Interview

Trevor Johnston

Illustration

Ana Godis

Alexander Payne: ‘It’s a big idea you could take in myriad directions’

Nebraska’s finest muses on his dystopian, effects-driven sci-fi satire, Downsizing.

Alexander Payne’s succession of sly, insightful, modestly-scaled ‘people’ movies, have made him a critics’ darling, essentially the go-to observer of contemporary American mores. The likes of Election, Sideways, and The Descendants have deserved all the plaudits heaped upon them yet, through no fault of his own, also perhaps left Payne somewhat enclosed.

Undeniably fine on its own terms, 2013’s gristly black-and-white character study, Nebraska, looked about as artisanal a product as you could still hope to get financed by a major studio. So its not hard to read his latest offering Downsizing – an effects-driven, high-concept fantasy, no less – as a way of breaking the mould of industry and audience expectations.

LWLies: It’s on record that you started writing this after Sideways in 2004, so why did it take so long to come to fruition?

Payne: It was difficult to finance. Studio heads kept telling us – and this is not my word, but theirs – it was too quote-unquote intelligent for its budget. And it also took us a while to corral the premise into a story. It’s a big idea you could take in myriad different directions, and we did. It might actually be more suited to eight hours of TV, but where we’ve ended up is with one everyman individual taking us on a – and I hate the J-word – ‘journey’ of his own, and thence touching on all the political ideas that the theme allows us to touch on.

Structurally then, not so dissimilar to the road trips taken in About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska?

Yep. It’s another goddamn road movie. I don’t know why so many people tell me it’s a departure, and I thank you for not being one of them. Not only is it not a departure, it’s disappointingly like my other pictures, with some schnook from Omaha going on a series of adventures and coming out the other side. Actually, I’d like it if Downsizing were actually a summation of a certain phase of my filmmaking career. I’m starting to feel I want to do something genuinely different. Get away from the heavy machinery, leap a bit higher.

Still, Downsizing is unusual, in that the world it creates seemingly denies Matt Damon’s protagonist the realisation of his dreams, instead pointing up the problems of our own current sociopolitical malaise.

That’s the situation we’re in now, where the industry and public have been trained to see adult, human, ‘people’ movies as combatants girding their loins to contest against one another for awards season spoils, as opposed to just being seen as movies. I talk about this stuff a lot with my director buddies, and it’s like the Roger Corman B-movies of yore are now the big-budget studio tentpoles, and what used to be the prestige projects are now these precious items with shrink-wrapped budgets. Thankfully we still get to make a dozen of them a year, but I’m well aware I’m a rare bird in that.

What does it say about humanity if the shrinking process designed to save the planet ends up demonstrating some unpalatable truths about human nature?

Hmm. If human nature is immutable regardless of circumstances, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I guess the cynicism of the film would suggest it’s a bad thing. Because no matter what we do, we’re fucked.

You also have Christoph Waltz’s Eurotrash wheeler dealer trying to make a buck out of our impending doom.

I suppose the movie has a lot of imagery sketching out the prison of materialism, and all that crap. But I guess people from the Midwest aren’t hugely impressed by -isms of any kind. We just sorta stand back and look at everything. We hate everybody, essentially. But hopefully in a nice way.

Is that why the film never seems to take the prospect of environmental calamity altogether seriously?

That’s not true. We do have a Norwegian scientist in there, reading us the riot act and telling us we’re done for. But I guess the whole environmental aspect would have seemed a bit more real had we followed through on the narrative framing device we initially had in mind. We ended up cutting it during the edit, but the idea was that the entire story is being told as a sort of fable by tiny people in a cave some thousands of years into the future – in a language which is a blend of Norwegian and English. So there’d be storyteller with a long beard and gnarled staff regaling everyone with tales of the giants who once walked the earth but poisoned the seas, etc. It would have been a voiceover film, which assured us that the world did indeed go belly up and these 300 souls were the only survivors.

Did you actually shoot all that?

Well, we edited with it in mind, but as the process wore on and the movie was already long enough, we never quite got to it. We felt the point sorta came across anyway. But when we publish the script it will definitely have that element in it. And if we ever get the chance to turn the idea into a TV series, say, then it might be something we’d come back to.

You’ve already had a little barbed critical comment about the portrayal and the broken English spoken by the Hong Chau character, Matt Damon’s Vietnamese love interest – is this really a ‘white saviour’ film, as the detractors are trying to paint it?

It’s a yellow saviour movie. The white guy just tags along. I’ve read those comments too and I’m a little puzzled. I mean, how else are we meant to write dialogue for a woman who’s never learned English formally and just picked it up on the street. The actress herself said this is exactly how her parents speak. Go figure.

The film’s portrayal of the Hispanic underclass who live in squalor just the other side of a big wall, does however seem to speak about Donald Trump’s America…

That’s because Jim Taylor, my co-writer, and myself are extremely prescient… Not! That stuff was in the script all along, and we could never have predicted that the depiction of the Hispanic-American community would become so much more relevant. After all, it’s like a scene from Metropolis, right? But somehow it now has a new significance.

Maybe you were even more prescient back with Election – Tracy Flick is Donald Trump, discuss…

Or maybe, Hilary…

So if this is the end of a certain chapter in your career, do you look back on your achievements to date?

No, never. Election is not so bad. It’s the one I get the most compliments about from film geeks. Bourgeois people, they like Sideways, because they know about wine, and there’s a whole cult attached to that. From my perspective, Election is the only film I’ve made which isn’t too long. It succeeds with a certain cynical bite and holds to a crisp rhythm. The other ones, you never want them to get so unwieldy, but you need this scene to get to this place, and somehow you’re stuck with it. What can you do?

Downsizing is released 26 January. Read our review.

Tags: Alexander Payne

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