From the inside out

Wendy Chuck on Alexander Payne’s multiple Golden Globe-nominated The Holdovers

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alexander Payne’s Golden Globe-nominated The Holdovers, costumes by Wendy Chuck, stars Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti (Golden Globe nomination), and Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Golden Globe nomination)
Alexander Payne’s Golden Globe-nominated The Holdovers, costumes by Wendy Chuck, stars Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti (Golden Globe nomination), and Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Golden Globe nomination)

In the first installment with Wendy Chuck, Alexander Payne’s longtime, brilliant costume designer (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska, Downsizing, plus Tom McCarthy’s multiple Oscar-winning Spotlight, screenplay with Josh Singer; Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight, and Michael Blakemore’s last film Country Life), we discussed her most recent Payne film, the intricately layered The Holdovers (screenplay by David Hemingson), dressing the stars Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph and the terrific supporting cast of Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Naheem Garcia, Darby Lee-Stack, Andrew Garman, Stephen Thorne, and Gillian Vigman.

Wendy Chuck with Anne-Katrin Titze on Alexander Payne: “You know Alexander, he wants everything as authentic as it possibly can be.”
Wendy Chuck with Anne-Katrin Titze on Alexander Payne: “You know Alexander, he wants everything as authentic as it possibly can be.”

We started out with the costumes for Martin Scorsese’s Killers Of The Flower Moon (Jacqueline West), Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things (Holly Waddington), and Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (Mark Bridges). We also touched upon Wendy dressing Isabelle Huppert for The Romanoffs series, the upcoming Lilo & Stitch (a live-action remake of Disney's 2002 animated movie directed by Dean Fleischer Camp), and the timeless appeal of Weejuns, Wallabees, and nurse’s shoes.

The Holdovers this past week received three Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, Best Performance by a Male Actor for Paul Giamatti, and Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture for Da'Vine Joy Randolph.

Barton Academy, a traditional all-boys boarding school in rural Massachusetts is preparing for the holiday break as the year 1970 is soon coming to an end. Snow is snowing, the choir is practicing, and the students are packing their bags for a visit home, vacations in the sun or on the slopes. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) can’t wait to get to St. Kitts in the Caribbean and taunts his classmates, among them an offensive fellow named Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) who will be one of a handful of holdovers doomed to stay put.

The teacher chosen, or rather condemned, to take care of them is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), expert in ancient civilizations, disliked throughout the school, with an eye condition and an odor problem he was born with. Giamatti’s performance when handing out spine-chilling grades (F+) marked on the blue books for their end-of-term finals, while gleefully whistling Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is unparalleled. So that the boys won’t starve, the head of the kitchen staff, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), will feed them. She recently lost her son, one of the few Black Barton alumni, in Vietnam.

Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) teaching class in the cognac-colored corduroy suit
Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) teaching class in the cognac-colored corduroy suit

The school’s stinginess knows no bounds, as the heat is cut in all faculty and student housing, with the holiday orphans being moved into the infirmary, there is also no more food to be delivered till the new year and even the Christmas tree is shipped back to town for reuse. Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), a local who works at the school and whose sunny demeanor not only stands in stark contrast to all the curmudgeons around her, but also feels genuine, invites those who stayed to her Christmas Eve party where Angus meets her niece Elise (Darby Lee-Stack). Hunham, despite the fact that he cannot even let Miss Crane enter his study when she brings him Christmas cookies, let alone do her the favor to let her know she has lipstick on her teeth, may develop feelings for her.

As the protagonists’ trajectories criss-cross, Wendy Chuck dresses them with great care and an eye for the truth, so that the choice of clothing often reveals something the characters are desperate to cover up, be it the gentle childish joy in a duffle coat, the obnoxiousness in too wide a shoulder, the devil in a handbag, or the wisdom folded in the drapes of cloth of the Virgin Mary.

From Los Angeles, Wendy Chuck joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Holdovers.

Mr. Hunham's Barton Academy students
Mr. Hunham's Barton Academy students

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, Wendy!

Wendy Chuck: Hello! It’s been a while!

AKT: Unshakeable Wendy I see on your screen!

