Even Alexander Payne isn't sure why it took him so long to make another movie with Paul Giamatti. The prolific character actor proved himself to be an ideal lead for the auteur's brand of human comedy when they collaborated on 2004's Sideways, which received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and for which Payne won Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet it would be 19 years before they reteamed on The Holdovers, in a part that Payne tailored specifically for Giamatti.
"Working with [Paul] seemed like, 'Oh my God, why has it taken so long?' and simultaneously as though we had just done it yesterday," the filmmaker tells A.frame. So, what had changed over the intervening decades? "Well, I hope we've both gotten better. It's a stupid answer, but it's a true answer."
While Payne went off to make films like The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013), Giamatti starred in more than 50 projects and received an Oscar nomination of his own for his performance in 2005's Cinderella Man. "He certainly brings a huge wealth of experience. I mean, a director like me is lucky to make a film every two, three, four years. He does four things a year," says Payne. "We have a very good human connection, and a good director-actor connection. We have a rich collaboration, and we both understand the movie we're trying to make."
The Holdovers casts Giamatti as cantankerous boarding school teacher Paul Hunham, who is universally disliked by both students and staff alike. When he is forced to babysit a handful of students staying on campus over Christmas break, he strikes up an unlikely bond with unruly teenager Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) and the school's grieving cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph).
"Like Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine has an MFA from Yale. She's a student of acting who is capable of comedy, capable of drama. When it came time for the casting director to set up auditions with actresses to play that part, I asked for her by name," Payne shares. Sessa, meanwhile, was cast straight out of his school's drama department. It is his first time ever appearing on-screen. "The luck of finding Dominic Sessa, who was able to do the part and had the right hair, I mean, that's a gift from the Gods! It's a win-win. He gets a career out of the deal, and I get a watchable movie."
The Holdovers is set at an unspecified New England boarding school, but in a very specific year: 1970. For Payne, who pitched the story to screenwriter David Hemingson, the choice to make a period piece was born both out of practicality ("All-boys boarding schools don't exist anymore. They've all gone co-ed.") and something a bit more profound. "Why not make a period film?"
"You make the movies you yourself want to see, and I'm such a big fan of '70s movies, I guess I just wanted to make a film that could approximate — to a greater or lesser extent — that same feeling I get when watching a good movie from the early '70s," he explains.
The Holdover is carefully designed so that, from the very first frame, it isn't just a movie set in the '70s but, as Payne explains, "fashioned to resemble a movie actually made in 1970." That attention to detail goes as far as the vintage studio logos that open the film, custom-made to evoke the appropriate era, and continues to the period-accurate craft of production designer Ryan Warren Smith and Payne's longtime costume designer Wendy Chuck. One scene is set in a movie theater during a screening of Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, a movie Payne himself saw "four or five times in the theater" that very year.
"The difficult thing to achieve, but simultaneously, the fun thing to achieve was making it a period film but not seem like a period film," Payne says. "In other words, to not fall into the pitfalls of a lot of contemporary period films, where the production design and costume design are a little bit too obvious, and trying to sell the idea of period a little bit too hard. Look at these costumes! Look at these hairdos! Look at these kitchen appliances! Look at this wallpaper! Look how period it is. We didn't want any of that."
And so, he describes, "We wanted it to look like as though we were making a low-budget film then, and have the production design and costume design as banal and grimy and found as it would've been if we had just been going around to locations then and saying, 'We'll take it!' That sense of period without period was our declared aesthetic, and it was tricky to achieve." Payne chuckles, "Plus, finding a hundred and fifty boys with the right hairdo."
The story of The Holdovers — of three lost souls finding one another, and in that connection, finding something bigger than all of them — is timeless, as much as the period trappings may harken back to Payne's own upbringing as a teenager in '70s America. At the same time, the film is also quietly revolutionary in how it grapples with modern ideas about masculinity, and race, and mental health. That, Payne says, is a piece of who he is today. "Even though it's a period film, it's made now, so the winds of culture are blowing through us, without our even realizing it."
By John Boone