About The Production
"Beautiful. Funny. Heartbreaking."
That is how Matt Damon sizes up the story
Director Alexander Payne cowrote with Jim Taylor that drew him to the dystopian
dramedy for our times, a bittersweet sci-fi adventure about an everyman given a
second chance to live a meaningful life on his own terms.
It was actually Jim
Taylor and his brother, Associate Producer Douglas Taylor, who came up with the
"Doug imagined a process where you could shrink people and then
ran the numbers to figure out things like how many tiny people you could feed
with one hamburger," recalls Jim. Kicking around the notion of less is more as
means to becoming a millionaire, their banter soon transformed into "an
interesting premise for a movie."
Payne began to stretch the context of that
premise. "We reasoned that downsizing would become an international trend, so
Jim and I wanted to give some sense of how it's happening around the world, not
just how it was affecting America," he says. "Everything else started unfolding
Broadening the boundaries of the narrative's scope meant
emphasizing the universal nature of the film's themes. "Our heroes are American,
Vietnamese and Serbian. In the film, you'll hear English, Vietnamese, Serbian,
Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, Korean, Tagalog, Arabic, French and just for a
moment, you'll see American Sign Language," he adds. "We didn't set out to be a
movie with lots of languages, but it served the story and the idea that Paul's
world gets bigger once he makes the choice to become smaller."
Adds Taylor, with
"Downsizing we were interested in making a film that was more outward looking
than some of our other films. We've always been drawn to the part of human
nature where we blame other people for our own problems as opposed to taking
Alexander Payne films "aren't about car chases or bank
robberies. They are defined by their characters," notes Producer Mark Johnson.
"They're about decent characters trying to do the right thing, and while the
world of Downsizing is larger in scope than his previous films, it's ultimately
a character piece. I've never read anything like it. I expected it to be funny
and while there is a certain amount of absurdity to it, I never expected it to
be as emotional as it is. It's a great foray into comedy and drama, and a love
story, very intricate. The beauty of a film like Downsizing is that it can't be
described in a sentence or two."
When audiences meet Paul, he is an in-house
occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks who helps people with repetitive
injuries, "just a very good, conscientious guy who married pretty early," says
Damon of his character. "Kristen (Wiig) plays my wife Audrey. You get a complete
picture of who her character is very quickly. They can't quite make it in Omaha.
This idea of downsizing starts to look more and more appealing. One thing after
another starts to convince them maybe this is for them. (Paul) feels somewhat
for Audrey. He tends to just cave and give her what he knows she wants, even if
it isn't necessarily the right thing for him. He's always taking care of other
people at a cost to himself. It's in his character to be helpful. He's one of
those nice guys that's taken advantage of constantly, in small ways and big
ways, because everybody sees him for what he is."
Damon continues: "He knows
Audrey's not happy. He's told you can't buy this house. Your credit isn't good
enough, put a bigger down payment down. He hung in and did the right thing like
he always does. Now he doesn't have the career he wanted. He knows he's a
disappointment to Audrey."
He and Audrey, like most people curious about
downsizing, "realize pretty quickly that at five inches you can actually consume
much more, have a 6,000 square-foot house and two acres the size of a coffee
table," muses Damon. "It's touted as an environmental benefit. Most simply want
the creature comforts they couldn't afford in the big world."
That would include
Dave, Paul and Audrey's old classmate and de facto Leisureland recruiter.
approached Dave, my character, like he were a Golf Pro at a country club but
also managing it," says Jason Sudeikis, "someone enthusiastic about the
amenities it has to offer. The allure of downsizing for him are the benefits
Shortly after Paul's entry into Leisureland, Dave throws a
birthday party for his 7-year-old that's beyond excessive, including tiny ponies
with unicorn horns on their heads. Dave believes in any and all excess needed to
live life to the fullest. "There's a vacuum inside where the soul is supposed to
be," Sudeikis adds. "Paul sniffs that out and sees through the facade."
the unhappy Audrey, Wiig relished playing the role.
"I feel like when you meet
Audrey she's probably not at the top of her game," concedes Wiig. "She's not too
Payne says he and Taylor conceived Audrey "as a nice enough person but
she's a little self-involved. Demanding."
