An Atlanta artist’s paintings take a starring role in the new film Landscape With Invisible Hand

William Downs worked closely with director Cory Finley to bring the unique look and feel of this Atlanta-filmed sci-fi movie to life

Landscape With Invisible Hand
Kylie Rogers, left, and Asante Blackk in Landscape With Invisible Hand.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

American films from 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause to the Twilight saga have been treating teen angst for generations. But an especially creative rendering of that navel-gazing genre, Landscape With Invisible Hand, was filmed here in Atlanta and opens August 18.

A teen love story crossed with alien invasion sci-fi, the film, based on a book by M.T. Anderson, imagines a future world where a teenage couple uses their love life as reality TV entertainment for the romance-starved glossy pink aliens who have taken over Earth. Occasionally poignant and often delightfully goofy, the film features Asante Blackk as Adam Campbell, a sensitive introverted high school artist who documents the before and after alien times in melancholy paintings that hang on his family’s living room wall.

Those paintings, and a big chunk of the film’s creative vision, come courtesy of Atlanta-based artist William Downs, who worked closely with director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds, Bad Education) to bring Landscape With Invisible Hand’s unique look and feel to life.

William Downs Landscape With Invisible Hand
William Downs

Photograph courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Downs is already a successful artist with drawings in the High Museum’s collection and has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and Sandler Hudson Gallery in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York. The Greenville, South Carolina native, who attended the Atlanta College of Art, is known for otherworldly drawings, often in black and white and populated by androgynous figures with elongated bodies and plaintive expressions.

Downs says that when Finley saw his work, “he knew that that was the feeling, the voice, and the vision that he was trying to depict.”

The Landscape With Invisible Hand team actually had a list of possible Atlanta artists they were considering for the film. But a meeting with Downs at the DeKalb Avenue coffee shop Victory C.C. convinced them he was the right man for the job.

Landscape With Invisible Hand is not Downs’s first Hollywood rodeo: more than a dozen of his artworks appeared in the Dynasty TV series reboot. But Landscape With Invisible Hand is an especially comprehensive inclusion of a visual artist’s work in both a film’s plot and behind-the-scenes production.

Downs painted a 25×13 canvas that was blown up via some CGI movie magic into an enormous mural for the film. When Adam and his new girlfriend Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers) attach nodes to their heads that feed their feelings and love story directly to their alien audience, Downs drew his signature almond-shaped eyes on Adam’s device. Downs was occasionally assisted by longtime friend and fellow ACA grad Jesse Cregar; he calls Cregar his “stunt painter” for filling in for him when he couldn’t be in the studio.

Landscape With Invisible Hand William Downs
One of Downs’s artworks in progress for Landscape With Invisible Hand

Photograph courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

In addition to painterly contributions, Downs also helped Finley bring artistic veracity to his tale of love among the aliens. He tapped into his art school background and current role as a lecturer at Georgia State University to advise Finley on capturing the dynamics of Adam’s high school art classroom.

“Asante Blackk came to my studio and I kind of worked with him, talked to him on set about being an artist,” Downs says. “I taught him mannerisms and how to roll the paint, how to look at things, and I taught him how to draw a face.”

Downs even tendered the swooping marks of pencil on paper for the film’s soundtrack: “When you hear the sound of the pencil, they mic’d the table and had me draw for 20 minutes,” he explains.

There were a number of almost paranormal parallels, Downs says, between his teenage years and Adam’s. Like Adam, Downs too had a crush on a girl in high school whose portrait he painted. He was also lucky enough to grow up with parents who supported his art much like Adam’s single mom, Beth Campbell, played with characteristic impish glee by Tiffany Haddish, who—fun fact—is an artist too.

Landscape With Invisible Hand’s message about the liberating, expressive potential of art is a pretty validating one for artists, whether filmmaker or painter. And Down’s star turn in the film may be the ultimate reward for parents who he says “pushed me to make work all the time.”

Downs will be a visiting artist at his high school alma mater, Greenville’s Fine Arts Center, when the film opens August 18. He says it’s the place where he was introduced to printmaking, drawing, and ceramics: the ultimate full circle moment.