Lensing April 1, Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ promises to be his most ambitious film to date
UPDATE: It turns out that Alec Baldwin did not participate in “Downsizing” after all. Insstead, his part of a real estate magnate was played by another name actor with a similar vibe and facility for playing smarmy – Bruce Willis.
After not directing a feature film for seven years following Sideways, Alexander Payne professed he would start making films with more frequency starting with The Descendants. He’s kept his word, too, by making Nebraska and now comes Downsizing, whose production starts April 1. With its science fiction high concept or big idea, the new film is a stand alone project for the Oscar-winner in some ways but once you get past the hook of miniaturized humans it plays, at least on the page, much like all his work, with some major exceptions. For example, while much of the story’s action is quite intimate and centered around closely observed human frailities, there is an end of world backdrop informing it all. Never have the stakes been so high in a Payne film.
A month ago I broke the story of the film’s plot and in this new post I offer additional context from my own reading of the script and from interviews I did with Payne about the screenplay and about various other aspects of the project. Payne is working with his most star laden cast, with his largest crew, with visual effects for the first time and on sound stages for the first time, all of which makes this film a must follow and presumably a must see. Add to that a vast physical production shooting in three countries and telling a story rife with social-political issues, and you have a film that would seeem to demand attention. When you add its metaphorical, fable-like narrative, well, then it may just be a film for the ages.
Watch for more updates and stories about the making of this film and interviews with some of its key creatives.
Lensing April 1, Payne’s Downsizing promises to be his most ambitious film to date
Project shooting in L.A. Omaha, Norway and Toronto goes small to tackle big themes
©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (new edition out summer 2016)
Exclusive for Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com
The fact that Alexander Payne’s seventh feature turned out to be Downsizing came as no real surprise since he and Jim Taylor labored over the script 10 years. They nearly got it made twice, which is why Google searches bring up links and references to earlier incarnations of the project, including stars and studios formerly attached who dropped away in the intervening years. As Payne puts it, the time was finally right for the project to happen.
Payne reportedly had an all-star cast attached to the project when it first gained steam nearly a decade ago. Though the actors have changed, the final cast of Downsizing constitutes the greatest collective star power and depth of talent yet seen in one of his films. The names include an Oscar winner, box office draws, critical darlings and international artists from other nations. None has previously worked with Payne.That who’s-who roster includes: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neal Patrick Harris, Alec Baldwin, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Paul Mabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau.
In some interesting casting notes, just days before the April 1 shoot start it was announced that Reese Witherspoon, long slated to play Damon’s wife, was no longer attached to the project and that Kristen Wiig had replaced her. I cannot recall anything like that happening so late in the process on any of Payne’s previous films. I have to think that Wiig had already been considered or that Damon recommended her since she appeared with him in the critically acclaimed The Martian. Wiig represents the second Saturday Night Live (italics) alumnus, after Will Forte, to grace one of his films. And with the casting of Paul Mabon and Warren Belle, there will finally be black actors in speaking parts in a Payne film. The absence of people of color in his films had not gone unnoticed. There are even some well-known actors of color from Omaha who have expressed dismay or disappointment at that lack.
Since it has been revealed elsewhere I can also reveal here a major plot point involving Wiig’s character. Read on to to learn that.
Years back, when Payne spoke about the film in only cryptic terms, he referred to it as being in the spirit of an episodic Robert Altmanesque ensemble piece, Some of if does play that way on the page, although Payne and Taylor tend to be more narratively disciplined than Altman was.
The basic hook has been public knowledge for some time. The IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) log line reads: “A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.” Not much to go on. But the idea of miniaturized human life does set the mind to conjuring all sorts of scenarios. Something not left to the imagination but rather always known about the project is its reliance on visual effects in order to make believable the conceit of science giving human beings the option to be radically reduced in size. Effects are the only way to realize that on screen. It follows then that Downsizing is a science fiction flick, though Payne does not come right out and call it that. But clearly it resides somewhere in the sci-fi genre.
I do not mean to suggest Payne in any way distances himself from science fiction, In an interview with me he actually referenced a quote he attributed to the great author Ray Bradbury, who when asked something to the effect, you are such a great writer but why do you write science fiction, which of course implied that the genre is somehow inferior to or less important than other literature. Payne remembered Bradbury’s answer as something like – Well, science fiction is the most realistic genre. While I could not find that quotation from Bradbury, I did find these quotations attributed to him that seem to make the same point:
“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done…” and “Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious.”
Any number of other great sci-fi authors, from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov to Frank Herbert, have said similar things; the common sentiment being that the genre draws on humankind’s oldest, deepest, and unfolding yearnings and imaginings and therefore it resides in the very nature of what it means to be alive from moment to moment.
Up until early 2016, all one could glean about the project is that after previous tries to get it financed the film finally found a home at Paramount, the studio that also produced Payne’s Nebraska. All the trade press had to go on was that tease of a premise about miniaturization. Everything else was pure conjecture. Even with that bare thread it was not hard to conceive what fertile territory such a set up provided Payne and Taylor. Still, unless you read the script, saying anything more about Downsizing was supposition since Payne was protective about the story he and Taylor so long nurtured. Principal cast and crew were similarly reticent in giving anything away.
