HomeInterviews"The Holdovers" : Press Conference with Director Alexander Payne and His Crew...

“The Holdovers” : Press Conference with Director Alexander Payne and His Crew Members

Synopsis : From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Rating: R (Some Drug Use|Language|Brief Sexual Material)

Genre: Holiday, Comedy, Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Alexander Payne

Producer: Mark Johnson, Bill Block, David Hemingson

Writer: David Hemingson

Release Date (Theaters):   Wide

Release Date (Streaming): 

Box Office (Gross USA): $12.9M

Runtime: 

Distributor: Focus Features

Production Co: Miramax, Gran Via

Sound Mix: Dolby Digital

The holdovers, dominic Sessa and Paul Giammati@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Press Conference with Director Alexander Payne, Writer David Hemingson, Production Designer Ryan Warren Smith, Costume Designer Wendy Chuck, Composer, Mark Orton, Editor, Kevin Tent

 

Q :  Let’s talk about, what part of The Holdovers really made you think back to your own days at school?  Okay, so let’s kick off with Ryan back there.  Like, is there a part of The Holdovers in school that just really clicked for you?

RYAN:  Yeah, I think mostly it’s the social aspect and you know, depending on that, because it’s such a confusing time and age.  So for me, I could very much connect with a lot of the boys who felt a disconnect there.

Q :  What about you, Wendy?  Was there a part of the story that just took you back to school in an instant?

WENDY:  Yes, absolutely, because it’s my vintage and I was in another country though, so.  I did go to an all-girls’ high school.  So, all of that is familiar, but different gender.  Yeah, it rings true for me.

Q :  Was there a particular character that you felt like you knew, even though you went to an all-girls’ school, like, just kind of the same vibe?

WENDY:  Hm, I think all of them, because it doesn’t matter of gender.  There’s always a range of characters in every scenario, in every class, there’s always the clown, the academic.  It’s always there.

MARK:  Well, for me, I’d say there’s a traumatic part because I had five years of Latin and there was a good deal of classics baked into that, and two of those years were repeating years for me.  So that’s a little tough, and I’m desperately trying to translate every line in there as it went by.  But I’d say coming from the composer, not a surprise that also the music for me really resonated.  I’m a little young for it, born in ’68, but my older brother and sister who I kind of idolized were both heavy into the music that’s you know, peppered throughout. So the source score is fantastic.  It was a great thing to have to write around.

Q :  We’ll try to limit our use of Latin in this press conferences to not put you back in the trauma.

MARK:  Thanks for that.  Yeah.  Appreciate that.

Q :  Yeah.  Pretty much. What about you, Kevin?  Is there a specific part of The Holdovers that was just like an instant recall?

KEVIN:  So I was a little younger in ’71, so that’s not exactly my time, but it’s very reminiscent of it.  And I think, and I’ve said this to Wendy, the costumes, the clothes and the music that we use, the source cues and stuff like that really remind me of my old high school days.  I didn’t go to an all-boys’ school or anything like that, but people haven’t changed that much really.  There’s still punks in high school no matter what era, even in 1971 or ’70.

Q :  That’s true.  Everybody should quote ’em on that.  There are still punks.  That’s the truth.  David, I mean, this is obviously straight from your mind script wise, and is there a specific moment in it though that stands out to you?

DAVID:  Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s kind of like I lived most of that movie and certainly the interpersonal dynamics and, you know, separate apart from the relationship between Paul and Angus, which I think is sort of one of my life experiences with my uncle. But that kind of King Rat trading at the top of the movie, that starts with the swimsuit and it’s like how much for this weed, that kind of thing.  That kind of dealing in contraband naughtiness is something that definitely resonates for me because you know, it’s part of the thrill of being young where you’re sort of trying to find yourself trying to be adult and that kind of swapping and trading and sort of undercover light misbehavior, let’s call it light misbehavior, reminds me of high school, I think the most.

ALEXANDER:  Where does the expression King Rat come from?

DAVID:  Isn’t that a George Siegel picture?  I think there was a George Siegel picture about the guy in the prison camp who can get anything for anybody. There’s always a King Rat in high school.

ALEXANDER:  What a fine reference.  That’s the thing.  What’s your name?  David Hemingson.

DAVID:  David Hemingson.

ALEXANDER:  That’s the thing about him.  He’s always there with a bull mole.  I mean, people are, I’m just getting a lot of like, wow.  Yeah, you’re the script.  It’s so good.  And I’m like, thanks.  I didn’t write it.

DAVID:  He had a huge influence on it.

ALEXANDER:  No, but the quotable insults in the little things that you insert into the screenplay and into your spoken conversation, I find quite delightful.

DAVID:  Thank you, sir.  The baroque profanity.  Yes.  There’s another one.

Q :  There’s another one actually. I don’t want anyone out there to be encouraged to spoil anything in the end of this movie for anyone, but there is an insult that Paul Giamatti hurls at the end of this movie that was so deeply satisfying. 

DAVID:  [laugh] I’m glad.  I’m glad.

Q :  Now, was that something that was there from draft one or did that come about later when you really figured out how to stick it to that headmaster?  

DAVID:  [indiscernible] pretty early.  Pretty early.  I mean, a lot of this character is based upon my uncle, a guy named Earl Ca Hale [phonetic], who was a World War II vet and served on Saipan and raised me when my folks split, and he was born in 1920.  And I always thought of Paul.  In my mind, Paul was born in —

ALEXANDER:  1920.

DAVID:  1920.  Yeah.  So if Paul was born in 1920, I think he had the same vernacular as my uncle.  And so I just sort of channeled this — This guy was this incredibly erudite but also incredibly coarse kind of bald dude with these jug handle ears and these Buddy Holly glasses.  But he had this incredible gift for, you know, this rarefied profanity, and so I just sort of channeled that and put that into Paul.

@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q :  Mm.  God, it was good and it was satisfying.  I was taking notes.

DAVID:  It was fun, right?  I like that insult.

