Alexander Payne serves up a sharp satire in Downsizing – using the gag of shrinking humans down to the size of a finger – then quickly transforms it into a device to address climate change and the planet’s long-term issues.
Almost 15 years in the making, the story idea came from screenwriter Jim Taylor, best known for About Schmidt and Sideways. A frequent collaborator with Payne, the two also worked together on Citizen Ruth and Election, and on the script for Jurassic Park III. However, the original seed of the idea didn’t come from either man.
“Many years ago my brother Doug was thinking about downsizing for environmental reasons; he wasn’t thinking of a movie. He would do all these calculations and get excited and talk to me about it and I’d nod my head,” admits Taylor when STACK meets with him in Los Angeles.
But even a genius idea like this doesn’t get made in Hollywood without a bankable leading man. “I needed a fantastic actor who I also would believe as an everyman, who looks more like someone I would know than like a movie star, even though he is a movie star,” explains Payne, whose recent films include The Descendants and Nebraska.
“I needed a fantastic actor who I also would believe as an everyman, who looks more like someone I would know than like a movie star, even though he is a movie star”
“But then I also needed a movie star who could help bring the financing for the hefty budget we needed. At the mid 40s age range, there’s only Matt Damon right now, and he’s been kind enough to suggest we work together someday, so I phoned his office and asked for an audience with Mr. Damon. I told him the story of the script. He raised his eyebrows. I handed it to him. He phoned me a week later and accepted.”
Damon plays Paul Safranek, a downtrodden guy who could have been a surgeon but scaled down his ambitions to care for his invalid mother in Omaha, where he now works as an occupational therapist. He’s married to Kristen Wiig’s Audrey, who likes to push the family’s limited budget to the max and figures that if they undergo ‘downsizing’, they can live like kings.
Big Little Lies actress Hong Chau – as a Vietnamese activist and amputee who enters the US illegally in a TV box – brings the real heart to the story.
“When I first read the script I was blown away by all of the incredibly insightful observations about race and class, and it was a story that humanises refugees and immigrants in a way that I’ve never seen before,” she says.
Growing up in New Orleans, the child of Vietnamese immigrants, Chau addresses the stereotypes she faces in her own life. “I feel like people don’t put certain limitations on other actors like when British or Australian actors come over and perform an American character – we talk about how great it is that they were able to do this other accent that is not their own.
“And Americans have different relationships with different accents – the way that we view a Spanish speaker from Spain is different from how we view a Mexican person because Americans have a different relationship with these people,” she continues.
“So with the Vietnamese accent it’s usually because we tend to have occupations where we’re servicing people in some manner and that brings up the race and class issue and inequality and discrimination, so that’s a lot to unpack in a film.”
Payne unpacks a whole range of issues in ways we’ve not seen before in films involving downsized people in a big world, like The Borrowers and Honey I Shrunk the Kids. And the director refuses to let the politically correct police dictate his work. “It can’t affect what we do. We just have to do what comes out of us, and what we think is honest, funny, dramatic, surprising and truthful.”
Downsizing is in cinemas on Boxing Day.