Not only is Alexander Payne back with his first feature film in seven years, "The Descendants," he's once again going to be one of the major players of the awards season. Moreover, he doesn't intend for there be another lengthy gap between pictures. He's already putting the pieces together for his low budget, father/son road trip drama "Nebraska." Granted, his aim to deliver the film to theaters in black-and-white means that Paramount is only giving him $10 million to play with, and greenlighting the film will be contingent upon getting a major star to sign on (Gene Hackman, Robert Forster, Jack Nicholson and Robert Duvall are some of the candidates being tossed around). However, as he begins to navigate the press gauntlet in the run up to "The Descendants," Payne spoke with Thompson On Hollywood and revealed that his long absence from movie screens was due to the "time suck" of his long gestating project "Downsizing" -- something he still hopes to make -- and that he's willing to play ball with the studio and deliver a color cut of "Nebraska," if required, for television.
To rewind a bit, when "Downsizing" was first announced, it was easily -- and still is -- the most ambitious project Payne has ever attempted to tackle. A high-concept social satire, the film was to star Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon as a married couple who are low on money and decide they can have a much nicer life retiring as little people. Witherspoon’s character decides to pull out at the last minute, leaving Giamatti as the sole tiny person in the relationship. But wait, there's more. Sacha Baron Cohen was lined up to play two roles, a pint-sized Spaniard and his normal-sized twin brother and business partner. Financing initially put the project on hold, and then "The Descendants" came along and took priority, but when Payne returns to "Downsizing," he will have learned his lesson from the first time around about how much prep work needs to be done in terms of the digital effects required for the film.
Describing the film as "expensive," Payne says that it's "a large canvas, science-fiction social satire" that he describes as an "epic masterpiece" that he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor. But it will have to wait a bit, as the project likely won't get moving again until after "Nebraska."
"[It's] still going to be a couple years away," Payne said. "I’m so anxious to just shoot movies now, just regular human old films, I want to do about two more [films] before I enter that time suck of pre-visualization and visual effects and all that kind of stuff. I just want to shoot."
And the next movie to get his attention will indeed be "Nebraska." In development by Payne since 2004, the story centers on an aging alcoholic father who thinks he’s won a million dollar Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes prize. He is unbowed when his family tries to dissuade him from making the long trip from Montana to Nebraska to cash in his winnings. So his estranged 20-something son—who doesn’t believe the ticket is a winner—is forced to go along with him for the ride to keep him out of trouble, in an opportunity to bond with his father after years of separation. And while Payne is insistent on delivering his movie in black-and-white, a format which many mainstream audiences shun away from just as they shirk from subtitles, he's not going to pull a Woody Allen (who demanded the aspect ratio and format for "Manhattan" be maintained for all TV showings), but instead remain flexible so the studio can more easily sell it to networks.
Admitting that going monochrome comes with a heavy sacrifice on the budget, he says, "...it’ll be black and white for theatrical, DVD and streaming. If they need a color version for their TV output deals, they will have it."
But Payne is more than aware that in the era of tentpole/toy/comic book/franchise moviemaking, it's getting harder and harder to get dramas made. "I had dinner about a year ago with a venerable older director and his wife. And I told them what sort of film I was making, and they said, ‘You’re so lucky to be making a drama right now.’ Hollywood is not making dramas," Payne states plainly. "It’s a genre which has fallen out of fashion, at least as far as the financiers/studios are considered. So, empirically, I don’t know. I’ll see what comes out this fall to verify if what they say is really true."
So, show your support for mature, adult dramas when "The Descendants" hits theaters on November 18th.