<I>The Holdovers</I>: Alexander Payne shoots his first period film
Issue: November/December 2023

The Holdovers: Alexander Payne shoots his first period film

Since his 1996 feature debut Citizen Ruth, director/writer Alexander Payne has created a small but potent body of work — including Sideways (which won him the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Screenplay), About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska and Election — that bears his distinctive voice and talent for balancing darkly-comedic and dramatic elements, often within the same scene.

His new film, The Holdovers, reunites Payne with his Sideways star Paul Giamatti in a holiday story of three lonely people at a New England boarding school over winter break in 1970. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a professor who gets stuck supervising a few unlucky students who can’t go home for the holidays. The motley crew of boys under Hunham’s care is soon whittled down to just one: Angus Tully, a smart but damaged junior played by Dominic Sessa in his film debut. Also holding over is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head cook, whose only child, a recent graduate, was killed in Vietnam. 

Payne’s creative team included his longtime editor Kevin Tent (Sideways, About Schmidt), Emmy Award-winning director of photography Eigil Bryld (In Bruges), production designer Ryan Warren Smith (True Detective) and composer Mark Orton (Nebraska). Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Payne talks about making the film, which is getting a lot of awards buzz, and his love of post.

Last time we talked, you told me, “I never have a vision for my films. I find out what they are as I go.” Was that the case this time too?   

“Yes, that still holds true. Usually I do have some vague vision for a film, but then you really have to make it to see exactly how it’s going to turn out. You want to make the film you yourself would want to see, and if it resembles what you had in mind. For this, I did have some specific ideas in mind that I wanted to explore, and it’s a serious piece, and the idea was to make a contemporary film, but one set in 1970, so it was a kind of thought experiment in that sense. It’s a period piece — my first one, actually — and also a contemporary one.”

You usually write your films. I assume you worked very closely with writer David Hemingson on shaping the screenplay?   

“Yes, very closely. The film was my idea, and it’s an idea I’d had for about ten years, but I just never got around to researching it, as I hadn’t had that life experience of going to a private prep school in Massachusetts. What happened was that David had written a TV pilot script set in an all-boys prep school, and it was submitted to me, and I loved it and thought it was wonderfully written. So I called him and said, ‘I don’t want to do the pilot, but would you consider writing a feature script based on my idea, set in that very same world?’ And he agreed, and we then shaped the whole thing together, and I’m very grateful for everything he brought to it.”

As usual, you assembled a fantastic cast. What did Paul, Dominic and Da’Vine bring to their roles?

“Great acting and a real understanding of their characters, and what the screenplay called for. I cast them all, and Paul’s part was specifically written with him in mind, and even though it’s been 20 years since we did Sideways, it was like we never stopped working together. He’s just an amazing actor and such a great person. As for Da’Vine, I’d seen her in Dolomite Is My Name with Eddie Murphy, and she was so funny and compelling, I felt she’d be perfect as Mary. Then when we met about the part, I just fell in love with her. And Dominic, who plays Angus, was a complete find. We’d looked at a lot of possible actors, and then found Dominic, who was an actual senior at Deerfield Academy, where we shot. He was a star in their drama department, but he’d never been in front of a camera before.”

Talk about working with DP Eigil Bryld and finding the right period look for the film. Did you do lots of tests?

“We knew what we had in mind to a degree, and we weren’t trying to emulate any single film from the early ‘70s. Rather, the idea was, if we had been shooting this back then, what would our film look like given what film stocks were available to us? So we did a few tests between shooting on film and shooting digitally, and while we opted to shoot digitally, in the end we used vintage lenses and we also did quite a bit of testing with our colorist — Joe Gawler at Harbor Picture Company — to see exactly what genuinely-filmic effects we could put on it in post. And then armed with that knowledge, we just lit it appropriately and very simply. It’s hard to talk about the look and the photography without also acknowledging all the great work by our production designer Ryan. It was a great collaboration with all the department heads.”

