Alexander Payne on Tackling His Biggest Themes in ‘Downsizing’ and Why We ‘Need’ Horror Movies Today

Alexander Payne recently had a business lunch with Jason Blum.

It may seem like an odd pairing. Payne is an Oscar-winning auteur known for such salt-of-the-earth comedies as “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska,” films where moments of levity emerge from a kind of hardscrabble realism. Blum, the hugely successful producer behind “The Purge” and “Insidious,” is a mogul of the macabre. But Payne, after seven movies that largely center on middle-aged schnooks, says he’s done with dramatizing the foibles of the pocket-protector set. He’s ready to shake things up.

“I want to do something different,” Payne tells Variety during a recent interview at Viacom’s Times Square headquarters. “How fun would it be to do a horror movie? They’re all the rage right now, and they make a lot of money.”

Before Payne can team up with Blum, however, he’s got a film to release. That’s why he’s flown to New York from Greece seven weeks after his wife, Maria Kontos, gave birth to their daughter. He’s here to bang the drum for “Downsizing,” a comedy about a couple from Omaha (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) who shrink themselves to the size of a Saltine in order to live in a McMansion. With a budget of $68 million, it’s the most expensive movie Payne has ever directed and represents his first foray into the world of digital effects. He also sees “Downsizing” as the culmination of a series of films that began with “Citizen Ruth” in 1996 and continued with the likes of “Election,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”

“It’s a summing up of all the themes that I’ve been working with,” Payne says. “There’s the look at class in America, there’s political satire, a humanist point of view. It’s all crammed into one greedy package called ‘Downsizing.’”

The movie is Payne’s first flirtation with science fiction. It imagines a group of 
scientists whose solution to overpopulation is to shrink people. Yet despite its fantastical elements, it’s a story that speaks to present-day concerns about immigration, the wage gap and a warming planet.

Alexander Payne Portrait Variety Marco Grob
CREDIT: Marco Grob for Variety

“I’m hesitant to say there’s, God forbid, a message,” says the director, “but I liked the idea of trying to solve the world’s greatest problem through something as preposterous as miniaturization. But when you think about it, there’s no better solution. If we are going down — and it sure looks that way — what are we supposed to do? Colonize another planet? Allow plague, food riots, starvation and natural disaster to just kill us all off?”

Selling his idea to studios proved difficult. “Downsizing” was intended to be Payne’s next film after 2004’s “Sideways,” and was conceived with Paul Giamatti in the lead role. It took more than a decade to secure the financing, and the picture only got a greenlight after Giamatti exited the project in favor of the more bankable Damon. The production budget was nearly double what Payne’s next-most-expensive film, “The Descendants,” cost to produce.

“I was told by a lot of wonderful studio presidents that it’s simply too intelligent to merit the budget you’re asking 
for,” says Payne. “I don’t make fun of that point of view at all. It’s a business. Movies cost too damn much money. There’s too much pressure on them to sand off all the rough edges.”

Ultimately, Paramount backed the project after 20th Century Fox passed. Ironically, former Fox head Jim Gianopulos is now in charge of Paramount. Brad Grey, the studio chief who greenlit “Downsizing,” resigned in the spring and died in May. Despite the upheaval, Payne isn’t worried his picture will be shunted aside. “I have no evidence or instinct to suspect that this film will be dumped by a new regime,” he says. “It can’t be. It’s their big Christmas release.”

Payne is also thrilled with Damon’s performance, likening him to Jack Lemmon and Tom Hanks in his ability to play an everyman. In the film, the actor surrenders his Jason Bourne six-pack for some middle-age pudge while playing an occupational therapist whose life and relationships are thrown into disarray after he undergoes the shrinking procedure.

“There are many wonderful movie stars who look too much like movie stars,” says Payne. “There’s basically only Matt Damon, who seems like someone I would believe went to high school with me in Omaha.”

The arduous development process was helpful in certain ways. One problem Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor faced was trying to narrow down a potentially sprawling story to a cinema-size morsel. “It was a process of wrangling something that could go in a million different directions,” says Taylor. “We needed to tame the quantity of material.”

“It’s a summing up of all the themes that I’ve been working with. There’s the look at class in America, there’s political satire, a humanist point of view. It’s all crammed into one greedy package called ‘Downsizing.’”
Alexander Payne

In the film, the characters undergo an operation that makes them 5 inches tall, after which they live in a miniature world replete with glitzy suburban developments, conspicuous consumerism and three Cheesecake Factories. “Downsizing” is crammed with so many visual gags Payne says it was hard to balance the urge to keep delving into the futuristic setting with the need to supply a two-hour narrative arc. At one point, the director even toyed with turning the project into a TV show or miniseries before deciding to stick with moviemaking. “The resulting film is both too long and too short,” he says. “There’s a point in which the film feels too long, but it’s not because the screenplay is long. It’s because it’s too short.”

Payne projects a laid-back vibe. During our interview, he scribbles down movie recommendations (“99 River Street” and “Westward the Women” get his seal of approval) and stresses to a Paramount employee who is fetching him tea that it’s “no big deal” if no honey is available. Colleagues say his informal and friendly manner isn’t an act.

“There was a calmness that permeated the set,” says Wiig. “I was nervous working with him, but he had this very sweet, nice demeanor throughout the entire thing. There was a sense of safety with him because he knows exactly what he wants. Every detail had been thought out.”

Hong Chau, who scored a breakout role as a Vietnamese activist who teaches Damon’s depressed character about the virtue of helping the sick and less fortunate, marveled at the director’s unorthodox approach to auditioning actors.

“We talked, but not even about the movie necessarily,” she says. “He wanted to know who I was, about my family, where I went to school. And I was wishing my story was more impressive. I left thinking, ‘Man, I am so underwhelming.’”

Payne credits his Nebraskan upbringing and hardworking family with grounding him. “Both my grandfathers and my father were in the restaurant business,” he says. “They had a formula: good service, hot soup, at a reasonable price. The same is true with all my movies. They have been on time and under budget, and I think the studios would not say I’m a jerk to work with.”

Payne, a father for the first time at 56, and on the cusp of releasing the most technically complex movie of his career, says he’s itching to find a new creative challenge. He’s in the market for a gripping screenplay or book to option. Having been floored by “Get Out,” the recent horror hit about race relations, he continues to believe the thrills-and-scares business is a logical next step.

“Now, with our horrible times, we need horror films like we did in the ’50s,” he says. “No other genre does a better job of conveying a type of collective anxiety. You look around and think it’s probably a good idea to remake ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’”

Maybe this time the alien invaders will touch down in Omaha?

Jenelle Riley contributed to this report.

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