Omaha is about to have one of its biggest big-screen moments ever, thanks to a movie about tiny people.
Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” which opens Dec. 21 nationwide, partly takes place in the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s hometown, following an Omaha couple (played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) who decide to shrink themselves to the size of a few inches in order to live a more comfortable life.
The movie marks a few firsts for the director of “Nebraska,” “Sideways” and “Election.” It’s Payne’s first science fiction film. It’s his first to utilize digital effects — which required a relatively huge budget. It’s his first movie to get an upfront wide release from a major studio.
It’s also his first film to be shot in Omaha since 2002’s “About Schmidt.” Although the “Downsizing” production spent only a week shooting in town (in spring of 2016), the film is full of Omaha exteriors: La Casa Pizzaria, Jams American Grill, Creighton Prep — and at least one interior: that of an Omaha Steaks distribution center. Like many of his other films, Payne grounds a wacky premise within the reality of the home he knows and loves.
If releasing a star-studded studio picture to thousands of theaters across the country right before Christmas weren’t enough, Payne has a few other things going on, too.
Payne and his wife, and their newborn baby, are moving to Omaha in the spring. While he’s here, he plans to work on getting downtown’s King Fong, Omaha’s oldest restaurant, up and running again.
We caught up with Payne ahead of his Omaha release about why he wants to move back to Omaha more permanently, why “Downsizing” isn’t all that different from his previous work and how his new film re-created parts of Omaha in Toronto.
Note: Parts of the conversation were edited for clarity.
World-Herald: Do you split a lot of time between L.A. and Omaha still?
Alexander Payne: In general, I prefer to be in Omaha if I don’t have to be in Los Angeles. Because of “Downsizing,” I’ve had to be in Los Angeles mostly the last two or three years. Of course last year, I was largely in Toronto, Canada, where we were shooting.
W-H: The bulk of the shoot was there, right?
Payne: Yeah, we did a week in Omaha, a week in Los Angeles, a week in Norway, which was glorious. And four months shooting in Toronto.
W-H: When you went to Toronto, did you have to re-create or fake Omaha a little bit here and there with the interiors?
Payne: I did. Because of our shooting schedule, I was only able to shoot one week in Omaha and mostly exteriors. The only interior I shot in Omaha was Omaha Steaks. You can’t reproduce that elsewhere.
W-H: Yeah, I think that’s in the trailer.
Payne: We sadly had to reproduce the interior of La Casa and the interior of Creighton Prep. And the interior of Jams restaurant, the one in the (Old) Market. It wasn’t the end of the world. But the trickiest thing to reproduce, what made me really lament not shooting entirely in Omaha, was the extras. The people. I had to make Torontonians look like Creighton Prep grads, like La Casa patrons. Which is not the hardest thing in the world, for Pete’s sake, but I would have preferred the real McCoy.
W-H: For things like Jams and La Casa, did you have them send you to-go bags with their logo on them, stuff like that?
Payne: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Our art department was, on my instructions, big on that. The nicest thing was at Creighton Prep, they have a lot of felt banners with inspirational slogans, and rather than reproduce them, Prep was good enough to ship them up to Toronto for me.
W-H: That’s nice. They got them back in one piece, as far as you know?
Payne: As far as I know. I didn’t get absolute confirmation, but I haven’t heard any complaints.
W-H: I’d heard something about you moving back to Omaha a little bit more permanently and maybe working on a restaurant?
Payne: Yeah, I have to promote “Downsizing” based in L.A. for a few months. And then my wife and child and I will move to Omaha. I own a home there. I will be back in Omaha for the foreseeable future. I miss it. I don’t really want to have a small child and a mother in different cities. And it’s true I do own the building where King Fong used to be housed. And I’ll keep it vague, but my interest in buying the building was to make sure that Omaha has a King Fong restaurant in some form for the next 1,000 years.
Omaha's own: Alexander Payne's history with Nebraska, as seen through his movies
"I haven't spent much time in small-town Nebraska at all, other than driving through. One reason I enjoyed making 'About Schmidt' was that it gave me an overview. And this one made me fall in love even more with Nebraska."
W-H: Speaking of Omaha, this was the first movie you’d shot here since “About Schmidt,” right?
Payne: Yeah. (In “Nebraska”), the closest I came was Lincoln and Hooper, but nothing in Omaha.
W-H: For Matt Damon’s character in this movie, he could have been from a lot of places. What made you want to make him from Omaha? What made you want to come back and shoot here again?
Payne: Well, as you said, I hadn’t shot here since “About Schmidt,” and it was high time. It’s just what I default to in order to help anchor the movie in some kind of recognizable reality. For me, at least, I like to start in Omaha. And also since the movie has something of a sweeping, almost road trip structure, I thought it would be interesting to start it in Omaha and let it expand from there.
