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For Alexander Payne, ‘The Holdovers’ is not just a period film; it’s a 1970s time warp

Alexander Payne holds a hand to his head as he poses for a portrait.
“I’ve been trying to make ‘70s movies my whole career. Good, human, character-based stories,” says “The Holdovers” director Alexander Payne.
(Frankie Alduino / For The Times)
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“The Holdovers,” the new comedy-drama directed by Alexander Payne, is not just a movie that takes place in the early 1970s. From its earliest moments — the retro-style title cards for the companies that produced it; the scratches in the film and the pops in the audio; even the small print in the opening credits that says it was copyrighted in 1971 — the film feels like it is trying to transport its viewers back to the years in which it is set.

As Payne explained recently, these atmospheric touches are pieces of a larger effort to turn his motion picture into a sort of time machine. “It was a thought experiment I would say I gave to myself and my team,” he said. “We’re making a film set in the 1970s. What if we tried to make it look and feel as though it had been made in 1970?”

The film, which is Payne’s first directorial effort since 2017’s “Downsizing,” takes place at an elite boys’ boarding school in Massachusetts. There, during the school’s Christmas break, a dyspeptic teacher (played by Paul Giamatti) is assigned to watch over the handful of students who won’t be returning home for the holidays, including a talented but unruly pupil (Dominic Sessa) in his ancient civilizations class.

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Though the two start out as adversaries, they gradually come to an understanding and forge an ad-hoc family with the school’s head cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), all with their own heartbreaking reasons for remaining behind on campus.

At 62, Payne has a natural attachment to the 1970s as the era in which he came of age. But he also remembers that decade — starting around age 9, when he went to see Hal Ashby’s 1970 feature “The Landlord” — as a time when movies were more firmly committed to telling real stories about real people.

A young man and a woman listen to an older man speak and gesture in a scene from "The Holdovers."
Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti bond over the holiday break in “The Holdovers.”
(Seacia Pavao / Focus Features)

“I’ve been trying to make ‘70s movies my whole career,” Payne said on a visit to New York in October. “Good, human, character-based stories.” Thinking back on the celebrated films of that period, from “Five Easy Pieces” to “Breaking Away,” he said, “I grew up being taught they were commercial American movies.” They were “literate, human, interesting, ambiguous, disturbing — if they have sentimental effects, said effects are earned, not forced.”

In that sense, Payne said, “The Holdovers” is trying to take the idea of the period film “one step further”: not just to conjure up the mood of a bygone time, but to recapture a moviemaking sensibility that it pioneered.

For Payne, “The Holdovers” began even further in the past, with the 1935 French film “Merlusse.” Written and directed by Marcel Pagnol, it also told the story of a teacher tending to students at a boarding school, and though Payne saw it just once, at the Telluride Film Festival, it left a lasting impression on him.

A few years later, Payne was given a television pilot written by David Hemingson, the creator of ABC’s “Whiskey Cavalier” and a veteran writer for such shows as “Kitchen Confidential” and “How I Met Your Mother.” The pilot, too, was set at a boarding school, and though its present-day settings didn’t appeal to Payne, he saw the makings of a possible screenplay and a potential collaboration.

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“Like me, David likes stories in which people try to find ways to love one another despite the slots they’re placed in,” Payne said. They also connected over shared interests in filmmakers like Ashby and his 1973 movie “The Last Detail,” about two Navy sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) escorting a court-martialed seaman (Randy Quaid) to prison. “For my money, that is one of the greatest love stories,” Payne said.

Alexander Payne crosses his arms and sits on a stool for a portrait.
Director Alexander Payne usually writes his own screenplays, but for “The Holdovers” he collaborated with David Hemingson.

Though Payne has written most of the other films he’s directed — he won Academy Awards for the screenplays of “Sideways” (written with Jim Taylor) and “The Descendants” (written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) — he took a more supervisory role on “The Holdovers,” for which Hemingson has sole screenplay credit.

“He would run two, three, four different scenarios by me, and I would put the kibosh on him until we finally said, ‘Yes, this one,’ ” Payne noted.

Payne himself didn’t go to boarding school but, while growing up in Omaha, he attended a Jesuit preparatory high school that exposed him to uncompromising teachers like the one memorialized in “The Holdovers.”

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Naming a Latin teacher whom he’d studied with, Payne said, “He made kids cry in class, and then when you’d speak to him afterwards, he was just so sweet. But he was willing to allow himself to be disliked to uphold a centuries-old style of teaching.”

Perhaps as a result, Payne has retained a sharp, playful wit and a decent command of Latin. (When I prefaced a particular question in our conversation by saying, “Forgive me,” he immediately responded, “Ego te absolvo — you are forgiven.”)