Q :  Oh, devastating.  Alexander, what specific —

ALEXANDER:  I hope the legal clearance department doesn’t try now to track down Earl’s descendants and get them to —

DAVID:  Oh, no.  It’s okay.

ALEXANDER:  — sign off on it.

DAVID:  We’re super tight.  We’re super tight.

ALEXANDER:  Yeah, all right.

DAVID:  I’m super tight with the family.  They’re all copacetic.  They’re all copacetic.

Q :  Alexander.  What is the part of this script that really takes you back to school specifically?

ALEXANDER:  Not necessarily just school, but that period, maybe three things.  First is yes, like Mark Orton, Latin class.  I was four years in Latin class at an all boys Jesuit school in Omaha.  I’m still tight with my friends from Latin class, and there are some in jokes woven into those scenes that only they will get. Second, I was nine, turning 10 in 1970 to ’71, so I was young, but I had an older brother.  I had two older brothers, one of whom was that exact same year.  He graduated Omaha Central High class of ’71, which I didn’t quite realize until later in the pro —

ALEXANDER:  I go, “I’m making a film about that class.”  And when you’re a much younger sibling, you live a lot vicariously through your older, you know, siblings wanting to emulate them and adopt their taste and so forth.  So I have vivid memories of that year.  And then third, the thing, again, taking it out of school is the movies of that period, because even at that age 9 and 10, I was movie crazy.

ALEXANDER:  And for example, Little Big Man, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man is featured in the film.  It’s appropriate to the time and the scene in which it’s presented.  But I saw it like four times in the theater when I was nine years old.

DAVID:  Yeah, me too.

ALEXANDER:  So it’s not just the school thing, but a lot of contextual things bring us all back, I think.

DAVID:  Yeah.

Q:  Yeah, and I mean, this movie just evoked so many memories of so many great films of that time.  It pulls from like, Hal Ashby.  I was excited to hear that Walter Merch was consulted when you were, you know, bringing this to life.  And I think that your movies always certainly evoke a sense of time and place, but this is your technical first period film.  And so I wanted to ask you the most challenging and rewarding aspects of making a period film.

ALEXANDER:  So let’s be clear for the audience watching that it’s not just a period film, but my collaborators and I here gave ourselves the thought challenge experiment of time traveling and pretending as though we were making a film shot in 1970 and ’71, and that the final film looks as though it might’ve been produced then.  And what that did was, I mean, particularly for Ryan, and Wendy and me was telling ourselves, we’re not making a period film. We’re making a contemporary film pretending we’re in 1970.  And to what we wanted the costumes and production design not to rub our noses in how period it is, but rather to be as banal and grimy and as though we were making a low budget film then.  And so that was both a challenge and a delight.

Q :  Now, Ryan, production design is such a huge part of this movie.  Can you talk about approaching the challenge of creating the unique atmosphere and emotions of a New England prep school, especially during Christmas break and during this, you know, period of time travel that you went to?

RYAN:  Yeah, I mean, that was a unique challenge because we had to shoot in, you know, five different schools and intertwine them together. But what we got to do and focus on, like Alexander pointed out, was to make it a little bit invisible.  We wanted it to feel natural and never take you out of the scene and always let the story be the star.  And so for us, we always just led with our feeling on that. And so we let feeling and instinct lead the way, and me and Alexander like to spend a lot of time in each of the real environments with the real people that live there and soak a lot of that in and then intertwine that into the work that we do there.

Q :  And I read that you would put a lot of things on the set, even in places the camera can’t see, just so the actor is fully immersed in the environment.

DAVID:  Tell her about Marcus, yeah.

RYAN:  Yes, Marcus Whitman is the set decorator, and me and him have a long history together. And me and him, yes, we dress every part of the set.  So even if it’s something that’s not scripted, like Paul’s desk drawer or something that he’s not supposed to open, we always dress it with period appropriate things that in case he does in the moment, that he won’t be taken out of the scene.  So that’s really important to us.  And also, me and Marcus will always sit, we’ll be the last people in the set before it’s handed over to Alexander and the shooting crew, and we spend hours in there living and laughing and putting our life and feeling into it, and then making sure that all feels right before we hand it over.

Q :  Is there a special item that stands out that you had put in there, like, woven into it that we might not even see on film?  I’m just curious.

RYAN:  There is.  Can we mention the piece that’s in Paul’s office?

ALEXANDER:  Of course, yes.

RYAN:  So there is a little Easter egg in Paul’s office.  There’s a little sculpture by his desk that was also used in the Sideways, his Sideways set. Yeah.  So there is little pieces like that that we would add and little touches, books that we thought he would like.  And he was very hands-on about that, about what he would be into and what books would be placed next to his bed.

DAVID:  Is that mystery, that mystery novel that we kind of hinge up from where we see his pipe when we come up off of Danny.

RYAN:  Fear Strikes Out.

DAVID:  Fear Strikes Out.  Is that one of Paul’s books?

RYAN:  No.

DAVID:  Or is that just with Paul Hunham would’ve read?

RYAN:  Yeah, one he would’ve read.  And also it became a Blake Edwards movie from the period.  I thought it was a nice little nut.

DAVID:  That’s so cool.

RYAN:  Can I ask you to ask Wendy the same thing?  Because she had to do, she did a superhuman job with limited resources to get the costume right for the film.

The Holdovers, Dominic Sessa, and Pail giamatti@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q :  Hey, listen, Alexander, if you want to do my job, go right ahead.

WENDY:  Do you want to phrase the question again?

Q :  Absolutely.  I think, you know, sort of something adjacent that I think of is that so often a period piece might feel costume-y or might feel kind of reductive of an era, but this film really avoids that.  And I was wondering, so tell me about your process of picking what all of these different people at different times of their life would be wearing, that it feels like it is appropriate to the era, but it does not feel like a costume.

