The high concept behind Alexander Payne’s soon to shoot new feature, Downsizing, unfolds in a near future world where humans can opt to be miniaturized. Everything about the story, from the title to the characters to the plot-lines, gives Payne and co-scriptwriter Jim Taylor ample metaphorical opportunities.
The $76 million budgeted Paramount picture starring Matt Damon, Reese Witherspoon, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis, Alec Baldwin and Hong Chau endured a long gestation. A different cast was attached in 2008-2009 before the road to financing collapsed with the economy. The pieces almost came together again in 2014. All the while, the script, begun in 2006, got reworked and pared down to meet the budget cap Hollywood placed on this risky project marking Payne’s first foray into science fiction and visual effects..
The production is based at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Payne will work for the first time on sound stages and with green screens, CGI and motion capture. Little or no forced perspective will be used.
The sprawling, three-month shoot rolls out April 1 for a week in Los Angeles, then comes to Omaha for a few days. The whole works heads off to Norway for more shooting but the bulk will occur across the border in Canada, where post-production will also happen.
Arch satirists Payne and Taylor use the downsizing premise to skewer the small-mindedness of persons, policies. constructs. In this new work the veteran scenarists, whose previous credits together include the Payne-directed Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, suggest not only are Earth’s physical resources at risk but its intellectual-moral capital, too.
Downsizing’s all too real musings on diminishing returns and bankrupt values posits a redemptive protagonist in Paul, a South Omaha Everyman whom Matt Damon will play. Although the story has a fatalistic, end-of-world backdrop, it dangles hope that humankind, in whatever size survives, will muddle through somehow.
That Payne should use science fiction’s expansive prism to consider world crisis issues and explore the nature of humanity may seem at odds with his intimate dramedies about neurosis, infidelity, promiscuity, loneliness, yearning. Then again, all his work has churned the existential wheel with mundane characters bogged down by the weight of their own mess. Just think of the angst that Ruth (Citizen Ruth), Jim (Election), Warren (Schmidt), Miles and Jack (Sideways), Matt (The Descendants) and Woody (Nebraska) confront. For all its fantastic elements this new narrative is anchored in that same morass of folks dealing with adult dilemmas, conflicts and flaws. Problems dog them wherever they go, even the would-be miniature haven, Leisure Land.
And why shouldn’t Payne dip his toes in the sci-fi pool when filmmakers equally identified with humanistic storytelling have done the same? John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet) and Barry Levinson (Sphere) come to mind.
Besides, sci-fi is a liberating and therefore attractive gateway for artists to tackle large, serious subjects free of constraints. The genre invites storytellers to ponder endless what ifs. In that spirit Payne and Taylor lay out an imagined scenario and burrow down that rabbit hole of speculation to follow what they deem the inevitable consequences.
Downsizing hinges on a hero sensitively responding to a world around him transformed. The implications and stakes are deeply personal and global. At least on the page Payne and Taylor manage to make us care about the micro and macro. Paul’s journey pulls us along this upheaval of life as he knew it. Expectations, definitions and limitations are threatened or overturned. Ultimately, everything is on the line.
Unavoidably, the story echoes other speculative tales, including any dealing with miniature humans. It also resonates with themes from such disparate sources as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Truman Show, Children of Men and The Hobbit. Payne and Taylor concoct a fable-like framework to hold the narrative together.
The most obvious if unintentional resonance – to The Incredible Shrinking Man – happens at the end, when our hero-pioneer once more enters the great unknown. As with Payne’s previous films, the story concludes with a feeling more than an event or a resolution.
Payne, now married to a native of Greece and coming off his stark tone poem Nebraska, recently spoke about Downsizing with The Reader.
“We always knew it would take a while, first to get the script right, then to secure the financing, and 10 years is a long time. Fortunately I was able to squeeze in two other features and a pilot during that time. But it feels right now. You know, it’s interesting that in life, not just film, you try to do something and you run into obstacles. You try again and you run into more obstacles, and you think, This is never going to happen. And then finally when it does it unfolds elegantly and without obstructions and you say, Wow, I guess this was the time it was supposed to happen. That has been my experience with Downsizing.”
