Alexander Payne realised one of his ambitions as a film director when he embraced 1970s, New Hollywood cinema for The Holdovers. By Chris Cotonou.

The Holdovers director Alexander Payne on going back to the ’70s

Writer-director Alexander Payne
Writer-director Alexander Payne
Credit: Ambra Vernuccio

Laughter is pouring from the other side of the door – lots of it. Alexander Payne pops his head out of his hotel room, his slim frame moving with an energetic vim, and asks his publicist to wait a moment. He’ll be “done in a second”.

Minutes pass. When it’s my turn to walk into his room at the fashionable Soho Hotel, at the close of the London Film Festival, I’m greeted with the same endearing politeness: “Please take a seat,” Payne says, briskly pacing up and down the room barefoot. “What’s your name, and what kind of water do you want? Still or sparkling?”

Payne is in town to present his eighth feature, The Holdovers, a film so wholesome watching it feels like a warming soup on a cold night. We follow a smart but belligerent young man, Angus (Dominic Sessa), who is forced to stay behind at his boarding school over Christmas in 1970. His only company is his curmudgeonly history teacher (a scathingly witty Paul Giamatti), who is tasked with watching over him, and the kindly school cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is recovering from the death of her son. Bonding ensues.

The Holdovers is a future Christmas classic; shot around snowy campuses, small-town diners lined with tinsel and the streets of Boston, where the characters indulge in festive dinners, ice skate and shop for vintage books. The holiday setting is a way to bring people from disparate backgrounds together, to discover in one another unexpected family. As with so much of Payne’s work, there’s an eccentricity and warmth at odds with his characters’ underlying trauma.

The concept came to Payne one evening while he was watching French maestro Marcel Pagnol’s film Merlusse (1935). “I don’t think it’s Pagnol’s best,” Payne admits, “but it had a very good premise.”

He sat on a contemporary version until five years ago, when writer and producer David Hemingson submitted a script for a television pilot set at a boarding school – drawn from his own experiences, but still fitting with the themes in Merlusse. “I called up David and told him I wouldn’t do the TV series. But I asked if he’d consider writing it for a film.”

The world of WASPy New England boarding schools is nothing like the one Payne was brought up in, as the son of second-generation Greek–American restaurateurs in Omaha, Nebraska. So, he tells me, his focus in making The Holdovers was on simply serving Hemingson’s script. When I ask him about the father–son dynamic that develops between the main male characters, he says any biographical or hidden meanings in the narrative are for the writer to explain.

“It’s not a world I grew up in,” he says, “but I can still observe.” Parenting and teaching themes dominate many of his previous movies, such as The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013) and the 1999 film that earned Payne his first Oscar nomination – for Best Adapted Screenplay – Election.

“In Election and The Holdovers, there are teachers who espouse preposterous high ideals about how one should live,” he says. “And then they violate those ideals … for pernicious reasons in Election, which gives it a more cynical bite, and more heartwarming reasons in this movie.”

Payne took the 1970s setting of The Holdovers more than literally. On numerous occasions during my first viewing, I thought it resembled a Hal Ashby or Mike Nichols picture. The autumnal palettes, shooting techniques and folky soundtrack – even the vintage studio logo at the start – promised the soft, fuzzy aesthetic of New Hollywood cinema, with a light touch that is complicated by the narrative’s heavier themes. It’s the perfect way to bring Hemingson’s story to life, and to honour the movies Payne remembers from his adolescence; movies that taught him “what a commercial American film is”.

“I’ve always tried to continue making ’70s movies,” he explains, “but this was the first time I was directing a story set in the ’70s.” So the director tasked himself with trying something different. What if, Payne remembers asking himself before production, he made The Holdovers look and feel as though it had really been made in 1970, instead of coming off like a nostalgic homage?

“The big thing to get right is production design,” he says. “Too many period pieces try to rub your face in stuff from that time: look at this haircut, this retro wallpaper … but it takes the audience out of the movie. I really didn’t want to do that. It doesn’t feel natural.”

Anyone who has watched Michael Mann’s Ferrari, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, or other period films from 2023, can understand the style he is speaking about: that striving for authenticity through props, haircuts and decor without actually looking authentic. It’s the kind of sheen common to popular streaming entertainment such as The Crown, which conveys nostalgia through caricature, and Payne was wary of it throughout the production process. “A lot of period films try to make things look too shiny,” he says. “The past was never like that. That’s an idealisation. If anything, those days were dirtier.”