WENDY:  Yes.  Thank you for that question.  And I think with working with Alexander for all these years, I’ve learnt from him to do that.  And some other great costume designers prior to my career have also said the same thing, that you always take one thing off. So you might dress the whole thing and then take one thing off, to quote Anne Roth.  I feel it’s really important to have naturalistic costumes that don’t speak costume and let the actor do the work.  So you have to support the actor and the story and the personality and the character through the clothes.  So let them do the speaking or just let it be.  And sometimes you know, in a fitting, it’ll be, you’ll know what’s wrong and you’ll know what’s right.  So sometimes you can just tell, sometimes you have to keep working it.  Sometimes it’s there straight away.  And this was an extraordinary feat to pull together because of the lack of resource.  We had to keep finding clothes, right.

Like, there’s a huge volume even in watching it last night.  There’s so many people in this movie, there’s so many clothes, half of which don’t appear on the screen.  But the volumes were just, I would look at my assistant, I’d say, we’ve got to find more clothes.  I’d go down to where the background was being fit and say, we don’t have enough clothes.  I’m sick of seeing this thing.  We can’t put that on anybody.  It doesn’t fit.  And also bodies are now very different too.  So since 1970s, we now have the advent of fast food.  People’s bodies have changed, and especially in Boston, so we don’t have like, tiny, tiny people anymore.

So that in itself is something, so we were dealing with the volume.  But I want to second, Ryan and I don’t put people’s clothes on, although I have put on Jack Nicholson’s pajamas and broken them down personally.  But in this one, I want to reference an Easter egg that nobody knows.  Lydia Crane wears a heart-shaped necklace that Reese Witherspoon wore the exact same one in Election.

DAVID:  Whoa.

RYAN:  I told you [overlap].

ALEXANDER:  What do you know?

RYAN:  Can I just make.

Q :  Oh my God, I love the Alexander Payne-iverse.

DAVID:  Yeah.  That’s it.  It’s the Payne-iverse.  I want to make one comment about the costumes because you know, I grew up in New England and, A, I want to say I was amazed at how spot on, how incredibly consistent and how historically accurate it was.  It was incredible.  And I also want to say that, you know, there was this wonderful combination ’cause it felt real.  Of jackets, like, for example, his Chevron jacket, which I thought was beautiful, but it wasn’t like exactly from Brooks Brothers or J.  Press. It was this combination of stuff that was very traditional with stuff that would’ve been contemporary at the time.  So I just felt like that gave a tremendous verisimilitude to the costumes.  Like, the fact that people were dressing like they would’ve actually dressed in the truest sense of the word.  And I thought that was remarkable.

WENDY:  Thank you.

Q :  And Wendy, real talk, I actually had written down during the family mass scene, how many blazers do you think were in that scene alone?

WENDY:  Oh yes.

MARK:  And the dining hall.

DAVID:  Dining hall was huge.

WENDY:  Oh, yes.  Yes, yes.  We took a long time to set up that scene too.  I mean, Alexander got quite particular about things, but it works.  I mean, yeah, I love that pan across the professors

MARK:  And then add on trying to find 150 boys with the right hair.

WENDY:  Yes, yes, yes.

Q :  God, I didn’t even think of that, which is surprising.  And Mark, I’d love to talk to you about blending this amazing score and making it feel very Christmassy and using Christmas elements.  Just talk about blending the two of those together.

MARK:  Yeah, I think, well, in terms of overall blending, I think my first job was really to make sure that nothing I was doing would betray the 1971 feel of it, or 1970 feel of it.  That for me ended up in some places that I don’t get to explore much in scoring.  You know, I’m more doing sort of orchestral stuff or Americana leaning stuff. But about a third of the score is really coming from a band place, like a band that you know, would be playing in that time period, which for me is super fun.

I guess, I have the instruments from that era.  They’re the ones that musicians like me collect old guitars from early seventies, late sixties, amplifiers too.  And I really got to stretch out and do that stuff and to kind of blend in with this fantastic, you know, source score that’s in there. Things like the Almond Brothers, or Cat Stevens, or Bad Finger.  So, that was super fun for me.  

And then, on the other hand, I was also, of course, referencing some Christmas.  I upped my collection from two to something like 25 different sleigh bells, and they do find their way in here and there. And, yeah.  And it was fun to get at that.  I haven’t done any kind of holiday themed movie, and my band never made it long enough to do a Christmas album.  [laugh] So, yeah, I got to explore that, too.

Q :  It brought on the warm fuzzies, so look into holiday scores, sir.

MARK:  Okay, got it.  Yeah, yeah.

Q :  Kevin, I wanted to talk to you about all of these really elegant crossfades and how this movie really evoked a feel of the time as well.  What were the challenges in bringing that to life, as far as editing goes?

KEVIN:  Well, people have asked that similar question before, and I think we just did what we normally do, which is really let performances drive our decisions, as far as the cutting goes, and stuff like that.  Although, you know, we always use dissolves.  We love ’em, and we probably have a few more than we normally do.  But we’ve done it before too, though, ‘cause I watched something from Nebraska, where we did a really long dissolve.  You know, I’m thinking when Paul is yelling at the kids in the beginning, and it dissolves to the hallway, we’ve done that before.  So, we really approached the film, I would say editorially, how we always do, and just let our performances drive us on our decision making and stuff like that. But, yeah, we used some dissolves.

ALEXANDER:  I have to say, we’re about the same age, and our film language in the previous films is kinda the same.  The same transitional techniques we use, it’s just that perhaps they stand out more in this one because it’s purposely, you know, it has the parlor trick of trying to appear like it’s from the ’70s.  But our film grammar, I think, is basically we’ve been making ’70s movies the whole time.

KEVIN:  I was gonna say that, too.  Yeah.

Q :  Yeah.  And I think that that certainly makes sense when you talk about things like how character driven they all are, and also how deeply emotional.  We don’t always get like a tied-up-in-a-bow happy moment with the characters, and all the movies end up feeling very real.  So, David, let’s go to you and talk about, you know, creating this.  You know, so this is set in a boy’s school.  while you were writing it, I understand it was originally a piece for television, right?

