It’s easy to forget how many times Alexander Payne has pulled off movies that, on their face, were nowhere close to commercial. Payne has crossed over between the arthouse and the mainstream throughout his career. He’s a strong writer-director with a good nose for what will play for smart audiences all over the country. Born in Omaha, Neb., he has a gift for finding the universal in ordinary people; he has the populist touch. Making people laugh is a surefire way of getting stories across — except when they don’t land.
Payne has enjoyed a remarkable run. He and his writing partner Jim Taylor (who dreamed up this “getting small” idea with his brother Doug) are Oscar perennials. They were nominated for writing “Election” (1999; $17 million worldwide) and producing with Jim Burke “The Descendants” (2011; $175 million worldwide), a Best Picture nominee. Payne has won twice, for writing “Sideways” with Taylor (2004; $109 million worldwide), and “The Descendants” (with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). Payne was also nominated for directing “The Descendants,” and for his last film, “Nebraska” (2013; $24.7 million worldwide). His biggest budget until now was the $32 million “About Schmidt,” which scored acting nominations for both Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates (2002; $107 worldwide).
All of these movies were accessible, relatable comedies that struck a nerve with the public. With “Downsizing,” which opened this weekend to underwhelming box office. the movie could top out shy of $20 million.
So what went wrong with “Downsizing” — which, at $68 million, is Payne’s biggest budget since “About Schmidt,” and stars two 40ish movie stars, Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig?
It wasn’t a festival movie.
“Downsizing” reached for the high bar set by Oscar-nominated “Election,” “The Descendants,” “Sideways,” and “Nebraska.” Damon plays sad-sack occupational therapist Paul Safranak (in a role originally intended for Paul Giamatti), who convinces his wife Audrey (Wiig) to get 5 inches tall and move to Leisureland, where they can live large and save the planet at the same time.
With this movie, Payne faced the challenge of weaving together a heartfelt romantic comedy and an earnest eco-message. He worked long and hard in the editing room, using information gleaned from audiences in multiple research previews, to find the best possible movie: He removed Damon’s bookend voice-over narration, tweaked the score to achieve the right tone, and honed the timing of the laughs.
“Jim Taylor and I, we have to trust that what occurs to us as funny, dramatic, and surprising will also occur to others as the same,” said Payne. “You know what? So far, so good. We thought the big, absurd, generous premise was a great premise to work with. We just followed our noses. There’s sincerity in the satire. It’s a serious form.”
Eventually, Paramount decided to screen the movie in Venice, where it played better than Telluride. There, the press corps culled the Oscar field and “Downsizing” didn’t pass muster. Some people love this urbane, sophisticated global dramedy which has much on its mind. Others, not so much.
It wasn’t a mainstream movie, either.
For one thing, “Downsizing” is aimed at audience concerns about global warming and eco-sustainability. That’s not an easy sell. And Paramount never figured out how to reach audiences with this feathered fish — neither arthouse nor mainstream, critics-friendly nor Oscar contender, with a mediocre 63 Metascore.
Expectations were high for this movie about shrinking small to live the high life. But Payne stepped away from his comfort zone. He’s used to coaxing hilarious and moving performances from top actors in real locations (Nebraska, Hawaii, Solvang wine country). He’s rarely shot anything in an artificial environment.
That’s exactly what this movie required. Payne worked on elaborate sets and gargantuan sound stages, navigating the requirements of shooting full-size actors from a great distance surrounded by giant props — which he then cut together with shots of normal-size actors talking down to little pieces of green duct tape.
The director tackled the new world of empire building. He and his team had to conceive, design, and build an immersive sci-fi future world for little people to live in. “It’s a lot like having construction in your house, which is communicating what you want it to be, making sure they get it done on time, and don’t move onto the next job,” he said.
Conceiving, designing and executing Leisureland with the help of consulting architects and urban planners was “the trickiest thing to nail down,” said Payne. “How does that community Leisureland really look? When Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig walk across the observation corridor, they look through plate-glass windows to see the entire community. It’s a rationally designed urban community. We knew we wanted it to be an oval a mile around, surrounded by a wall and covered by that net, an obvious symbol of the prison of materialism. How really would it be designed? In time, we were feeding it into the visual effects machinery, getting it spit out right and believably with the right color and lighting.”
Some of it works. In one hilarious sequence, Paul and his group are plucked like chickens and put through the shrinking process, scooped up by attendants with spatulas on their way to Leisureland. However, Damon’s character is a hopelessly dense creature who is hard to identify with.
Liking Matt Damon is hard
Is Paul stupid, foolish, and misguided? “I see him as befuddled,” he said, “like some of my own befuddlement with the weird ways the world is turning. He becomes the vehicle to guide us through the world of miniaturization. On the way, he gets distracted from himself then falls into himself again. He is eager to please and unsure how to do so, falling into obvious traps of materialism and so forth. You know he’s a good guy, helps his mother and helps his wife, he went to Jesuit high school in Omaha that teaches you how to be a man for others. He finds meaning with his dissident gal. He comes to see what to expect in life. It sounds corny, but for him it’s service to others.”
If he had to do it all over again, Payne would restore the framing device he lost to cut back the running time. “What the film needed was in the first act for him to declare, ‘I want this in life; I need to find meaning this way.’ He’s lost — he often seems a passive rather an active character. The voiceover created more pity for him in Act One.”
But liking Hong Chau is easy
What emerged at Telluride was scene-stealer discovery Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran, a remarkable 5-inch dissident who befriends Paul, carries the movie’s emotion, and could be a Supporting Actress contender.
She figured out her characterization in the audition. “She understood the screenplay,” he said. “She understood the rhythm and the intent, the humor and pathos. She got it. She’s a very smart gal; a very astute film viewer. She has a lot going on upstairs.”
He didn’t anticipate the controversy about her Asian stereotype at all, nor did Paramount; it never came up in previews. So far, Chau’s landed Supporting Actress nominations from the Golden Globes and SAG. “To have a genuinely weird role and find exactly the right actor for it at the right time, there’s nothing more exciting,” said Payne.
Next up: Payne will go back to the drawing board. “Writing is arduous, there’s nothing better than finishing writing, having written,” he said. “Not having an idea for a film, feeling the well dry, that causes despair. I wish I had written more of them. They may not all be great, but I never want to make a bad one.”