WC: That’s my Kundalini!

AKT: It’s so nice to reconnect!

WC: Yeah! I read some of your other articles on other great movies. It’s a good year for movies, I think.

AKT: I agree. What else did you like?

WC: Poor Things I think is coming up as my favorite. Also American Fiction with Jeffrey Wright. I haven’t seen [costume designer] Mark Bridges’s Maestro yet. I’ve not seen Color Purple yet. Of course Killers of the Flower Moon is awesome. I think it’s masterful. I just saw those costumes. Actually I saw the costumes for both Killers of the Flower Moon and Poor Things last week and they’re just extraordinary, beautiful, super-creative.

Wendy Chuck on Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in a duffle coat: “We fitted Paul in New York and I had everything there that’s possible. He just gravitated to the duffle.”
Wendy Chuck on Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in a duffle coat: “We fitted Paul in New York and I had everything there that’s possible. He just gravitated to the duffle.”

AKT: I thought so too. The costumes for those two are exceptionally good. For costumes, too, I think, it was a really good year. And I’d include yours for The Holdovers. There are so many interesting details from the white wooly tights to one of the handbags. Before we get into that, on a more general note, did Alexander ask you to watch certain movies for the style, how did you do research?

WC: You know, the best research I found was in the yearbooks of the schools. I was able to contact the schools and the art department already had some because they were already scouting and got the yearbooks of the schools. That to me was the real gem of research for me because it’s real.

And you know Alexander, he wants everything as authentic as it possibly can be. He’ll always ask me, even at the Christmas party, well, find out what those intellectuals were wearing in western Massachusetts at the time! Where was I going to find photos of that? I didn’t know the film from the Thirties that inspired it to begin with.

AKT: Merlusse, the Marcel Pagnol film?

WC: Yeah. But David Hemingson, because he went to the schools, he was a great source of information.

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) in Wallabees
Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) in Wallabees

AKT: Did you come across Take Ivy, the Japanese fashion book? It’s from 1965 and features photographs taken at Ivy League campuses in the United States for fashion influences.

WC: No! Fascinating.

AKT: I thought maybe you had used it for the scenes of on-campus walking. I am thinking of that beautiful scene in The Holdovers when they leave the church before being picked up by their parents, you know, school life.

WC: That day was so cold as well. It was a miracle how we pulled it all together.

AKT: I think audiences notice simply some of the details. The beige coat with the collar, a red scarf, those I remember, the rest blurs into the overall mood. Most prominent are the duffle coat for Paul Giamatti and the tweed trilby. Is it a grouse hat? It’s not really a bucket.

WC: No, some people have called that a fedora, but I think it’s half a trilby, half a fedora. It was about finding just those right things. He was going to appear in that the entire movie. David in the script had that he had a great coat on and that’s really like a big heavy overcoat with buttons down the front and long to the knee. I tried that on.

Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) having a drink with Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti)) at her Christmas Eve party
Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) having a drink with Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti)) at her Christmas Eve party

We fitted Paul in New York and I had everything there that’s possible. He just gravitated to the duffle. Even that duffle, I knew I needed multiples because - always. That I had to buy new and modify it. That was an original Brooks Brothers duffle coat that I had to take the zipper out and alter for him. And age it. The same with his corduroy.

AKT: His cognac-colored corduroy suit!

WC: Yeah, age them up, make them look lived in!

AKT: But not too much, right? He comes across as clean despite his smell he can’t help, poor thing.

WC: It’s about finding that right note. I’ve had comments of Angus’s jacket as well. David Hemingson speaks volumes of, oh that jacket is perfect! And I looked at the jacket and looked at the meaning of the chevrons. Historically, the chevrons mean when two directions come together and intersect. And I thought, okay, there’s a subconscious note for me, because that’s what it’s about. These two people finding a moment where they intersect. I love how subconscious signals came about.

