EXCLUSIVE: Tomorrow, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing will open the 74th Venice Film Festival. The Matt Damon-starrer marks a number of firsts for Payne, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind such great pics as Election, Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska. Not only has he never had a movie at Venice, he’s never even been to the Lido event. As for any pressure of opening the fest, which has become a key launch pad for awards-season contenders, he’s taking it in stride — although some choice words were exchanged with his tailor before hopping a plane to Italy.
From Paramount, Downsizing is also Payne’s first stab at visual effects. Satire mixes with a touch of sci-fi as Damon’s character seeks out a better life — by being shrunk to 5 inches tall. A key technological aspect of the film is the downsizing process. Exhibitors got a look at those 20 minutes in Barcelona this summer, and they were wowed.
The story was one that Payne and collaborator Jim Taylor kicked around for years after wondering: What if the solution to overpopulation and climate change was to miniaturize? Payne recently sat down with me for a discussion about Downsizing‘s genesis, his future ambitions, and why his intimately American stories have great resonance globally.
DEADLINE: So, you’re opening Venice after never having had a film there. Are you excited?
ALEXANDER PAYNE: Of course I’m excited. Not only is it wonderful that Downsizing was asked to open Venice, but I’ve never been to the festival in my life. They’ve asked me in the past to be on the jury, but I wasn’t able, and the timing has never worked out to have films there. Also I’ve known (Venice chief) Alberto (Barbera) for 27 years. He was director of the festival in Turin in 1990 and accepted my UCLA thesis film. It makes me very happy too to have this long experience with him.
DEADLINE: Alberto has done an incredible job of reinvigorating Venice over the past several years. With this amazing track-record of films that have gone on to awards-season glory, is there extra pressure to be opening the festival?
PAYNE: The only pressure is making sure my tuxedo pants fit. I had to take them to the tailor, and he said, “Oh, I see you’ve been enjoying life.” I said, “Shut up.”
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration to tell this story?
PAYNE: My co-writer Jim Taylor and his brother had often mused about how much better our lives would be if we were able to shrink, how much bigger our houses could be, how much cheaper food would be, and so forth. Years later, I came back and said, “What if we put that in the context of being a solution to overpopulation and climate change?” He agreed, and the story began to unfold, and we thought it was a pretty good premise for a lot of reasons.
DEADLINE: Why did the film ultimately take so long to be made?
PAYNE: The screenplay proved tricky for Jim and me, because it’s a big idea and difficult to break off — it had a long narrative chain reaction. We hope it will in the minds of viewers, too. Then finding financing for this sucker was anything but a slam-dunk. Finally, production was on the longish side, and visual effects add considerable time to post-production.
DEADLINE: In terms of the technology, this is your most ambitious film.
PAYNE: It’s the first time I’ve done a visual effects movie, so it was a lovely education on how to make one. In terms of technology presented on-screen, it’s mostly the downsizing process itself, and I think part of the comedy is how low-tech it seems.
DEADLINE: When you got closer to the actual execution, was it daunting?
PAYNE: I like to be prepared, and I’d been working on and off with a visual effects supervisor for years during previous attempts to get the film made. I’m never cowardly about asking dumb questions. I’ve asked him to explain things to me as though I were a child and I also tasked him, and the cinematographer, with helping me pretend I was making a real film — without visual effects — so I could focus on the story and the acting.
DEADLINE: Did it feel very different?
PAYNE: It was a very interesting added layer of filmmaking. And it wasn’t extremely difficult — it was just more time-consuming and at times tedious. Look at all these people making visual effects films all the time, making crappy ones at that. How hard can it be? The point is to use it well and make sure — I’m saying the obvious — it always serves the story.
DEADLINE: Is it something you would do again? Are you keen to go deeper into that world which is a big part of filmmaking today?
PAYNE: It doesn’t really matter. It’s what the story requires, and I have no requirements that a story need visual effects. Think of all the wonderful films made without visual effects. Look at Apocalypse Now — they actually did it all. And in recent memory Dunkirk. There are some visual effects in there, but [Christopher] Nolan tried to do as much as he could in-camera, and I applaud him for it. On the other hand, there have been visual effects, not digitized, but visual effects since the birth of cinema, like Georges Méliès.
I have the same attitude in film that I have towards other things in life — no job too big, no job too small.
DEADLINE: You had Reese Witherspoon set to co-star before Kristen Wiig came on board.
PAYNE: As you know, in movies there’s intention and then there’s timing. She had had every intention to be in the movie, and then when I finally got the financing and the window in which to make it, she was in the midst of Big Little Lies.