W-H: Sorry, jumping around, but while we’re talking about Omaha, you probably haven’t got to see much of the Dundee Theater lately. Have you seen what’s been going on over the last few months?
Payne: Yeah, on The World-Herald website. I’ve seen little videos and photos. I toured it in September.
W-H: Yeah, I think Film Streams has moved in.
Payne: It’s so exciting. It’s really a dream come true.
The nonprofit Film Streams owns both the Ruth Sokolof Theater and now the newly restored Dundee Theater, which opens to the public Dec. 1. Payne is a member of the Film Streams board.
W-H: I was wondering if you could give me a sense of what it was like to live in the Dundee neighborhood and go see movies at the Dundee Theater as a kid.
Payne: Well, growing up, it was my neighborhood theater. I was there all the time. My earliest movie theater memories are from the Dundee. They used to have monster movies on Saturday mornings with giveaways for kids and entertainment and clowns and things like that. I would be at the Dundee a lot. The Dundee was my neighborhood place, and that’s where I had my earliest memories. I was 3 years old, 4 years old in 1965 when “The Sound of Music” played there for (many) months, and I think I saw it at least four times. Kids like to see the same things over and over again, and since it was right there in the neighborhood, I kept clamoring to see “The Sound of Music” again.
W-H: I’m sure it was coincidental somewhat, but opening “Downsizing” at the Dundee, was that something that you and Rachel (Jacobson, Film Streams director) had hoped for for the past few years?
Payne: Only when we thought it would actually happen. It hadn’t occurred to me before we acquired the Dundee or before I began production on “Downsizing,” but once those things coincided, we put two and two together and said “OK, let’s shoot for opening ‘Downsizing’ with the newly inaugurated Dundee Theater.” I was sort of hoping “Downsizing” would be the very first movie to go there. But they’re going to have a soft opening before then.
W-H: Last time we spoke, you were in preproduction on “Downsizing.” More so than any of your films to date, this was one that had been in your head for a long time, for about a decade. Now that it’s in the can and people have seen it, did it meet your expectations? Was it the movie you saw in your head all those years?
Payne: Let me correct one thing. I had written the first draft of what later became “About Schmidt” years previous. It was actually the first thing I wrote when I got out of film school. It was then called “The Coward.” I worked on it about a year, year and a half, then I put it away and pursued “Citizen Ruth” and “Election.” After “Election,” I circled back to “The Coward,” this time under the guise of “About Schmidt.” So I had one previous experience of shooting something 10 years after writing a draft.
Payne: As far as adhering somehow to what I had in mind, I don’t really work that way. When writing a screenplay, sure, I have the basic structure in my mind’s eye. I have a sense of what the scenes are going to be. But I don’t know who the actors are going to be, and I don’t know the locations or exactly what things are going to look like. So making a film is more of a process of discovery for me than of execution, necessarily. I always hope it’s going to be brilliant, hope it’s going to be great. But then when you’re making a film, those thoughts are just a luxury, and you’re just working as hard as you can to make some version of good. But every day you work, the stars align differently, and you never know exactly how it’s going to turn out. But that’s part of the joy of it. You know, I hope the soufflé is going to rise again, but you never know.
Payne: In general, the answer is no, a movie is never as good as I hope it’s gonna be. Kurosawa used to say that if you can get 80 percent of what you aspire to, you’re lucky. Now that’s pretty true. And, man, imagine what his 100 percent was.
W-H: I saw that conversation between you and Steven Soderbergh at the Holland a few years back, and I think you had referred to all your works as minor works and you had expressed similar sentiments. I didn’t know if that had changed with “Downsizing.”
Payne: No, I’m still learning. I’m still learning what a movie is. I’m still learning how to make a movie.
W-H: Alexander Payne movies are not exactly known for their special effects. Was the prospect of tackling a larger scale of film with so many visual effects, was that a terrifying experience at any point?
Payne: How hard can it be? (laughs) All these other jerks are making visual effects movies all the time, and they’re crappy. How hard can it be? All the kids are doing it. It was just my turn. I’m no dummy. I’m not that old that I can’t learn new tricks. And I had good people around me. And it’s simply what this movie required. I have the attitude I would have in any line of work: no job too big, no job too small. And it was just the luck of the draw that the movies I made to date before “Downsizing” didn’t need special effects. Yes, of course, in general, I’m more interested in people. But that’s no different even in “Downsizing.” There’s lots of visual effects. It’s a big movie. It’s getting a splashy release from Paramount, but I’m still just interested in the people. It’s just that this story, this wacky story, needed effects. And not just effects but a production design budget, because we built a lot of things.
Payne: Visual effects are like a gun. You use them only when you have to, ideally. So it’s really a glorification of what has been done since the beginning of cinema, which is matte painting. You put actors in the part of the frame that you can afford to do, then you draw a line, and everything above that line is painted. People have been doing that since the silent days, and this is kind of a glorified version of that. I’m simplifying it a little bit, but a lot of it is glorified matte painting.
