Usually, I intuit, I lose half or more of you right at the top when I post a story about Alexander Payne. I get it. I really do. Well, not entirely. It seems that for some of you Payne’s work doesn’t register as all that funny or entertaining or satisfying. This despite the fact that over the last 20 years his films have received as much or more critical praise and box office love as many directors whose movies you may more readily embrace, such as Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Jason Reitman and the Coen Brothers. I chalk it up to a taste thing. Fair enough. But I also have the sneaking suspicion that many of you have seen only a fraction of his films and that some of you have not seen any of them. If that’s true, then it’s a crying shame because you’re rejecting work based on perception without even trying it on for size. I mean, how do you really know if you like it or not if you don’t see it for yourself and purely base your appraisal on a trailer or a review or a stray comment or two? We all do it, of course, but I’m mainly addressing this to Nebraskans who, I would like to believe, should feel some natural affinity and curiosity, if not loyalty, for the work of one of their own. I know shared home state roots only go so far and Payne’s film worlds may seem very distant or disconnected from your own reality, but I don’t think that you would feel that way if you attended to them with an open mind. His humanistic films have something for everyone because they are drawn from the same human condition we all all subject to when it comes to love, loss and loneliness. If you watch his films and they still feel apart from you then his work may just not be for you but even then I suggest that that may change with his new film “Downsizing.” It’s interesting to say that because this film will intentionally be both very far removed from life as we know it and very close to it. It will depict worlds reminiscent of and different from mine and yours as it swings from some unnamed Middle Earth to very near future Omaha to a Leisure Land resort for miniaturized humans that includes a slum to Norwegian fjords and villages to various spots around the globe. In a first for Payne, much of the movie will be populated by characters representing diverse races and ethnicities to go along with the disparate locations. Visual effects will render the downsized-world alone and in juxtaposition with the normal-sized world. All of this is set against an end-of-world backdrop of extreme climatic, geo-political tensions and cosumer mania that pretty much mirrors where we’re at right now. The combination of little people. big ideas and a star-studded cast headlined by Matt Damon facing moral decisions and life and death questions amidst mind-blowing sets just might make this Payne’s first blockbuster. In which case he will be viewed in a whole new light by the industry and by some of you. Suddenly, Payne will be mentioned in the same breath with Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and Christoper Nolan. Now wouldn’t that be a kick?
This is my new feature on “Downsizing” appearing in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It’s my latest read-all-about-it exclusive about the project informed by interviews with Payne, his co-writer Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, visual effects supervisor Jamie Price, second unit director Tracy Boyd, editor Kevin Tent and casting director John Jackson, Who knows, after reading this piece it might even whet your appetite for seeing the film when it releases in December. It would behoove you to see it since I’m suggesting the film might just be the next big thing on the world cinema landscape. But don’t take my word for it. Be sure to see it for yourself when it opens and make up your mind based on that. Trailers for it should be hitting online and theaters soon, so that will give us all a sneak peak at what to expect. For you Payne cynics out there, just keep an open mind.
Hot Movie Takes:
Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ may be next big thing on world cinema landscape
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Story appears in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey marked a seminal movie event, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has milestone written all over it.
Kubrick’s 1968 landmark inspired by writer Arthur C. Clarke’s musings pushed special effects to new heights and gave sci-fi films higher standards to aspire to in terms of visuals and ideas. Now, a half-century from the release of that opus, Payne’s putting final touches on his own bold vision of imaginative fiction.
The big budget, visual effects-laden Downsizing confronts relevant social, political, ecological issues. Only once previously, with Citizen Ruth’s hot takes on abortion, has Payne been so thematically current. With its withering look at corporate greed, hyper consumerism, minority marginalization and ego-maniacal pitch men, Downsizing hits the zeitgeist on a global scale.
“It’s a big movie,” he said. “Not just the visual effects but the scope of the story with more of an episodic structure that spans many years and different locations.”
Just as the late Kubrick made elaborate satiric observations on human frailties, so does Payne. Their films register cold for many but there’s more warmth there than you recall. Where 2001 is a speculative adventure about the role of extraterrestrial life on Earth and beyond, Downsizing’s own mediation on what it means to be human remains firmly planted here.
Months away from its December theatrical release, Hollywood’s curious to see what a filmmaker identified with intimate human comedies does with a picture of this scale. Ironically, for Payne to achieve a film about miniaturization he worked with a larger crew and budget, on more, bigger sound stages and in more practical locations than ever before. Locations spanned Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto and Norway. Second-unit director Tracy Boyd traveled to South Korea, Malaysia, Morocco and Spain to accrue crucial montage footage.
Downsizing’s every bit as ambitious as 2001 but both films are relatively simple at their core. Amid all its visual interstellar trappings, 2001 intimately rests on astronaut David Bowman’s interior time-space journey. Instilling in audiences the necessary sense of awe and immersion required Kubrick and Douglas Trumball to advance effects by a generation.
It’s not surprising Kubrick made Bowman’s mind-blowing head trip the POV reference point since the late iconoclast’s films were quite inner-directed despite their big ideas and sometimes massive sets.
Just as Kubrick distilled epoch events into an intimate tableaux, Payne distills human kind’s hopes, fears, vagaries in the intersection of three people meeting in a strange new world. Paul (Matt Damon) is the Everyman mensch whose surreal ride from normal to small, from nobody to pioneer, we hitch onto. Goran (Christoph Waltz) is the Euro-trash hustler who befriends him. Ngoc Lang (Hong Chau) is the Vietnamese human rights activist who becomes his love interest.
To naturalistically realize the small world, Payne relied on visual effects supervisor Jamie Price. The former Industrial Light and Magic wizard oversaw artists from ILM and other companies in making micro humans more believable than ever seen before on screen. Pulling this off is critical because the film’s entire vision hangs on audiences investing in characters and incidents without the distraction of call-attention-to-themselves effects.
