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Matt Damon and Director Alexander Payne on the set of Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.

Director Alexander Payne talks up ‘Downsizing’

In the 20-plus years that writer-director Alexander Payne has been putting out decidedly offbeat films, many of them starring A-list actors, he’s often shown a tendency to lean toward the comic side of things, even when dealing with serious subjects. “About Schmidt,” with Jack Nicholson, was as funny as it was sobering; “Sideways” featured Paul Giamatti as a man overflowing with self-doubt, yet had plentiful comic relief from Thomas Haden Church; “Nebraska” had Bruce Dern playing an aging, delusional dreamer whose emotional conflicts were softened by some hilarious outbursts from June Squibb. Payne has a knack for making films that are not quite dramas, not quite comedies. In his newest, the science fiction comedic drama “Downsizing,” in which Matt Damon’s physical therapist character decides to have himself shrunken to a height of 5 inches in order to save money and maybe even the world, the laughs outweigh any solemnness, but there’s plenty to think about.

Payne spoke about the film, which he co-scripted with his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor, at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Q: Looking back on your résumé so far, this film has quite a different feel to it, maybe a little crazier than anything you’ve done. What attracted you to it?

A: The inspiration came from an idea batted around between Jim Taylor and his brother Doug. They would talk about, “Geez, if you were this small, you could have a big house on a big lot, and you wouldn’t need so much space and your food bills would be so low,” and on and on. Jim presented that idea to me about 10 years ago. I didn’t know what to do with it, myself, but a couple of years later it occurred to me. I came back to Jim and said, “Your idea about small people ... what if we did that in a super-realistic and even kind of quasi-political way, like if it were proposed as a solution to population growth?” Then a whole bunch of other stuff unfolded from there, and it became a nice prism for us.

Q: The writing actually started in 2006. What took so long to get it made?

A: It’s a big idea, and it was challenging to Jim and me to take something that could have been a mini-series, then corral it into a 2-hour feature film. So, the screenplay took a while, and then it took quite a while to find financing. Had the budget we desired been a little bit lower, it wouldn’t have been so hard, but we wanted to make it in a first-class way and that took a long time.

Q: The themes of the film, from overpopulation to environmental concerns, seem very timely and relevant. Did things change in the script over the years?

A: Well, we have Mexicans and Central Americans living behind a wall in the film. We didn’t anticipate that that image would acquire a literal meaning.

Q: You also have so many clever little details, like after people are downsized, and before they wake from the procedure, normal-size people use tiny spatulas to put them on tiny gurneys. What was the origin of that idea?

A: A lot of it was in the screenplay. The spatulas were in the screenplay. The fact that the downsizing chamber itself was fashioned as a sort of large microwave oven was in the screenplay. But I thought it would be funny if we had what would be a high-tech process that had a very low tech, and still human, feel to it. I also wanted the visual effects in the film to be so realistic to be almost banal.

Q: This is really the first time you’ve filled a film with visual effects. Would you be up to doing something like this again?

A: Every film is different. This story needed visual effects, so visual effects it has. Also, I’m in my mid-50’s, and it was fun to learn this bag of tricks that all these other filmmakers are doing. Now that I have sucked on the teat of visual effects, I do not necessarily wish to do that again, although I would be happy to. It always comes down to what the story requires.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

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