"I always enjoy casting funny people
to play more serious parts. I was convinced Kristen could play anything. She
plays the rhythm of the scene a little
more brightly than an actor who might not have her comedy background."
of that ability, Taylor adds, "We asked Kristen to play a complicated person
that not a lot of actors would want to be, but she understood the nuances and
behavior of the character in a way that was kind of mind boggling. Brilliant and
funny, I admire her a lot."
Downsizing is the second collaboration for Wiig and
Damon. The two costarred in Ridley Scott's The Martian. "Even though we were
both in The Martian, we didn't have any scenes together so I felt a little
robbed," recalls Wiig. This film was a "double whammy. I've always wanted to
work with Matt and Alexander."
Wiig adds that she loves watching Alexander work.
"He's such a considerate leader and so detail oriented that it gives the actors
a weird sense of safety because you know everything around you has been thought
out," she says. "When he moves on from a scene you're doing, you generally feel
like you must have got it right."
In Damon's eyes, his co-star is "incredible.
Kristen is obviously known for her writing and comedic performances, but she's
also a dynamic actress that can strike those nuanced notes with Audrey
beautifully, quickly giving you a complete picture of the character."
physically embody Paul, Damon underwent a 4-hour daily prosthetic application
process to transform his appearance, including the application of a prosthetic
belly. "It's actually what I look like when I'm really out of shape," Damon
confesses, laughing. "It's perfect that it was molded to my body. I'm slowly
losing the need for it!"
After Paul undergoes the downsizing procedure, he
awakens to find himself abandoned and alone in this new world. Paul's
Leisureland palatial estate is reduced to a Leisureland cookie cutter condo
post-divorce. Even worse, his day job has been reduced from occupational
therapist to sales rep.
Thanks to his upstairs neighbor, party animal profiteer
Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), Paul has a chance to hit life's reset button
again. "He's this crazy, obnoxious, Serbian who travels the world, plays his
music too loud and is not a great neighbor," explains Damon.
Ever the nice guy,
Paul finally accepts Dusan's invite to join the party. It is
there he meets Konrad (Udo Kier), Dusan's partner in peddling hedonistic
pleasures to the well-heeled partygoers.
When Paul quizzes Dusan on the dangers
of the trade, "Dusan says 'You think people would care about a five-inch Serbian
guy selling Cuban cigars? This is the Wild West baby.' He kind of opens my eyes
to the world," says Damon. He wants Paul to stop missing out, to jump into his
new life with both feet and really experience it before it's too late.
and open your eyes. The world is filled with things to see. - Dusan
"Dusan makes a living by bringing luxury goods that may not be entirely legal
from the big world into the small," explains Payne. "His contacts from his
regular sized life help him maneuver both worlds."
Dusan is pragmatic and
obsessed with his own business, the consummate salesman. He is the one who
seized the "opportunity when everybody started downsizing," adds Taylor. "He
doesn't mince words and says what he thinks, which can be refreshing and also
Playing Dusan, says Waltz, was never about "just the director or
just the story or just the size of my part. They all have to line up nicely. So,
in this case it's Alexander Payne, who is already a pretty good reason, it's the
story, and it's a lovely part."
Waltz adds that there is a message to the movie,
"otherwise it would be a waste of time. There are movies that claim to be
'innocent entertainment'- not referring to anything. There are always
implications beyond the immediate 'now' in a movie. That's the intention."
Intention is certainly the backbone of satire. "In my book, satire is one of the
most important vehicles to keep a critical approach to the way we live," says
Waltz. "I really think movies are about us, meaning us as an audience. Everybody
has their own takeaway. Everybody should have his or her own thought,
association, worry, consideration, amusement, reflection, projection, hope,
fear, satisfaction, disappointment. It has to have its own specificity for you."
The unpredictable nature of Waltz's character, what he is going to do or say, is
what makes Dusan fun, adds Damon. "There's also the joy with which he lives life
and wants everybody around him to have that joy too. It's a great role for a
great actor. To me, Christoph is one of the best actors to ever live. He's just
brilliant, so agile. He can turn on a dime and take it in any direction."
through Dusan that Paul meets an unlikely soul mate - Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau),
a Vietnamese dissident, forcibly downsized in her country and shipped along with
other downsized dissidents inside a TV box across the ocean to live in the small
world. She was the only one of 19 to survive, one leg partially amputated. She
starts a small cleaning business and spends her off hours helping others.
"Self-care isn't a priority for her," notes Taylor. "Like Paul, Ngoc is focused
on helping other people. We've always been interested in people who are obsessed
and driven, monomaniacal and a little blind to other things that are going on.
