Alexander Payne’s bittersweet and hilarious Christmas movie The Holdovers has captured movie fans’ hearts this season. The 70’s ” period piece”, emotional without being sentimental, concerns the goings-on at Barton Academy, a New England boarding school during Christmas break. A few student stragglers are left behind with nowhere to go and become the responsibility of longsuffering teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti), Mary the cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and barebones staff. Dominic Sessa is Angus, an angry and disruptive student, and why not? Neither of his parents came to claim him. The group must try to keep everything on the straight and narrow, and maturely handle an uncomfortable situation for two whole weeks. Yeah, right. David Hemingson’s wonderfully witty dialogue trips trillingly off their tounges, as student and teacher wage war for dominance, the cook becomes therapist, they get on each other’s last nerves and finally discover their common bond. What She Said’ Anne Brodie attended a conference with Payne, Giamatti, Randolph, and newcomer Sessa.
Alexander, why did you set the film in 1970? There’s a way in which I’ve been trying to make 70’smovies, or an extension, a modern extension of 70’s movies my whole career. And for some reason, once the script was finished, and of course we had set it in 1970 preparing to direct it, at some moment I just thought, well, wouldn’t it be cool to kind of pull off a parlour trick of making it, to some degree, look and sound like a movie made back then? What sparked the film? The film was my idea, sort of. An idea I stole. So about a dozen years later, I had seen a somewhat obscure French movie by an otherwise well-known director of the period, Marcel Pagnol. A 1935 film called Merlusse. I saw it at a Film Festival. And it suggested the same. It had the same premise. Not the same story, but the same premise. And I left the movie thinking that’s a stealable premise.
Paul, what was your reaction to the character of Paul? The character was fantastic. I would do anything he wanted me to do. But I thought the story was great, the setting was great, and the characters were great. All the characters were great. And there was something so familiar about this stuff that I was excited to do it. Cause I had gone to a prep school. I’m bored there so I didn’t have that full experience, but I grew up around a lot of people like this. It’ll be fun. I can just pull on this deep well of all these memories. I thought he took a certain delicious pleasure in coming up with the most elaborate insults he could come up with. It was kind of a certain sort of free song for him that he could put somebody down in such an elaborate way. You know, he’s pleased with his own intelligence and playing around with his own intelligence. So that was really fun. It was a fun character.
Da’vine, Mary is such an empathetic character. She makes us smile and then breaks our hearts. Alex called me and described this beautiful character. I was given the script. And we kind of just walked through what his ideas were and what he thought this could potentially be. And I have to share this, to be honest. At the end of our first meeting, he was so kind and generous, and I’m just so grateful and continuously grateful that he even thought and considered me to be an option to do the project. ALEXANDER: I asked for you by name. DA’VINE: And at this point, I’m like, okay, well, this is just what my career is. It’s not intentional. When I did Dolemite, I never did anything with Eddie until the first day. I did chemistry reads with other actors. It just happened. So for some reason, I’m not meant to be in control or in the know, so I’m just going to roll with it.
Dominic, you are such a discovery. Where did they find you? I was in high school at Deerfield Academy, a rival school to Choate. I could feel the tension. I had just finished my fall play and went to a cast party. We were talking about the movie people coming to the school for locations. My teacher said they’re getting background people. I could sit at a desk. But it went better than that. For a movie, you don’t know what to expect. You meet the director and learn his language. It’s a different job, and you bear the responsibility to make it good. To make the director’s life easy.
Alexander – I like totally fresh faces as central characters. I didn’t know whether it was going to be a totally fresh face or experienced, I don’t watch contemporary movies so they are all equal in my sight. I just knew I’d know it when I saw it. We’d had 800 submissions by the time we found Dominic.
Is The Holdovers really an instant classic Christmas movie? DA’VINE: It’s about empathy. And then also I think too, a bit of it is, we have a lot of holiday movies that are wrapped in a really nice shiny red bow. Or maybe there’s like a third act, dun, dun, dun and that perfect end.
PAUL: It’s kind of classic. I mean, the Scrooge thing is in there. They’re all a little bit Scrooge though. They’ve all got to come to this place where something is going to be gotten over, something’s going to heal or connect about something. So that is in there. I feel like underneath all of it, there is a little bit of that classic Christmas story.
The Holdovers continues to entertain and break hearts in theatres.