Downsizing press conference with Matt Damon, Alexander Payne, Kristen Wiig and Hong ChauVenice Film Festival 2017
Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau and Kristen Wiig, and a couple of fantastic cameo roles from Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern and Udo Kier, Downsizing is the latest film by critically acclaimed director Alexander Payne. It imagines what might happen if, as a solution to over-population, Norwegian scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall and propose a 200-year global transition from big to small: people soon realise how much further money goes in a miniaturised world and, with the promise of a better life, everyman Paul Safranek (Damon) and wife Audrey (Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in Omaha in order to get small and move to a new downsized community – a choice that triggers life-changing adventures. After the press screening and ahead of tonight’s opening ceremony, Payne and the main cast spoke with the press about their roles in the making of the picture.
How is this film different from your and Jim Taylor’s (the co-screenwriter) past works?
Alexander Payne: Well, it’s true there’s a science fiction canvas this time, but we kept it consistent with our previous collaborations – incuding the humour.
Jim Taylor: I agree. [laughs]
Matt, what do you think you can do for the world with your acting?
Matt Damon: First of all, I would have done the phone book had he asked to perform it. I think, to be fair, every actor in the world wants to work with Alexander. I thought the script was original, wonderful and unique. In terms of my role in the bigger picture, I really do believe that movies are the greatest tool for empathy that we have. This is what I love about this and the stories I get to tell. A relatable character whose life is different from our own and we can find common cause with. I think it’s a beautiful and optimistic movie. A journalist told me: “This is Alexander’s most optimistic movie and it has the apocalypse in it” [laughs]. I do think that at the end of the day there’s this sense that we are all in this together. When Paul looks back at the old man eating his meal, I think it’s a very hopeful message for a very divided world.
Kristen Wiig: I’ve been a fan of his for my entire life, I know. A lot of people are talking about how this movie makes statements about the environment but this is a love story. I think that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Hong Chau: Everybody has brought up all the serious topics mentioned in the movie but I think the thing I loved the most about Downsizing is how funny it is. I hope the humour doesn’t get lost in the bigger story and heavier issues. What appeals to me about the character is that this kind of character is usually in the background, not something you’d typically see in the forefront of the story. It’s a great thing to read on the page and as an actress to portray that.
There are many emotions in this film: from seriousness to humour. How much did you experience of it?
MD: I hope you experienced all of it, that would mean it worked. Alexander and Taylor are so meticulous when they write – and Alexander is so meticulous when he directs – we did 20/30 takes when it was necessary. It’s not overshot coverage, all the shots fit in the movie like a puzzle. Our job gets so much easier when the director is that sure handed. You always know where you are and what you need to convey. It makes our job a lot easier, more than what we deserve it to be.
There’s a feeling about the film that it’s a coming-of-age story of a middle-aged American educated by Europeans.
AP: How did you feel about that Jim?
JT: I think that’s interesting. One thing that was intentional was that we wanted this film to be international, characters coming from all over. People talk about Alexander’s movies as set in mid-west America, a keen sense of place and mid-western values. You are right [about the American educated by Europeans], I’m not quite sure though… anyway we didn’t think of that until you mentioned it but it’s interesting.
AP: The international flavour of the film comes from the fact that the idea of Downsizing was to imply how would we ripple around the world: Vietnanemse, Serbian, Spanish characters.
JT: We worked on this for over ten years so a lot of things caught up with the movie, as in many things happened since then.
I didn’t feel optimism in the movie: it’s politically blurred, you play with feel-good capitalism, the idea that things will be like this forever and worst case a bunch of activists go and help. What do you think Trump’s America will think of it?
AP: Optimistic versus pessimistic… I think it’s optimistic about some things, pessimistic about others. How do I feel about Trump’s people’s reaction? It’s difficult to predict what people will think of your film. I have no idea, we make movies for everyone.
JT: In terms of politics of the film, we touched on a number of…we made a film about election, we made a film about abortion. We are more interested in humanism than politics. We don’t know how they’ll react.
When you read the script, did you think it was a comedy or a drama?
HC: Me Matt, me [using her character’s basic English – everybody laughs]. All of Alexander Payne’s films have a mix of humour and drama, that’s a privilege, a blessing to find a script/story/character with all those elements, a character who isn’t too one-sided or one-dimensional. Alexander really likes authenticity but I didn’t want to this to be a documentary/study on the human being. I didn’t want to think about trying to portray an authentic person. I didn’t want to lose the rhythm of the writing and humour. I wanted to keep in mind the broader scope of the story, and that it was still a love story ultimately, in the end, and how we treat each other even if there are topics about climate change. It’s a human story about how you treat your neighbour.
How did you work on your body language? [her character is an amputee]
I worked with a consultant, an amputee who has been like that for five years. Roughly like the character. They took me to their centre in Toronto and I worked with the therapist there – the apparatus physical students use to understand their patients.
Small people with big hearts, like in Dostoyevsky.
AP: Of the the great Russians I do confess to be a fan of Chekhov. Never to compare our work to those great masters! I appreciate he began writing satirical sketches and things grew deeper without losing the humour. The other thing we learned from him is that if you want emotional effect you place characters against a cold background.
Can you tell us about the set design?
AP: I was very lucky to work with Italian designer Stefania Cella, she did La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) and she’s working with Sorrentino on the film on Berlusconi. She’s a small woman with big hair and big ideas. She gave me a very large visual canvas to wok with. I learned a lot from her. For the downsizing sequence, the only direction I gave was that the chamber has to resemble a microwave oven and that she did.
Did you work with consultants about the scientific theory? And would you do it?
AP: We did a little bit of consulting with science, what would the physics be if you were that small. And we had to decide at what point you’d stop caring. The quality of the voice would change, the way you walk… if you stuck light wood sheets to your arms you would fly a little bit. At some point we had to stop caring about that, we had to care about the story.
KW: I would see if I could go bigger. I’m gonna be honest. Use more water! [laughs]
HC: I’m five feet tall so I’m already like that. [laughs]
[spoiler alert – in the following questions]
The ending invites you to stay and fight every structure in the world: in private, if you were to choose, would you remain to fight or would you save yourself?
AP: I would never wish to interfere with your interpretation of the ending. That’s a fine interpretation.
Matt, you stayed with Gong Jiang [Hong Chau’s character] to avoid the hike?
MP: He left the ark because he didn’t want to take a hike? No… [laughs] he was in love, he realised it would be crazy to leave her. That was my interpretation.
AP: I agree with you.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photo: Filippo L’Astorina
Downsizing does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.