The vintage cars he hired for The Holdovers, Payne tells me, were purposefully flecked with mud. The Boston streets he blocked off for shooting look and feel grimy and lived-in, and the characters’ clothes, in their muted, brown-grey tones, seem weighty and moth-bitten. Everything about his painstaking re-creation of the era is as he remembers it.

But praise of the film seems to embarrass Payne. He mentions the applause following a screening of The Holdovers he attended the night before, as though, after decades of making critically acclaimed cinema, he still can’t work out why people like his movies: “To see that kind of reaction when the credits rolled…” he says, “man, it felt good.”

Payne’s relief at a warm reception seems surprising, given he remains one of the few established American directors who – since his first feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), with Laura Dern as a pregnant addict caught up in a national debate over abortion – has consistently attracted surprise and acclaim from both audiences and critics. But his filmmaking has not achieved the wider, mainstream credibility some might expect for his body of work. Experimentation in his films hasn’t always gone down smoothly: his previous film, the quirky 2017 comedy Downsizing, received mixed reviews – with Richard Brody writing in The New Yorker, “there are three movies in one: a passable one, a terrific one, and a terrible one”. And, beyond his filmography, in 2020 actress Rose McGowan identified him as the subject of a previous allegation of statutory rape that she had made in an interview with journalist Ronan Farrow, referring to an encounter when she was 15 years old. Payne publicly denied her accusation in a Deadline column, and commended her activism.

Payne sounds jaded with Hollywood, and tells me he is apathetic about the state of the American movie industry. “I never changed; cinema changed,” he says. “Now they [Hollywood] make all this crap. There used to be a real pride in the work that was being made. It was smart and brave.”

Perhaps Payne is an artist outside of his time. “There are two golden eras I would love to have worked in as a filmmaker,” he explains. “The first is in the 1920s as a comedy director, working with Hal Roach. With The Holdovers I got to live another one of my wishes. I was playing the part of an active adult director in the ’70s.”

Whatever Payne’s feelings are towards Hollywood, his latest work is reaping accolades, with a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Musical or Comedy film category, and wins for both Giamatti and Randolph.

For a director who has worked with stars as big as George Clooney and Jack Nicholson, it’s perhaps surprising Payne remains based in his home town of Omaha. “My mother is 100 and my two older brothers are dead. So it’s all up to me right now to provide,” he reflects. “I’m Greek,” he shrugs. “We’re momma’s boys.”

Payne’s surname was anglicised by his grandparents from Papadopoulos when they immigrated to the United States. When he realises my surname is also Greek, he starts dropping into the familiar diasporic-patois that marries Greek and English words.

The motherland is very much on the filmmaker’s mind – he got dual citizenship in 2022, and he tells me he is reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s sweeping 1958 travelogue Mani, set in the neo-Spartan peninsula of the southern Peloponnese. His daughter, he beams proudly, is studying in Athens and Payne visits her frequently.

He also mentions his long relationship with the popular Thessaloniki Film Festival. The organisers tend to drop the American from Greek American when they discuss him – a hard-fought acceptance that extends only to the most successful figures in the Hellenic diaspora, such as John Cassavetes and George Michael.

“I remember when I premiered Nebraska at the festival in Greece,” he tells me, “everyone kept saying that it was a very Greek film – and that film is so fuckin’ American! But I guess it explains that feeling of returning to your small village and how we Greeks are burdened with coming home to look after our crazy parents.”

At that point, incredibly, my mother, Maria, calls my phone. “You see?” Payne laughs, as my face reddens. “Crazy Greek parents.”

Apart from reconnecting with his roots, getting his Greek citizenship was a practical choice for Payne. When I ask what he plans on doing next, he says he is looking to work in Europe in the future. “It’s nice to be a Greek, but I’m more interested in having that access to EU citizenship so I can get state funding to make films in Europe,” he explains. “I want to start making films in many countries and in different languages; even in languages that I don’t speak.”

When it comes to his adopted homeland, he’s still waiting on the right script and idea. But in the meantime, he aims to make a movie in Paris, and in French. Shooting starts very soon, but that’s all he can say right now. “I’m also in talks about making a movie in Denmark, and in the Danish language,” he says, as though teasing a globetrotting checklist. This is Payne’s new chapter – a departure from Hollywood and from an industry he feels is not in sync with his vision; a vision that is inspired by his nostalgia for a time when the American Film meant something very different. When it meant movies like The Holdovers.

His achievements at the Golden Globes may well be followed by Academy Award recognition, but Payne has embarked on a new path and his heart is set on leaving Hollywood behind. “The world is mine to explore,” he tells me, finally, “and cinema is my marvellous magic carpet.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "Old-school style".

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