Acclaimed Greek-American director and screenwriter Alexander Payne presented his new film, The Holdovers, at a packed Olympion theater during the 64th Thessaloniki International Film Festival on Sunday, November 5th.
This is Payne’s first period film, set in the 1970s, and the first time that one of his characters speaks in the Ancient Greek language.
Welcoming the audience of the premiere in Greek, Payne said he has many memories of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival since 1996: “The Festival supported me from the very start, in my first film Citizen Ruth. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me in the first steps of my career. I think almost all my films were screened [at] this Festival. I’ve served twice as a jury member of the Festival and it was also a wonderful experience.”
In his conversation with the audience after the screening and a prior press conference, the two-time Oscar winning filmmaker offered insight into the creative process for The Holdovers from script to casting and production.
Asked whether his Greek origin constitutes a structural element in his work, Payne commented that the element of joyful sorrow retains a prominent place in his film almost like the Ancient Greek mask with which comedy and tragedy are intertwined and coexist.
Alexander Payne’s new film set in the 1970s
After seeing it again, The Holdovers is in easy contention for my favorite film of the year. Alexander Payne's latest is such an earnest, warm, and emotional film that I dare say might just be my new favorite of his. Please seek it out if it's near year. A new Christmas classic! pic.twitter.com/V06bSv6wMc
— Will Martinez 👻🎃 (@willmovies) November 4, 2023
Written by David Hemingson and starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa, The Holdovers was born out of an old film and a TV series, Payne told a press conference before the screening.
“The idea came about when I saw a relatively unknown French film from 1935 by Marcel Pagnol, twelve years ago, at a festival,” he recalled. “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,” Payne added. “So, I called up David Hemingson and asked if he would be interested in writing something for me.”
The Holdovers is only the second film by the Greek-American filmmaker. Though he was not involved in the actual writing of the script, he was involved in other ways.
As Payne had revealed at the opening event of the 2nd Evia Film Project last summer, the movie takes place in the ’70s at an all-boys boarding school in Massachusetts, “portraying a young boy who has lost his father and is forced to spend the Christmas holidays all alone, as his mother will go on a trip with her new and wealthy husband.”
The only other people to be found in the boarding school during Christmas are a rigorous and discipline-loving teacher, played by Paul Giamatti, and the Afro-American cook, who has just lost her son in Vietnam.
In the director’s words, the movie is a journey of self-discovery for the three characters, lingering between a comedy and a drama.
Casting The Holdovers‘ lead actors
The Holdovers marks Payne’s reunion with Paul Giamatti, the lead actor in his Oscar-winning film Sideways twenty years ago.
The role of the teacher in the new film was specifically written for Giamatti, the director affirms.
“He is the greatest actor,” he opined. “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.”
The film’s young protagonist, Dominic Sessa, on the other hand, was far more complicated to cast. In fact, he was spotted at the theater group of an actual boarding school, when conventional casting had failed to find a successful candidate for the role. Sessa is not only a newcomer to cinema but also a high school student in reality.
Payne believes 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,” he concluded. “However, I don’t want to have actors in their 20s pretending to be teenagers. I want real teenagers.”
As for Da’Vine Joy Randolph, in the role of the boarding school’s cook, the filmmaker had spotted her in an Eddie Murphy comedy, realizing that she would be perfect for the role.
The Holdovers was released for a limited theatrical release in the United States on October 27, 2023, and a wide release will follow on November 10th. The film is expected to premiere in movie theaters in Greece on January 24, 2024, a week after its UK release.