DAVID:  Actually, I wrote a pilot called Stonehaven, it was based upon my personal experience of going to this day school for six years, a private school for six years, and I was blessed that Alexander found it, read it, dug it, and approached me, not to make that, but to sort of dwell in that world again and write a screenplay for him.  So, the origin story of the collaboration comes from the pilot, but the film is a separate, independent, freestanding creation. I will say though, that a lot of the kind of emotional core of the film, and the character dynamics, definitely were kind of lifted from my pilot, which were lifted from my life.  So, you know, that’s the origin story of the film, of the screen play.

@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q :  And in the movie, one the themes that I really attached to consistently was, you truly don’t know what anyone else is going through.

DAVID:  Exactly.

Q :  And, you know, not assuming is really the way to go. 

DAVID:  Yeah.

Q :  And so, I had read that you were a fan of Alexander’s.

DAVID:  Colossal fan.

Q :  So, let’s just pretend for a second that he’s not sitting right next to you.  

ALEXANDER:  [laugh]

DAVID:  [laugh]

Q :  Can you share with us something about working with him that you hadn’t anticipated, or maybe a way that you thought it was gonna go but it didn’t.

DAVID:  Absolutely.  I could talk about this all day.  I mean, honestly, it’s his kindness, first and foremost.  He’s the most kind man.  You’re a kind man.  Have I told you that lately?

ALEXANDER:  People take advantage of me.  It’s true.

RYAN:  [laugh]

DAVID:  There’ a politeness to him.  The way he’s dressed right now is often the way he’d appear on set next to camera.  I’ve been writing television for 27 years, I’ve never been on a set with less, and I mean this with, you know, behind the camera, not in front of the camera, less drama.  Like, there’s a collegiality, a congeniality.  You know, I love and respect his work.  I think he’s got this encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, and that was amazing to encounter and work with, but I think the thing that struck me, first and foremost, was the fact that I just liked hanging out with the guy.

I liked being on set with the guy.  I didn’t want the day to wrap.  I’ve run TV shows where I’m like, “I can’t wait to get off this set,” you know?  And it’s like, I would be on that set and I’d go, “Can you bring a sleeping bag?  ‘Cause I just want to stretch out right here at the foot of the dolly and sleep here,” ’cause it was just a very warm and welcoming environment, and I think that’s actually reflected in the final film.  I think the energy, much like Ryan was talking about opening a drawer and seeing something in there that may never actually be encountered by the character, there’s a fundamental vibe on an Alexander Payne set that’s a cool and welcoming vibe and I think that translates into the material.  So, yeah, working with him was a dream come true, and continues to be.

ALEXANDER:  Go on. More.  More.

DAVID:  You guys at home can’t tell, but he smells very good. He smells like baked apples, as Ollerman would say.  And cinnamon.

ALEXANDER:  Cinnamon, yeah.

DAVID:  It’s true.  I wish I could bottle it.  It’s fantastic.

ALEXANDER:  All right.

DAVID:  [laugh]

Q :  That does not disappoint a little bit.  So, Alexander, let’s talk about the magic of this cast, and beginning with Paul Giamatti, of course.  I mean, what about Paul’s interaction and understanding of this character really surprised you when seeing him bring it to life?

ALEXANDER:  First, I wanna way, we’re doing this press conference on Tuesday, October 24th, and we still don’t have the actors with us, and that’s been really heartbreaking to us all.  That we haven’t been able to share this experience, this screenings, and even the enthusiasm.  The lovely enthusiasm of someone like you and the questions you’re posing to us, that we can’t share it with them.  And [clears throat] irony of ironies, for example, last night we had a screening here in Los Angeles, and a good friend of mine was dropped off at the screening, ironically, you know by whom?  By Da’Vine.

DAVID:  Really?

ALEXANDER:  Yes.  This friend had had a meeting with Da’Vine.  Da’Vine goes, in her sweats, like, “Well, I’ll give you a ride to that thing.”  [laugh]

DAVID:  [laugh]

ALEXANDER:  And couldn’t come in.

DAVID:  That’s so hard.

WENDY:  Oh.

ALEXANDER:  What the heck?

DAVID:  That’s so hard.

ALEXANDER:  [clears throat] So, I just wanna kind of get that off my chest.  Now, what’d you say about Paul Giamatti?  Which one did he play?

DAVID:  [laugh]

Q : [laugh] Maybe you’ve heard of him.

ALEANDER:  Yeah.  No.

Q :  Like, how did he, like, change your understanding of the character, and what makes that character tick?

ALEXANDER:  I can’t say he changed my understanding, and also I don’t really remember what my understanding was of the character, but he, like David, was a product of that world.  He went to Choate, as a high school student, and then to Yale, as did David.  And Paul was able to tell me, “I know how to play this guy because I knew these guys, and I knew this fellow.”

So, I just kind of let him do it.  And there’s certain actors, most of them you think, “Oh, god.  I hope he or she can do it.  I don’t have to get rough with them,”  and Paul is someone like, you know, Meryl Streep, or Laurence Olivier, and you cast that actor in that part because you’re curious to see what they’re gonna do with it.  And see if he could do it a little bit this way or a little bit that way, but no matter what it is, it’s gonna be awesome.

And that’s a great joy in working with Paul, is to see a great artist and actor just do his thing.  And I’m always happiest with actors to whom I don’t have to say anything, and he is that.  Or if I do say something between takes, it’s basically monosyllables or gestures, because we have a good kind of shared understanding of things.  [clears throat]

DAVID:  Having witnessed that, that was kind of amazing to watch Alexander and Paul communicate, because a take would go down and AP would just walk over and go like, “A little more of that, yeah.  Could you not?  Uh-huh.  And with your head, mm-hmm.  And then the thing, yes.  And you’re feeling, right.  It’s raining, but it’s not raining.  Got it.  Okay, good.”