You kind of love them for that, but they might rub you the wrong way."
"you can see the difference between being nice and being kind," Payne adds.
"She's not always nice, but she's extremely kind."
Chau sees Ngoc as "part
dictator, part Mother Theresa, and part Charlie Chaplin. She's funny. Bossy.
Demanding. And she's driven to help the sick people who don't have anyone to
take care of them."
Casting Chau for the part proved fortuitous for Payne, who
is convinced "only Hong could have played this role."
As the child of
immigrants, Chau brought a unique clarity, sensitivity and enthusiasm to the
part. "There aren't many main protagonist roles like this for Asian actors.
Usually when there are characters that have a strong accent, or come from a
disadvantaged background, they're not the leads," Chau says. "When you see
characters like maids or taxi drivers or the ladies at the nail salon, they're
usually background. You don't go home with them and find out where they live and
their family history, what they believe, what their interests are, if they have
opinions about anything, if they have any desires. We sometimes forget that
immigrants had interesting and complicated lives before they came to the U.S.
"In the film, people can't pronounce my character's name. Paul calls her 'Nock
Lang' But her name actually means Jade Orchid and in Vietnamese you say your
middle name first and then your first name. So, Ngoc is really her middle name
and Lan is her first name. Alexander asked me a couple of days before we started
the movie if I wanted to change her name. I said 'no, nobody ever picks a
difficult name like Ngoc Lan.' They pick Mai or Lin or Kim. I wanted him to keep
it because is difficult." Like her character.
Hong's character must live through
the dark side of downsizing. "We have this great ability to take anything good
and make it bad...to use it against people. Punishment. That is what happened to
her - the downside of technology," she notes.
After Paul tries to help Ngoc with
her crude prosthetic leg that doesn't fit properly and fails in the worst way,
he feels terrible "and she takes full advantage of that," Chau laughs. "She
really just wants to use his skills to help people" in the tenement.
demanding, but she's trying to help all of these people who are sick and don't
really have anyone to take care of them. She sees it and that's what drives her,
propels her to work so hard.
"Thankfully Paul is a really good man who submits
to helping her out. She sees what a good person he is and that's when the love
sort of... blossoms."
Ngoc gives Paul a purpose. "But he also changes her in a big
way and in the end it's because she has finally been loved."
It was a role that
allowed her to do everything, Chau says. "It is amazing and so special that I
really wanted to do it well. It's not just a great female role, or a great Asian
female role. It's a great role, period."
"It's been a revelation to watch Hong
work," Taylor says. "She is brilliant at filling in the full spectrum of that
character, bringing additional dimensions to Ngoc."
Ngoc is Paul's second chance
to embrace love in his bruised life. Chemistry was critical between Damon and Chau and Damon admits his biggest concern before agreeing to his role was who
would play Ngoc.
"When Alexander sent me Hong's screen-test, I knew we hit the jackpot," Damon
recalls. "Hong has impeccable comic timing and is completely bilingual. I think
everybody in this movie is great but Ngoc might be the key to everything."
That's the wonderful thing about being small because suddenly you are very rich.
Unless you are very poor and then you are just small. - Konrad
Paul, Ngoc, Konrad and Dusan's adventures ultimately lead them to Norway. On the
way, they encounter Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard), the Norwegian
scientist who discovered downsizing and has a unique relationship with Ngoc.
did auditions in Oslo for that role," says Payne, "where we were tipped off that
the best actor in Scandinavia was Rolf Lassgard. He's Swedish and has never
given a bad performance. When we finally got around to auditioning him, it was
clear he was the guy."
But the most important "guy" to cast was always Paul.
Payne, Damon owned the role in spades. "He's a versatile actor who can get away
with playing Jason Bourne or some schnook. In every performance, there's always
something you relate to, something you recognize in yourself or someone you
Payne and Damon didn't know each other before collaborating on
Downsizing. It was a mutual friend, Director Steven Soderbergh, who told the two
they should work together. "Soderbergh had always told me Matt's a total pro:
smart, willing and knows filmmaking in and out. If I ever get stuck, I can very
openly tell him and he's got a solution." As for Damon, "I didn't really know
Alexander, so when he first told me the concept, I didn't know if he was
serious. I wasn't sure if I was being Punk'd!" Still, he accepted the role
before reading the script: "Honestly, I'd do the phone book for Alexander Payne.
