Director Alexander Payne Shares ‘Downsizing’ Production Team’s Sizable Contributions

Alexander Payne and Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael on the set of Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.
Courtesy of Merie W. Wallace/Paramount

Paramount’s “Downsizing” is set in the near future, when a group of people shrink themselves to reduce their carbon footprint and extend their financial resources. Director Alexander Payne (who also scripted with Jim Taylor) had high praise for his behind-the-camera colleagues. “My charge to them was that I wanted it to look real; I didn’t want things eye-popping. I wanted a real sense of place.”

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael

“The structure of the film is episodic. It starts in Omaha, then moves to Leisureland and so on. It’s four or five short films, but all of them are encased in a movie that should ultimately look like something shot in 1978. It’s a movie set 15 years in the future, but I wanted it to look like an old movie, as wacky as that sounds. I think older movies have a pleasing patina, and I wanted the pretty colors and grain. We knew that in post-production, in the coloring process, in the digital intermediate [suite], we had flexibility to bend the images. We popped the colors and added grains and contrast to make it look older. There’s a wonderful colorist at Technicolor, Skip Kimball, whose expertise we relied on.”

Editor Kevin Tent

“Kevin and Phedon both had experience with effects. I hadn’t, so I needed collaborators to guide me and discover all of its capabilities. We all had a great time doing the downsizing sequence — the ballet of the medical procedure. And editing the party sequence and the ecstasy trip was super fun. We gave assistant editor Angela Latimer first crack, and Kevin and I did some more. We all had a ball with that.”

Composer Rolfe Kent

“I don’t trumpet my collaborators out of an empty sense of promoting, but I think the work Rolfe did was extraordinary. It’s an extremely classical score. We have themes for each character, and the themes are bent and used as motifs throughout. For example, we had temped the mass-reduction scenes with Ravel’s “Bolero,” which worked. But Rolfe said, “Let me try something,” and he came up with a waltz that’s great and perfect for that sequence. I wanted all the music to be melodic and beautiful; most of it was played by an 80-piece orchestra, recorded on the fantastic Streisand Stage on the Sony lot. If you see the film, pay attention to music. A first-time viewer might not notice it, but if you listen to it, you will be rewarded.”

Casting John Jackson

“He was the local casting director on my first three films. Then, beginning with “Sideways,” I asked him to be full casting director. Hollywood films are usually structured to have L.A. or New York for the main casting, then a location casting director for day players, then a third to corral extras. My vision was to have one person in charge of it all and to travel with the film. We spent a week filming in Omaha, a week in L.A., a week in Norway and four months in Toronto. We did casting in all those. We put as much care in finding actors for one line as we do to fill star parts. We don’t settle; we keep going until we find the right person.”

Production designer Stefania Cella

“Achieving the desired effect is a combination of production design and visual effects — what do we build and what will be a digital extension. This has been going on since the silent era. [Extensions are] glorified matte paintings. Stefania and [visual effects supervisor] James Price had to work out the mathematics of the scale. If the people are five inches tall, what does the world look like? For the building housing the Leisureland workers, we assumed big people had said, ‘Let’s take construction trailers and retrofit them into apartment buildings.’ So they would have taken huge sheets of plywood and punched out doors and installed them quickly in a slapdash fashion. Our art department had to go in and painstakingly paint the wood grain of cheap plywood — and then depict what wood grain would look like if you were five inches tall. Similarly, the linoleum had flecks in it. So an army of painters had to paint flecks on the floor of this huge soundstage. All these things are incredibly time consuming. I’m both happy and sad that the audience doesn’t notice them.”

VFX supervisor James E. Price

“One example of his work with Stefania was the homes of the Mexican immigrants who work in Leisureland. We built it at Pinewood Toronto Studios up through level three, then levels four through 11 were done digitally, but all the extras had to be real. I needed photographic reality. Also, the home of Dusan [Christoph Waltz] is meant to be a spectacular penthouse apartment. It was actually a house outside Toronto, but we put greenscreen outside the windows to make it seem like it was perched atop a building. It was a combination of design and visual effects.”