Downsizing, like 2001, depends upon intact illusions without seams or wires showing. Where 2001’s monumental effects depict deep space and infinity, Downsizing depicts human discourse.
Co-writer Jim Taylor said he and Payne took the same approach to their original story as with all their films. “Really what we love are the details – the tiny, every day interactions people have. It’s such a great irony and a lot of people don’t necessarily realize this – that the more specific you get, the more universal it is.”
Sure, the story’s replete with big concepts revolving around global warming’s dire consequences, but Taylor said, “We’re not making An Inconvenient Truth because that’s not our job. The themes are an excuse to enter this realm of relationships and personal struggles.”
Price said upon first reading the script he realized this project represented a whole new animal.
“What struck me about it immediately is that it really is an atypical visual effects movie. It’s a movie where the visual effects are used purely to serve the dramatic needs of the story. That’s a very refreshing and clever use of visual effects that drew me to it.
“Unlike building a set or having actors standing in a practical environment, there’s a lot that’s just not there when you’re rolling the camera and so you need to forge a good relationship and build the trust so that the director feels he’s going to get what he needs to tell the story the way he wants to tell it. Similarly, in visual effects, it’s our job to inform the director and the rest of the crew so that everyone has a good understanding of what we need to achieve the work successfully.”
In this case successful means making the effects look so real they blend in with the mundanity of every day life that Payne so exactingly extracts – just as Kubrick did.
“What I think makes Downsizing unique is its fresh take on a genre that’s been around for a long time,” Price said. “Movies in the past with small characters interacting with normal-sized humans have broadly fallen into three categories: science fiction, comedies, family movies or some combination. They often have a very different aesthetic than what Alexander intended.
“At one point producer Jim Burke asked me which movie in the past do I think most embodies the look we’re going for in Downsizing and I said, ‘I don’t think there is one.’ There’s pieces of movies with similar elements to what we want to achieve but there isn’t a movie that really has the same aesthetic.”
Downsizing’s its own thing, Price said, because it’s a movie crafted by an auteur. “Early on, Alexander asked me, ‘How do we make this special?’ And I said, ‘Well, the way you make it special is you make it an Alexander Payne movie, because none of these other movies are that. If you bring your sensitivity and style to it then it will become something unique and new,’ and I think it has.”
Payne said Price did things to “trick me into thinking I’m making a real movie, not a visual effects movie.”
“He did it in such a way that I could focus on what’s important, which is the story, the characters, the acting, and keep that front and center,” Payne said. “That’s not to say a lot of thought was not put into the look and to how the sets should be and what we we’re going to build and what we’re going to extend digitally. That’s a constant discussion. But through all of that I knew my job was to keep the eye on the ball of the story.
“I never want the heft of this film to mar any intimacy of tone or idiosyncrasy of humor.”
Payne relied on Price’s team to make actors at ease with the effects work. Even though this was Payne and Price’s first production together, they go back eight years to when Payne first tried getting the movie made. An advantage of the long wait between conception and production was technology advances. A constant was Payne’s desire to not interfere with the actors’ process.
“Alexander was very interested in maintaining the spontaneity of the performances, which is difficult when one of the actors isn’t there and is going to be shot later,” Price said.
It helped having a star in Matt Damon whom Payne confirms is “the total professional” he’s reputed to be.
“For Matt Damon or any actor isolated in a visual effects scene, I made sure there was a person opposite them,” Payne said. “The actor still had a true acting partner in the scene (reading lines off-camera).”
Price said, “We made some choices during the production process, such as the way we built sets or how we staged certain things, so that Alexander could sort of forget the fact there was a green screen back there or there was only one half of the performers in the scene because we were going to be shooting another element green screen later.
“We used 5-inch tall dolls as stand-ins. We placed them in the scene for the actors to look at and so the camera could frame them up. That way Alexander could see the relationship between the two. We paint them out later. We tried to recreate as much as possible the scenario described in the screenplay even though we were ultimately assembling it digitally later.”
Payne found Damon to be the Everyman he plays.
“Genuinely a delight. He is who you hope he is. And the ease with which he can do anything is really something to watch. He’s only too ready to help,”
For the lead, casting director John Jackson said he and Payne concluded Damon was the only marketable star “that could be that lower middle-class Omaha dude. He is our generation’s Jack Lemmon. He can do comedy, he can do drama, he can do everything. An audience can project whatever they need to project onto him.”
Even though protecting story was Payne’s overriding concern, there’s no escaping technology with 650 visual effects shots. He said the great challenge is “having always to match the digital extension of what those sets would be.” Not just sets, but actors, too. Payne wore a motion capture suit to act out scenes’ physical movements. He knew them better than anyone having inhabited the characters and actions while writing them. The data recorded from his walk-through guided CGI artists in creating 3D-animated Previs (pre-visualization) views that served as digital storyboards.
Though the demands of visual effects sometimes required extra takes, Payne said, “I still tried to be as economical and precise as possible. I might have done more takes to get certain things right because of all the moving parts, the number of extras or something technical about the shot. Even Matt Damon told me, ‘You like to do a lot of takes, but at least I know almost every shot’s going to be in the film.’ He meant
there’s a lot of films where they shoot a ton of footage with little idea of how it might cut together. I may overshoot in takes but not too much in actual coverage.”
Payne depends on various departments to get things right. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael was among many Downsizing crew who go way back with him. The DP felt having this family of creatives around was important on a project with so many new elements,
“He was surrounded by a very experienced crew and team he’s familiar with and we were able to preserve some of that family environment on the set despite the scale,” Papamichael said. “He still knew every driver’s and grip’s name and not only their name but if they have a kid in college who plays football. All of that is different than your average big movie where the director doesn’t know the dolly grip’s name even after 14 weeks.”
