• slideshow image

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Holdovers.

Can you start by telling us about your exposure, not only to the screenplay, but also to the world of Barton, and what drew you to visit this type of space?
Alexander Payne: I didn’t know the world. I went to an all-boys school, but it was a Jesuit school in Omaha. I had the idea for the movie, but I knew that one day I was going to have to do research and go out and visit these schools and talk to people and everything, and I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And then I received a pilot script written by this guy that took place in a private school, a boarding school, and it was good enough that I called him up and asked if he would consider writing a story for me in that same world. Well, it turns out he does know that world. He’s from Connecticut. He didn’t go to a boarding school, but he went to a private day school. And Giamatti went to Yale!

David Hemingson: I wrote this pilot about my own experiences at the Watkinson School in Hartford, where I went for six years. And it was kind of a deeply personal story, because it involved my father, who was teaching there at the time, who I was estranged from, and my mother, who was a registered nurse. We were from a lower middle-class family and it was a strange transition for me. And I had an uncle who was a World War II veteran, a guy named Robert Hale, who was this remarkable guy. He’s the prototype for Paul. I mean, just like, baroquely profane, fantastically kind of stoic. He was like a modern-day stoic.  And he kind of raised me in some of the strictest and most hilarious terms at times, but through it with a lot of love. A lot of aphorisms that are shot through the movie are directly from him.

AP: Once we had the screenplay, I went out there with script in hand and really through just being there and location scouting, was able to soak up that environment.

DH: You were there for how many months? Eight or nine?

AP: I’m always in a place for a lot of months before shooting. I gotta soak up the atmosphere and get it right, or some version of it right. A lot of that came through location scouting. Location scouting is really a magnificent process because that’s when you kind of get to know where you are, because for every house in the film, you’ve been to 30. For every school in the film, you’ve been to 30. And you meet people and talk to them and you lightly weave yourself into the fabric of that local community. It’s limited, it can be superficial, but given the limitations, it sure helps me. My big experience previous to this was going to Hawaii for The Descendants. I was there for about nine months before shooting to get it right. In that movie I was trying to portray a certain class of people and it took me a while to get to know them so that I felt I was representing them accurately.

you lightly weave yourself into the fabric of that local community

What was the process like between you two as you developed the screenplay?
AP: Well the the screenplay developed in a really—to use an overused word—organic way. I knew he was a fine writer. I gave him a premise that I had been sitting on for about a decade. He did the writing, but we developed the story and the feel and the texture of it together. The soul of it. By the time we’re done, it’s personal to us both. And I feel it’s directable by me. And he feels good about it.

DH: It’s great because I worked about 27 years in television and this my first produced feature, so I’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of different genres, you know?

AP: And adapting yourself to different showrunners, right?

DH: Yeah, I had to work with showrunners, but working with him honestly has been, I know you’re tired of hearing it, but it’s really great…

AP: Why would you possibly think I’m tired of hearing that?!

DH: He’s a very generous guy, he smells great, he’s a lovely dude. No, it was a lovely experience and it was great because I didn’t go to film school. I’m kind of an autodidact that way. I was an attorney. But I quit my practice when I was in my 20s to do this because I hated being a lawyer. But I spent 27 years doing this, and he has this incredibly deep and vast knowledge of film. And I kind of had to go to film school on his back by going to CineFile at the corner of Sawtelle and Santa Monica in LA, a great resource. Two guys there, JP and Greg, they’re phenomenal. And they have like 30,000 movies, so in the process of developing the script, I read short stories, and I’d send him a short story and be like, well, this feels like an area. And then I’d get down to breaking it into a loose outline, and we’d start talking about movies—Hal Ashby, for example. I watched all the Ashby, I watched all the Altman, and saturated myself with all these movies and we kind of went from there.

This film is deceptive in a lot of ways. Because it feels like it was an indie film made in the 70s, but it’s made today, with tremendous care and detail. I mean, you have a helicopter that flies. It’s incredibly ambitious in its scale.
AP: Helicopters actually aren’t that big a deal! I was like, oh we got a helicopter. They’re actually not that expensive to rent. But finding the period one was. We had to get one.

DH: Finding a place to land it was quite a piece of work.

It’s this character-driven film but it has so much, like you said, pomp and circumstance happening in the 70s.
AP: We were just chatting outside and I brought up something that happened last night. We screened the film up in Pleasantville at the Jacob Burns Center. And a guy comes up to me afterwards and he goes, I’m a property master. I have to ask, where did you find those rowing machines? You know, they’re pretty hard to find. I said, thanks for noticing! For a three-second shot in the movie, you’re the first to notice! They’re not in the screenplay. Somebody had the idea, I think the production designer said, wouldn’t it be cool if we got rowing machines? We finally tracked them down at Harvard, and they had to go up into the attic or in the basement to pull them out, and then we brought them to St. Mark’s School where we were shooting. It’s a three-second shot, but yes, there’s a deceptive scope to the movie. Even for the smallest details, we tried to make them accurate.

The screenplay is kind of fascinating because we believe we’re going to follow these four kids through the whole film, and then you pull them right out!
I wanted to do that on purpose because when I was writing, I started to think about Dead Poets Society. And I love it, but I don’t need to do that. I don’t need five kids, I don’t need to service all their arcs. I don’t want to!

AP: He’s too lazy (laughs)!

DH: I’m way too lazy. But no, I wanted to get down to three people with very distinct issues that they were holding over on their own lives. In other words, people with pain, people with damage that weren’t getting past it, and I didn’t want to do it for eight people. I wanted to do it for three people. Obviously, it was going to be Paul, and I very much wanted to do it with Mary, because she felt very spiritually and emotionally like my mom in many respects. And then with Dominic [Angus Tully], I felt I was plugging in a lot of my angst and indignation as a kid into him. And I just wanted to see these three people, as opposed to like eight people. I wanted to make it a more concentrated experience.

How did you cast Dominic? He’s tremendous.
AP: It’s tough casting kids. Because you want them to be believable. And not seem too old. I went through this on Election 25 years ago. It’s challenging to get teenagers who look like teenagers, and not like actors in their 20s pretending to be teenagers. The professional kids are often much too professional and too polished. And then you have to worry about the non-professionals and the non-actors having the chops to do it. Anyway, it just takes time. And the casting director here in New York—a woman named Susan Shopmaker—fielded about 800 submissions. We didn’t find Angus. We felt maybe we missed one. We found some of the other parts, but not him. As the auditions kept trickling in, dwindling, but trickling in, we finally did what we were going to do anyway, which is go out to the schools where we were supposed to shoot the movie and just contact the drama departments and ask, who you got? And there he was at Deerfield. When we shot, he was a senior at Deerfield, playing a junior at a version of Deerfield. From Deerfield, I also picked up another actor. The blonde kid in class who says, “He does what in the Cobb salad? I eat that Cobb salad.” He was an actual junior at Deerfield. And not an actor!