Despite a significant budget, mighty stars (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern), and a script over a decade in the making, Alexander Payne’s latest ambitious dramedy, Downsizing, features his tiniest characters to date: In an overpopulated world, scientists shrink humans to pocket size as part of a master plan to minimize all of mankind over the course of 300 years.
The film’s satirical tone — honed with longtime Payne collaborator Jim Taylor — touches on issues of immigration and the environment, though its Oscar-winning director hesitates to call Downsizing political. “It takes something inherently absurd, but tells it with utter earnestness,” he tells EW, likening the project’s sci-fi concept to Black Mirror by way of Robert Altman. “We’re more interested in making human films [but Downsizing is] an interesting prism through which to view our times.”
Finally, a movie that puts our society under the microscope. Read on for EW’s full conversation with Payne, and check out our exclusive first look image from Downsizing (in theaters Dec. 22) above.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film was shrouded in secrecy for many years. What can you tell us about it now?
ALEXANDER PAYNE: Downsizing imagines what might happen if overpopulation and climate change [prompt] Norwegian scientists to discover how to shrink people down to five inches tall and propose, very earnestly, the population’s two-to-three-hundred-year transition from big to small.
Jim Taylor and his brother had been kicking around the idea for a while. They were thinking oh, if you were only so big, you could have a huge house on a huge lot of only eight square feet! When Jim and I decided to do something with the idea, we saw it in more political terms… I don’t want it to sound too much like a political movie. We’re more interested in making human films. Humans are involved in politics, so we thought this story was an interesting prism through which to view our times.
You initially worked on the script for 2 and a half years between Sideways and The Descendants, right? Why did it take a decade to translate from script to screen?
This film was very difficult for us, and it was the reason why there was a long gap for me between Sideways and The Descendants. We spent a lot of time trying to perfect this screenplay. We don’t choose [when to make a film], it’s when we get financing [and] we couldn’t get financing for it. We also hadn’t quite cracked the screenplay yet; so as painful as that was in hindsight, I’m glad the film was made when it was made. The same thing happened to me years before on About Schmidt. About Schmidt was going to be my first feature in 1991, but I couldn’t get financing and maybe hadn’t quite cracked the screenplay, so it wasn’t made for 11 more years. It happens sometimes.
So it was still difficult to fund this picture, even after you’d just come off of winning an Oscar for writing Sideways?
There’s a huge leap in budget from a movie like Sideways to a movie like this one. Downsizing has a big scope, and we shot in many different places, and it has a significant visual effects budget. I was told a couple of times, and not in my words, it’s too intelligent to justify the budget it requires. But, I think people should just watch it and see it [for what it is].
Did working with a bigger budget affect your ability to retain your voice as a director at all?
Not at all. I always assume the audience is more intelligent than I am, I don’t care what the budget is… It’s a bigger canvas. People tell Jim and I that Downsizing is a real departure for us, but we think, no it isn’t, this is exactly what we do, it just requires a bigger budget. It’s exactly our same sense of humor.
I’ve heard the humor in this film is largely satirical. Which elements of society are you critiquing, here?
I don’t like to control the viewing of a viewer; It’s a movie. But, I guess like the previous movies I’ve directed, I don’t know if you’d call it a funny drama or a dramatic comedy, and I can tell you though that the “science fiction” element is really just a premise and an excuse to [set up] the story. I don’t think it fulfills the science fiction mandate.
But because you finished the script in 2009 and society has changed so much, the script must have evolved in response to everything happening in society.
Even on other films, like Nebraska, you write it at a certain point in time, and then, interestingly, when you’re finally able to make the film, events of the day have caught up to developments of the screenplay, which you’d already been thinking about. Given our bizarre political history of the last year, particularly the last eight months, it will shed new light on new some elements that already existed in the screenplay to begin with.
Were there specific things in society or culture you remember tailoring the script in response to?
We never do that. We’re not ripped-from-the-headlines or quickly responsive types, nor are we interested in being that. It just so happens that things that were in the air years ago when we started the screenplay are now in the air more than they were before.
Especially issues relating to the environment, because one of the reasons these people shrink down is to reduce their footprint on the environment.
Environment is huge in the movie, and that issue isn’t going anywhere. It’s been going around for a while. It’s just going to get worse. The film has a thread of immigration in it, for example, and that’s been in the news much more lately. Things that were in the air when we began years ago are just much more in the air now.
Is it foolish to ask you to elaborate on how the film tackles those subjects?
You gotta see the movie, and I wouldn’t be pretentious enough to say it’s tackling immigration. It isn’t tackling anything. It just has presence. It has an element of wit, which, depending upon what’s going on in the zeitgeist, will be more or less salient. Viewers may bring more perspective to the film given recent events, but my process hasn’t changed; the world is just a little bit different right now.
Why do you think this film has stayed with you so long, after all of the funding struggles and casting changes over the years?
The basic premise is a very delicious one, and it’s the premise that saw Jim and me through the many years to get this made… it’s very much like the previous movie Jim and I did, in that it takes something inherently absurd and ridiculous, but tells it with utter earnestness… kind of like what you see in Black Mirror. Some episodes of Black Mirror take a premise and run with it, but I’m not interested in the science fiction feeling; I always aspire to make a Hal Ashby or a Robert Altman movie, and the plot has a certain episodic structure.
You also reunited with Laura Dern here for the first time since Citizen Ruth. Were you actively seeking to work with her again?
Yes, I’m always looking to work with her, and it whetted our appetite for more… There was a small part in this, and she was kind enough to read the screenplay as a friend, and she said she’d love to play the part [though] it’s very small. It’s what they’d call a cameo in the old days.
Lastly, how does Downsizing reflect the filmmaker you’ve become over the years?
It has a lot of elements present in previous films I’ve directed, and I wouldn’t say it’s a summing-up, [and] hopefully I’m not repeating myself… It’s not for everybody, but I hope people like it.