Jim Taylor isn’t normally on set much but, he said,
“On this movie we thought I needed to be there all the time, so I was. There were contributions I could make. It doesn’t come up that often but Alexander likes to have someone around he can turn to and say, ‘What do you think? What does that look like to you?'”
Being there for the full 75-day shoot gave Taylor insight on where his writing mate’s come as a director.
“It was really interesting for me to see how much more masterful he was working with the actors, knowing what he needed and getting what he needed and all that.”
Payne’s primary casting director since About Schmidt has been Council Bluffs native and resident, John Jackson. On Downsizing he and Payne filled a larger than usual roster of speaking parts and background extras to reflect the story’s global reach.
“I had many more extras than I’ve ever had on a film before,” Payne said, “and extras of different races and nationalities as we tried to portray certain worlds accurately. And so just on the casting side John Jackson and I had to expand our personnel to corral all the right extras and than on the set to direct them well. That has huge impact down the chain – the assistant directors, costume, even props, get hit harder.”
Jackson usually doesn’t office where the film shoots, but he did at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, where the film’s epic sets filled mega sound stages. He was mesmerized by the production unfolding around him.
“It was every fantasy I had as a kid – being on the lot and being able to walk down onto the sound stages and onto the sets. To see it as it was happening, to see the scope of it, to see all the incredible amount of hard work, planning and organization by the different teams from the grips to the construction guys, and watch it call come together was really humbling and very exciting.”
One new creative collaborator was Italian production designer Stefania Ceila.
“She’s amazing,” said cinematographer Papamichael, “Very passionate, very vocal, expressive and stubborn, but it was a wonderful relationship. Visually. I think we definitely elevated to a new level and Alexander has embraced that. The language still has simplicity and not showing off, not getting in the way, still focusing on the humanity and the emotions of actors.
“Even with all the effects and the scale, filling up the largest stage in North America, we still applied the same Alexander Payne language. In the end hopefully the technology will all sort of go away and just blend in – fall into his style of storytelling and people will not really be aware they’re watching an $85 million effects movie.”
Payne acknowledged the experience was more overwhelming than past projects.
“I had moments on this film when I felt like not only did I not know what I was doing but I had never seen a movie before. It’s been a hard movie. You just get through it.”
Complicating matters, he herniated a disc in Toronto. “I suffered the indignity of directing from a wheelchair for about a week,” he said.
Papamichael said despite everything the experience was akin to other Payne movies, adding, “It was just physically and mentally more taxing because of the longer process.”
After wrapping in Canada, the production broke before reconvening in Norway the last two weeks.
“This was the dessert of the film -– shooting in Norway,” Payne said. “We were bowled over by the beauty of the fjords, where we were shooting north of the Arctic circle in a really beautiful region called Lofoten.”
He said the Norway sojourn involved “scouting and shooting from helicopter and boats.” “In the movie there’s a 1927 English yacht we shot on. We were living on a very large ocean liner currently not in use.”
Payne and editor Kevin Tent have been cutting since September. Rough cut screenings yield notes and feedback. Scenes get reassembled “in trying to figure out what the film wants to be,” Payne said. Frequent visual effects meetings, he said, hash out “what we’re going to put in the frame when when we shot there was only green – like literally what is that going to look like, and then tracking the execution of the visual effects artists to make sure it looks good.”
With 2001 Kubrick tackled nothing less than the dawn of man and humankind’s place in the universe. Much of his focus in that film and his other films was on the contrast between the ordinariness of life and its extremes. Under pressure, people do very wrong things. It’s an essentially pessimistic view that seems to suggest man’s inhumanity to man is inevitable and inescapable.
Meanwhile. Payne celebrates foibles as unavoidable traits of our shared imperfection. Unlike Kubrick, he’s hopeful we can navigate life without total ruin. Though divisions cause angst in Downsizing, a sense of community, sacrifice and even love prevails.
Payne said, “This film unites a lot of the themes Jim (Taylor) and I have been using in our previous films and I hope bringing them to a higher level. We will see about that. I don’t think in general it’s that different from what I’ve done before, it’s just a bigger canvas.
“When I think about movies with sprawling episodic structure I think of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Nights of Cabiria, where the story follows one protagonist through a series of adventures and by the end a moment happens that kind of in retrospect gives some thematic narrative cohesion to the story. It pulls a seemingly loose narrative thread suddenly taut. I do not wish to compare Downsizing to those greats but structurally I take inspiration from them.”
Payne and his team have given themselves over to this episodic framework.
“Phedon, Stefania and I in production and now Kevin Tent and I in editing have to accept that it’s a series of short films within one film. Each visually to some degree but now musically we just have to do what feels right in the film and hope to God it holds together.”
Editing is about finding-enhancing the film’s internal rhythms. Payne said, “Getting a handle on a picture of this scope” – he expects it to run 135-140 minutes – “takes a little doing.”
Downsizing contains elements that may remind one of other films, from 2001 to The Incredible Shrinking Man, but overall there’s really nothing to compare it to.
Papamichael said it’s the one Payne film he couldn’t get a visual handle on from the script “and now that I have done it I know why – it’s so diverse in looks and stories.” He said, “It goes through this arc, starting like a regular Alexander Payne movie in Omaha with an average guy at La Casa waiting for his pizza, to he and his wife going to Leisure Land and her leaving him to go through the downsizing process alone. That’s like the whole Kubrick episode of the film. It’s like going from something in About Schimdt to 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
He said the film’s juxtaposition of plastic Leisure Land’s “absurd embrace of American Consumerism” against sterile labs, awful slums, prosaic Omaha sites, world capitals, sublime fjords and an uncharted middle-Earth “really is like a series of short stories or short films that then all connect so beautifully through Paul’s adventure of self-discovery and subtle love story with Ngoc.”
