Alexander Payne and the Little People: 'Downsizing' has a satirical answer for upscale desires

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An experimental miniaturization process that might ease overpopulation is the jumping-off point for Paramount Pictures’ Downsizing. Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig and Hong Chau, it's the latest work from director, co-writer and two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne.

With its science-fiction elements, use of visual effects and worldwide scope, Downsizing may not seem like an Alexander Payne project on its surface. His last film, the intimate, black-and-white Nebraska, had a budget of $17 million and a shooting schedule of 35 days.

Downsizing, on the other hand, took 80 days to shoot, and had a budget of $70 million. It has 85 speaking parts and 750 effects shots. Many scenes take place within a miniature world, but the story also spreads out to Nebraska, New Mexico and Norway.

"When approaching this film, I had the fear, the concern that the machinery of it, and perhaps commercial pressures given its larger budget, could dilute its potency," Payne says during a promotional tour. "You can't let the machinery of the effects mar the quality of the acting. Or the intimacy of what's being acted."

The director singles out production designer Stefania Cella, saying, "You can't really talk about visual effects without simultaneously talking about production design. Because you want to build as much as you can and can afford, and then use digital effects only when you have to."

Payne, who wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, wanted Downsizing to be his next film after Sideways. The team started writing the script over a decade ago, nurturing it through a long development process until the project was approved by Brad Grey at Paramount. (Grey passed away in May 2017.)

"We had an itching to have the kind of political and social awareness that we had in Election and Citizen Ruth," Payne says. "We're not overtly political filmmakers by any stretch, Jim and I. But inasmuch as character enters the human arena often through politics, that's what we're interested in."

Payne sees Downsizing as a sort of culmination of his last six films and their themes, with the return of actors like Laura Dern and Phil Reeves.

"Downsizing very much related to my other films," Payne observes. "Almost disappointingly so. It would be nice to get away from the Midwestern white male for a minute. The schnook from Omaha going on some kind of journey of self discovery."

The film follows Paul Safranek (Damon), an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, who decides to undergo the miniaturization procedure with his wife (Wiig). Complications set him on an entirely different path, one involving genial Serbian smuggler Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and a Vietnamese political dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).

"One of the joys of making this film was finding and working with Hong," Payne says. She has earned supporting actress nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild for a performance that is by turns spellbinding and bitterly funny.

Often during Payne's movies, the sense of watching a constructed narrative is replaced by the feeling that real life is unfolding before your eyes. Tran at one point describes a horrific past—the loss of her home and family, imprisonment, a forced miniaturization as political punishment, the amputation of her leg—that has brought her face-to-face across a kitchen table with Paul, Dusan, and Konrad (Udo Kier), a renegade sea captain.

Her eyes brimming with tears, Tran delivers a speech that stops time, that pulls her three listeners, and viewers, out of themselves. Rather than shooting the moment like a conversation with cutaways and complementary angles, Payne and director of photography Phedon Papamichael chose to film Chau centered in the frame, the camera pulling in slowly on her face through the speech.

"That scene is one of the most extreme hairpin turns in the narrative," Payne says. "How to get this foursome to Norway, where we wanted the story to go. It's a little bit contrived, but we had to sell it. Often when you shoot widescreen, you're told not to center things, put her slightly off, one side or the other. No, we put her in the center, because she's direct and moral, and it's nice to center people like that.

"And then she just does it. That's it. She so understood the dialogue, the screenplay, that it was supposed to be funny and have pathos at the same time. I couldn't do that, deliver a performance like that with the camera and the lights and me and the cinematographer all right in her face."

Speaking at this year's Camerimage festival, Papamichael revealed that he too was crying at the end of Chau's speech, and that there may have been tears in the eyes of Payne and the other actors as well. Papamichael also marveled about the "efficiency" of Payne's shooting methods, how he could accomplish so much in one shot that other coverage wouldn't be necessary.

Akira Kurosawa's 1965 Red Beard, in which Toshiro Mifune plays a doctor in a rural medical clinic, was one inspiration for Downsizing. Payne also cites the movies of William Wyler, Orson Welles and Anthony Mann, praising their use of visual space.

"I'm still working on classical filmmaking," Payne says about his style. "Performance is the most important thing. If I've got it, what else do you need? I don't want every film to have the same visual style, but in general I try to shoot as few shots as possible, and get as much in every shot, and cut only when we need to cut. I shoot wider lenses, because I like to see the figures in space and see the background. I like seeing man in space, and the connection between the two."

The director's self-deprecating tone can obscure how expertly he elicits award-worthy performances from veterans and relative newcomers alike. "The midwifing part of directing," he calls it. "Allowing the space or freedom or conditions for that to come out. That's the main job of the director, I think. And not just with the actors, but with the technicians, to foment their creativity and give them the right environment. A performance like Hong's requires a lot of relaxation and focus on her part.

"When we make films, there's almost no rehearsal. However, each day of shooting is in a way a rehearsal for the entire rest of the film because the actors are falling more into their characters and being at ease with the technicians, with me, with the shooting style.”

Payne achieves that safe space in part from using his own life experiences in his work. Paul Safranek and his wife go to a high-school reunion at the same Jesuit prep school Payne attended. "It's a nice place to set stories," Payne says of Omaha, his home town. "I used to have a mentor, he's now deceased, the Czech director Jiří Weiss. And he would say, 'Oh my dear, in Omaha you have your own little Czech republic in which to make films, with its own mores. You can tell any story there.'"

Payne gives a direct example: "The name Safranek. John Safranek sat next to me in Latin class for four years."

Self-effacing to a fault (and captured to a T by Matt Damon), the film's Paul Safranek has been disappointed by a world that seems to operate against him. Like Candide or Gulliver's Travels, Downsizing sets out systems for Paul to try. Materialism leaves him feeling empty, romance doesn't work, hedonism leads nowhere. Religion, apocalyptic cults, politics, back-to-nature movements are all dead ends. In terms far more terse and simple than Payne uses, Paul must give up everything to make any progress.

"He finds himself in service to others," the director says, joking that "most people are selfish bastards. But many people find meaning in service to others. And indeed it's given away cornily when he's at his reunion, and he sees a banner, authentic by the way, that 'the door to happiness opens outward.' It's right there in front of your face."

Still, Payne is reluctant to ascribe themes to his films. "When we do things, it's at once unconscious and conscious. 'Themes' are often detected only in hindsight. It doesn't mean they're not present, but they're not a priori. I just thought this was a good idea for a movie. It allowed us to make a movie about the times. The entry point was overpopulation, and by extension climate change. It's a 'what if,' a science fiction what if, that allows us to touch on other hideous elements in contemporary life."

A first-time father with a 12-week-old daughter, Payne admits that "the enormity of responsibility freaks you out a little bit." He also says that he has no idea what his next film will be.

"Of course I have four or five ideas," he adds. "I'm also open to something I haven't thought of. The next film, I want to do something genuinely different."