Alexander Payne interview: Downsizing, audience reactions, trailers, what he’d do differently with the film now, and more

Alexander Payne chats to us about directing Downsizing, audience response to it, and why he thinks it needed to be longer...

I’ve long loved the films of Alexander Payne. Sideways, Election, Nebraska, About Schmidt and The Descendants are all very worth seeking out if you haven’t already. As is the far more divisive Downsizing, that’s now landing on disc in the UK.

We started our chat with him asking about my home town – Birmingham – before we turned to the response that Downsizing was met with when released a few months back in cinemas. Let’s start there…

I’m always interested in talking to filmmakers a few months after their movie has been released. To take a measure of things a few months after the initial bubble. Can we start there, then? What are your feelings towards Downsizing?

Well, it’s a strange thing. Your question I assume is tinged with the fact that the movie was released with some hoopla, and then was a dud at the box office. It got some wonderful reviews, and also some stinky reviews. It’s a bit of a first for me in my career.

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I’m proud of the film, and a lot of us – not just me, I’m merely first among equals – put a lot of heart and soul and love into this film. Some people really dig it and get it. But, y’know, you can’t control fate. You can’t control the world, and the timing of the world in which you release a film.

I am not averring this, but kind friends, and not so kind friends have said to me it’s a really good movie, and in a few years time people will discover it, or rediscover it as the case may be. I think they’re trying to make me feel better, to be honest. But enough people have told me that to make me curious as to whether that’s true.

It doesn’t take away the sting of it being an expensive movie. I mean, they always find ways to cross-collaterise and make their money back. But at least ostensibly when you look at the box office figures, it’s a loser.

Most great filmmakers had some great less successful films. I’m joining the club!

When I came to the film, I’d avoided the trailers completely, but had been pre-warned that Downsizing changes tack in the middle. Something I wish I hadn’t known. I did go with it. What I really like, too, in an era of quite predictable stories coming out of big studios, is you took some sizeable narrative risks. Do you feel that the ecosystem that films of this size are coming into are asking you to be a bit more risk averse?

One thing is, of course, the popular audience at the box office. The other is our critic friends. You’d think that our critic friends would be welcoming to something unpredictable and original in some way. Which it is. But some of them still though ‘it starts with one promise and goes to another’. Or maybe critics were reading their comrades. Who knows.

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If I have a criticism of the film, because of some of the hairpin narrative turns, I think it’s too short. I knew it was an episodic film. I like episodic films, like 8 ½ or La Dolce Vita. Where you follow a character through a series of episodes and wind up on a close up of a character’s face at the end. Maybe this whole bizarre experience comes to a head emotionally, as the character says where am I in the world?

In a way, I think it’s too short. If those same narrative structures had been draped over nine hours of a miniseries, audiences may have been more forgiving. It starts one place, you could never guess where it had been going. That may have been a benefit rather than a liability. But I think that trying to shoehorn it into a less than two and a half hour film narrative? It’s a little too quick.

You’ve always struck me very much as a cinema man, and it’s interesting to me hearing you talk about television being a home for an idea like this. And finding the space to do it. Is that structural shifts in television that’s raised your interest there, or do you still consider yourself a film person?

Let me give a broader answer.

An example I always use is that the four hour Once Upon A Time In America is much shorter than the two and a half hour version that Fox did. The shorter version is drearier. I don’t think about television that much, but Downsizing is a big enough idea where it could fuel a TV show. You could even have, once the premise has been presented, an episode that’s a completely different story in the world where Downsizing takes place. Then you can have lots of different ideas and build a story around each one, rather than try and throw them all into one film.

I am still a movie guy, though. I don’t think about TV really. I am one of a small but hopefully growing number of American directors who can get decent-sized budgets for what we call ‘human’ or ‘classic role’ or ‘adult’ or ‘independent’ or whatever the hell word you want to use. As long as one of those guys and girls I want to honour that. I’m a movie guy. I’m not averse to doing TV, but not yet!

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There’s been a lot of bad ink aimed at Paramount over the past year or so. And yet Paramount was the studio over the last year or two that was actually taking gambles. Films such as Mother!, Annihilation, Downsizing

How about Scorsese’s Silence, too? All flops at the box office, but interesting movies. Whether you like them or not, they’re interesting and non-typical studio fare today. I agree.

You as a filmmaker have managed to got so much interesting fare through the studio system. But do you feel that things are probably shifting a bit too much now? That the chase towards the Disney model, of eight movies a year rather than 20 is the goal…

Simon, it’s been that way for years. That’s not new. They’ve been trying to make fewer movies for some time. To use the baseball metaphor, ‘swing for the fences’. Try and hit a home run.

But I see a company like, for instance, Lionsgate. Over the past year, Lionsgate has looked interesting to me, being willing to chance $20-30m on interesting stories. But now I read that Lionsgate is looking to be sold because it isn’t big enough to compete.