Don’t expect anything but another low-key Paynsian ending that implies more than it shows. Like his other films, Payne said, Downsizing will “end with a feeling more than an event.” “I’m glad we’re able to have an ending to this big movie that hopefully will operate in that delicate space,” Taylor said.
Second-unit director Tracy Boyd, another of Payne’s longtime collaborators, referred to Payne’s consistent goal of surrendering any conscious, overt style to story.
“He so skillfully, masterfully hides the brushstrokes of what he’s doing and you’re fully submerged in what you’re seeing that you forget there’s a director behind all of that. He’s not trying to get you to think about who’s directing the picture as so many filmmakers do. It’s only with repeat viewings you recognize the subtle techniques and clarity behind every vision you see.”
Boyd, Taylor and others close to the project express confidence this promises to be a special, stand-the-test-of-time film. Papamichael disclosed “Paramount’s fully embracing the film – they actually think they have a commercial hit on their hands.” An awards contender, too. Everyone has high praise for the work of Damon and Hong Chau, whose breakout role this could be,
Only the box-office will tell, but Payne-Taylor say it’s their only movie that may have a sequel in the offing.
Should it resonate enough to enter the pop culture consciousness, this could be Payne’s The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Pulp Fiction. Taylor said it’s not as if Payne “wants somebody to give him a shot at some franchise movie.” He echoed Payne’s inclination to do anything but an effects movie as a follow-up. Maybe a long-talked about Western. Or shooting in Greece.
“I would like to do wildly different things,” Payne said.
“That would be fun. I don’t know what yet.”
Initial reviews should appear after major fall festival screenings. Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof or Dundee Theater will premiere Downsizing for its theatrical release.
Hot Movie Takes:
PAYNE’S “DOWNSIZING’” – It may be next big thing on the world cinema landscape
BY LEO ADAM BIGA, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
April 2017 issue of The Reader
Alexander Payne’s next movie is already building some buzz, nine months ahead of its release.
Tuesday at the theater-owners convention CinemaCon, Paramount screened 10 minutes of footage from “Downsizing,” and audiences were reportedly blown away.
Payne’s sci-fi dramedy, parts of which were shot in Omaha last year, opens nationwide Dec. 22, a prime spot for movies seeking awards consideration.
“Downsizing,” starring Matt Damon, has been in the works for more than a decade. Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, started the earliest version of the script in 2006. The film faced a few false starts along the way.
“It’s a movie that imagines what might happen if, as a solution to overpopulation and climate change, Norwegian scientists discover how to shrink organic material,” Payne said in an interview last spring. “The scientists propose to the world a 200- to 300-year transition from big to small as the only humane and inclusive solution to our biggest problem.”
In the film, Damon and Kristen Wiig play a married couple who decide to shrink themselves as a cost-saving measure.
The scale of the concept is new territory for the Omaha Oscar-winner, as are the bigger budget and heavy use of special effects.
In the clip screened at CinemaCon, Damon and Wiig attend a presentation about living the good life as a tiny person. An already-shrunk character played by Neil Patrick Harris makes the sales pitch. He lives in a dollhouse-sized mansion with his wife (played by Laura Dern). They get to live like kings for almost no money at all.
The convention clip also gave viewers the first look on what the shrinking process will look like. It apparently looks fantastic.
The Wrap reported that “the auditorium erupted in laughter at certain points throughout the clip, especially when the little miniature people came out of the shrinking machine. When the clip concluded, the audience cheered.”
Responses were across-the-board positive:
Variety: “‘Downsizing’ is something different entirely. It’s funny, to be sure, but it’s also Payne’s first foray into science fiction. Think of it as ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ with a deeper social message.”
The Playlist: “Let’s be clear, Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ … was literally jaw-dropping. In a visual style and dramatic tone that is the most Kubrick-esque of his career, Payne screened what is effectively the first 10 minutes of the film. To say it’s one of the more original pieces of work I’ve seen in years is an understatement.”
Hollywood Elsewhere: “(The) CinemaCon preview of ‘Downsizing’ was awesome, brilliant, hilarious, sad and a tiny bit scary — an obvious Best Picture contender.”
The local reviews are good so far, too. Representatives of Aksarben Cinema got to see the footage. They said it’s amazing.
It’s of course impossible to judge a film on 10 minutes. But given the quality of Payne’s past work, the talent attached here, the warm reception the clip received and the prime holiday release Paramount is giving the film, this is one to maybe mark on your calendar.
Photos: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig work on set in Omaha for Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’
Hot Movie Takes Friday
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
There’s a common misconception that indie films are something that only came into being in the last half-century when in fact indie filmmaking has been around in one form or another since the dawn of movies.
Several Nebraskans have demonstrated the indie spirit at the highest levels of cinema.
The very people who invented the motion picture industry were, by definition, independents. Granted, most of them were not filmmakers, but these maverick entrepreneurs took great personal risk to put their faith and money in a new medium. They were visionaries who saw the future and the artists working for them perfected a moving image film language that proved addictive. The original Hollywood czars and moguls were the greatest pop culture pushers who ever lived. Under their reign, the narrative motion picture was invented and it’s hooked every generation that’s followed. The Hollywood studio system became the model and center of film production. The genres that define the Hollywood movie, then and now, came out of that system and one of the great moguls of the Golden Age, Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck, was as responsible as anyone for shaping what the movies became by the projects he greenlighted and the ones he deep-sixed. The tastes and temperaments of these autocrats got reflected in the pictures their studios made but the best of these kingpins made exceptions to their rules and largely left the great filmmakers alone, which is to say they didn’t interfere with their work. If they did, the filmmakers by and large wouldn’t stand for it. After raising hell, the filmmakers usually got their way.