There's never been a bad performance in one of his movies and having worked with
him now, I see that it's not a coincidence. He's so particular and he has such a
vision that I know if he thinks it's going well, then it's going well."
And so, as he began developing Paul, Damon pushed for playing him very real. "As
Jason Bourne, I have to be really vain in a way. I have to think consciously
about what I look like, because I don't look like that. I don't carry myself
like that. Paul is the exact opposite, so I'm going for the least vain
character. That comes through in how you carry yourself, and it starts to feel
right after a little while. The physical aspect and how you hold yourself
conveys a lot."
Because there are so many layers to the story, cohesion was
critical - "There is no better feeling than to have your words come to life,"
Taylor says, "especially in this case because it was such a long process and so
hard won to get to this place...so gratifying to see these actors making it
It is precisely great casting that largely defines Payne's films, says
Johnson. "From the leads to the extras, he is painstaking in making sure he has
the right faces for the scene. He'll spend days finding the perfect person for
every role, often using non-actors for their completely natural performances,
and seamlessly integrating actors into the scene. It's all part of his process.
It all matters."
Unlike the downsizing facility where participants choose to be reduced to live a
life of extravagance in plush communities like Leisureland, there is another
edifice that eliminates that option for those less fortunate: the wall.
realms exploit inhabitants to varying degrees. For those who can afford the good
life of a small life, proponents sound like hustlers on an endless infomercial
loop. For those discarded in the large world by tyrants and governments wanting
to rid themselves of poor immigrants, dissidents and criminals, welcome to the
"other side" of the wall. It stands as a barrier to the dirty secret of those
downsized against their will and discarded there.
That is the world Ngoc Lan
Tran knows well and the one she is determined Paul Safranek will know too.
Creating those worlds and the first small world colony in Norway required a
mastery of merging visual effects and production design in a way Payne had never
experienced on any film before.
"There's an awful aesthetic that happens in
commercial filmmaking. It is the belief that the world of the movie must be more
beautiful than it occurs in real life, and that drives me crazy," laments Payne.
"I want the movies to look like
the world we live in and recognize. I'm not saying I want it photographed in a
boring way; I want very vividly photographed banality."
Damon understands his
point. It is a unique visual style, one Damon's brother likened to an "Edward
Hopper painting in every frame," the actor notes. It's about precision and going
to painstaking lengths, tinkering with every little thing in his frame, that
incredible attention to detail yet looking random at the same time. That's an
unbelievably high level of direction and few people can do that."
Photography Phedon Papamichael (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) and Payne
developed a working shorthand of that process during their three previous
"Phedon and I go back to when I was making my thesis film for
UCLA," Payne recalls. "We stayed in touch for years and when it came time to do
Sideways, I offered it to him. Now we're on our fourth film together."
Downsizing definitely exceeds the scope of their previous work, says Papamichael.
"Alexander wants to maintain the way we work, which is to make it about the
people to keep it simple. We try not to take away or distract from the essence
of the characters and the comedy, the drama. It's very much like our other
projects in that way."
Payne's process is to direct a film every three years and
each time he says he learns a lot. "But guys like Phedon and Matt make three or
four a year with these huge directors. They know a lot more about filmmaking
than I do, which is nice because essentially my job is to know what this movie
should look and feel like. I can say 'Hey, can we get a shot like this?' and
they know exactly how to do it.
"The more experience I have with the technical
side of things, the more I can relax and focus on the human side," offers Payne.
"Having said that, given all the visual effects in Downsizing it was fun to
learn a lot of new stuff."
Enter Visual Effects Supervisor James Price, a
partner in the process Payne considers so crucial to this film. He is someone
Payne consulted "every step of the way. He and Phedon succeeded in making me
forget about the effects and convinced me I was making a regular movie."
It was Price's complex task to ground the visuals despite the film's heightened
farcical elements. Says Price: "Downsizing is a reality-based movie so it's
utterly important the visual effects appear credible. We used original
photography and photographic elements whenever possible so that reality would
form the basis for the work that would then be augmented digitally."
beginning that approach was revealed as Dr. Asbjornsen and his colleagues
stepped before their peers and the world as living proof that humans can be
reduced to five inches and thrive.