W-H: Talking about building the sets, the last few big movies I’ve seen to review, it looks like there was no set. There probably wasn’t. There was probably a green room. I think what’s interesting about “Downsizing” is the special effects actually look special.
Payne: I wanted the visual effects in “Downsizing” to be so real as to be banal. I wanted the visual effects to look like really any other movie I’ve made. It’s just an environment that doesn’t actually exist. I needed to build sets. And some shots are largely digital. But you use photographed elements and plug them into special effects, so you still have some degree of photo reality. But I wanted the movie to have effects that were so good, they would feel banal. That’s No. 1.
Payne: No. 2 is that unlike other visual effects of the boom-boom crash-crash variety, where each of the shots is on a very short time and the audience doesn’t have anything to discern what’s lacking in the shot or what makes it unreal, in this movie, we linger on the shots. The audience would damn well have time to pick out imperfections. That was really the challenge to the visual effects department, knowing that the audience was going to be looking at the shots for longer than the average visual effects shots. I’m making a real movie. It’s a real movie with visual effects rather than a visual effects movie with a story. You know what I mean?
W-H: I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen too many of the latter lately. I saw one yesterday, actually.
Payne: What did you see yesterday?
What I saw was “Justice League.” At this point, we just talked about movies a little bit. Payne had not seen and offered no opinion on “Justice League,” but he did enjoy “Baby Driver” and is looking forward to seeing “The Florida Project” and “Lady Bird.”
W-H: “Downsizing” uses a sci-fi concept to get at social satire. Are you a fan of social satire with a sci-fi element?
Payne: Like “Idiocracy”?
W-H: Like “Idiocracy.” Or like the ’80s John Carpenter movies. They weren’t exactly the most subtle social satire, but ...
Payne: No, but he’s a wonderful director.
W-H: Do you have any examples of that that you would point to?
Payne: Not really. (laughs) I’m not much of a science fiction fan. It’s not that I’m not a fan and seek to avoid them. And I certainly enjoyed “2001” and the first “Blade Runner.” And not because of the little people aspect, but “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” the first one, written by Richard Matheson, it’s a wonderful existentialist film. It also shows you that what’s important isn’t slick visual effects. Because it doesn’t have them. They’re clunky. The most important thing is a strong story and concept. Maybe the best example these days that I know of is that TV show “Black Mirror.” “Downsizing” is maybe a distant cousin to some of what they’re doing in “Black Mirror,” which is taking a preposterous near-future premise and treating it utterly earnestly and thinking what really might happen in that world.
W-H: Yeah, exploring how new technology affects humanity.
Payne: And part of what I wanted to do in “Downsizing” is I didn’t want to fetishize the technology, as you might see in “Minority Report,” for example. So when you see “Downsizing,” a particular sequence early on, where you watch Matt Damon actually be downsized and what the medical procedure looks like, it’s almost purposely low-tech. You’ll see it, but there are almost no visual effects in that sequence. It’s all built.
W-H: That’s an interesting approach.
Payne: Interesting, but also, I make comedies. It’s also funny.
W-H: I’m reading a new book by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday. And she has a line in there where she calls you one of the finest filmmakers of antihero-driven movies. Would you describe your characters as antiheroes?
Payne: For me, they’re just people. I always want my movies to be utterly cinematic, but at the same time, more like life than like movies. Even though I put every ounce of film craft I can muster into them, I want both the structure of the screenplay and the casting and the feeling of the movie to suggest or be more like real life than like a movie. But all of that, paradoxically, within something very cinematic.
W-H: Within the premise of something like “Downsizing,” isn’t that hard to achieve?
Payne: Yeah, but you’ll see it. It’s still following a schnook from Omaha on a road trip. And where he’s kind of lost himself in some way. Things are taken away from him, the way things are taken away from Jim McAllister in “Election” and Warren Schmidt in “About Schmidt” and Matt King in “The Descendants.” You take things away from characters to help nudge them toward their true essence. So it has that in common with my other films.
Payne: My next film I want finally to be very different. You know, early on, doing interviews for this film, I’m hearing a lot of “Well, this film’s really different for you, visual effects and science fiction, man, what a departure.” And my response is “Not at all.” It’s even disappointingly like my previous films. I kind of want to genuinely do something different next time.
W-H: So like a Marvel movie or “Star Wars” movie. (Note: I was being facetious.)
Payne: No. No. (Note: I’m pretty sure he knew I was being facetious.)
Payne: (“Downsizing”) is different in having that scope and having a wacky premise. But I think (a comedy about) abortion protesters pro and con, I think that was a pretty wacky premise, too, 20 years ago. I just like normal people in wacky premises.