The film looks like it was shot all on location?

“It was, 100 percent. We didn’t use a single set, not even for a bathroom or a closet. We shot entirely in Massachusetts, where it’s set, for about 45 days. I’m pretty used to economical filmmaking and a fast pace, and when you work with a lower budget, it really forces you to always place the camera in exactly the right position to capture as much as you can, so you don’t have to overdo the coverage. I don’t think we ever went into overtime, and I like to keep my days at 10 hours or under.”

All the snowy scenes looked very real.

“They were! We shot through January, February and March of 2022, so we didn’t need the usual snow VFX. It’s all real.”

Where did you do the post? 

“Half in Omaha and half in LA. Editing is quite portable these days, and I must keep an eye on my 100-year-old mother in Omaha, so that’s why we did some post there.”

Tell us about the editing process with your go-to guy Kevin Tent, who was Oscar nominated for his work on The Descendants.

“He’s edited all of my films since ’95, and it’s a really great relationship. I made a deal with him, that we’d cut for a month in Omaha, then one in LA, and we moved back and forth like that until we needed to be in LA a lot more for the rest of post, and we were turning around the cuts a lot faster, and also working on the sound and music, and so on. He doesn’t come on-location, although he was on the set for About Schmidt and Citizen Ruth. It’s not like the old days, as I don’t really need him on-set, so he stays in LA, and we talk a lot on the phone every day when I’m on-location. I don’t watch an assembly — it’s just too demoralizing and depressing. I haven’t watched one in years. Why subject yourself to that? Nor do I watch dailies very much. When I get into the cutting room, I really want to come in with the fresh eyes of the editor as much as I can, not as a director in love with the material. So if I have some distance from it, I can work with Kevin a lot more effectively, and when we start cutting scenes, I’ll acquaint myself with the dailies, and I’ll look at how he cut a scene, and then we’ll start working on it together.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“There weren’t really any. I shot it very precisely, and our job is always to make all the performances as strong as possible, down to the frame. The one thing that was very time consuming and challenging was selecting all the period music that we used in the score, and the songs that the characters hear in a bar or restaurant and so on, and making the best choices given what we could afford and clear.”

This is your first period film and they all need visual effects shots. What was involved?

“Crafty Apes did all the VFX, and as you noted, there were tons of snow scenes, and we had to augment some of those. They also removed a lot of modern structures from exterior shots. I’m very involved in the whole process, and we had to send a lot of shots back for re-dos, as I didn’t believe them.”

Talk about the importance of audio and music in your films, and is it true you’ve had the same sound team since the beginning?

“It’s hugely important — a crucial part of post — and yes, I have a really tight team of people I’ve worked with since Election, like my sound designer and sound supervisor Frank Gaeta. It’s a big advantage to have the same crew, and I love all the mixing, and I’m there for every moment of it. I wanted this to be mono, like the old movies, but have it be mixed largely through the center speakers with a little bit left and right. So it’s a little broader than an actual film of the period. In fact, to make sure we were getting as authentic a period soundtrack as possible, I even called Walter Murch, who did all the amazing sound design for Francis Ford Coppola’s movies, including Apocalypse Now, and we recorded nearly all of it with boom mics, not the usual radio mics, lavs and wires everyone uses now, which all sound like radio shows to me, not movies. We did all the mixing at Signature Post in Santa Monica.”

Tell us about the DI and working colorist Joe Gawler. What was involved?

“We did it at Harbor in New York, and I was there for every second — even more than Eigil, who had to go back to Denmark. We were short-changed on the DI budget. Eigil and I had our time together, but it was too short. We added grain and softened lines, and gave the titles a little jitter and that period look. Did the film turn out the way I hoped? Pretty much. The most important thing for me always is the story, the narrative, and the actors, and performances and music — all the elements the audience responds to, and I’m pretty happy with all of that.”