ALEXANDER: It usually wasn’t that long.

DAVID:  It really wasn’t that long.  It was sort of like these adjustments would occur from take to take, and, you know, I think one of my favorite shots in the entire film, and it’s emblematic of how brilliant Paul is, is that shot after the whole, “my father’s dead,” scene and, you know, they go home, and it’s just that shot you have from overhead when he’s lying in bed, staring at the camera before he jumps up and goes out and gets the Christmas tree?

ALEXANDER:  Oh, uh-huh.

DAVID:  There was about six emotions that cross his face.  You see his thought process, you know?  I mean, his gift is remarkable, and I think the two of them together, like the fact that, you know, Alexander’s able to get that from him, is just a wonderful thing, and it anchors the entire film.

The Holdovers, Dominic Sessa, Paul giamatti, De'Vine Joy Reandlph@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q :  Movie lovers everywhere are so excited that the two of them are reunited.

DAVID:  Exactly.  They should be.

Q :  Alexander, did you feel as though no time had passed between this filming and Sideways, or did you feel like you had to ramp up again?

ALEXANDER:  Not ramping up, but both simultaneously.  It was like, “What’s taken us so long,” and, “Oh, we just worked together yesterday.”  You know, that feeling you have with good friends, you know, good collaborators.  Like, “What’s taken so long?  Jesus.”  And it’s just a direct continuation of what we were doing 20 years ago on Sideways.

Q :  Let’s keep going and talking about Dominic Sessa.  An amazing, brand new talent.  This is his first movie.

GRAY:  So Dominic, if you’re watching, it’s all down here from here.  [laugh] Please talk about finding him.  And sort of, was there a moment in that audition, Alexander, where you thought, “Amazing, here he is.”

ALEXANDER:  The brief story about finding him is that the New York-based casting director, Susan Shopmaker, conspicuous by her absence here today, she and her staff fielded probably about 800 submissions from around the English speak — you know, famous actors.

ALEXANDER:  Young actors.  I don’t know who they are.  But famous actors submitted by their agents to anybody anywhere who can just tape himself at home, upload it, and press send.  But it’s our duty to look at all of them.  So out of those 800, I maybe watched, I don’t know, 50, 60, 70.  Something like that.  We didn’t find whom we were looking for.  And then finally, it just came time to do something as other auditions were still trickling in to call up the schools where I actually was gonna be shooting, ask the drama teachers, “You have any students who might want to audition for a movie?”

And at Deerfield, they picked up the phone.  And the lady said, “Yeah, we have some actors who might want to audition.”  And I picked up two actors.  One guy with two or three lines, and the lead of the damn film.  Dominic Sessa who had never acted in film or television before.  He was a star in the drama department.  But was obviously very talented.  And he had the right hair.  If he hadn’t had the right hair, he might not have gotten the part as easily.  What, he’s gonna put a wig on the guy for the whole movie?

So, and then it wasn’t the first audition.  It took about five or six.  I mean, first he didn’t look like the character that David and I had more or less, in our respective eyes’ minds, imagined.  He felt a little too old for the part, quite frankly.  But he just evinced in successive auditions such talent, and emotional intelligence, and life experience that he could bring to the part.  And then I got Paul Giamatti involved, and he said this guy’s, you know, Paul was really rooting for him.

And then finally in maybe the fifth or sixth audition, I got them together on Zoom.  Not that I have ever relied on what they call “chemistry reads,” which you people in TV do.  Chemistry reads.  But I just kinda wanted to see the degree to which Paul naturally would be having kind of a mentor-protégé relationship with him, both on-camera and off.  Off meaning helping, you know, with acting tips and to be comfortable in front of the camera with all the machinery and everything.  And the good news is that Dominic kinda didn’t need much help.

He took to it like a duck to water.  And I’ve never seen such innate talent.  Not just for acting, but for film acting.  You know, technically as he showed.  It was pretty amazing to watch.  And it got to the point too where, like with Paul, I didn’t have to say much to him, you know.  And also, he was playing a version of himself.  It’s quite remarkable that in his first big film role, here’s an actual senior at an elite New England boarding school playing a junior at an elite New England boarding school.

DAVID:  Yeah.  You nailed it.  I mean, I think, you know, having seen the character in my mind’s eye as AP says, and, like, he did too, I think we had a kind of similar conception.  He’s got this sort of natural grace to him, you know?  I’m a big fan of the painter, Caravaggio.  And he kinda looks like this sort of Caravaggio angel, but slightly broken.  Kinda like there’s a intensity to him, but also a beauty to him, you know?  And it just translates organic.  And like he said, in terms of being a natural film actor, I’ve seen a lot of actors audition.

DAVID:  Maybe a thousand actors in my life just for television.  And, like, I’ve never seen anybody sit down in front of a camera, like not immediately spike the lens, not immediately looking at, “Ah,” you know, like that.  Like just graceful and natural, and no artifice in a way that I never encountered, you know?

Q :  Yeah, and impressive that someone so brand new was so revealing.  It was remarkable.  I thought for sure that this is just an actor I didn’t know about yet.  

DAVID:  Yeah, and totally comfortable.  That’s the weird thing.  He seems comfortable.  Like you’re not watching the film, you’re watching a window into his life.  And that’s the hardest thing.  And he just did it.

ALEXANDER:  Well, he hands — I can’t say bad words here, but he has that lens-F’er —

DAVID:  Yeah.

ALEXANDER:  — ability to, like, the big film actors, they might lie to people in real life, but they tell the camera things that they don’t tell anyone else.  They reveal themselves more to the camera than they almost do to anyone, to any living human.  And I think he might have that.  God help him.

DAVID:  There’s a scene late in the second act that I won’t reveal, but a scene late in the second act that’s sort of a big monologue for him.  And it’s a very, very close tight shot.

DAVID:  And Alexander, I think, you know, he shot it, I think it’s like one of the early takes, this kid —

ALEXANDER:  Take one.  Take one.

