Before Jim Taylor became an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and before he even went to film school, he was a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune”, hoping any winning earnings would pay some bills. And they did. Then the wheels in his head started turning with ideas for screenplays. He met Alexander Payne when Payne was finishing at UCLA.
They collaborated on 1996’s “Citizen Ruth” starring Laura Dern and then on 99’s “Election” with Reese Witherspoon, a film Taylor says studio Paramount “wasn’t sure how to release”. But “Election” would take Payne (who also directed) and Taylor into awards season, with the duo earning Independent Spirit and Writers Guild of America screenplay awards, along with an Oscar nomination. When it came to the awards mayhem, Taylor says, “We didn’t know any of that kind of stuff.”
Taylor teamed-up with Payne again on the screenplays for 2002’s “About Schmidt”, which won them a Golden Globe and 2004’s “Sideways”, which earned them the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Taylor then co-produced Payne’s 2011 drama “The Descendants”.
I recently attended a screening of the duo’s latest collaboration, the sci-fi dramedy “Downsizing”, starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Kristen Wiig. The film, which opens December 22nd, is about a guy who chooses to have himself permanently shrunk down to 5 inches in order to help with the world’s overpopulation crisis. It’s “a high-concept idea”, Taylor remarked at the post-screening Q&A moderated by Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for co-writing 2015’s “The Big Short”.
“Downsizing” is a character-driven story, and according to Taylor, it was “a very long gestation process” that began more than 12 years ago. Taylor’s brother randomly thought about what kinds of solutions there could be to environmental problems. A draft of the script was written about a decade ago that was “an absurd number of pages long”. Taylor stated the main problem they faced while writing was that, “…it could go in so many different directions. It was fun, but it took a long time because we didn’t know where it was going to go.”
What was the collaboration process like in crafting “Downsizing”? According to Taylor, he and Payne are “pretty similar.” “We don’t really fight, but this was a slog for a sure.” “Downsizing” goes in several different directions, and the two each had specific goals for it: “Alexander was more interested in the political side of it. For me, I was interested in the humanism.”
As for how they collaborate technically, Taylor and Payne are not only in the same room together, but their laptops are synced-up, so they’re working off one, single draft. “And sometimes we even do the ‘Battleship’ thing” – meaning they sit facing each other with their laptops back-to-back.
So, they had their script. Now they needed a cast. “We wrote for actors, and it was the first time we’d done that.” But none of the actors Taylor and Payne intended to be in the movie ended-up in it, with Taylor revealing that Waltz’s character was originally written for Javier Bardem. However, Taylor is beyond thrilled with how the casting turned out, calling Matt Damon “perfect”. And he had this to say of Hong Chau, who gives a breakthrough performance as a Vietnamese cleaning lady: “We never could’ve made this movie without her.”
As for the production, it was a unique experience for Payne. Taylor noted that, “A lot of this movie was made on a soundstage, and with lots of visual effects. It was a learning curve for Alexander. There were lots of storyboards – something he’s not done before.” Designing Leisure Land (where Damon’s “miniaturized” Paul lives) “took forever”, and filming locations included LA, Toronto, Omaha and… Norway.
Taylor acknowledged Paramount (who also distributed Payne’s previous film, 2013’s “Nebraska”) for being extremely supportive throughout the entire process, noting that because “Downsizing” is not a genre movie, the expectations were different.
I met Taylor afterwards and asked him that, after all he’s been through with this movie – if ever given the choice – would he downsize? His response, “I’d do it, but I wouldn’t be a pioneer. I’d wait to see how it was going.”