- Director-screenwriter-producer Alexander Payne and editor Kevin Tent, ACE reunite for their eighth feature film, “The Holdovers.”
- A period film with Payne’s characteristic tragi-comic elements starring regular actor Paul Giamatti, the comedy-drama is generating awards buzz.
- The film marks one of the few occasions where Payne has not worked from his own script, although Tent says this made no difference to his craft approach.
- The film’s 1970 setting is evoked with needle drops of classic tracks by The Allman Brothers Band, The Temptations and The Swingle Singers, among others.
Longtime friends and collaborators, director-screenwriter-producer Alexander Payne and editor Kevin Tent, ACE reunite for their eighth feature film, comedy-drama The Holdovers, which has been generating awards buzz.
Set in 1970, The Holdovers tells the tale of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a curmudgeonly instructor at a New England prep school who remains on campus during Christmas break to babysit a handful of students with nowhere to go. He soon forms an unlikely bond with a brainy but damaged troublemaker, and also with the school’s head cook, a woman who just lost a son in the Vietnam War.
Since their first project together, Citizen Ruth in 1996, the duo has made Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants (for which Tent was nominated for an Academy Award), Nebraska and Downsizing. Payne was Oscar nominated for adapting the screenplays for Election, Sideways and The Descendants (winning twice) and nominated as best director for Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska.
A Character-Driven Period Drama
In keeping with these stories, The Holdovers is character-driven so don’t expect car chases, gunfights or explosions. “It is about people and the pain they carry in their lives and how opening oneself up to others around you can help relieve that pain and sometimes maybe even help you to grow,” describes The Rough Cut host Matt Feury, who talked with both Payne and Tent for the Avid-sponsored podcast.
Payne conceived the basic framework for the movie about a dozen years ago after watching a restoration of the 1935 French comedy Merlusse. About five years ago, he received a TV pilot out of the blue, which prompted him to call the writer, David Hemingson.
“I said, ‘Hey, you’ve written a great pilot. I don’t want to do it, but would you consider writing a story for me?’ That’s how it happened.”
The Holdovers is among the few occasions where Payne has not worked from his own script, although Tent says this made no difference to his craft approach.
“On The Descendants we really toned back the comedy because it felt a little forced, but here the tone kind of came prepackaged into the cutting room. Nothing ever seemed forced.”
Editing (Just Enough)
The Holdovers largely focuses on two or three main characters, which means that for an editor there aren’t a lot of places to hide when the director has shot long takes of dialogue and reaction.
“Sometimes it is tricky,” Tent agrees, “because Alexander gets amazing performances, but I think it is because he lets them take their time and find the lines properly.
“We try not to cut too much. It is a challenge to keep things moving, picking up the pace, but keeping the performances solid. We had some challenging scenes because we had a couple of fairly long talking scenes, and we’re trying to condense them as the film was evolving.”
He adds, “We tightened in a lot of the scenes to get to where the boys were leaving sooner. And we’re always doing that internally within scenes, dropping lines, that kind of stuff.
“But I think the screenplays really is so amazing. Just the reveal of Paul, as you dig deeper into Paul, you find out so late in the movie that he basically ran away from home, and then you find out that his dad beat them. Normally, people try to set all those things up right in the beginning, and I really appreciated the way things were slowly revealed here.”
Additionally, Tent tells A.Frame, “We’re pretty careful about not getting anything too sentimental or too sappy.”
How do they achieve that? Tent says, “It’s really a discipline in how we’re cutting the performances, I would say. So, if it doesn’t seem like it’s ringing true, then we would probably cut it out.”
Tent put it another way to Academy Conversations: “We did what we always did, … really let performances drive our decisions in the cutting room.”
Evocative Needle Drops
The film’s 1970 setting is evoked with needle drops of classic tracks by The Allman Brothers Band, The Temptations and The Swingle Singers, among others.
“Mindy Elliot, our associate editor and assistant editor, started putting music in and then we work with music editor Richard Ford, who helped us with both score and needle drops,” Tent says.
“With needle drops you can’t get too committed to anything because it costs so much money and it’s just such a back and forth with [licensing]. But in the beginning on this movie, I couldn’t really hear the music in it. Mindy suggested putting in one of the Swingle Singers’ Christmas songs and that became something dramatic that we use a lot, which was great.”
Tent also talked about the use of dissolves, a signature Payne-Tent storytelling technique.
“We use a lot of them in The Holdovers, but we’ve always used them. It’s been part of our film language all the way back to Citizen Ruth. There’s a couple of really interesting ones in The Holdovers. I think that actually people thought were mistakes at first, and we’re like, ‘No, we did that on purpose.’”
Tent explains to A.Frame, “[W]e’re doing the same things that we’ve always done. But people think the dissolves now are because we’re trying to make it a ’70s film, but not really. We always used them.”
But unlike Sideways, he notes, “there was not a lot of predesigned dissolves.” Instead, “they were all made up in post. But they’re very effective, and I think they smooth out cuts and stuff like that.”
READ MORE: ‘The Holdovers’ Editor Kevin Tent Talks Being in the Cutting Room With Alexander Payne (A.Frame)
With Jami Philbrick at Moviefone, Payne elaborates on the 1970s setting: “I don’t remember exactly the moment, but connecting the dots, I thought it would be neat for the movie, to just give it something special. Nebraska’s in black and white, which just gives it something a little special formally. I just thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it give this movie something special if we make it look and sound like a movie made in 1970.’
“But what it did, especially as my first period film, was give us the idea that we’re pretending that we’re working in 1970 making a low-budget contemporary film at that point. I think that helped our sense of aesthetic, that the sets and the costumes look as lived in, grimy and old as they would’ve been had we been making just a low budget contemporary movie back then.”
He adds, “I always put a lot of thought into the movies in terms of what car the protagonist drives. It’s always an important thing to think about. It tells you as much about the character as their apartment does. The good ones, I think, were Paul Giamatti’s red Saab in Sideways. Then the best one is Matthew Broderick’s Ford Festiva, a little teeny tiny pathetic Ford Festiva in Election.”
Seventies movies were formative for the 62-year old filmmaker, as he recounts to Jake Coyle reporting for AP News. Payne screened several classics for crew and cast including The Graduate, The Last Detail, Paper Moon, Harold and Maude and Klute.
“We weren’t trying to consciously emulate the look and feel of any single one of those films but we all wanted to splash around in the films of our contemporaries, had we been making a movie then.
“My birthday parties, we’d go see Chinatown or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But that’s the period when I was a teenager and a sense of taste was being imprinted on me. And what I was told was a commercial American feature film. Now they’re considered art films or whatever, the last golden age. Well, you never know when you’re living in a golden age.”