DAVID:  Okay.  This kid delivers this incredibly heartfelt moment in a way that is so real, it just breaks your heart.  And I remember watching it on the dailies and going like, “Oh my god, that’s the first take.”  I mean, this kid’s amazing.

ALEXANDER:  He’s amazing.

WENDY:  Yes.  We were all crying on set.

Q :  I mean, speaking of takes, Alexander, were you gonna add to that?  

ALEXANDER:  No.

Q :  Great.  [laugh] Then Kevin, I wanted to ask you, can you convey to us the wonder of having all of these takes of the great Da’Vine Joy Randolph? 

KEVIN:  Oh.  You mean, oh, yeah.  Well, you know, I was just watching the film again last night.  Her face is so expressive.  Like, even not dialogue, she just has this great presence, and it’s so weighted when you cut to a closeup of her.  And even in the beginning, I was so moved.  I hadn’t seen the movie since January, I think.  So it was really fun to watch it again.  And I was just blown away by some of her moments.  And plus, she’s a lot of fun.  She’s funny.  She’s a great character.  And heartbreaking.  Just, these guys did such a great job.  And the script is so good.  Because — sorry, I’m just rambling.

KEVIN:  But, like, you don’t know the importance of the hat box.  It’s planted.  The seeds are planted.  But when she opens up that box, I heard the audience last night just go, [makes noise].  You know, it just takes your breath away.  And kudos to you guys for that.  But she does such a wonderful job there too.  So she’s just rock-solid.

ALEXANDER:  Garden-variety setup, payoff.  You know.

KEVIN:  Well —

DAVID:  The mystery box.  The mystery box.

KEVIN:  Yeah, but, well, it’s done so subtly, you don’t even know you’re getting a setup.  And then, you know, when she yells off to Tom, you know, to “Be careful with the box,” it’s just another seeds planted so that it’s alive, so it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

KEVIN:  You guys did a good job with a lot of that stuff.

The Holdovers, Devive joy Randolph@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q :  That’s true because there are more than a couple moments in the movie that are set up, and the payoff is exceptional.  And that’s one of them.  ‘Cause I thought I knew what was in the hat box, but I did not.  

KEVIN:  Right.

ALEXANDER:  I think it was a hat.  [laugh]

Q :  I’m ashamed to say that’s — 

ALEXANDER:  Really fantastic hat.  Really fantastic hat.

Q :  I mean, I assumed that it would be like her son’s hat from service, perhaps, like because we saw his uniform in the closet and, but what y’all cooked up, that’s why you’re the filmmakers.  There you go. I wanted to talk to you, ask you, Wendy, about working with Alexander over the years.  Because certainly, like this, there are throughlines through the movies in the way that I think audiences feel about them and the emotions that they evoke.  But has there been an evolution in working with Alexander that you can share with us?  

WENDY:  Mm.

MALE:  Hm.

WENDY:  Mm.  That’s an interesting one.

ALEXANDER:  Keep it clean.

WENDY:  [laugh] I just think our collaborations get easier and sweeter, and we get to understand each other more. And we just elaborate on our dialogue whether it’s verbal or non-verbal.  And it’s one of the best relationships I’ve ever had in my life.  So I am ever grateful for that.  I mean, he has gifted me my career here in the States, so.  And it’s many branches thereof.  So I’m grateful, and I love him like a friend and colleague.

ALEXANDER:  Just to be clear, we’ve been working together since 1997.  Since Election.  Everything I’ve done has been with her.  With Wendy.

WENDY:  Yes, yes.

Q :  And was there ever a moment in this particular collaboration, Wendy, that if he saw a costume that he asked you for a change-out, or that like to modify something, a tweak? 

WENDY:  Yes.  Yes, and that’s his right and his vision.  And often it’s for the best.  Yes.

ALEXANDER:  You said “often,” not “always.”

DAVID:  [laugh]

ALEXANDER:  I caught that.

Q :  What was it?  You have Paul Giamatti in an orange, like, velvet [indiscernible] some point?  Like, what was it?  Was there something specific that comes to mind?  

WENDY:  Miss Crane’s dress at the Christmas party.  Alexander did not like the color.  But I persevered.

WENDY:  [laugh] I didn’t have a lot of options to offer.  So I think it worked out.  And I think it suits her and her personality, so I’m happy with that.

ALEXANDER:  The yellow top, you mean?

WENDY:  Yeah, it’s a whole dress.

ALEXANDER:  Oh, okay.

WENDY:  Yeah, it’s —

ALEXANDER:  Whatever.

WENDY:  Yeah. [laugh]

Q :  Mark, also as one of Alexander’s frequent collaborators, is there anything that you’d like to add to that as far as, you know, working with Alexander over the years?

MARK:  Well, yeah, I’d say we’ve worked on two projects.  So the other one was Nebraska.  That came from a very different place because our whole relationship here developed out of what we call temp love.  A bunch of my music had been temped into early edits of the film and it kind of stuck.  And we got in touch through Richard Ford, who also co-produced the music for this film with me and is Alexander’s longtime music editor, probably also going back to Election, right?

ALEXANDER:  Mm-hmm.  Yep.

MARK:  Yeah.  And so it was a very different feel on that film in that I already had my template built around my own material coming into it.  With this one, I would say we were starting from scratch.  It’s a different feel that way.  Alexander encourages me to kind of build out music even ahead of looking at picture.  Not exactly doing some kind of orchestral suite for this one, but more sort of song, early ’70s stuff, the stuff that he was more or less drawn to from that kind of sound, at least at the root of the cues.

MARK:  And yeah, it’s a singular pleasure to work with him also because he’s a musician himself.  He’s the only director that has called out, “Is that a minor 7 chord when you go to that thing there?”  I mean, he’s got some next level [laugh] intel on the music side.  And also really knows what he wants out of the music, which is great for me.  There’s specific directives because of that, and yeah.