I actually ended up being the first journalist to report on the plot of Downsizing after Payne let me read the script and interview him about it. It is a practice we have long held. He shares his final drafts with me on a for-my-eyes-only basis and I am then able to mine depths not afforded other writers. I was also the first to get Payne to speak at any length about the project. You can link to that earlier story at-
Breaking that worldwide exclusive was extremely satisfying. I hope it offered a tantalizing preview of what should be one of the most talked about features of 2017. In this new exclsuive I reveal a bit more than I could at the time about the film since the project is now underway and the publicity apparatus behind it is gearing up.
All scripts go through some evolutionary process but Downsizing’s lasted longer than most. Earlier versions contained more characters and scenes that stretched the budget necessary to create on screen miniaturized human life set against the backdrop of vast global events.
“It’s the same basic strange story we’ve been working on for these many years but finally in 2014, right after I finished Nebraska, Jim and I returned to the script and we finally had the courage to jettison certain aspects of the script, which we still miss,” Payne explained.
The script cuts were mandated “to compact the script into a decent form and length” that correlated to the budget the project could afford on the open market of film financing. Making things more complicated, as my article references, were the detours or digressions that Payne and Taylor take with their scripts.
“Jim and I tend not to write screenplays which conform to traditional contemporary screenplay structure,” Payne said. “Maybe they do after the fact, but while we’re writing and while we’re in the midst of it were writing what feels to us like a shaggy dog story.
Downsizing was shaping up to be an unwieldy shaggy dog story until getting pruned into its shooting script form.
As my earlier article also alludes to, there is naturally a tendency to assume that because of Downsizing’s subject matter and sci-fi contours, it must be a major departure from the artist’s previous work. Payne disagrees. I concur that it in fact conforms quite neatly into the examination of minutiae running through all his work. In this case the minutiae just happens to coincide with miniaturization. So, where will Downsizing fit in the Payne canon? That cannot be known with any certainty until the film is released and reviewed. But I can surmise some things based on what I have read and on what Payne and his collaborators have told me about his vision for committing the story to the screen.
With this project, he digs even deeper than before to expose universal human fears, resentments, prejudices, and desires. There is great portent in the context for why people choose to be miniaturized in the first place. Payne and Taylor set the key events of the story in some near future when Earth is on the brink of disaster due to worsening natural resource depletion and global warming events. Therefore, the film explores the consequences of scarcity thinking run amok.
The story connects with the zeitgeist of impending doom in the air fueled by the threat of melting ice caps and global terrorism and the fear that some contagion will precipitate a zombie plague apocalypse.
“Well, you read it in the paper every day,” Payne told me. “Everyone’s talking about it. People have a genuine sense of finality these days. A hundred years, two hundred years, whatever it might be, that we have left. People have for millennia, well at least centuries – ‘Oh, the end of the world is coming,’ and usually in some bogus religious context. But now it’s occurring in a scientific and empirical context. So, I don’t know, we thought it’d be fun to make a comedy about it.”
He also plays with the notion that faced with such dire circumstances people will respond in very different ways. Some will choose to do nothing, either out of denial or despair, while others will engage in hedonism and exploitation. A few brave souls will be pioneers who undergo reduction and with it downsize their consumption footprint. But as our protagonist Paul. played by Matt Damon, discovers, that transformation unalterably separates him from his previous life. Additionally, instead of downsizing eliminating the problems of the big world that baggage follows him to the small world, where he encounters a whole new set of issues on top of the old ones. The small and normal worlds coexist in uneasy tension. The bigs look down, literally and figuratively, on the smalls. The smalls resent being marginalized and patronized by the bigs. All of it serves as rich metaphor for the bigotry and discrimination that historically attend The Other and that result in segregation and isolation.
Alec Baldwin and Jason Sudeikis
Paul finds the same avarice, conflict, and inequity of the outside world present in the contrived new world he enters. He is a good-hearted, dutiful worker bee who just wants to do the right thing as a husband, as a son, as a neighbor, as a friend, as a citizen. In the big world he is an occupational therapist who tries hard to please his wife (played by Kristen Wiig), care for his mother, and help people with their physical ailments. Then, after a betrayal, he is thrust into the small world bereft of everything he held dear. Instead of the promised utopia, he finds a cold, artificial construct under glass called Leisureland Estates that sucks the life right out of him.
The aforementioned betrayal happens when his wife, who has talked Paul into the two of them being miniaturizized, backs out of the downsizing process at the last minute. He only learns about her change of heart when it is too late and his own miniaturization is complete. He is stuck and there is no going back. Talk about a bummer.
Payne once had Paul Giamatti lined up to play Paul, but that was years ago. Matt Damon brings the same kind of ordinariness to bear with the advantage of being a bankable leading man.
