x

Culture

In a Shrinking Hollywood, Greek-American Alexander Payne Aims Big in “Downsizing”

December 22, 2017

TORONTO (AP) — 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.”

Payne, a third-generation Greek-American would like his next one to go more quickly, though his fondness for filmmaking sometimes makes him inclined to stretch the experience — at least location scouting.

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,” which Paramount Pictures will release Friday, 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 also 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 meme 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.”

Taylor, who has worked with Payne since their 1996 feature debut, the abortion-rights satire “Citizen Ruth,” says the two consciously try to find less predictable directions.

“We think, ‘Well, the obvious way is to go this way, but maybe that’s just our movie-memory working,” says Taylor. “Heroism for us is more about getting through the day than saving humanity, even though there are people literally trying to save humanity in our movie.”

The existential journey of Damon’s character in “Downsizing” is partly triggered by the entrance of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a heavily accented Vietnamese dissident who was miniaturized against her will.

“It’s a character that we don’t often see and it’s a character most filmmakers would not be interested in or just not know where to begin to know how to do the character quote-unquote correctly,” says Chau. “I appreciate that Alexander and Jim Taylor had the cojones to write this character.”

Though some have questioned the strong accent, Chau’s performance — both comically prickly and tenderly sweet — is easily among the best of the year. (She’s nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe.) She steals the movie, raising its trajectory.

“I’m very happy to play a character who is specifically Asian, who is up against very real obstacles in an environment that feels very familiar and realistic to what people are actually experiencing right now,” says Chau. “For people who have a problem that I’m speaking with an accent or whatever, my question is always: ‘Did she seem intelligent to you?’ And the answer is always yes, so I’m like: ‘What’s the problem?'”

Payne is himself a mix of sardonic and romantic. He’ll accept the praise that his “Paris, je t’aime” short is his finest work, but only because it’s 6 minutes long. “You can get on with your life,” he says. He’s a precise and perceptive cinephile with an expert Robert Ryan impression and a strong devotion to Milos Foreman films, but he frequently chafes at the extreme attention Hollywood moviemaking brings.

“The movies will never die,” Payne says. “But I think they’re too expensive to make and that’s a drag, at least in the U.S. I wouldn’t mind, and in fact I will, seek to make movies in other countries just to get away from the pressure.”

“I wish life were long enough where I could just go into everyone’s house on Earth and see how they live and meet them and say hello,” Payne says with a smirk. “Get a handle on things.”

“Downsizing” is, in a way, Payne trying to do just that — get a handle on things. “That the film summarily proposes miniaturization as the only possible solution for overpopulation and climate change reveals how totally screwed we are,” he says.

But despite his pessimism for the future, Payne recently had his first child with his second wife Maria Kontos. They wed in Greece in 2015, just as the late Brad Grey was greenlighting “Downsizing.”

“What are you going to do?” he shrugs. “Not have a kid?”


JAKE COYLE, AP Film Writer

RELATED

LONDON - A second generation Greek-Cypriot in London, Georgina Hayden has used her heritage to write cookbooks showing off recipes from her homeland and her latest, Greekish, offers everything from Baklava cheesecake to Burnt Butter Eggs and Goat’s Cheese.

Top Stories

Columnists

A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.

General News

NEW YORK – Meropi Kyriacou, the new Principal of The Cathedral School in Manhattan, was honored as The National Herald’s Educator of the Year.

Video

1 of 2 Abducted Louisiana Children is Found Dead in Mississippi after Their Mother is Killed

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Louisiana woman was found dead in her home Thursday, and her two young daughters were abducted and found hours later in Mississippi — one dead and the other alive, police said.

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany  — Jude Bellingham scored to give England a winning start at the European Championship by beating Serbia 1-0 on Sunday.

BALTIMORE  — Gunnar Henderson hit his eighth leadoff homer of the season, and three more Orioles also went deep off Zack Wheeler to help Baltimore beat the Philadelphia Phillies 8-3 on Sunday.

OBBÜRGEN, Switzerland  — Nearly 80 countries called Sunday for the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine to be the basis for any peace agreement to end Russia’s two-year war, though some key developing nations at a Swiss conference did not join in.

ATHENS - Four years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut international travel and kept tourists away from Greece, the government now wants  to limit how many cruise ships can dock at popular islands because there are too many tourists.

Enter your email address to subscribe

Provide your email address to subscribe. For e.g. [email protected]

You may unsubscribe at any time using the link in our newsletter.