When Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne prepares a film, he not only auditions actors but locations, too.
The writer-director insists on actual locations whenever possible. When he films in his hometown of Omaha, he’s extra keen to get it right. Just as local homes brought authenticity to his films Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt, Omaha homes earned supporting roles for Payne’s new film Downsizing during a mid-April 2016 shoot here.
Omaha figures prominently in the sci-fi dramedy (starring Matt Damon) that played major festivals in Venice, Italy; Telluride, Colorado; and Toronto, Canada. Its first half establishes Damon’s character, Paul, as an Omaha Everyman. The script called for him to reside in an inner-city duplex and, thus, location scout Jamie Vesay and counterparts in Toronto, where much of the film was made, scoured prospective sites.
Two matching 1920s-era, two-story brick duplexes on Douglas Street (in Payne’s childhood Dundee neighborhood) stood in for Paul’s home.
The story has Paul and wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) visit a suburban McMansion. Vesay scouted that, too.
Two new large homes in Elkhorn’s Five Fountains neighborhood portrayed the for-sale property that Paul and Audrey visit.
Scenes were also shot outside La Casa Pizzaria, Creighton Prep (Payne’s alma mater), Jam’s in the Old Market and at Regency Court, and Omaha Steaks’ distribution center.
The story required a duplex with adjoining back decks to underscore the attachment Paul feels to his mother, who lives next door at one point. Payne loves physical comedy, and the director liked all the business of Paul entering-exiting various doors and navigating steps.
Events fast forward nine years to find Paul’s mother gone. He and Audrey now live in his mom’s old place, and he’s renting out his former unit. It’s a commentary on Paul’s limited horizons before his grand adventure.
Vesay says Payne also liked the Douglas properties for their small, steep front yards. A yard sale unfolds there that comically shows folks struggling with the tight quarters and severe pitch. Sealing the deal was the alley’s confluence of yards, fences, garages, light poles, wires, and its downtown view.
Carol Redwing lived at one of the two Douglas Street duplexes. The exterior of her residence was used for daytime and nighttime shots with Damon and Wiig. The unoccupied unit next door was leased by the production. The same arrangement was used at the other duplex on Douglas Street, where interiors were shot in a unit doubling for the on-screen duplex. More interiors were doubled in Toronto.
In suburban Five Points, Gretchen and Steven Twohig’s home became the McMansion exterior. The home of Ethan and Erin Evans became the interior. Vesay says the sea of cookie-cutter roofs visible from the development caught Payne’s eye.
Long before the production reached out to residents, their homes were scouted from the street. When first contacted, they were wary. Once assured that the Hollywood scout was not a prankster, Vesay, Payne, and department heads came for closer looks. The locals only knew their places were in the running before receiving final confirmation.
When word leaked about the Downsizing dwellings, reporters and curiosity-seekers appeared.
“It was kind of surreal,” says Redwing, who has since moved.
During the shoot, Vesay says producers broke protocol and allowed civilians on set. “People got remarkably close,” he says. Residents who lent their homes to the cause got up-close-and-personal experiences themselves. It was eye-opening.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces and people,” Redwing says. “It was really cool.”
Ethan Evans says he was struck “by how many behind-the-scenes people it takes—it’s quite the production. It was kind of a circus and crazy for a while.”
Hollywood came calling, but as Gretchen Twohig noted, “There’s nothing glamorous or fancy about any of it. It’s just people working really hard to get a project done. You realize all this hard work and all these tiny moments have to come together to make a movie.” She and her husband have school-age children but opted not to take them out of classes for the filming. The Evans’ young children watched. Redwing and her son saw everything.
Twohig echoed the other residents in saying everyone from Payne to the stars to the grips were “down-to-earth, calm, warm, professional, and gracious.”
The Evans’ garage became a staging spot. That’s where the couple hung out with Payne, Damon, and Wiig.
The high-ceilinged, spacious home’s entryway, dining room, and kitchen got the shoot’s full attention.
“Besides moving furniture around to make room for lights, screens, and cameras—and taking pictures down— they sort of kept everything the way we had the house decorated,” Evans says, “It only took a few takes.”
The Evans and Twohigs met one another as a result of Hollywood casting their homes. They’ve compared notes about their Downsizing experiences.
Twohig says after hours of setup at her place, as crew adjusted window blinds and for-sale signs, moved cars in and out of the driveway, and took the family basketball hoop down, put it back up, and took it down again, the actual shoot was over in a flash.
At Redwing’s old duplex, crew did landscaping and made building touch-ups but left her recycling bin, tools, and other homey elements intact. She’s confident her old abode made the final cut since it’s such an essential location as the hero’s home. However, the Evans and Twohigs know their places are more incidental and therefore expendable.
“We’d be disappointed, but we knew going in it could very easily be cut,” Twohig says. “But it would sure be fun if it was there.”
Redwing spoke for everyone regarding anticipation for Downsizing’s December release. “I’m very eager to see it.”
Meanwhile, one of the Douglas duplexes’ exterior has been painted. Last summer, its empty units were under renovation. A real estate listing read: “Come live where Matt Damon filmed the movie Downsizing!”
Having glimpsed behind the magic curtain, Ethan Evans says, “I sort of watch movies differently now.” Although he’s certain that he’ll forget the mechanics of cameras, mics, booms, and clappers when he finally sees Downsizing.
Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.com.
This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Home.