As the 125-page script sits now, he says, “the story hums along with a good filmic rhythm.” Achieving that flow was challenging for the.”big idea” at its core. “So big,” he says, “it was difficult during our writing process to always discern where it breaks off because every idea you come up with for this idea has a very long series of chain reactions. So you just kind of drive yourself crazy with possibilities. The script goes in very unpredictable directions. I’m not saying they’re good because they’re unpredictable. They were unpredictable to us as we were writing. So to corral this story and to get it happening as efficiently and we hope elegantly from point to point to point took a while. Right now it looks good on paper. I hope it will lend itself to a good movie. I won’t know that until I’m in post-production.”
He says the big idea that propels the piece is rife with “social-political overtones” but that it’s the “human aspects of the story that most interest us.” Thus, he’s not getting hung up on its sci-fi pedigree. He just enjoys the unlimited canvas he has to work on.
Payne also isn’t stressing the visual effects world he’s entered though he acknowledges he’s a fish out of water.
“It’s a whole new focus for me and everything. I’m not worried but I’m curious to see how they’re going to work. There’ll be a certain amount of tedium involved because you have to shoot the same scene two, sometimes three times to get the different aspects and elements.
“I want to make sure the actors who are acting in a vacuum on a stage against green screen feel as comfortable and normal as possible. That’s my job. The acting style should not suffer because of the means of production. But it’ll be fine. You know, who cares, it’s just a movie.”
One whose $76 million budget is double any of his previous pics.
“If they don’t spend it on that, they’re just going to spend it on something else.” he says by way of classic Hollywood reasoning.
He feels in good hands with his visual effects supervisor, James Price, with whom he’s been in discussions since 2008-2009.
“He is my effects czar. He knows how to explain things to me to make things easy for me and how to teach me how these things are achieved – what I need to know, what I don’t need to know. It’s really exciting. The best thing those guys do is to free the director up to say, ‘I want a shot like this, can we do this?’ and they say, ‘Yeah, we can do that,’ and I say, ‘How?’ and they say, ‘Don’t worry about how, but we can do it.’ Between the visual effects supervisor, the DP, the production designer, they have to trick the director as much as possible into thinking that he or she is just shooting a regular movie so that I don’t censor my imagination, or what I have left of it.”
Payne says Price is on the same page as he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael in terms of the desired visual palette.
“James knows the aesthetic we want and he’s an avid film watcher and film guy and so that makes me feel good. What I aspire to from the visual effects for this movie is not how eye-popping they are but rather how banal they are. I don’t want the seams to show.”
Payne also hopes to keep the effects to a minimum and to “try to do things in camera as much as possible.”
In addition to Price and his visual effects team Payne is working with a new production designer, Stefania Cella. But he’s mainly surrounded by trusted old friends and collaborators in producer Jim Burke, casting director John Jackson, Papamichael and costume designer Wendy Chuck. His longtime editor, Kevin Tent, is on board as well.
After the seven year gulf between Sideways and Descendants, Payne’s happy to be making films in short order. His last, Nebraska, was received warmly in Greece, where he met his wife while vacationing with his mother (Payne’s father passed away in 2014.).
“I showed the film in Greece a couple times and people were only too quick to tell me they thought it was a Greek film, which surprised me. I said, ‘Why do you think it’s a Greek film?’ and they said, ‘Well. it has the elements of going back to the village where your people are from.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. And they connected with the part of dutifully ‘taking care of the parents who drive you crazy,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m sure that’s not just Greek.’ I think that’s pretty universal.”
On the eve of finally making Downsizing after so long a wait and “jettisoning” subplots he admittedly “misses,” he’s content. “A movie is a movie is a movie and we have enough to make this movie, so it’ll be fine. And if the gods decree there might be a Downsizing 2, than we have other ideas that we’ve been collecting.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.