Actor Da'Vine Joy Randolph and director Alexander Payne talk on the set of "The Holdovers."
Director Alexander Payne consults with Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set.
(Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

Payne said the role of the disgruntled teacher in “The Holdovers” was always intended for Paul Giamatti, the veteran character actor who gained widespread recognition for his comic turn in “Sideways.” (Payne went so far as to name the “Holdovers” character Paul and shot the film between Giamatti’s breaks on the Showtime series “Billions.”)

For the part of the head cook, Payne said he’d been eyeing Randolph, a breakout star of the blaxploitation biopic “Dolemite Is My Name.” “Eddie Murphy is great in that movie, but she also kind of steals it,” Payne said. “If she’s stealing every movie she’s in, then it’s time she should be a lead.”

Actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph had to turn to her father to get insights into the little-known comic she portrayed in Eddie Murphy’s ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

Nov. 12, 2019

But finding Sessa, who is making his debut as the student protagonist in “The Holdovers,” proved challenging. Payne said his casting director received more than 800 submissions to play the role but found Sessa — then a student at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts — only by reaching out to the drama departments at the schools where the film was being shot.

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When casting young actors, Payne said, “you don’t want them to be too slick and polished, so it’s hard to use star kids. And then when you want the real McCoy, do they have the chops to do it? This kid nailed it.”

As he got to know Sessa, Payne realized the “Holdovers” script was practically written for him. “He’s not just a student at a boarding school, but the script called for him to ice skate — he was a hockey player!” Payne said, his voice rising to an exaggerated level. “There was nothing that the screenplay wanted him to do that he couldn’t do. Jerk.”

Payne now has a canon of eight features he’s directed, including “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “Nebraska.” But he can often spend several years between projects, a result that he attributes to a lack of a development staff.

When it comes to finding new material for himself, Payne said, “I have no company, no office, it’s just me.”

“Big-boy directors and big-girl directors do that,” Payne said. “Scorsese, and — what’s his name — Spielberg have 30, 40, 50 scripts being developed for them at any one time, and they emerge from one film and look at the little field of scripts and see, well, which one is ready or nearly ready?”

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In his own case, Payne said, “I’ve maybe got three or four right now. None is quite ready to move from the back burner to the front burner. But I have started working more with other writers to kind of get the scripts up on their feet.”

His last film, “Downsizing,” a social satire starring Matt Damon as a man who chooses to be shrunk to a height of five inches, was a critical and commercial disappointment. Payne, who rewatched it recently, said it “was not as terrible as people thought” and might have been better suited as a limited TV series. “The film has different chapters, which are easily forgiven if not welcomed in a limited series,” he said. “In a feature film, people just felt a little bit jolted from one chapter to the next. There’s a way in which ‘Downsizing’ was 15 pounds of sausage in an 8-pound casing.”

Payne said he could understand if viewers felt misled by the marketing for “Downsizing,” which suggested a high-concept comedy when the film was more concerned with the emotional interests of its characters. “Oh, you’ve got this big premise, but you’re worried about, like, a lady with no leg and taking care of someone sick and helping her die?” he said. “And, like, yeah, I am.”

Payne said he was not necessarily looking to cleanse his palate of that experience — as he explained, “When you’re done with any movie, success or tanker, the only thing you’re thinking is: next!”

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What he went onto after “Downsizing” was a planned film, inspired by a magazine article by Karl Ove Knausgaard, in which that Norwegian author retraced the Vikings’ settlement of North America. That movie, which would have been made for Netflix and starred Mads Mikkelsen, was canceled just days before filming was to start in 2019.

“There was a disagreement between the production of the film and the novelist on whose nonfiction article the screenplay had been loosely based,” Payne said. He’d largely gotten over the collapse of that project, now four years in the rearview mirror, but he still occasionally speaks about it as if it were a fresh wound. “It happens to everybody,” he said. “It was my turn. It’s just my turn.”

The silver lining, Payne said, is that he might never have arrived at “The Holdovers” if not for that earlier setback.

“There’s the old adage that you can never tell a good thing from a bad thing because they’re always turning into each other,” he said. “Good things turn into bad, bad things turn good. So it all works out with a little elbow grease.”

Payne could not say for certain why such films as “The Holdovers” were becoming increasingly rare at theaters. More often these days, he said, “the human stories are on TV. I guess that that urge is being channeled, thank God, into series.”

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But this is a question that Payne wants viewers of “The Holdovers” to contemplate. He pointed to a scene in the film where Giamatti‘s and Sessa’s characters go to a movie theater to see “Little Big Man,” the 1970 western that starred Dustin Hoffman.

“The Holdovers,” Payne said, “is about the story it’s telling. But it’s also about cinema. You see people going into a movie and think, what is a movie now? What was a movie then? There is a discussion going on in the movie about movies.”

Even choosing to make Giamatti’s character a scholar of ancient history seems a way of showing reverence for the pop-cultural past and asking audiences to reflect on its importance. With a smile, Payne suggested that was not necessarily his intention. But, he said, “I’m going to use that.”

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