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For Alexander Payne, it’s a small world after all

Alexander Payne, director of the film "Downsizing," poses for a portrait during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017.

Christopher Katsarov/THE CANADIAN PRESS

If asked to describe the films of director Alexander Payne, you would have a wealth of adjectives at your disposal: wry, layered, sharp, dark, existential, surprising, more than a little pessimistic. But above all, you'd be tempted to use the word "small." As in: intimate, of extremely low stakes, contained. Think of the tiny campaign at the heart of Election. The midlife crises of Sideways and The Descendants, and the end-of-life crises of About Schmidt and Nebraska. Small stories all – not that there's anything wrong with that.

Payne's latest film, though, is small in an entirely new sense. In Downsizing, Payne and regular co-writer Jim Taylor imagine a world where it is possible to shrink humans down to a mere five inches (13 centimetres). The procedure is originally envisioned by noble scientists as a cure for a vastly overpopulated Earth, but as is typical with a Payne film, the stakes shift from idealism to something darker and more complex. And as Downsizing plays out, following the adventures of newly tiny everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), Payne gets to build an entire world around the nifty conceit – albeit a world constructed to 1/12 scale.

The small-yet-not-quite film is Payne's first in four years, since 2013's acclaimed black-and-white family dramedy Nebraska, but it has been in the works for almost a decade.

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"Jim and I had this good idea back in early '06, but the challenge in cracking it was how do you find a protagonist, and a protagonist's story, to embody the journey through the world in which this phenomenon is happening?" the director, 56, says during an interview this past September at the Toronto International Film Festival. "We were greedy, and I'm sure the screenplay shows it still, because we wanted to acknowledge all the different elements that were touched by this concept, how it rippled throughout the world. How the idea would be abused and perverted."

It is an ambitious idea that could have sustained a miniseries or television series, though Payne had more than enough trouble selling the idea of a standalone two-hour film. Development started, and stopped, at various points in 2009, 2012 and 2014.

"It wasn't only the visual effects that made it expensive," Payne says, although at one point he envisioned a budget of $100-million (U.S.). "I wanted to shoot it in different places. Norway, Los Angeles, my home town of Omaha. That took a lot of organizing from a studio level, and then I was told that my script was 'too intelligent' to justify that particular budget level."

From a business perspective, Payne understands – a wholly original adult drama with no superheroes or action set-pieces is a difficult project to shop around these days. Even though the director enjoys a stellar track record – he's the man who convinced $109-million worth of moviegoers to watch Paul Giamatti complain about merlot in Sideways – the buy-in just wasn't there. Until, in 2015, Paramount's then-chief executive Brad Grey decided to think, ahem, big.

"He said the words on which my entire career has depended upon: 'I know it doesn't make sense on paper, but we're making it anyway.'"

As luck would have it, 2017 seems to be the perfect time for Downsizing to finally arrive. The film uses Damon's Paul as an avatar to poke at a wealth of social issues, from environmental devastation to the ravages of capitalism to fear-based immigration policies, in effect holding up a cracked mirror to the current zeitgeist.

"My mother is of an advanced age, and she said to me, 'I can't believe I'm going to die with the world in this state.' So yeah, we had the impression that the winds are swirling in a very wrong direction," Payne says of his writing process with Taylor. "We're all thinking of this stuff. But we conceived of this film years ago. In the interim, the images and ideas have taken on this enhanced meaning."

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Halfway through the film, there is one moment involving a teensy-tiny border wall that hits at today's headlines like an episode of Black Mirror: If you didn't laugh at the pitch-black surreality of it, you'd kill yourself. Just don't mention the Black Mirror comparison to Payne, who once likened his film to an episode of Charlie Brooker's anthology series to a journalist, and has regretted it ever since. "I said that to one guy in one conversation," he says, mock-outraged. "But, yeah, we do take a ridiculous premise and treat it seriously."

The timing of Downsizing's release cuts both ways, though. While it opened to rapturous reviews at the Venice Film Festival this past August, its reception slightly cooled as it made its way through TIFF and the London Film Festival, and must now contend with a rash of other prestige-level fall films that also purport to riff on the current sociopolitical climate (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water). For his part, Payne doesn't play the pit-one-film-against-another game.

"I find it lamentable that we have to watch films in such a competitive context," he says. "We watch these films made with great sincerity and fragility, and they're all released at the same time of the year and are expected to gird for battle."

On the other hand, he is thankful that someone is still making these types of films – his type of films – at all. "As a film viewer, it's nice to say the fall is coming and I get to see everything I want."

What Payne mostly wants to see now, though, is Downsizing strike a chord. Financially and critically, sure, but he has a more humane goal in mind, too. "A throughline we wanted to show here is, basically, what the hell else is there ultimately but kindness?" he says, noting Paul's journey is less self-discovery and more a discovery of the (mini) world around him. "If I can't swim to shore, let me hold on to my life preserver and hold on to the hands of the person in their life preserver next to me. That's what it's about."

So Alexander Payne is brightening his outlook on the human condition?

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"Well, it's interesting," he adds. "I've read a few reviews that say this is an optimistic film, and I don't quite understand that. There's optimism in it, but it's fuelled by pessimism. A lot of pessimism."

Think big, then. But not too big.

Downsizing opens Dec. 22.

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