Kevin Tent, ACE, has been working with Alexander Payne for more than 20 years, beginning with their collaboration on Citizen Ruth. He also recently directed his first feature, Crash Pad. Downsizing is a comedic look at Paul (Matt Damon), a middle-aged, passive man who is trapped into doing things that everyone else wants him to do.
When he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) are given a chance to solve their problems by miniaturizing themselves into five-inch-tall people and living in Leisure Land, a mini-community, he learns that this promised paradise is actually covering up every human trait that he thought he was escaping from.
Eric Zumbrunnen, ACE
Norman Hollyn: How has your long-term relationship with Alexander changed how you work together?
Kevin Tent, ACE: Well, up through About Schmidt, we sort of edited traditionally, where I would do an assembly and then we would start working off of that. It was around then where he wanted to do the first cut with me. So, now, even though I do an assembly during shooting, it’s mostly so I can give him a heads up if there’s anything missing or if he wants to see scenes. Then, after he’s finished shooting, we start watching dailies and do a rough cut of the film together. We’ll drop scenes, restructuring in that first pass, just like in a director’s cut. We often go back and look at how I cut things in my original assembly; in fact, sometimes we steal from that cut. Our first cut of Downsizing was about two hours, 45. As we do that, we stack takes. We may like performances on two or three different takes, so we’ll have options stacked in our timeline.
NH: This film is like a road movie and a lot of movies like that tend to get extremely episodic.
KT: Right, our overall challenge was probably the pace. That’s the same on a lot of his movies. He lets things develop very slowly but I’m always pushing to pick up the pace, so that emotional connections happen, and he’s always like, “Let’s let it breathe.” In the end, I think we get to a good balance. One thing that we lost, which was really a shame, was our bookend storyteller scenes. Our story was being told from 8,000 years in the future by this tiny caveman speaking to a bunch of small children around a campfire. His voiceover continued throughout the film. It was very funny and, at the end of movie, very poignant. But that meant that it took us longer to meet Matt Damon. Audiences want to know who they should focus on and what they’re going to experience when watching a film. We felt that we had to get to him quicker.
NH: What changed the most?
KT: We lost a lot of the set-up between Paul and his wife, Audrey (Wiig), that helped the audience feel that they should not be together. And that helped us in the end when he finally makes the decision to choose love.
NH: That raises the issue of the story – what is the movie about for you?
KT: All of Alexander’s movies are kind of about people who find themselves. Paul finds out that he was meant to help people.
NH: Did you arrive at that by reading the script and seeing the dailies, or did you and Alexander talk about it?
KT: We talked about the best way to end the film, which led us to talking about the subtext of the film in general.
NH: The area that we’re going to take a look at comes about halfway through the film as Paul is adjusting to his new life as a tiny person living in Leisure Land. He’s just met and partied with his raucous upstairs neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who is using his tiny size to earn money from full-size people. He sees a Vietnamese woman, Ngoc (Hong Chau) who is cleaning Dusan’s apartment.
KT: It’s pretty wild to establish a major character so late in the script. Throughout the movie Paul is constantly meeting these bigger-than-life characters. They just show up and he and the audience spend time with them. Then – boom – another bigger-than-life character shows up. It happens throughout the film. But the movie is really about Paul’s evolution, and his twists and turns in life, before he finds himself. So, he had to go through all of these things, and he has to meet all of these people.
NH: With Ngoc, you help us by planting her early on with a television report that shows her as a political dissident who’s been shrunk as punishment and shipped to the U.S. in a TV box in which she lost her leg.
KT: It’s funny, that bit with the TV box. Hopefully everyone remembers that it’s a comedy. We sometimes had to reshape a scene or two to remind people to laugh. We also had to plant the fact that Paul was a physical therapist who helped people, by showing him early on helping out a co-worker at Omaha Steaks. We also had to set up that he wanted to be a doctor but dropped out of med school to help his mother. Later on, Ngoc and the people in her world start calling him ‘doctor.’ So all of a sudden he’s a doctor. At one point, we were experimenting [with] losing the setup of his desire to be a doctor. But I was very protective of
that part of his character.
NH: So, this scene is where he first figures out who Ngoc is and he wants to help her. Typically, your lead’s going to get the first close-up, but here Ngoc gets the first one.
KT: Right, we played with not cutting to her and staying on Paul but she had a great reaction here. Also, when you start cutting overs to each other, it can get a little clunky. We wanted to make sure that we could read her thoughts. So we cut in close. Matt’s timing with her here was so good that we ended up using his off-camera lines and overlaps. They were so natural we couldn’t lose them.
NH: You used her shot to swap takes on him.
KT: Yes, those are two different takes, but we didn’t have to do that. Both of his takes were good all the way through. We just wanted the audience to get to know Ngoc.
NH: Then he looks down at Dusan where he makes a political joke that Ngoc came all the way to Leisure Land and ended up cleaning for him – “America, big land of opportunity.”
KT: This was consistently a huge laugh. Our audiences loved Dusan. There’s a running gag in the film where Dusan says, about Paul, “Nothing ever works out for the guy.” At one point we lost it at the end of the movie but we put it back because it got a very big laugh. Dusan and Konrad keep the humor alive. They’re just goofy.
NH: You then immediately get to the scene where Paul is fixing Ngoc’s prosthetic and she convinces him to come to her house to help her neighbor.
