Alexander Payne aims big by going tiny in ‘Downsizing’

Jake Coyle
Associated Press


There are rituals to an Alexander Payne production. Movie nights on Wednesdays during pre-production at Payne’s house, with pizza and soft drinks. Friday night screenings during post-production with martinis. And, reliably, an endless struggle to secure financing.

“Only one studio guy said what I needed him to say, which was: ‘I know it doesn’t make sense on paper. We’re making it anyway,’ ” Payne says of his latest, “Downsizing.” “Those are the words on which my career has hung.”

At a cost of $68 million, “Downsizing” is double the budget of any previous film by Payne. He originally intended the film, in which scientists have invented the ability to shrink people to 5-inches tall, to be his follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2004 film, “Sideways.”

“But it was not be,” Payne sighs.

Years seeking studio backing followed, even as Payne made other things (“The Descendants,” “Nebraska”). He calls “Downsizing” his Vietnam, a label his writing partner, Jim Taylor, modifies.

“Except we won,” he says, chuckling.

For a director who has always made modest, human-sized comedies — many of them set in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska — it’s especially fitting that Payne’s most ambitious film yet is about people turning small. He is, almost certainly, the only director who would spend millions making special effects appear mundane.

“I wanted the visual effects in this one to be so noticeable as to be banal,” he said in an interview over coffee shortly after the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I mean, I’m just trying to make a regular movie. I’m not trying to make a visual effects movie.”

“Downsizing” is the rarest thing in today’s movie industry: a big movie for big people — adults, you could call them. In a shrinking Hollywood, “Downsizing” is a clever inversion of scale: a high-concept, large-canvas science fiction from a filmmaker who specializes in the lives of profoundly ordinary schlubs.

In “Downsizing,” miniaturization not only lessens human impact on an overcrowded, overpopulated Earth, it gives people the opportunity for grander lives. “Get small, live like kings,” is among the selling points for Leisure Land, one of the “small” communities that pops up, and just one of the myriad ways the world-changing invention is quickly capitalized upon.

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la memes chose,” says Payne with a melancholy Midwestern twang. (It’s usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”)

It begins with a Nebraskan couple (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) who, saddled with mortgage payments, decide to undergo the process. But the film will surprise many moviegoers by just how far it travels from its initial premise.

Going from the Omaha plains to Norwegian fjords, “Downsizing” wanders a near-future, looking for meaning in a dying, upside-down world.

“Ultimately,” says Payne, “we’re just interested in people, not so much in plot.”