Isn’t it funny? But look. We can always get these adult pictures made for between $2m – the Sundance model – or for guys like me, and Paul Thomas Anderson, Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, under $35m. I mean, $2m and $35m. But for sure around $20-25m. Nebraska, for instance, was $13m. I don’t really care what it costs.

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But what I lament is the loss of quality, larger scope adult movies. Where is Out Of Africa today? Where is The English Patient? Where are these movies that really help an adult audience… my parents swoon and want to go to the movies with visual scope. And narrative scope. An adult love story, a drama, a historical epic or something. Where are those, that cost between $45-65m right now? I lament that.

In Europe, you can make those films cheaper, and I am thinking, with the Disney model really taking over, and the pressures of the expensive American release, I think I might be a better fit making films in Europe. I speak Spanish, and am pretty good in Greek. Make a Greek film, a Spanish film, whatever.

On that, Kevin Costner came over I think it was last year, and was asked about Dances With Wolves. And somebody put to him that you couldn’t make that film now. Yet he was insistent you could. He said that it got made because a couple of people refused to say no, pushed really hard, and worked and worked to get the movie done. Do you agree with that? That a project like that can still happen, but it just needs that person to fight for it?

It does need that person. I’m exhibit A! Downsizing was $68m. For a bizarre film that was, and now we know, a risk! One man at a studio, though, said yes. Everyone else said no, I got one person who said yes. He believed in me. We had made Nebraska together, although obviously that’s apples and oranges in terms of budget and pressures. But yeah, it can still happen. You just need someone to push the button.

I don’t want to go heavily box office, but I thought this was interesting. A lot of the narrative now of film response is on a Rotten Tomatoes score and an American box office total. Yet I looked at the geographical box office for your movies. Downsizing, for instance, spiked in the UK, in Germany and in France. Nebraska spiked in Spain. Sideways was very popular in Europe. How conscious are you of how your films play out geographically? Of where you pick up your audience? Are you aware of that, and does that influence you in any way?

Well, influence has nothing to do with it. But I worked hard from the beginning of my career, even with my student film, The Passion Of Martin. It played in many European festivals. Even Citizen Ruth, my first feature, I very consciously cultivated contact with Europe.

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I personally got in touch – not the studios, me – with festivals. Will you play my film? Would it help if I came over? Italy, Greece, France, Brazil… just because I thought in the long run, I’d need to cultivate something of a European audience. And also, just fun. I’m a fan of European films, I’m the grandson of immigrants. I didn’t want my films to be limited to America. Not that it made a huge impact, but it made some impact.

For example, get a load of this! My student film from UCLA, The Passion Of Martin, I got it into the Turin Film Festival in the fall of 1990. And you know who the director of the festival then was? Alberto Barbera, who now runs Venice. So when Downsizing premiered in competition, it was the opening night selection for Venice… it’s not that Alberto wouldn’t have selected it, but we happened to have had that history. Going back 30 years. It’s not a mercenary relationship, it’s just something I delight in.

It’s an old fashioned thing, talking to human beings.

Well, it’s cinema! We just all love movies.

You talk about coming to Europe. You made the Carol segment of the Paris Je T’aime film, and it reminds me a little of that. Just sitting there and finding love, sadness and more joy in Paris, in a different country. An obvious question perhaps, but is there an element of that with you? That you find a home with your movie sets and locations? You are looking to go further afield?

I am, I am. Even Omaha in a way is a European country for me.

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I used to have a friend who was an older Czech film director. It’s always nice for younger directors to have friendships with older directors. And he would say to me ‘oh my dear, in Omaha you have your own little Czech republic’. And it’s true. I’ve never been interested in making films in anytown USA. I like my films to have a specific place. I found that to be true for me in Nebraska.

You are actually one of the reasons I now avoid movie trailers. I’m a big fan of About Schmidt, but it took me two runs at it. The trailer we got over here – and I’d be interested to hear how hands on you are with promotional materials – sold it as a very broad comedy. It felt like that was what I was going to get, and I approached the film in that frame of mind. I was disarmed, then, when I saw it, which I don’t think is a bad thing. But as a consequence, it took me two goes at the film. How do you feel about that, as the filmmaker?

In all of my films, I’ve never had a good trailer! I’ve been very disappointed by that.

Is it a big concern for you?

It’s like these studios hoist themselves on their own petard. ‘You make the film, but we’re the ones who know how to put asses in seats’. Whether it takes bait and switch, as in the case of Downsizing, that turned off a lot of viewers. It was sold as a much broader comedy than it turns out to be. Or if they just can’t encapsulate the tone. The tone that it takes me years to achieve in the screenplay, casting, shooting and very much in editing. They’re unable to capture that same tone. They don’t have what I see as that many artists doing it. They have trailer companies. That’s another difficulty of the America model. Starbucks or McDonald’s? They have to sell a product that is easily digested, and as you say, predictable.

At a certain moment, I have to just say fuck it! I made the movie, if somebody sees the movie as I do – forgetting contextual considerations – or see it years from now without being exposed to a trailer, that’s cool too!

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Alexander Payne, thank you very much.

Downsizing is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and on demand, now.