“Among contemporary leading men he is the closest thing we have to an Every Man,” Payne said. “We saw it in The Martian particularly. More and more he is assuming the role that say James Stewart and more recently Tom Hanks used to play. At least you can relate to the guy and you can project some of your own fears, yearnings, aspirations onto his face. You understand him. There are many contemporary American stars with whom I don’t have that relationship. I can’t project any of my vulnerabilities or fears or aspirations onto their faces. But on Matt Damon’s, I can, and he’s kind of the only one we have at that upper level. We don’t have Dustin Hoffman as a young man any more, or Al Pacino or Jack Lemmon or James Stewart. Other people can disagree with me and say what about this one or what about that one but really among the upper echelon of contemporary American movie stars Matt Damon comes the closest to being our Everyman.”
Two actors expert at incisive comedy, Alec Baldwin and Neil Patrick Harris, play a real estate magnate and a salesman, respectively, who make fodder of the downsizing phenomenon. In this odd new existence, uprooted from all he knew, Paul struggles finding his bearings and thus his identity. He keeps running up against systems and persons predisposed to take advantage of the naive, the weak, the powerless, the dispossessed.
There is much here that makes subtle barbed reference to the false American Dream sold to the masses in real life. The fabricated small world set aside for the miniaturized population is suggestive of the internment-refugee camps, ghettos, and other confined areas that minorities have traditionally been relegated to by the majority population. Payne and Taylor also imply that the name Downsizing refers to the ever narrow-minded views and declining values so prevalent today among nations and leaders.
Far from being only a bleak take on things, Payne and Taylor also portray this social experiment as a full-blooded experience where people are still passionate and where desire still rules the human heart. Paul eventually finds his way but in a most unexpected series of events that introduces him to people caught up in social-political-criminal intrigue. As with any fable where the protagonist is adrift in a strange new environment – think Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and Star Wars for starters – Paul partners with fellow travelers navigating the surreal landscape. One is a female Vietnamese dissident played by Hong Chau and the other is a crooked Serbian entrepreneur played by Christoph Waltz.
“You’ve got the guy who’s on his journey, you’ve got the love interest who helps him do so and then you’ve got the reluctant, self-absorbed helper,” is how Payne described this troika “As American a place as Leisureland Estates is in New Mexico we still wanted to have a sense of the global impact of downsizing – of the miniaturization process – and that in any small city around the world you might meet very diverse people, and Paul does.”
All of it leads Paul to unknowingly assume a key role in a great shift about to occur in human history. In the process this meek man discovers he is stronger than he thinks. The plot-line makes Downsizing a Passage story of epic, mythic, even heroic dimensions
The story moves across great swaths of time and space. It opens in a setting that could be a prehistoric cave but that turns out to be a haven somewhere and sometime else altogether. In what is the most physically ambitious of Payne’s films to date, we are taken to locations as diverse as South Omaha, the small world enclosure known as Leisureland, the fjords of Norway and a Middle Earth. Payne and the largest crew he has ever worked with will work in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, and Norway to capture actual locales. They will create imaginary locales on sound stages and in effects suites in Toronto.
The film ended up being based in Toronto for practical reasons, namely the generous tax credits offered by that country and American money stretching even farther there due to the soft Canadian dollar. The presence of Toronto’s extensive, state of the art Pinewood Studios also helped sway Paramount to cross borders. For years now California state officials have railed against U.S. productions leaving the historical base of the American film industry, Hollywood, to shoot elsewhere but it is particularly galling when projects leave the country altogether to go north of the border. Incentives go a long way toward enticing filmmakers and their studios to shoot somewhere. It is an incredibly competitive environment, too, as states and countries vie for slices of the Hollywood pie. Norway sweetened the pot for Downsizing by receiving backing from the Norwegian Film Institute’s new incentive scheme for international and local films and series. The picture, which plans to make great use of Norway’s coastal and fjord areas, reportedly got four and a half million in Norwegian krones (equal to about 685,000 U.S. dollars).
In all his films, but most concretely starting with About Schmidt, Payne lays out a literal journey of self-discovery for his protagonists, each of whom is driven by crisis. When Warren Schmidt loses his career and wife he hits the road in search of himself only to learn it is an inside job. Screw-ups Jack and Miles lay waste to wine country in a dissolute attempt to avoid growing up before coming to terms with reality and love. After learning his comatose wife cheated on him, Matt’s chase for revenge leads to reconciliation with the past. Woody and David set out on a seemingly silly quest only to have key revelations and truths revealed. Paul’s self-worth shrinks with his body until he finds new resolve and purpose in the emerging new world he is catapulted into.
Thus, Downsizing is the latest in an unfolding narrative Payne posits about the human condition. All of life is a journey, he is telling us. We are both observers and participants, so buckle up and try to enjoy the ride because it is all we get in our finite lifetime. If we pay attention, we may just learn something about ourselves along the way and perhaps grow from the experience.
Oscar-winner Waltz was not mentioned in the first exclusive piece I broke because his casting had not been yet been announced. He is the latest in a growing number of prominent actors who have signed to work with Payne in recent years. With any Payne watch. it is fun to speculate with whom he might next work. One of the anticipatory joys of Downsizing will be how the impressive ensemble he worked with mesh together. Given Payne’s meticulous casting and outstanding record of working with actors, it is a good bet the results will be entertaining and perhaps even provide some of these artists’ most memorable performances.
YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )
Now available at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net.
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