Alexander Payne’s new tragicomedy Downsizing imagines the fate of an overpopulated world hanging in the balance due to depleted natural resources. When scientists find a way to miniaturize humans, adventurous souls choose going small as an act of conservation or exploitation. Matt Damon plays Paul, an average Omaha man whose pioneering micro-me experiences range from surreal to sublime.
The Omaha native’s big-budget sci-fi satire premiered in December at the newly reopened Dundee Theater, where Payne practically grew up. His debut feature Citizen Ruth also played there.
Now that this prodigal local son and world- class filmmaker is 56, remarried, and a papa— daughter Despina Evangeline Payne was born in Greece last fall—he’s downsizing from hurly-burly L.A. to his laid-back hometown with wife Maria and baby in tow.
Putting down roots is important to Payne. His mother Peggy, extended family, and close friends live here.
“I love Omaha and have been looking for a chance to be there full time,” says Payne, speak- ing from Greece before his relocation. “I miss Omaha very much when not there, and having quiet time in town with the new kid feels like the right move…and I hope to find some other trouble to get into.”
The active Film Streams board member brings Hollywood to Omaha. Making this his main residence only further enriches the local cinema culture.
“He and I have always fantasized about pro- grams we can plan, people we can bring to town, and ways he can be even more involved with what we bring to Omaha when he has a chance to spend more time here,” says Rachel Jacobson, Film Streams’ founder and director.
Payne is no stranger to making movies in his “backyard.” His latest, Downsizing, shot three days here—a fraction of the time he spent on his first three locally filmed features.
“Of course, I wish I’d shot all of the scenes per- taining to Omaha in Omaha, but it just wasn’t possible,” he says. “What I really missed about shooting in Omaha was the extras.”
On Toronto soundstages, he recreated a Creighton Prep class reunion and a farewell party at Jam’s Old Market.
“It was a drag having to train Torontonians to behave like Omahans. Once, when I caught two gals pretending they hadn’t seen each other in years kissing on both cheeks, I about had a heart attack,” Payne says, adding that he was glad to have captured some key local scenes in the film. “One of the great locations I was able to shoot in Omaha—complete with the people who actually work there—was Omaha Steaks,” he says.
The well-traveled and socially conscious auteur has made his most issues-oriented film of international scope at this mature career point, though he doesn’t concede to middle age.
“I don’t feel as though I’m at the midpoint of life; I still feel as though I’m at the beginning,” he says. “I can’t help but feel I’m still barely learning how to make a film, and now that I’m a father, well, that’s a new sense of beginning. My friends all have grown children. My best friend from college is a grandfather twice over, and me, I’m just now wading into these waters for the first time.”
He can taste the irony of his words: “I remember seeing [Akira] Kurosawa speak in 1986 in L.A. to promote Ran. He said, ‘I’ve made 30 feature films, I’m almost 80 years old, and yet I feel as though I have less of an idea now of what a movie is than when I was younger.’ I thought he was just trying to play Mr. Humble. Now his words are haunting. I think my gravestone will read, ‘I was just getting started.’”
Downsizing pushed Payne to the limit with its complex storyline, epic scale, and special effects. It took a decade getting made from when he and co-writer Jim Taylor completed the script’s first draft. Once shot, fixing on a final cut proved elusive.
“I’m just glad it’s over and I can get on to something new,” he says. “It was a very long process. The script took a long time to corral, finding financing was nearly impossible, and the movie fell apart three times before finally jelling. Production was long and costly, and it was tricky to pinpoint the final movie in the editing room. It’s a film I had to get out of my system—Jim and I believed in it for all these years, believed in its wacky but very interesting idea, and we finally got it made.”
Payne and longtime casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs assembled an impressive international acting ensemble. As Paul, superstar Damon (the Bourne franchise lynchpin who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ 2017 film Suburbicon) takes us on a wild, downsized journey.
“He’s a wonderful actor,” Payne says of his leading man.
Of Kristen Wiig, Paul’s spacey life partner, (who previously starred alongside Damon in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian) Payne says: “Lovely woman, super-funny, able to be either subtle or overt with the same level of commitment and humor.”
On two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (the Nazi antagonist in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds), Paul’s amoral guide in the new world, Payne says: “A very smart, very funny, very committed actor. We disagreed a couple of times, but something very good came out of it.”
Newcomer Hong Chau (who starred in P. T. Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice) plays an activist who gets under Paul’s skin. Payne echoes what others say about her breakthrough, Oscar buzz-worthy work.
“A star is born,” he says. “I often get asked why my movies ‘always’ seem to be about adrift, middle-aged white males. But in fact, I’ve had the most fun, midwifing, terrific performances by females: Laura Dern [Citizen Ruth, 1996], Reese Witherspoon [Election, 1999], Kathy Bates [About Schmidt, 2002], June Squibb [Nebraska, 2013] and Shailene Woodley [The Descendants, 2011]. I’d say Hong Chau really takes the cake.”
“It was the right role finding the right actor at the right time,” Payne says, “and she all but steals the whole damned movie. Matt Damon calls her a ‘thoroughbred.’”
Chau confirms what others note about Payne.
“I have so many feelings for Alexander,” she says. “He’s an amazing person, an amazing director. It’s really been a joy getting to work with him and also getting to know him as a person. It’s the first time I’ve worked on something where I feel like he’s going to be my friend for life.”
His “gentle” directing style suited her.
“I don’t feel the heavy hand of directing,” Chau says. “All of the redirections are tweaks—a very small degree or two on the dial where to turn an emotion or a word in a sentence. A lot of his writing is filled with comedy, so there’s some precision needed in order for the humor to land the way it’s supposed to.”
Payne invited her to observe the editing pro- cess. She marveled at what he cut to make the film leaner.
“It really showed how disciplined he is to telling the story and keeping it sharp in terms of what the audience should be receiving,” Chau says. “It’s why Alexander has become one of the great American masters.”
Leading up to its debut in Omaha, the film gen- erated strong word-of-mouth from trailers and festival screenings. It opened to uniformly warm praise at the Venice Film Festival, where Payne, in attendance for the first time, was joined by Damon, Chau, Wiig, and new Paramount head Jim Gianopulos.
After the high of Venice, Downsizing receiving mixed reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Some people really dig it. Others think it maybe bites off more than it can chew,” Payne says. “Sure, maybe the screenplay is a little greedy, but what the hell? The movie was designed as episodic—a sort of road trip through the world right now. We think that’s what makes it fun.”
Editing footage down to the theatrical release’s 135 minutes (including credits) was an arduous task.
“I kept hearing the same thing all directors always hear from studio executives: ‘Make it shorter,’” he says.
The studio is bullish on Downsizing’s potential.
“It’s Paramount’s big Christmas release,” he says, “and they see the movie plays great with audiences—lots of laughs. They’re expecting it to do well commercially, and I pray to God they’re right.”
With seven completed features under his belt, Payne is eager as ever to make movies. For the time being, this family man is content to wait for inspiration before jumping into the fray again.
“I wish I were making a movie all the time,” he says. “But I also want to speak only when I have something to say.”
Sculpture by Derek Joy
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.