In the opening scenes of the darkly comedic science fiction film “Landscape With Invisible Hand,” various paintings are shown: mom and dad, sister in the pool, a small market. Then things get murky with a stark painting titled “Market (After First Contact).”
We quickly learn that “First Contact” is when super smart slug-like aliens arrive on Earth. And no, they don’t technically destroy humankind. Instead, they infiltrate it and end up sucking away millions of people’s jobs with their superior technology and causing widespread ennui and misery.
Adam (Asante Blacck) plays a young teen painter who falls in love with a fellow teen Chloe (Kylie Rogers) in this new bleak world. Chloe comes up with an idea to film their budding romance in reality show fashion for the aliens to enjoy. It becomes financially rewarding. But Adam eventually rebels, finding the idea of turning their relationship into a show invasive and artificial.
“So much sci-fi has that allegorical 1984 totalitarian aesthetic to it,” said Cory Finley (“Bad Education”), the screenwriter and director. “We wanted a very late-stage capitalism aesthetic. We wanted the aliens to feel like a corporation more than a government. We wanted them to feel disturbingly cute and sweet and friendly.”
The film, which came out in theaters in limited release Aug. 18, has one big-name actor: Tiffany Haddish, who plays Adam’s loving mother struggling to find steady work in this new world and willing to do anything to ensure she keeps her house.
Adam’s paintings are a reaction to the alien takeover and anchor the film, which was shot in Atlanta last year over a span of seven weeks.
Veteran Atlanta painter William Downs is the man behind those paintings.
Finley looked at a number of Atlanta painters but when he met Downs at Victory Community Center coffee shop off DeKalb Avenue, they bonded, finding common ground in basketball and New Balance sneakers.
“He got the tone of the film immediately,” Finley said. “And I loved his work so much.”
Downs, who works out of Temporary Studios across the street from Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta, said he had no qualms quickly pumping out what Finley needed, even going back to using color paints, which he hadn’t done in years. (His most recent work has been all black and white using India ink and water.)
“Cory needed someone who could do figurative, abstract, realist, muralist,” Downs said. “And he appreciated my work. I was also an easy artist for them to work with. I’m never late. I can work super big, super small.”
Many of Downs’ works featured in the movie are portrait sized, but Finley also commissioned Downs to create a massive mural for the climax of the film. After the aliens shut down the physical school because they can now teach all the kids using a virtual reality device, Adam takes out his frustration by painting a monstrous mural on the side of the school wall.
Logistically and budgetarily, Finley couldn’t have Downs paint on the actual school so through the magic of CGI, the mural was instead projected onto the wall. In reality, it was 22 feet wide and 10.5 feet tall on canvas and features interacting aliens and humans.
The mural feels sardonically bleak, capturing Adam’s mindset but also attracting the attention of the aliens.
Downs got to spend quality time with the actor Blacck. “We had a good vibe,” Downs said. “I brought him to my studio and taught him how to paint with a roller and a brush. We did a training camp of sorts. It was a nice bonding experience.”
Every Friday during filming, Finley and artistic director Sue Chan would meet with Downs at his Atlanta studio to go over what he needed to do. Downs saw this project as a challenge, not any compromise on his artistic integrity.
“Cory wanted me to create work that felt like my original work,” Downs said. “He gave me the freedom but also knew I could accomplish the assignment, so to speak, that gave you both my side and what his side was thinking. I felt like this was a collaboration between Cory, the fictional character, Adam and me in a way.”
In the end, Downs produced 60 paintings for the film over four months while also juggling another exhibition.
“It kept the work fresh,” he said. “I didn’t overwork anything.”
Credit: Michael Blackshire
Credit: Michael Blackshire
Downs grew up outside of Greenville, South Carolina, with love of art in his heart, a love that was supported and nurtured by his parents. “My father was my biggest fan,” he said. “I never knew how important my work was to him until he passed away in 2018.”
He majored in painting and printmaking at the Atlanta College of Art, which was sold to SCAD in 2006.
His father William Downs Jr. told Downs to always have a plan B while pursuing his passion. “If my work isn’t selling I would hang art or hang drywall or paint houses,” he said.
Over the past 20 years, he has been able to make a full-time living teaching art and selling his works. He has lived in Baltimore, California, New York and New Orleans before returning to Atlanta in 2013.
He now holds 10 to 12 gallery shows a year all over the country while teaching on the side. He is currently working on pieces for an exhibition at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“He’s very focused and driven,” said Scott Ingram, a long-time friend, fellow artist and Downs’ landlord. “Those are qualities you need in a good artist. He has vast knowledge of contemporary and modern art history. He’s been working up to all the things he’s doing now. It’s great to see the arc of his career.”
Downs, who now lives in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood, dons a construction vest to work every day, inspired by art handlers he saw in Japan. “One of the art handlers gave me a vest and it stuck,” he said. “This is my work space. I clock in. I pay myself. I give myself vacations. I treat it like my business. I feel like when I wear the vest, I do better work.”
“He has multiple vests,” Ingram said. “It’s become a trademark for him at times. He wears it to openings and art auctions.”
The movie, in the meantime, has not hit its mark in movie theaters.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.