KT: The Dusan scene was over and we needed to get moving. In this next scene we cut some other things out. At one point, she yelled at her workers, which was kind of funny. It got a chuckle, but it wasn’t funny enough to keep. We also wanted to tone her character down. The audience had just met her and it came off a little harsh.
NH: Your dialogue pacing here is really interesting. There are very few pauses before Paul talks. He doesn’t do a lot of thinking when you cut to him.
KT: Alexander likes to have little pauses, but usually I like to keep things pretty tight like how a natural conversation would be. But we let her cut him off as soon as he says, “Hospital.” We definitely did that intentionally so we could see her decision. We’re serious frame manipulators. Two frames more. Two frames less.
NH: Then they head out to go into her world.
KT: He has no idea that her world exists. He believes that he lives in this beautiful fantasy land. Interestingly, the trip to the other side of the wall was longer, with a lot of plot exposition. There was a village that was right at the border and Paul thought that they were going but the two of them stayed on the bus instead. We lost all of that. We needed to keep the story moving. We also lost a discussion in the bus by Ngoc about Tony Dale (Bruce Willis), the man who built Leisure Land, which had been set up with a promotional video when Paul and Audrey first visit Leisure Land. Willis was great but we had to tighten up the time until Paul gets miniaturized. So we lost it there, and we also had to lose all references to him in Ngoc’s speech on the bus.
NH: Now as we’re about to go through the tunnel to the other side of the wall, music begins. Do you temp your music?
KT: Sometimes I do, but we try and bring our music editor, Richard Ford, on as early as possible. He does an incredible job on our temps. And eventually our composer, Rolfe Kent, gives us demos and we start using that. Rolfe doesn’t always listen to our temps and Alexander’s respectful of that.
NH: The music doesn’t begin on the cut, but prelaps under her outgoing dialogue.
KT: Usually we try to be smooth and sleek and suck people into the next scene.
NH: So, now they turn toward the wall and Paul leans forward, incredulous that they are going through it. By the way, genius graffiti.
KT: The graffiti went through many iterations of an eyeball. We had seen an eyeball in some photos from our VFX team and it was something everyone thought was very cool.
NH: Were you involved in those discussions?
KT: I was mostly listening and if they asked me I would give my two cents. Alexander always called this Paul’s rebirth – entering the tunnel, and then it all going to white. So we wanted to preserve that by staying focused more on the tunnel less on the graffiti.
NH: Tell me about the big change in the sound here, as they emerge on the other side. Are you temping the sound?
KT: Yes, I often temp what I can with the sound but, fortunately, we had our sound supervisor, Mark Stoeckinger, give us more refined effects and we cut with those. Our rock-star assistant, Mindy Elliott, and our second assistant, Angela Latimer, also do a lot of temp sound work. But we always had the concept to suddenly have quietness, and then – poof – come out in a new world.
KT: We played around with the length a lot, to get the bus to stop at the right time. It’s a tricky visual-effects shot. How fast does the bus go? We wanted to make it look real, and we wanted everyone to absorb the world.
NH: Paul emerges into this massive 360-degree shot with a ton of VFX in it.
KT: Paul getting off the bus was one of the first shots we had to lock for visual effects. We wanted to show that he doesn’t even know this world exists and let the audience experience that as well. We had 11 takes and this was
the ninth I think. In the original shot, there are film trucks and buildings in the distance. It’s amazing what Jamie
Price and ILM did.
NH: Did one of your assistants paint that stuff out for you as a temp?
KT: This one was too complicated. So we just picked this take and started getting temps from ILM. There was another take where Ngoc yelled at him, “Come on! No time for baby dreams!” It was very funny so we added it a minute later as an off-camera line inside. Not exactly the same effect but still good.
NH: The music has gone out but then it comes in again, mixed with the source music of the slum.
KT: When we temped, we did have score that carried us all the way through. But it lost its impact somewhat. We have two big ‘oh wow’ moments close together – when he steps off the bus and when he steps inside the Alondra apartment. It was a little too much score. So we took a little break.
NH: You have a large number of effects here. Once you start getting the effects in, do you shorten or lengthen shots in order to accommodate what you’re looking at?
KT: Oh yes, in fact, for the shot of them walking away from the bus we added head onto it because Alexander liked it so much. Early on, it came up in discussion how many frame handles we should have. I think I said, “24 or 36 frames.” And our VFX team were like, “You won’t need that many. We’ll do eight on each end.” But, of course, they don’t know Alexander Payne like I know him. We often maxed out our eight and had to order more.
NH: So now they are in the poor part of Paradise, and it’s obvious that tiny-person poverty looks pretty much the same as it does here.
KT: I think what the movie is saying is that human beings are always going to be human beings, and they’re going to do what humans always do. That also works on the personal level for the character of Paul. Big or small, he’s a human being. And he’s going to be human and, for him, being human is helping people, and that’s going to satisfy his life. And he finds that in the end.
NH: How do you balance those big ideas, with the performances and all of the text in this film?
KT: The only thing you can do is protect those ideas and those concepts from being cut. There could have been scenarios, if Downsizing was in the hands of another filmmaker or one not as in control of their material, they would have grown impatient and wanted to cut things that contributed to that subtle context. In Alexander’s movies, both he and I work to protect that stuff and, at the same time, keep things moving. It’s hard because audiences want everything to play faster. But one of the definitions of an editor, I think, is to protect the characters and the elements in the story that you and the director feel are important.