One of the highlights of the 64th Thessaloniki International Film Festival was the premiere of Alexander Payne‘s latest film, The Holdovers. During his visit to the Evia Film Project last June, he gave us a brief insight into the film, which he was planning to bring to the festival. In our interview, he was full of praise for his leading man Paul Giamatti.

The film, which is set in a boys’ boarding school at Christmas in 1970, tells the story of a group of characters who, at a time so appropriate for family gatherings, find themselves out of place and have no choice but to reluctantly adapt to spending the holidays at school. Children whose parents are unable to attend, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cook who has lost her son in Vietnam, and Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the History teacher with a very peculiar personality. Christmas holidays are finally a journey of self-discovery at a critical point in their lives, described by Alexander Payne with tenderness and humor.

Prior to the public screening, which was to take place hours later in a packed Olympion, Payne held a press conference moderated by Yorgos Krassakopoulos, Festival’s Head of Programming, which was also a splendid masterclass by the director of Sideways. 

Asked about the genesis of his new film, the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker told us “The film was born out of an old film and a TV series. The idea came about when I saw a relatively unknown French film from 1935 by Marcel Pagnol [Merlusse], twelve years ago, at a festival. I thought that the premise was very good and could be the basis for a new film. I put it on my list of ideas for future projects, without doing anything, until five years ago when I read the proposed pilot by a screenwriter for a TV series set in a boarding school, a world I had no experience in. So, I called up David Hemingson and asked if he would be interested in writing something for me”.

The Holdlovers

Alexander Payne and Yorgos Krassakopoulos in the John Cassavetes Theater. Photo © Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

The Holdovers is only the second film by the Greek-American filmmaker, for which he has not been involved in writing the script. In response to whether he felt comfortable directing someone else’s script rather than his own, Payne commented that writing is a difficult and time-consuming process. “Let’s just say that this is my first film in which I’m directing another screenwriter’s work. I found the screenwriter and gave him the idea for the plot. Together we came up with the story; he showed me numerous drafts. I got involved in the script, although I don’t take credit for it. The result, however, had a personal touch for both of us, both for David Hemingson and me.”

As for the autobiographical aspects of the film, the director, who grew up in Omaha, stated “Once you have the skeleton of the story, you add the skeleton of the character, the sense of humor, the sense of drama, the sense of passion, the sense of how the story ends. That’s how the film becomes personal. You have to separate the personal from the autobiographical. This particular film was more autobiographical for David [Hemingson], who comes from that world, New England, and the boarding schools of that period. For me, it was personal only in terms of its sensitivity.”

The choice of the lead actor, a teenage student with family problems, was not an easy one, and it was a great opportunity for the lead actor, newcomer Dominic Sessa, chosen after considering hundreds of candidates. Sessa’s performance is outstanding,  especially as a partner for the immense Giamatti. Payne also reviewed the casting process. “The difficulty with casting youngsters, children or teenagers is that professionals from TV series or films seem overly ‘Hollywood.’ They certainly don’t look like real kids in a teenage film. However, I don’t want to have actors in their 20s pretending to be teenagers. I want real teenagers,” stated the director. “The casting director had looked at 800 candidates. I might have seen about 80. We didn’t like any of them. Then we contacted the schools where we were going to shoot and called the drama teachers. That’s when we spotted Dominic,” mentioned Payne.

The Holdovers

On his reunion with Paul Giamatti, the lead actor in the Oscar-winning film Sideways (2004), Alexander Payne clarified that the role was written specifically for him. “From the beginning,” the director said, speaking in Greek. “Absolutely from the beginning. The character is called Paul [Hunham]. I told the screenwriter from the start that we were writing a role specifically for Paul Giamatti. Then I called and told him we were working on something for him.” Regarding what Paul Giamatti brings to the film, Alexander Payne said: “He is the greatest actor. There is nothing he can’t do. It’s like giving a role to Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier. You’re curious to know what this great actor will do with the role. He really is that good.”

At least politically and socially, it’s hard to feel nostalgic for any particular period of time.

Many references to Greek culture and history appear in the film in a very organic way, considering that its protagonist is a History teacher. However, The Holdovers could also be interpreted as a commentary on modern society and the educational system “It’s the first film I’ve made where someone speaks in ancient Greek. I think the references to the poor who go to the war as opposed to the rich who don’t, reflect the present-day too. That was the case 50 years ago, that’s always the case. But I don’t think they necessarily constitute a commentary on today. It’s not even a commentary. It’s a recognition of a long-established situation.”

Speaking of period films and the nostalgia they convey for a bygone era, on the occasion of his film set in the 1970s, the filmmaker was clear: “When you open a camera, you put time in a capsule, you put time in a bottle. But politically, socially, and culturally, I don’t know how you can feel nostalgia. At least politically and socially, it’s hard to feel nostalgic for any particular period of time.”

One of the most celebrated moments of his talk was the advice that Alexander Payne gave to the Greek filmmakers “Make more comedies.” He even referred to comedies from the golden era of Greek cinema. “If you find people you want to collaborate with, try to keep them close to you as much as you can,” he added. In conclusion, Alexander Payne mentioned that his future plans include a film to be shot in Paris, in French, while he did not rule out a film in Greece if he could find a script that fascinates him.

In collaboration with Thessaloniki International Film Festival Press Office.