Q :  So Ryan, as I understand it, this is your first time collaborating where it made it to the screen. And can you talk about that research process and, you know, interacting with Alexander about what you found?

RYAN:  Yes, yes.  We had prepped one other film together and traveled the world for a few months together and became, you know, fast friends on that.  And so yeah, when he sent me this script, it was one of those things that I instantly fell in love with, of course, ’cause the script was so solid and funny and heartwarming.

And so my first thing to do is I make like a visual look book of research that I dive into just to make sure that visually we’re on the same page before we go and start scouting together.  And so that’s the first thing I do, and then share with him.  And he seemed to like, and so.  And then me and him are kind of the first guys there.  And we spend quite a bit of time together driving around and laughing together and meeting wonderful people in their homes and taking that in.

RYAN:  So that’s a lot of our research too, is just feeling out the environments that exist.  And if they offer something that we feel could work in the film, we spend a lot of time there and we spend a lot of time with the people that live there and take that in.  And I think me and him both really enjoy that part of the process, where it’s no other people around but me and him and a locations manager.  And from there, that’s when we start building the world and piecing together the puzzle pieces. But I do feel like that’s one of the most enjoyable parts for me is where me and him get that time together.  Because once we start shooting, I’m running ahead of him.  So that early part is really crucial ’cause that’s where we build what it’s gonna look like together.

ALEXANDER:  I wanna add too something about the importance of location scouting, which is, once I’m in the filmmaking, once we have financing, my two favorite parts of filmmaking are location scouting and editing. And location scouting is not just finding the right locations for the time period and for the characters.  You know, the dwelling of the characters, the office of the characters says a lot about the characters, so it’s all character work.  But it really helps me get to know the community in which I’m shooting.  You know, we’ll maybe see 20 places for one place that makes it to the screen.  But we’re also meeting the location owners, and I’m getting a sense of people in that area and gently weaving myself, even superficially, into the fabric of the community a little bit.

And all of that shows up later in the rhythm of what I want to do in the movie.  And it was very important here ’cause I really didn’t know from Massachusetts.  I had been there but had never spent much time there.  And then a dozen years ago when we made The Descendants, getting to know that world in Hawaii.  Even Nebraska.  You know, I’m from Omaha.  I’m not from those rural areas.  But location scouting is a deeply rewarding period, I feel.

RYAN:  And you’ve found actors that way too, haven’t you?

ALEXANDER:  Oh, yeah.

RYAN:  A good example in this movie would be —

ALEXANDER:  The liquor store guy.

RYAN:  — liquor store, yeah.

ALEXANDER:  Yeah, Joe Howell.

Q :  It doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that location is that important to you because I think that that is absolutely reflected in all of your movies, Alexander.  Can you talk specifically about what interested you in this part of New England since you were unfamiliar with it before?

ALEXANDER:  Well, we had the screenplay.  We knew it took place in New England.  I thought we would scour Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire to just find the best. But pretty soon I was told because of the tax incentives, “Just stay in Massachusetts.” So, all right.  And [laugh] so we limited it to Massachusetts, which turned out to be fine.  And there were so many kind of unsung players.  Ryan and I had an exquisite locations Zarina [phonetic] named Kai Quinlan, K-a-i, Quinlan.  And she’s a location manager, but not of the type anymore who’s gonna chip a nail putting out a cone at 4:30 in the morning.

She’s only there to interpret the script in terms of locations and help people like us from out of state to readily find those places.  She’s become like a locations’ artist.  And once the film has been scouted, she moves on and does something else.  I’d never seen that before.  And she really, really helped us figure out this film.  Now, on the one hand, it was nice to make a period film in New England, in Massachusetts specifically, because often change comes slowly.

And we were able to find many locations, which pretty much as they fell off the truck were, you know, the candlepin bowling alley and the cafe where Ms. Crane works.  They’re as is, kind of locked in time from the ’40s or ’50s.

DAVID:  And what’s crazy cool about it too is I’m from Connecticut, yeah?  So like, I originally conceived of this, you know, in Massachusetts ’cause I used to love to go up and run cross country at these gorgeous prep schools and get out of my prep school in Connecticut.  But I gotta say, being from New England, and we talk about New England generally as New England culture, Massachusetts culture in particular, I think people from Massachusetts should see this movie, see this movie people from Massachusetts.

 ‘Cause you’ll see the specific Massachusetts culture that I was — look, I’m Connecticut born, New Haven born, born and bred, right?  I got up to Massachusetts, I’m like, this is completely different.  I was like, this culture is totally specific to Massachusetts.  And Alexander spent months there, and he managed to absorb and communicate that, Alexander and Ryan.  Like, I was blown away at the specificity and the granularity of it.  Really, it’s an incredible portrait of a place, you know?

The Holdovers, Paul Giamatti@Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Q :  Agreed.

ALEXANDER:  And all those states are so dinky.

DAVID:  Yeah, we had dinky states.  Yeah.

ALEXANDER:  Yeah, we’re Westerners.  Like, Cherry County, Nebraska, is larger than Rhode Island.

Q :  Alexander, you used the word artist when you were talking about Kai.  And that actually leads perfectly into my last question.  I’d like everyone to address this one.  That quote in the film, it’s stunning from Picasso, “Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.”  And I wanted to ask you each if you could sort of encapsulate what you have done to remain an artist as you grew up.  David, let’s start with you since this is from your story. 

DAVID:  I’m so glad that didn’t come to me first. I quit my first career to do this.  So I always wanted to be a writer.  I think I was sort of in denial or in the closet with it.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  Like, I come from kind of a blue-collar family on my mom’s side and my father’s side too.  And my grandmother used to say to me, you know, like, “You’re too stupid to be a doctor, so you should be a lawyer.”  I’m like, that’s right.  She’s right, I am too stupid to be a doctor.  So I became an attorney.  And to remain an artist, I quit my job to do this because it was an inevitability to it.  I mean, I love it.  I listen to the voices in my head all the time.  My wife is constantly catching me walking through the house talking to myself.