Zanuck made his bones in Hollywood but as the old studio system with its longterm contracts and consolidated power began to wane and a more open system emerged, even Zanuck became an independent producer.
The fat-cat dream-making factories are from the whole Hollywood story. From the time the major studios came into existence to all the shakeups and permutations that have followed right on through today, small independent studios, production companies and indie filmmakers have variously worked alongside, for and in competition with the established studios.
Among the first titans of the fledgling American cinema were independent-minded artists such as D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Faribanks, who eventually formed their own studio, United Artists. Within the studio system itself, figures like Griffith, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille, Frank Capra and John Ford were virtually unassailable figures who fought for and gained as near to total creative control as filmmakers have ever enjoyed. Those and others like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock pretty much got to do whatever they wanted on their A pictures. Then there were the B movie masters who could often get away with even more creatively and dramatically speaking than their A picture counterparts because of the smaller budgets and loosened controls on their projects. That’s why post-World War II filmmakers like Sam Fuller, Joseph E. Lewis, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Phil Carlson could inject their films with all sorts of provocative material amidst the conventions of genre pictures and thereby effectively circumvent the production code.
Maverick indie producers such as David O. Selznick, Sam Spiegel and Joseph E. Levine packaged together projects of distinction that the studios wouldn’t or couldn’t initiate themselves. Several actors teamed with producers and agents to form production companies that made projects outside the strictures of Hollywood. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were among the biggest name actors to follow this trend. Eventually, it became more and more common for actors to take on producing, even directing chores for select personal projects, to where if not the norm it certainly doesn’t take anyone by surprise anymore.
A Nebraskan by the name of Lynn Stalmaster put aside his acting career to become a casting direct when he saw an opportunity in the changing dynamics of Hollywood. Casting used to be a function within the old studio system. As the studios’ contracted employee rosters began to shrink and as television became a huge new production center, Stalmaster saw the future and an opportunity. He knew just as films needed someone to guide the casting, the explosion of dramatic television shows needed casting expertise as well and so he practically invented the independent casting director. He formed his own agency and pretty much had the new field to himself through the 1950s, when he mostly did TV, on through the ’60s, ’70s’ and even the ’80s, when more of his work was in features. He became the go-to casting director for many of top filmmakers, even for some indie artists. His pioneering role and his work casting countless TV shows, made for TV movies and feature films, including many then unknowns who became stars, earned him a well deserved honorary Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards – the first Oscar awarded for casting.
Photo By Lance Dawes, Courtesy of AMPAS
In the ’50 and ’60s Stanley Kubrick pushed artistic freedom and daring thematic content to new limits as an independent commercial filmmaker tied to a studio. Roger Corman staked out ground as an indie producer-director whose low budget exploitation picks gave many film actors and filmmakers their start in the industry. In the ’70s Woody Allen got an unprecedented lifetime deal from two producers who gave him carte blanche to make his introspective comedies.
John Cassavetes helped usher in the indie filmmaker we identify today with his idiosyncratic takes on relationships that made his movies stand out from Hollywood fare.
Perhaps the purest form of indie filmmaking is the work done by underground and experimental filmmakers who have been around since cinema’s start. Of course, at the very start of motion pictures, all filmmkaers were by definition experimental because the medium was in the process of being invented and codified. Once film got established as a thing and eventually as a commerical industry, people far outside or on the fringes of that industry, many of them artists in other disciplines, boldly pushed cinema in new aesthetic and technical directions. The work of most of these filmmakers then or now doesn’t find a large audience but does make its way into art houses and festivals and is sometimes very influential across a wide spectrum of artists and filmmakers seeking new ways of seeing and doing things. A few of these experimenters do find some relative mass exposure. Andy Warhol was an example. A more recent example is Godfrey Reggio, whose visionary documentary trilogy “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” have found receptive audiences the world over. Other filmmakers, like David Lynch and Jim McBride, have crossed over into more mainstream filmmaking without ever quite leaving behind their experimental or underground roots.
Nebraska native Harold “Doc” Edgerton made history for innovations he developed with the high speed camera, the multiflash, the stroboscope, nighttime photography, shadow photography and time lapse photography and other techniques for capturing images in new ways or acquiring images never before captured on film. He was an engineer and educator who combined science with art to create an entire new niche with his work.
Filmmakers like Philip Kaufman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and many others found their distinctive voices as indie artists. Their early work represented formal and informal atttempts at discovering who they are as
Several filmmakers made breakthroughs into mainstream filmmaking on the success of indie projects, including George Romero, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, Omaha’s own Joan Micklin Silver, Spike Lee and Quentin Taratino.
If you don’t know the name of Joan Micklin Silver, you should. She mentored under veteran studio director Mark Robson on a picture (“Limbo”) he made of her screenplay about the wives of American airmen held in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. Joan, a Central High graduate whose family owned Micklin Lumber, then wrote an original screenplay about the life of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. She called it “Hester Street” and she shopped it around to all the studios in Hollywood as a property she would direct herself. They all rejected the project and her stipulation that she direct. Every studio had its reasons. The material was too ethnic, too obscure, it contained no action, it had no sex. Oh, and she insisted on making it in black and white,which is always a handy excuse to pass on a script. What the studios really objected to though was investing in a woman who would be making her feature film directing debut. Too risky. As late as the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s there were only a handful of American women directing feature and made for TV movies. It was a position they were not entrusted with or encouraged to pursue. Women had a long track record as writers, editors, art directors, wardrobe and makeup artists but outside of some late silent and early sound directors and then Ida Lapino in the ’50s. women were essentially shut out of directing. That’s what Joan faced but she wasn’t going to let it stop her.
