Alexander Payne looks at environmental issues with new film ‘Downsizing’

TORONTO — Filmmaker Alexander Payne feels a sense of powerlessness brewing in the world when it comes to the environment.

“I compost and I recycle and every time I do that I think, ‘Well this is just a tiny tiki umbrella against the immense avalanche,’” the two-time Oscar winner said in an interview at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

“But what are you supposed to do, not do that? I drive an electric car. What’s pernicious is what I’m told may be happening among some youth — which is in teens and 20s — is they know we’re screwed, so it’s like what’s the point?

“There’s a type of nihilism or apathy or fatalism, saying: ‘Well let’s just have a good time and party and who cares because we’re all screwed anyway? Why do anything?’ On the other hand there are many young people who are really disgusted with the world they’re inheriting and do want to work to fight it and change it.”

Payne tackles that subject in his new comedy-drama Downsizing, which hits theatres Friday.

Matt Damon stars as an occupational therapist lured into the new trend of “cellular reduction,” in which humans are shrunk to a height of 13 centimetres in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint and help save the environment from overpopulation.

Kristen Wiig co-stars as his wife, while Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau are among those who play residents of a tiny community Damon’s character moves into once he’s downsized.

Payne co-wrote the film with Jim Taylor, with whom he also collaborated on the boozy 2004 dramedy Sideways, which earned them an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Payne also directed the story, which ”turned out to be a handy prism through which to view a lot of things,” he said.

“I guess I did have the urge to make something of a political film, but you can’t make a literal political film, you have to have some kind of metaphor,” said Payne, who also won an Oscar for co-writing The Descendants.

“So it struck me that that would be a good metaphor.”

Payne used the biblical story of Adam and Eve disobeying the rules in the idyllic Garden of Eden as an example.

“One definitely has the feeling right now on Earth that things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better, and that’s unfortunate,” Payne said.

“Certainly with the environment — it’s going to have to get a lot worse. That’s what we’re all feeling, I think. We’re being told that it may be irreversible.”

Overall, the film is a commentary on materialism, consumerism and classism, said Payne, pointing to scenes in which certain residents of a downsized community live in a poor neighbourhood bordered by a wall.

“In all my films I’m thinking about class — class and its relationship to race,” he said.

“We had no idea when we were conceiving the film that the idea of having Mexicans behind a wall would acquire a stronger significance.”

Payne shot most of the film in Toronto and Milton, Ont., which provided the perfect quarry needed for scenes of a Norwegian village.

“(Toronto) offered a variety of looks, and we used the big sound stages at Pinewood and whatever tax credits are given by the government and the province, especially for a visual effects film,” said Payne, who lived in the city’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood during production.

“So economically and creatively it made sense to base here.”

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