Director Alexander Payne doesn’t just set his new movie in the 1970s — he tried to make The Holdovers exactly as a director from the era would have.The movie even opens with a vintage-style logo for Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures that wasn’t created until 2002.
“I found that in going on the set of my first period film, I wasn’t recreating the ’70s, I was in the ’70s,” Payne says. “It’s a really groovy way to try and time travel. … I was a teenager in the 1970s, so those are the movies that really stuck with me and made me want to be a film director.”
Payne, a two-time Oscar winner for co-writing the screenplays of his films Sideways (2004) and The Descendents (2011), vividly remembers 1970s movies like Hal Ashby’s debut The Landlord, which he says “captures that world’s atmosphere and the texture of its reality.”
Payne says The Holdovers was largely inspired by his older brother’s 1971 senior year at Omaha Central High, but he didn’t realize that until he started shooting. It follows two weeks in the lives of the curmudgeonly Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) who supervises a group of boys at an East Coast prep school; Angus (Dominic Sessa), a 15-year-old student who excels in his classes but is under threat of expulsion for his behavior; and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the lead chef at the school, whose son recently died.
You can draw parallels with Jesus, Mary and Joseph — and Payne drives the Biblical references home by giving Mary the last name Lamb. Paul becomes a surrogate father figure to Angus, just as Joseph was to Jesus in the Bible.
Though Payne delved deep into public high school life in 1999’s Election, he didn’t attend an elite East Coast prep school and didn’t know much about them — “nor did I have the discipline to try to do the research, poke around and figure it out,” he says.
So he got in touch with television producer and writer David Hemingson, who had written a TV pilot that was set in a prep school. Payne explained his idea and Hemingson agreed to write the film, setting it in the world he had created for the pilot.
Alexander Payne on The Holdovers Cast
Eight hundred young actors submitted to play young Angus, who can’t make friends with other boys and has an acid tongue for anyone who threatens him. Payne’s casting department whittled the pool down to 60 to 80 actors, but “we didn’t like any of them,” Payne says.
Payne eventually found Sessa by auditioning boys in the drama program at Deerfield Academy, one of the Massachusetts schools where The Holdovers would eventually shoot.
“He was a senior and had never been in front of the camera before, if you could believe it. He was an actor, kind of a star of the drama club, and had been in plays,” Payne says. “He got the part, and took to it like a duck to water.”
Casting Paul Hunham was easier. Giamatti hadn’t worked with Payne since Sideways, and they were eager to collaborate again.
“Paul’s my favorite actor and when David and I started working on the script, we just wrote it for him. We both had Paul Giamatti in mind the entire time,” Payne says.
Alexander Payne on Shooting The Holdovers
To achieve the looks Payne wanted, he partnered with Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld, who won an Emmy in 2013 for shooting Netflix’s House of Cards. The two had become friends while working on several projects that didn’t come to be.
“I love his movies, so when The Holdovers came about, it was very rewarding to finally get together and actually make a movie rather than simply talking about all our failed adventures,” Bryld says.
Bryld says Payne’s movies have “more of a somber, sort of Scandinavian approach. That’s usually sort of my sensibility anyway.” Payne credits the high quality of Bryld’s understanding of the material to “achieve the 1970s look that I so wanted,” he says.
Barton, the fictional prep school of the film, is cobbled together from four prep schools and one public school. One school had a gymnasium Payne liked, another had the right dorms, and another a cafeteria that would work for a crucial scene.
“We often have to do that in movies and hope that it all comes together as one unity in the mind of the viewer,” Payne says. “In my movie Nebraska, the fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska is similarly cobbled together from about five or six different small towns in northeastern Nebraska.”
Payne has called himself the least experienced person on set when he directs a film. He points to the example of an assistant director’s work with extras to make his point. If he wants to pick up a shot halfway through a scene, the assistant director knows exactly how to rewind the extras to exactly that point.
“I’m with crew people who never stop working on movies and what do I make? A movie every three years, if I’m lucky,” Payne says.
The Holdovers is now in theaters, from Focus Features.
Main image: (L-R) Director Alexander Payne and actors Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of their film The Holdovers, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC