.
“I wish life were long enough where I could just go into everyone’s house on Earth and see how they live and meet them and say hello,” Payne said with a smirk. “Get a handle on things.”
“Downsizing” is, in a way, Payne trying to do just that — get a handle on things. “That the film summarily proposes miniaturization as the only possible solution for overpopulation and climate change reveals how totally screwed we are,” he says.
But despite his pessimism for the future, Payne recently had his first child with his second wife Maria Kontos. They wed in Greece in 2015, just as the late Brad Grey was greenlighting “Downsizing.”
“What are you going to do?” he shrugs. “Not have a kid?”