It’s hard to be away from home during the holidays.
Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne's new film, “The Holdovers,” opens in Boston on Friday, Nov. 3. The film, a 1970s period piece set over a winter break at a New England area prep school, focuses on the relationship between a cantankerous history teacher, Paul, his rebellious student, Angus, and the school’s head cook, Mary, who lost her son — a soldier recently killed in Vietnam.
“It’s a movie about three very different people flung together in an unlikely circumstance at a school,” said Payne in an interview with GBH's Executive Arts Editor and The Culture Show host Jared Bowen. “These three people, as I say, have pretty disparate backgrounds, but each is haunted by something. They never anticipated being alone together for two very snowy weeks at an empty school in New England. And it’s how they not just find common ground, but fall in love to some degree. It’s a little cheap to say, ‘oh, they form an unlikely family’, but I guess they form kind of an unlikely family.”
Paul Giamatti, who plays Paul, previously collaborated with Payne in his 2004 film “Sideways.” Payne emphasized how excited he was to reunite with Giamatti.
“[The film] was conceived with [Giamatti] in mind,” said the director. “We have a very good shared sense of the film we’re working on, the tone we’re shooting for… I couldn’t be luckier as a director.”
Payne, born and raised in Nebraska, was excited about the challenge of creating a period film in New England.
“It’s always very important for me to, as much as I can, understand and capture and reproduce a sense of place,” said Payne about his time in Massachusetts, where the film was shot. He spent five to six months location scouting, and because the film is a period piece, he said, "you wind up just visiting a lot of people’s houses. Through location scouting, I have found that one is able to even gently, superficially… weave oneself into the fabric of the local community.”
The film’s period setting was particularly important to Payne, himself a child of the 1970s. To him, the decade was a “very special time for American movies.”
“That’s the period in which I was a movie-crazy teenager… in the movies every week, seeing new movies and old movies whenever I could," Payne said. "And to a certain degree in my own career, I’ve been trying to make those movies… I’m still just interested in making human stories that could conceivably have happened in real life, not just in movies.”
Payne’s desire for a real and intimate story extended to the film’s casting process. Dominic Sessa, who plays Angus, was a student at Deerfield Academy, and was referred to the filmmakers by the school’s drama teacher.
“You want acting talent, acting skill and acting ability, but what you really want, particularly in film acting, is that you sense an interesting human being under there,” said Payne. “Because he’d never auditioned for anything before, he had thought it should be a performance of some sort. So, finally, we had to kind of beat him up a little bit… and say, ‘don’t try anything, don’t force anything’... and once he learned that, which didn’t take very long, then this film actor emerged.”
You can listen to the entire interview above. “The Holdovers” opens on Friday Nov. 3 in Boston and nationwide next week.