DEADLINE: One of Reese’s co-stars in that great series, Laura Dern, is in Downsizing.
PAYNE: This is the first time we’ve been able to work together since Citizen Ruth many years ago.
DEADLINE: And you worked with her dad a couple of years ago. Do you like to work with a family of actors?
PAYNE: I would love to do so more, but everything depends on what roles are required by the screenplay, and I don’t make films as often as I’d like to. But there are many actors with whom I’d like to work again. I’d love to work with Reese again, I’d love to work with Paul Giamatti again, love to work with Laura Dern again in a larger part.
DEADLINE: Are there any people that you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
PAYNE: I would like to work with Javier Bardem, and I’d like to work with Marion Cotillard one day. I think she’s a great star.
DEADLINE: How would you characterize the space that you play in? Drama versus comedy?
PAYNE: I personally refer to them as comedies because I’m always looking to mine humor and I find comedy a serious form, if you don’t mind my sounding a little pretentious. I would be scared stiff of making a straight drama where there aren’t any laughs, and I think many films fall short of their potential by not having any humor. If you want to categorize it, I’d say serious comedy or funny drama? Who knows? Who cares? It’s just a movie.
DEADLINE: Can you elaborate a bit on the idea that some films fall short of their potential by not having any humor?
PAYNE: I’m not dogmatic about it, but I think narrative film — no matter the subject matter — should be charming on some level. I secretly accuse many films of mistaking seriousness of tone for seriousness of purpose. It’s a personal thing — when people ask me what I thought of a this or that movie, I find myself often answering, “Great, but no jokes.”
DEADLINE: Does satire fit better?
PAYNE: Maybe some of them. I guess Citizen Ruth maybe had some satirical elements. Maybe Election as well. On this one, I would say it shares some elements of those early films.
DEADLINE: What do you think of the saying, “You have to laugh to keep from crying?” Are you able to find the humor in even very serious situations in your own life?
PAYNE: Your sense of humor doesn’t abandon you in serious situations. What else is supposed to get you through? When you’re talking about movies, however, there’s a difference between the characters finding humor and the viewers seeing humor.
DEADLINE: What do you hope viewers take from Downsizing?
PAYNE: (laughs) I’m certainly not going to answer that other than to say, as with all my films, I hope audiences think it was well made and made with joy.
DEADLINE: You were working on the film for a long time, but everything is happening so fast in the real world. What, if anything, does the film say about the current administration?
PAYNE: I can’t answer that question directly, but what I can say is that certain elements of the film seem to have a new context even though we conceived them years ago.
DEADLINE: Shifting gears, I found an interesting box office statistic for your previous films. Do you know why your movies tend to over-index in Spain? The market is either the 2nd or 3rd biggest for your films outside the U.S.
PAYNE: You’d have to ask them why, but I’m very happy to hear that. I attended university in Spain, and I speak Spanish. I’m a fan of Spanish cinema. They’ve invited me many times to be on the jury in San Sebastián and show my films there. I’m a big hit in Lichtenstein and San Marino too.
DEADLINE: Sticking to the overseas theme, your movies tend to be very American stories which also translate internationally. Is there something that you think about stories that come from the heartland where you’re from that specifically resonates outside of the United States?
PAYNE: The only answers that occur to me are cliché ones — that a good human story will resonate anywhere, and that sometimes the more specific something is the more universal. Who’s a more Japanese director than (Yasujiro) Ozu? And whose films are more universal?
DEADLINE: Is that a conscious choice on your part to drill down to very specific stories?
PAYNE: It’s conscious, but it’s an urge. I like this planet very much, and I like my films to be very specifically rooted in place. And not just physical place, but a sense of the people and their rhythms.
DEADLINE: Are there types of films you’d like to branch out into?
PAYNE: Oh hell, yes. I want to make all sorts of different films. I’m dying to make period films and I also would very much like to make films in Europe and in South America. And I don’t necessarily mean American films or English-language that just happen to be shot there, although I’m not opposed to it.
DEADLINE: That sounds like something that could be challenging to put together financially. What do you think of the new models? Are you married to theatrical distribution?
PAYNE: I don’t know enough about all the “new models” to be able to comment thoughtfully, but in general a filmmaker will take money from almost anywhere to get something made. I prefer seeing movies projected even as I recognize the astonishing golden age of television we’re living. There’s just nothing quite like seeing movies projected, and you have to take a girl somewhere on a Saturday night.