And it’s lucky that I don’t get dragged away and medicated.  But instead, I put it on the page.  So, I mean, for me, it’s just about being as true to yourself as you possibly can and not being afraid to express it because we edit ourselves so much.  And I think that’s the key thing.  So, I mean, you know, I’ve been very blessed and very lucky to do what I love for a living, you know.

Q :  Kevin, did that spark anything for you as he was talking?

KEVIN:  Well, you know, editing is just such a wonderful profession, and I love doing it. And I mean, it’s a craft, it’s like making beautiful furniture or something like that, but I like to think that I’m always pushing myself and pushing Alexander and he’s pushing me to make beautiful things and to make things artistic.  So I don’t know if that answers that question, but —

Q :  But it’s a lovely thing to say about a job that you love, right?

KEVIN:  It is.  It’s a great job.  I mean, these are all great jobs.  I think all of us are here because we love what we do and we love working on great projects and working with great people, so you can’t ask for anything better than that.

ALEXANDER:  I wanna say too because you talked about editing as being a craft and an art, what’s nice about experience and now that we’re over 40 is it’s so nice when you begin to, I hate to say master craft as though we ever master anything, we’re always students, but at least have enough experience in craft that you stop thinking about craft and just think about the stuff that you’re expressing.  Just think about the humanity, the humor, the whatever.  And like, that’s what you’re thinking about.  And the craft is, like, beneath your feet, but while you’re looking at something else.

Q :  Yeah, being truly present. Mark, does anything come to mind for you as to how you sort of retain that artist inside?

MARK:  Yeah, a couple of things real specific to this film.  So, you know, I grew up with a dad who was a conductor, and he was certainly a big inspiration, a composer too.  But again, as a kid, I idolized my older brother.  And he kind of planted the seed in me just by proxy with his LP collection, which I coveted as much as he had — I lived vicariously through it.  And those were all the kind of bands I got into young and was covering.

So I got to revisit some of that, actually, within this film again.  The other side of it for me was I grew up on the East Coast as well.  And I actually haven’t told David this, but I lived in Sunderland and South Amherst.

DAVID:  Oh yeah?

MARK:  And Deerfield.  Used to go up by the candle company and all of that, the book mill, and all those places.  So one of the real pleasures for me with this, and it’s tapping into true nostalgia for me, was scoring some of the montage scenes when they’re driving around that area of New England, which I did in my, you know, kind of late teens, early 20s. I love that part of the world.  I nearly moved to Great Barrington about 15 years ago, and then Portland ended up sticking and I’m up in Oregon.  But anyway, so yeah, directly with this film, it’s really fun to tap into some of that nostalgia for me.

Q :  And Wendy, what about you?  Keeping that artist alive.

WENDY:  I don’t know any other way of being, really.  I feel very fortunate that my parents supported my want and desire to go to art school and didn’t force me to become a nurse like my mother wanted.

WENDY:  They let me be and let me go.  And I think I’ve just incorporated an artistic view in everything I do.  I think it just becomes second nature.  I don’t think I’ve intended anything or wanted to be something in particular.  I don’t know that I even ever really desired or positioned myself into want or need to be a costume designer.  It kind of came out of me by osmosis and relationships to other people and following a passion per se. But I keep it alive in all sorts of ways.  I mean, yeah.

Q:   Certainly.  So many different channels.  And Ryan, what about you?  Like, just in keeping that artist alive since you were a little kid, little Ryan.

RYAN:  Yes, little Ryan.  He didn’t really like school much.  He loved art classes, and that was it.  Like, everything else was difficult.  And looking back, it’s very interesting because all my memories are color coded. Like, so now I have a job where I put color with emotion, which comes very natural to me.  So it’s been able to come and be — I didn’t know what to do with that when I was younger.  It was confusing.  But now as somewhat of a man, I guess [laugh] —

WENDY:  An adult [indiscernible]. [laugh]

RYAN:  — I have a great place to put that now.  And so that comes real natural to me.  And I also have two young children.  So in between projects, they keep me very creative, and I’m able to live through them as well and keep that alive.

Q :  How about you, Alexander?  How have you over the years just kept the fire burning inside yourself?

ALEXANDER:  I think our number one job is just to remain open, to look around and just kind of keep the channels of what you see open and make associations.  And it’s what you learn in — I mean, I’ve never taken an improv acting class, but they teach you in improv acting, yes-and.  The other person says something, you go, “Yeah, and, and.” And also having kids, man.  My six-year-old held up just some stupid looking necklace the other day.  He goes, “Daddy, this is a magic necklace, and I can become a mermaid or a unicorn with it.”  And I go, “Oh yeah.  And with the unicorn, do you sprout the wings?”  “Yeah, but they’re not very big.”  And like, just yes and always in life.

Q :  I love it.  Everyone, make sure that you say yes to The Holdovers and then see it again.  How about that?

ALEXANDER:  And thank you for being such a lovely moderator today.

Q :  Aww.

ALEXANDER:  You know, really terrific.

WENDY:  Yes, you were great.

Q : You know what, it’s so easy when it’s a movie like this that I’m gonna be watching every Christmas for the rest of my life.  So thank you for that.

ALEXANDER:  Yes, I’m gonna hear that.

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles. 

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Nobuhiro Hosoki
Nobuhiro Hosokihttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Nobuhiro Hosoki grew up watching American films since he was a kid; he decided to go to the United States thanks to seeing the artistry of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange.” After graduating from film school, he worked as an assistant director on TV Tokyo’s program called "Morning Satellite" at the New York branch office but he didn’t give up on his interest in cinema. He became a film reporter for via Yahoo Japan News. In that role, he writes news articles, picks out headliners for Yahoo News, as well as interviewing Hollywood film directors, actors, and producers working in the domestic circuit in the USA. He also does production interviews for Japanese distributors of American films and for in-theater on-sale programs. He is now the editor-in-chief of Cinemadailyus.com while continuing his work for Japan.

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