Long story short, Joan and her late husband Raphael financed the film’s production and post themselves and made an evocative period piece that they then tried to get a studio to pick up, but to no avail. That’s when the couple distributed the picture on their own and to their delight and the industry’s surprise the little movie found an audience theater by theater, city by city, until it became one of the big indie hits of that era. The film’s then-unknown lead, Carol Kane, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. The film’s success helped Joan get her next few projects made (“Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter”) and she went on to make some popular movies, including “Loverboy,” and a companion piece to “Hester Street” called “Crossing Delancey” that updated the story of Jewish life on the Lower East Side to the late 20th century. Joan later went on to direct several made for cable films. But “Hester Street” will always remain her legacy because it helped women break the glass ceiling in Hollywood in directing. Its historic place in the annals of cinema is recognized by its inclusion in the U.S. Library of Congress collection. She’s now penning a book about the making of that landmark film. It’s important she document this herself, as only she knows the real story of what obstacles she had to contend with to get the film made and seen. She and Raphael persisted against all odds and their efforts not only paid off for them but in the doors it opened for women to work behind the camera.
The lines between true independent filmmakers and studio-bound filmmakers have increasingly blurred. Another Omahan, Alexander Payne, is one of the leaders of the Indiewood movement that encompasses most of the best filmmakers in America. Payne and his peers maintain strict creative control in developing, shooting and editing their films but depend on Hollywood financing to get them made and distributed. In this sense, Payne and Co. are really no different than those old Hollywood masters, only filmmakers in the past were studio contracted employees whereas contemporary filmmakers are decidedly not. But don’t assume that just because a filmmaker was under contract he or she had less freedom than today’s filmmakers. Believe me, nobody told Capra, Ford, Hitchcock, Wyler, or for that matter Huston of Kazan, what to do. They called the shots. And if you were a producer or executive who tried to impose things on them, you’d invariably lose the fight. Most of the really good filmmakers then and now stand so fiercely behind their convictions that few even dare to challenge them.
But also don’t assume that just because an indie filmmaker works outside the big studios he or she gets everything they want. The indies ultimately answer to somebody. There’s always a monied interest who can, if push comes to shove, force compromise or even take the picture out of the filmmaker’s hands. Almost by definition indie artists work on low budgets and the persons controlling those budgets can be real cheapskates who favor efficiency over aesthetics.
Payne is the rarest of the rare among contemporary American filmmakers in developing a body of work with a true auteurist sensibility that doesn’t pander to formulaic conventions or pat endings. His comedies play like dramas and they’re resolutely based in intimate human relationships between rather mundane people in very ordinary settings. Payne avoids all the trappings of Hollywood gloss but still makes his movies engaging, entertaining and enduring. Just think of the protagonists and plotlines of his movies and it’s a wonder he’s gotten any of them made:
Citizen Ruth–When a paint sealer inhalant addict with a penchant for having kids she can’t take care of gets pregnant again, she becomes the unlikely and unwilling pivot figure in the abortion debate.
Election–A frustrated high school teacher develops such a hate complex for a scheming student prepared to do anything to get ahead that he rigs a student election against her.
About Schmidt–Hen-pecked Warren Schmidt no sooner retires from the job that defined him than his wife dies and he discovers she cheated on him with his best friend. He hits the road to find himself. Suppressed feelings of anger, regret and loneliness surface in the most unexpected moments.
Sideways–A philandering groom to be and a loser teacher who’s a failed writer go on a wine country spree that turns disaster. Cheating Jack gets the scare of his life. Depressed Miles learns he can find love again.
The Descendants–As Matt King deals with the burden of a historic land trust whose future is in his hands, he learns from his oldest daughter that his comatose wife cheated on him. With his two girls in tow, Matt goes in search of answers and revenge and instead rediscovers his family.
Nebraska–An addled father bound and determined to collect a phantom sweepstakes prize revisits his painful past on a road trip his son David takes him on.
Downsizing–With planet Earth in peril, a means to miniaturize humans is found and Paul takes the leap into this new world only to find it’s no panacea or paradise.
Payne has the cache to make the films he wants to make and he responsibly delivers what he promises. His films are not huge box office hits but they generally recoup their costs and then some and garner prestige for their studios in the way of critical acclaim and award nominations. Payne has yet to stumble through six completed films. Even though “Downsizing” represents new territory for him as a sci-fi visual effects movie set in diverse locales and dealing with global issues, it’s still about relationships and the only question to be answered is how well Payne combines the scale with the intimacy.
Then there are filmmakers given the keys to the kingdom who, through a combination of their own egomania and studio neglect, bring near ruin to their projects and studios. I’m thinking of Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Francis Ford Coppola on “One from the Heart”, Michael Cimino on “Heaven’s Gate,” Elaine May on “Ishtar” and Kevin Costner on “Thw Postman” and “Waterworld.” For all his maverick genius, Welles left behind several unfinished projects because he was persona non grata in Hollywood, where he was considered too great a risk, and thus he cobbled together financing in a haphazard on the fly manner that also caused him to interrupt the filming and sometimes move the principal location from one site to another, over a period of time, and then try to match the visual and audio components. Ironically, the last studio picture he directed, “Touch of Evil,” came in on budget and on time but Universal didn’t understand or opposed how he wanted it cut and they took it out of his hands. At that point in his career, he was a hired gun only given the job of helming the picture at the insistence of star Charlton Heston and so Welles didn’t enjoy anything like the final cut privileges he held on “Citizen Kane” at the beginning of his career.
Other mavericks had their work compromised and sometimes taken from them. Sam Peckinpah fought a lot of battles. He won some but he ended up losing more and by the end his own demons more than studio interference did him in.
The lesson here is that being an independent isn’t always a bed of roses.
