The little scientific debates in the very big sci-fi movie Downsizing

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Dec 22, 2017

As Alexander Payne's longtime writing partner, Academy Award winner Jim Taylor has, for the most part, excelled in writing smaller stories like Citizen Ruth, Election, and Sideways. Downsizing, their latest movie, is both their biggest in scope and, given its subject matter, the smallest.

Joining Payne and Taylor for the first time on the film is veteran producer Mark Johnson, who also won an Oscar for his work on 1988's Best Picture, Rain Man. Johnson's got 68 other production credits to his name, too, including fan favorite Galaxy Quest, as well as Amazon's upcoming television reboot (more on that later).

Downsizing tells the tale of everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who agrees to help the planet's overpopulation problem by taking the extreme step of shrinking himself down to 5 inches tall, and then going to live with a bunch of other minis at everyone's favorite McMiniMansion-filled retirement village, Leisure Land. SYFY WIRE spoke with both Taylor and Johnson about Downsizing, how much science you really need for sci-fi, and Taylor's second foray into genre (he got writing credit on on Jurassic Park III).

"The very germ of Downsizing came from my brother Doug, who many years ago — maybe back in college — started thinking about it," said Taylor, laughing. "And he was sort of obsessed, and was doing all sorts of calculations and stuff, and he'd talk to me about it, and I'd kind of nod my head."

But as Taylor started to think a little bit more about the idea of shrinking people to save the planet, he eventually brought it up to Alexander, and over the years, despite hitting many "blind alleys," they moved beyond the premise and into a much bigger shrinking world. "We had so many ideas and actually wrote so much different stuff that if there's ever a possibility of doing a sequel, we're ready for that. Which has not been the case ever before," said Taylor. "In fact, at one point we actually thought, 'Well, maybe this should be a mini-series or something.' Because there's so many ways you can go, and so many things that we left."

Part of the challenge was figuring out how the downsizing of humans would actually work — and just how much they could get the audience to believe.

"We picked the premise, which is the science fiction premise, but our take on it would be to pretend like it's not science fiction, and just write it like the way we would write any other story," Taylor said. "Obviously, it's not today, but it's close enough to today that it's not set in the 'future.' It's set in the near-future."

 

Of course, they still had to acknowledge the conceit, and make it work for the audience, which did involve a more left-brained approach, but still plenty of room for fun and games. "We went to urban planners to talk about the city, to design it and stuff like that, and also to climate people to discuss what's the most likely scenario for x or y …" said Taylor.

"Most of the time we would just have to say, 'Okay, there's a science behind this, which we can't deal with, because it's not going to happen.' So it was a weird case of selectively going, 'Oh that's real' and 'This is not,'" said Taylor.

The scope of the movie is undoubtedly wide, but it's a very human story, first and foremost, which takes a very different turn when recent Golden Globe nominee Hong Chau comes into the picture as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee and former political prisoner, downsized against her will, who shows up with her cleaning crew after a bender thrown by Paul's neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz).

With an accent that's admittedly jarring at first, and a giant-sized personality, a 5" character as Tran could have easily come off as cartoonish instead of complex (and award-worthy). "Honestly, there's both in there," said Taylor. "And we did this in Election – I'll openly admit that the book Election, the character Paul is much more nuanced in the book, and we kind of made him a little bit more of a cartoon character. So it's not that people are responding to nothing with Hong. But to me she has three … at least two Oscar-worthy scenes in this movie. And you don't get that from a cartoon character."

Johnson had a bit more experience with big science fiction, owing to his work on cult classic comedy Galaxy Quest.

"That was my introduction to visual effects, and certainly the futuristic ones. I think it just helped me in terms of my being able to interact with our visual effects supervisor, Jamie Price," said Johnson, referring to the man behind the visuals of Pacific Rim, Waterworld, and Hook, to name just a few.

As far as Amazon's Galaxy Quest reboot is concerned, though, Johnson couldn't divulge much, as there are still too many moving parts. "Do you know at one point we were going to do it with all of the original cast, but then poor Alan Rickman died."

That's not to say the rest of the original cast won't be returning, as has been hinted at previously. "The one thing is, the entire cast has such affection for that movie. I was on an airplane the other day with Sam Rockwell," said Johnson, "and one of his great experiences was Galaxy Quest.

"I remember Sigourney Weaver, how she loved being a blonde," continued Johnson. "And she wore a blonde wig, and had these huge fake breasts. And she was living here, because she lived in New York but was staying here, and one night she said to the make-up and hair people, 'Leave me alone, I'm going [out] as a blonde with big breasts.'"