INTERVIEW: ‘Downsizing’ Tackles Climate Change, Refugees and Economic Inequality

How can an average man save the world? Filmmaker Alexander Payne has looked at the plight of the everyman for over twenty years now. However, with his new film “Downsizing,” Payne makes an ambitious departure. The scope is larger, the budget is more expensive and the message is more pressing.

“Downsizing” refers to the process, developed in the film by Norwegian scientist Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), in which humans shrink themselves to the size of roughly five inches. Initially constructed as a means to save the planet from human consumption and overpopulation, decade passes and downsizing has become a popular practice for the average Midwestern consumer. There’s much about the process that appeals the average Joe, such as our protagonist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are struggling to get by and downsizing will allow them to live a life of luxury.

Once shrunk, Paul learns that Audrey did not go through with the process. Single in leisure land, the small community he chose, Paul attends a party hosted by his Serbian upstairs neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). The next morning, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee and famed crusader who works as a cleaning lady for Dusan. Ngoc Lan convinces Paul to help her and the other people in her community that live “beyond the Leisure Land wall.”

Breakout actress Hong Chau, writer/director Alexander Payne, co-writer Jim Taylor and producer Mark Johnson were in attendance at the Los Angeles press junket for the film. The panel was excited to talk about the inception of the central downsizing idea and how they came to the project.

JT: “My brother Doug many years ago, wasn’t thinking of a movie, but he was thinking about the environment or was just thinking about downsizing for some reason. He would do all these calculations and get excited and talk to me about it and I’d nod my head. Then I started to think, “that might make a good movie.” [That’s when] I talked to [Alexander Payne] about it. This is about 15 years ago. And then we got to work.”

Much of Payne’s work in the past has focused on the idiosyncratic misadventures of Midwestern protagonists, such as “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska.” There’s an element of this in Paul, who fits the bill of a typical Payne protagonist. However, the film takes our characters from Omaha to Norway and spans multiple decades.

MJ: “I thought, first of all, the idea of reading an Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor script was so delicious. I was worried that I wasn’t going to like it, [but] I loved it. I think the ambition of it is so incredibly strong that I had never read anything quite like it. The biggest hurdle was that I wanted to make sure I could help Alexander keep it an Alexander Payne film and not let the size or the panorama of it overpower everything else.”

Star of the film Matt Damon was unable to attend the panel. However, his presence was not lost throughout the proceedings. In casting the role of Paul, it was Alexander Payne who lobbied to lock Damon down for the role.

AP: I needed a fantastic actor who I also would believe as a everyman, who looks more like a real person than a movie star. But then I also needed a movie star who could help bring the financing for the hefty budget we needed. At his age range (the mid 40s), there’s only Matt Damon right now. He had been kind enough to tell me in passing “We should work together someday.” I phoned his office and asked for an audience with [Matt] Damon. He granted me that. I told him the story of the script. He raised his eyebrows. I handed [the script] to him. He phoned me a week later and accepted.

The issue of representation was a hot topic for the panel. While the film features Damon in the lead, Hong Chau emerges as the true standout of the film in the role of Vietnam refugee Ngoc Lan Tran.

HC: “Something that I responded to very strongly in the story was that we’re showing inequality. People of color who were at [Ngoc Lan’s] apartment building and “my side” of the story were not there to prop up the white male character and show him in this great positive light. If anything, we’re showing that he’s part of the problem because he’s not paying any attention. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

A socially charged refugee and leader, Ngoc Lan balances humor and grace with stern and demanding behavior. Payne describes the character as “a highly motivated, firebrand dissident who motivates others and rallies others around her cause with some degree of monomania and a huge amount of energy and organizing people and telling them what to do.”

However, it wasn’t just the personality of the character that drew Chau to the role of Ngoc Lan. The character’s status as a refugee and the way the film approaches the topic factored heavily into her interest in the project.

HC: A lot of us have been struggling with how to tell these really important stories [about refugees]. Most of the times when people think of a refugee story or an immigrant story they immediately think it’s going to be sad or depressing. I remember when “Beasts of No Nation” came out and I had loved it. I saw the movie and I was trying to get everyone afterward to watch the movie. [I said] “this is a great, amazing movie. This kid, Abraham Attah, is so amazing in it.” People would tell me, “Oh, it looks really depressing. I don’t want to watch it.” That’s also something that we need to think about when we’re trying to tell these stories about very difficult issues that a lot of people feel really uncomfortable with. One way of doing it is to just humanize them. Part of being a human is laughing. Immigrants, people of color, we have senses of humor. We laugh. When I read the script, I didn’t see it written stereotypically. Hopefully, if I did my job right, she shouldn’t come off as a stereotype. It’s ok to laugh if someone you love says or does something peculiar. My parents make me laugh more than anyone and they also make me cry more than anyone. I love my character, I think the writers love her and I hope the audiences love her too. If they’re laughing [I hope] it’s out of deep affection and none of the other things people are saying.

For all the praise Chau received throughout, people were eager to talk about the Vietnamese accent the actress adopted for the film. Some wanted to hear more about how she arrived at the accent and the steps she took to ensure it did not come off as a stereotype.

HC: “When I look at my parents I don’t see a stereotype. I see a human being, a full person. … I’m not quite sure why people are so flabbergasted to hear a person with an accent in a movie. We’re surrounded by people who speak with accents. We are a nation of immigrants. In the city of Los Angeles, in any major city, we have people who work in kitchens, who do all of the labor that people don’t want to do. The movie shows the machinery, the apparatus, the value system that allows for that inequality. I don’t think that showing it is problematic.”

Representation critiques extended beyond Chau’s accent. One reporter took the opportunity to remark the lack of people in color in prominent, speaking roles among the 1% of Leisure Land. This allowed the panel members to touch upon the issues of inequality they hoped to satirize within the film.

HC: Something that I responded to very strongly in the story was that we’re showing inequality. People of color who were at [Ngoc Lan’s] apartment building and “my side” of the story were not there to prop up the white male character and show him in this great positive light. If anything, we’re showing that he’s part of the problem because he’s not paying any attention. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Chau also spoke on the limitations she feels the industry places on Asian actors.

HC: For me, because of certain conversations that we are having at large as a nation, there are certain limitations that are being put on me as an Asian actor. Everything that we’re talking about, this is basically what I hear back. I hear, “Oh, yeah, sure, you can play music. But you can only play it at this volume, between the hours of 6 and 8 pm, on the fourth Thursday of every month.” That’s what I’m hearing.

The global scale of the film aligns itself with the theme of global warming and saving the planet. While Payne mines the concept of downsizing for humor throughout, he also engages in a discussion of how we can best save the world. The filmmaker and his co-writer were unafraid to breach the topic of climate change and global warming.

JT: “I could say that there is a whole range of solutions. I was at the Gotham Awards in New York, I live in New York. Al Gore was there. He was very upbeat and positive about the possibilities. I want to believe him. What he’s saying is there are solutions and we just need the political will to implement them.”

AP: “And the acceptance that its happening. Nobody’s going to do a goddamn thing until people say this is really happening and its really is going to come to an end. [They need] to actually accept that and not think “oh it’s interfering with how much money I’m making.” Acceptance is the first thing. Scientifically I have no idea, I’m no specialist. I have no idea.”

“Downsizing” opens in theaters nationwide on December 22nd.