Then again, every now and then a filmmaker comes out of nowhere to do something special. Keeping it local, another Omahan did that very thing when a script he originally wrote as a teenager eventually ended up in the hands of two Oscar-winning actors who both agreed to star in his directorial debut. The filmmaker is Nik Fackler, the actors are Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and the film is “Lovely, Still.” It’s a good film. It didn’t do much business however and Fackler’s follow up film,” Sick Birds Die Easy,” though interesting, made even less traction. His film career is pretty much in limbo after he walked away from the medium to pursue his music. The word is he’s back focusing on film again.
Other contemporary Nebraskans making splashes with their independent feature work include actor John Beasley, actress Yolonda Ross and writer-directors Dan Mirvish, Patrick Coyle, Charles Hood and James E. Duff.
These folks do really good work and once in a while magic happens, as with the Robert Duvall film “The Apostle” that Beasley co-starred in. It went on to be an indie hit and received great critical acclaim and major award recognition. Beasley is now producing a well-budgeted indie pic about fellow Omahan Marlin Briscoe. Omahan Timothy Christian is financing and producing indie pics with name stars through his own Night Fox Entertainment company. Most of the films these individuals make don’t achieve the kind of notoriety “The Apostle” did but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. For example, Ross co-starred in a film, “Go for Sisters,” by that great indie writer-director John Sayles and I’m sure very few of you reading this have heard of it and even fewer have seen it but it’s a really good film. Hood’s comedy “Night Owls” stands right up there with Payne’s early films. Same for Duff’s “Hank and Asha.”
Indie feature filmmaking on any budget isn’t for the faint of heart or easily dissuaded. It takes guts and smarts and lucky breaks. The financial rewards can be small and the recognition scant. But it’s all about a passion for the work and for telling stories that engage peopl
Hot Movie Takes: ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Downsizing’ speak to each other and to us 60 years apart
Hot Movie Takes:
‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Downsizing’ speak to each other and to us 60 years apart
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Media wonks like me are always looking for anniversary tie-ins between something from the past and something happening right now. Being a film buff to boot, I like finding movies from, say, Hollywood’s Golden Age, that have some thematic, visual or authorial resonance with contemporary movies. An obvious one that will be even more noticeable later this year has to do with Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” from 1957 and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” premiering later this year. That makes 60 years between films that have something to say to each other as well as about their respective times through the conceit of human miniaturization.
Making comparisons is always precarious but, as Payne would say, we’re only talking movies here, so relax. Besides, it’s irresistible discussing two films about small human beings even though each project’s storyline, approach, resources and era of filmmaking is radically different from the other.
Another problem with doing a comparison in this case is that “Shrinking Man” is widely available for review while “Downsizing” hasn’t even been completed yet. But I have the script to go on as well as interviews I’ve done with Payne and a good chunk of his creative team.
In the earlier film the protagonist is miniaturized by accident or fate or phenomenon and his reduction is gradual and out of his control. In the later film the protagonist’s downsizing is a choice that happens immediately upon demand. And where the 1957 film’s hero is the lone person affected by this strange and frightening event, the hero of the 2017 film is one of an entire community or population experiencing miniaturization.
For all the films’ differences, there are also some key similarities. Let’s start with fact that each has an Everyman protagonist who ends up scaled down by mechanisms that speak to the anxieties of their times. “Shrinking Man’s” Scott Carey, played by Grant Williams, is caught in a strange fog and dust out on the ocean. Given that the film is set in and was released in the first full decade of the nuclear age, the inevitable implication is that Scott’s fallen victim to radioactive fallout. Relatively little was known then about the effects of radioactivity and that’s why science fiction stories ran wild with conjectures of mutations that made things grow abnormally large. Well, here, writer Richard Matheson imagines the reverse result.
As Scott’s diminutiveness advances, he is framed against the plastic suburban world of his home that increasingly becomes a foreboding, overwhelming prison of things that heretofore were neutral when he dominated but are now threats in his fragile new state. At one stage in his downsizing the family cat becomes a terrifying predator he must run from to escape. Later, when’s he’s even smaller, he gets stranded in the basement, where everything is an epic, life or death challenge – from navigating steps looming as cliffs he must scale to getting swept away in a water heater spill that for him is the equivalent of being caught in a flood to a spider that’s no longer just a household pest but a frightening monster he must battle for hi slife. In a world where everything has spiraled out of scale, he’s a vulnerable creature subject to objects and forces he once mastered but that are now beyond his control.
Throughout the shrinking phenomenon Scott’s normal sized wife remains faithful until the differential makes things impossible to carry on anything resembling a normal relationship. He loses her and every outward artifice of his life. Stripped of all that he once used to define himself by, Scott is eventually only left with his mind, his heart and his soul. Faced with the inevitability of being reduced to a molecule, then an atom, then an electron and eventually to the smallest life particles, he enters the vast unknown of an infinite universe. It is at once sad, as he is alone, and inspiring, as he’s become fully, intimately integrated with the matter of nature itself. By the conclusion he has moved from fearful, angry, desperate and despairing to surrender. No longer resistant, he gives himself over to a new reality in which he is the first human traveler. It is among the most profound, spiritual endings in cinema history.
Without giving away too much, Payne’s “Downsizing” has its protagonist Paul choose to be miniaturized in a near future world where looming climate change catastrophe has motivated scientists to develop a means by which humans are reduced to four inches. Every day people’s motivation to take this drastic action is variously noble, practical, desperate and exploitive. The environmentally conscious are willing to sacrifice their normal lives and everything in them in order to reduce their carbon and resource footprint and thus help save the planet. On the other end of the spectrum are the hustlers, hucksters, opportunists and traffickers who see a new world of suckers to con or to conduct illegal business with. In between these extremes is Paul, played by Matt Damon, who is convinced to sign up for downsizing transformation by his wife, played by Kristen Wiig. Paul is the classic go along to get along type who doesn’t like making waves or going out on a limb. Yet he agrees to give up everything he knows to be miniaturized because he and his mate will take this leap of faith into the unknown together. Besides, there’ll be doing their part to conserve resources in the hope that enough people will do the same to stem the catastrophic, apocalyptic end of life as we know it. It’s the most dramatic decision and act of his life because once the process is complete, there is no turning or going back. It is irreversible.