"First, we shot all of our backgrounds on the
normal set, and later on, elements of the small people on a green screen stage,"
Price explains. "By combining the green screen image with the images we shot on
the normal set, we have what looks like small people in an otherwise
normally-sized frame. Even though we're using a lot of classic techniques, we're
bringing some digital technology into the mix, using 3-D printing technology to
make 5-inch-tall doll stand-ins and equipment to precisely measure the camera
positions relative to those dolls and to the full-size performers in the frame.
That way, we know their eye-lines and the performers on the green screen stage
can match them later."
The philosophy was, again, simple: "Keep the visual
effects and our action rooted in reality. That's why we also wanted to shoot our
actors on green screen and not do CG characters unless it was absolutely
Payne avoided CG because he wanted the visual effects to be "as
photo realistic as possible. Our goal was to make them look so banal that you
wouldn't even see them as visual effects."
Effects aside, veteran Production
Designer Stefania Cella (The Great Beauty, Black Mass) had to meld that same
heightened realism into creation of the elaborate sets.
"I was excited to work
on a film of this scale because it covers everything from Midwest America to
Norway," says Cella. "There are airplanes, busses and trains, yes. But it's
still a story of a man, a story of compassion. That to me is still more
important than the aesthetic aspect of the biggest scale props."
Papamichael met regularly to discuss how the worlds could believably co-exist.
"We went through that together so we could all see how
with light and colors this was going to develop emotionally and be threaded
through the story," Papamichael adds. "Stefania was a great collaborator."
tiny town of Leisureland necessitated an enormous soundstage at Pinewood Studios
in Toronto. "Those sets," explains Cella, "are supposed to be 14 times scale for
5-inch tall people so we needed one of the biggest soundstages in North
Payne notes the tenement Alondra Apartments on the other side of the
giant wall was a very important set to both he and Taylor. "It's a converted
construction trailer transformed into apartments for tiny people, something like
an Embassy Suites Hotel but for impoverished people. We really built the first
three levels. The fourth level and up is digital extension."
Cella opted for
simplicity where possible. "The lack of details in the architecture, in the
furniture, was key to making it toy-like without it becoming grotesque."
downsized Scandinavian village featured at the end of the story is "very
Norwegian in color, modern architecture and lack of detail," notes Art Director
Kim Zaharko. "The lack of detail was a very important aspect in my approach to
design. The houses, everything is created with natural and traditional elements
for the eco-commune."
For an actor living convincingly in those worlds, Damon
appreciated the exceptional detail that went into creating both the small world
and the perspective of his reduced character seeing the large world in a
different light. "Stefania has done an unbelievable job. They've been thinking
about this for a really long time down to the grain of wood. When I wake up in
the downsizing chamber there are these terrazzo floors that look like they have
specks all over them. It's all done by hand. I loved walking onto a new set and
seeing all these things."
Props played an integral role in creating the small
world. "We didn't have a whole lot of oversized props, but when we did have
them, they had to be spot on," says Payne. "Stefania Cella introduced us to
(Props Master) David Gulick who was indefatigable in bringing reality to the
Small world or large, characters had to interact with props - from travel boxes
to a rose, even a tambourine in the church.
Clothing, like props, was also
tricky to design for characters living in the small world. Payne relied on
Costume Designer Wendy Chuck with whom he has collaborated since Election in
1997. "I haven't done a project without her," says Payne. "She had a lot to do
on this film, simply because there are a lot of questions related to the nature
of fabric when you're five inches tall."
Chuck clarifies the difference. "In
what we call the 'big world' fabrics are woven on machinery from our size
culture," she explains. "I had to think about what the first colony would be
wearing because they don't have the technology to have downsized machines." That
meant they had to be made of either hand knit or handcrafted materials. That
begged the question: What fibers would they use?" After trial and error, she
went for simple, minimalist shapes particularly for the villagers.
When you know death comes soon you look around at things more closely. - Ngoc
At the end of the film Paul finds himself once again at a crossroads in choosing
the best life available to him. "You know some people are capable of change,
other people are not," reflects Payne. "Paul goes on this journey in search of a
new perspective and figures out what will truly make him happy. My hope for this
film is that people appreciate the craft and joy that went into it and see their
world in a different way."
Ironically, Damon finds his character's final journey
in lockstep with living now. "There's something very timely and brilliantly
satirical about a man making himself small while the Earth's population is
expanding. I think now is the right time for this film because it speaks to the
world we are living in. Yes, Downsizing can be heartbreaking. But it can also be
"Hopefully it will live in your memory."
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