Writer/director Alexander Payne and his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor bring us another satirical look at society with Downsizing.

The story follows a man (Matt Damon) who is convinced shrinking himself to five inches will help the overpopulation problem, climate change and any of number of economic issues. Except when he enters into this new, smaller world, nothing what he expects happens. Instead, he becomes involved with a Vietnamese woman (Hong Chau) and her mission to help the downtrodden downsizers – and suddenly, his life is changed forever.

ScreenPicks sat down for an exclusive chat with co-writer Jim Taylor to discuss the film, where the idea came from, working with Alexander Payne – and some of the criticism surrounding it.

At the press conference, it seemed Hong Chau’s character struck a chord with folks, that it was maybe too stereotypical. What are your thoughts?

Jim Taylor: The question about Hong Chau’s accent has come up a lot and been kind of puzzling because it comes up from mostly… It doesn’t come up from the Asian community. Also, it breaks my heart because she just nailed it. We never could have made this movie without her and to put yourself out there like that.

She does steal every scene she’s in.

Taylor: I didn’t say it in the press conference but nobody seems to ask us about Serbians, and it seems like this inverse kind of racism. The other question about the general haves and haves nots and stuff. I don’t think it’s quite appropriate for this film but it’s a legitimate question. It’s an important topic and it’s a hard thing to address and all that. I don’t mind that. That hasn’t come up until now.

It’s almost epic in its scope. You start with something that’s kind of quirky, this idea that we can shrink ourselves down. You create that world. Then all of a sudden it becomes sort of this farther reaching type of story. Is that how it grew in you and Alexander’s heads as you were writing it?

Taylor: Well, as far as where it would ultimately go we didn’t. The idea that there would be a person who was attracted to the economic side of things and well-meaning and still thinks, “Okay, I’m doing something for the environment, too” that we always knew. We had actually a lot more in some scripts with the backstory of Hong Chau’s character. When you say this about it being epic, one thing that I really like in the movie that I didn’t realize until later is that when he enters Leisureland he’s at a very low point. You think, “Okay, here’s this grand entrance to this place.” It’s not that way. Then when he goes into see where Ngoc Lan lives there’s this real … That’s a very impressive moment. I kind of liked that that that’s saved for that moment of, “Wow. Look at this place.”

Most of the time you’re just in this world, and you almost forgot for a second that they are small. It’s like they’re just living their lives in this new kind of environment. Was that your intention?

Taylor: For sure. He even says, “You’re sitting here and then something happens and you realize, ‘Oh, we’re not …” We wanted to acknowledge that there might be a net and how do you keep insects and things out of there or whatever. None of it would ever work but we also didn’t want to have them fighting off a giant spider or something.

What was the evolution of this? I guess it took a while. It was originally your idea or both you and Alexander?

Taylor: My brother had thought of it as an experiment or whatever. Then I had the idea, “That would make an interesting movie.” I talked to Alexander about it. I started to tinker with it. I didn’t really get very far before … It really is something that we did together.

Why did it take so long, do you think?

Taylor: Well, many different reasons. Obviously we weren’t working on for a time. Alexander made two other movies. It took us a while to get a first draft that was very long because it could go so many different ways. We’ve done a lot of adaptations of books and that has a certain structure built into it. This is an original idea and it could go anywhere and, like I said, we didn’t know where we were going to go. We would go down blind alleys and stuff. We wrote a lot of stuff. It’s interesting because we’ve rewritten whole scripts in three weeks. We probably get 85 percent of the way there for what we think is … I said, “Next one, let’s do it really fast. Let’s do it in a month or something.”

What’s sort of the average length of time that you guys take?

Taylor: It takes about a year. Something like that. My wife is a writer/director, Tamara Jenkins, and it’s funny – I was attracted to her initially because I saw her short film. I was attracted to her artistically before I met her. I’ve worked with other writers a little bit. It’s sort of the most similar writers are myself, Alexander, and my wife in terms of the pace and how you could say perfectionism. There’s negative ways of looking at it. Anyway, we were obsessive I guess. We try to remind ourselves don’t let perfect be the enemy of good or whatever, that kind of thing. That’s one thing about a partnership is you can keep yourself. When I write on my own I’m much slower. If you’re kind of stuck than they can pick up and go or they can say, “No, that actually is a good idea” when you’re ready to throw something out. It’s very helpful.

How did you and Alexander meet?

Taylor: We were acquaintances but barely. I needed a room in an apartment because I had my first apartment by myself, in LA. Then a job I was working on I didn’t get paid for … I was sort of working for free and thinking I was going to get paid. It wasn’t a writing job. I couldn’t afford my apartment anymore so I was looking for a room. He had just lost his roommate. We were roommates. It was a business arrangement. Then we gradually started talking about different ideas and he was just out of film school and was getting offered features but none of them were … He needed a script and we wrote some short films together.

Downsizing feels different from some of the other films you’ve done. There’s a lot of things that you’re covering in this that is so relevant. What was the one message that meant the most to you in this film?

Taylor: Well, even though I care very deeply and I think it’s very important to acknowledge and deal with climate change, that’s not it. I didn’t even quite realize this until we were farther along in the process. We don’t really like to write from the basis, “Oh, you can’t climb in a hole.” Sort of going to Leisureland was kind of like climbing in a hole and then he’s about to go in a hole again. Especially with the global problem or whatever, it’s like you can’t just. One thing that became more evident or more pertinent over the 10 years or whatever that we were doing this is the wall that’s around there, which wasn’t an issue when we started.

It seems so crazy that people would even – Trump’s proposing this wall, which seems so absurd. Then somebody was saying the studies of the number of walled communities in the US has really rapidly grown. There’s this sense more that people can, “Okay, we’re just going to build a wall and we all live in here and everybody else is out there.” That it’s a real thing you can do. I thought that was interesting.

That’s the message that hit home for you?

Taylor: Just that you can’t build a wall. Most things you can’t run away from. Like you just can’t … Mostly because you’re connected to other people and you could say. He could go down there for some political reason or something. That isn’t where his life was.

If you think about it, if this were a real possibility, then the government would probably use it to shrink unwanteds, right?

Taylor: There are so many versions we had. Like in one, we had prisons. It makes sense. You can have one guard and a whole trailer of prisoners.

When you were writing it were these things just popping in your brain?

Taylor: That’s exactly what we do always is we think, “Well, what would happen?” Okay, there’s the movie version of what would happen. Then what would actually really happen? Trying to write into that. For this, you think, “Okay, let’s say this existed. Then what would be the logical roll-out of it?” If it’s successful and they want to make a sequel we’re ready. It’s the only movie we’re ready to make the sequel to.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

Taylor: It’s really about the feeling that you carry out of the film. I don’t want it to be a downer but there has been a somber. There’s that – there’s in the corniest way that love is the most important bit, that your connection with other people. One thing that bugs me more than anything, and I corrected Alexander about saying because everybody was saying global warming and it should be climate change because people think when it gets cold. It is not saving the planet. It is about saving us and animals. The planet would be fine for another billions of years.

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