Then there is the huge new industry sprung up overnight to support and outfit this pioneering alternative lifestyle. The consumerist culture of escapist cruises and retirement resorts finds new expression in the small world and its geodesic domed communities. The way people live in this manufactured, improvised reality mirrors the normal world and thus there’s a class system of haves and have-nots, desirables and undesirables, predators and preyed upon.
When the couple go in for the procedure, they are led to separate labs. Paul goes through the process only to discover his wife had last minute second-thoughts and opted to not go through with it, after all. Thus, he’s abandoned to face the small world alone. There he falls into something of a shell shock routine until he beings meeting people and seeing things he never would have met or seen before. This includes Euro-trash wheeler-dealer Goran, who can get anything for a price, and Vietnamese-American activist, Gong Jiang, who fights the injustice that confines a marginalized segment of the small world to ghettos. Paul is befriended by Goran, who wants nothing more than to corrupt the circumspect newcomer, but this good-hearted grifter settles for opening his innocent acolyte’s eyes to the illicit commerce and trade this new world order offers. He can also get Paul places he couldn’t get alone. Circumstances bring Paul and Gong together and he is at first put off by her fierce, single-minded focus but grows to admire her passion and to love her not just as a symbol of right but as a fully dimensional woman.
It is through these opposites of Gong and Goran that Paul goes on his greater adventure both within the social-political maelstrom of the downsized community and amidst the end-of-world crisis hanging over everybody, big and small alike. Indeed, he finds himself at the right place and at the right time to witness and participate in an epoch of global dimensions. His diminutive size makes him a candidate to join a group of pioneers whose mission is nothing less than securing the future of human civilization. Thus, by the end, “Downsizing” takes a spiritual turn not unlike “Shrinking” and suggests notions of man’s place in the universe, on Planet Earth and in eternity.
Both films speak eloquently to the nature of man and the nature of existence itself and what it means to be human. At the end of these respective stories, Scott and Paul prepare to embark on journeys that will take them into ever new realms of unknowns. The conclusions suggest that it’s not the end for these characters or for their fellow human beings, but rather the beginning. In the earlier film there is an underlying social consciousness that questions what have we wrought in the nuclear age in terms of our health and future. There’s also the strong suggestion that in smashing the atom and releasing its energy we have reconnected with the very essence of mankind’s beginnings and our elemental lineage with the stars. In the later film the social consciousness stream focuses on what man has done to spoil the Earth and the desperate measures taken to salvage a future for man to continue living on it. In that respect and others, these films speak across generations to each other and to us.
Before I bid peace out, a few notes about the creators of these two films:
The late Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for “The Incredible Shrinking Man” by adapting his own novel (called “The Shrinking Man”). Matheson was a prolific and much honored author novels, short stories and screenplays for film and television and much of his best known work is in the horror, fantasy, science fiction categories. Among other things, he wrote several films for Roger Corman, including adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe works, a handful of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone series (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and my all-time favorite “Little Girl Lost”) and the made for TV movie “Duel” which made its very young director, He adapted his short story “Steel” into a Twilight Zone by the same title and decades later the story was made into the film “Real Steel” starring Hugh Jackman. Omaha’s own Mauro Fiore was the cinematographer on that 2011 adaptation. Steven Speilberg, a hot commodity in Hollywood. He also wrote a well-regarded episode of the original “Star Trek” series – “The Enemy Within.” His novel “I Am Legend” was adapted into the films “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend.” He also worked closely with director Dan Curtis on some fine TV movies, including “The Night Stalker,” “The Night Strangler,” “Dead of Night” and a great adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” starring Jack Palance. He also wrote for Western series and, well, if you look at his IMDB credits or go to his Wikepedia page you will see just what a titan he was among American popular writers.
The director of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” the late Jack Arnold, was a good not great filmmaker who made some interesting movies in addition to this one, including “It Came from Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Man in the Shadow” and the made for TV “Marilyn: The Untold Story.” Most of his directing credits were for epdisodic TV shows from the 1960s through the mid-1980s.
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are one of Hollywood’s great writing teams. “Downsizing” represents their second original script (their first was “Citizen Ruth”) and their adaptations have included “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Payne directed each of these projects and two more features that Taylor did not contribute to – “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.” “Downsizing” represents their first foray into science fiction but the script doesn’t read so much as a sci-fi picture as it does an epic yet intimate human story that straddles, like all their work, comedy and drama. Lots of big ideas are explored and expressed in the story.
Where Matheson didn’t have the advantage of a director with great sophistication in Arnold, who was a studio journeyman, Payne is a world-class Indiwood filmmaker who has total creative control over his work. And where “Shrinking Man” was limited by a smallish budget and limited visual effects, though the effects are quite good not only for that time but even by today’s standards, “Downsizing” is a big budge project employing state of the art CGI and other technologies that should make human miniaturization look far more real than ever imagined before.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man”
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is a 1957 American black-and-white science fiction film from Universal-International, produced by Albert Zugsmith, directed by Jack Arnold, that starred Grant Williams and Randy Stuart. Wikipedia
Initial release: February 22, 1957
Director: Jack Arnold
Story by: Richard Matheson
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
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First reviews should appear by the end of May 2017
“Downsizing” is a 2017 American comedy from Paramount Pictures, produced by Jim Burke, directed by Alexander Payne, that stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis and Bruce Willis.
Initial release: December 23, 2017
Director: Alexander Payne