Angus (Dominic Sessa) with Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and his teacher Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) at Miss Crane’s Christmas Eve party
Angus (Dominic Sessa) with Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and his teacher Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) at Miss Crane’s Christmas Eve party

AKT: It’s not forced symbolism, but very much how things like that happen in real life. The duffle coat makes Hunham look a bit childlike and he himself went to that school, as if he never outgrew coat and school. It also made me think of Paddington Bear, a vulnerability he doesn't like to show and that he tries to cover up with whistling Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, while handing out grades.

WC: I kept calling him Mr. Magoo. It’s a cartoon from my childhood. I remember it from the Sixties. And Mr. Magoo has these coke bottle like round glasses and he’s so blind even with the glasses and he moves his way through the world in ignorance and blindness.

AKT: I don’t know him, the only Magoo I know is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, the French fashion film [directed by William Klein]. Another interesting costume choice is for Carrie Preston’s Lydia Crane. When we first see her she has the coloring of her Christmas cookies. She wears a green coat and - a detail only Alexander Payne would think of for this moment of introduction - red lipstick on her teeth.

WC: I know, yeah!

AKT: Tell me about her costumes, also the ones later on! She is the one with the white tights, which is so accurate for 1970. Nobody would wear these now. I think white woolen tights should come back!

Anne-Katrin Titze in Weejuns
Anne-Katrin Titze in Weejuns Photo: Ed Bahlman

WC: I was wearing those and ones with patterns knitted into them as well. You know, always with him - I had some great outfits. I was recently looking at her fitting photos and all the time with Alexander, you have to pull back. You have to pull back from fashion. You have to take something off. The costumes are there to underscore the character.

It’s never about the costumes in your face or defining the character from the outside in, it’s always from the inside out. I remember having some fabulous things for her and, you know, they were too much for him. There were plaid that were bolder, that were really on-point for period but they were too loud for her character. So we let her be the character and just the look with the little touch with the lipstick was great.

I had fun with her. I remember at the last minute I was desperately looking for something for the Christmas party for her. Oh, it’s got to be right, it’s got to be right! And again, we had nothing in stock, we started buying some things on eBay. We looked everywhere, but you can’t just go into a costume house and just look. My assistant found this on Etsy or another online store. And Alexander’s first response was, no, no, it’s too bright. He didn’t like the yellow. I had to convince him. I won that case. I thought it was perfect and we get some great shots of all of it so I was happy with that.

Angus (Dominic Sessa) looking over the shoulders of Alex (Ian Dolley), Ye-Joon (Jim Kaplan) and Kountze (Brady Hepner)
Angus (Dominic Sessa) looking over the shoulders of Alex (Ian Dolley), Ye-Joon (Jim Kaplan) and Kountze (Brady Hepner)

Then as a coda we see her back at school in the new year with a very similar outfit we saw her in at the beginning. The only other time is when we see her at her other job, she’s a working girl. Again, did I want a stripe, I knew I wanted to put her in pants, but again pulling back, just having a texture. Something fitted but also evocative of the time, but not bold.

AKT: A sign of the times and not bold are these tiny necklaces worn on top of turtlenecks. And small matching earrings. I like seeing your subtle touches in there.

WC: Oh thank you! There is a little Easter egg in her jewelry, which Focus was very curious and happy to hear about. Her little heart necklace was one that I used on Reese Witherspoon in Election. It’s part of my own collection. I have a bunch of jewelry and some gets reused, some gets renewed. That was one I thought, yeah, that makes sense for her, she’s not the heart of the movie, but she’s definitely has heart.

AKT: Yeah, she is sympathetic from beginning to end, someone we love from the start. The other detail I mentioned earlier is the handbag that Tully’s mother carries. She has a crocodile handbag with what looks like a bright red bakelite handle.

WC: Correct.

Take Ivy book, photographs by Teruyoshi Hayashida, collection Anne-Katrin Titze
Take Ivy book, photographs by Teruyoshi Hayashida, collection Anne-Katrin Titze Photo: Ed Bahlman

AKT: This is her devilishness showing, I thought! There is so little red in the film otherwise. Tell me about that handbag!

WC: Well, that is my own handbag! It’s from my own collection, which I bought when we were making Nebraska. And my sister and I would go to Sioux City to go to the thrift stores on the weekends. So that was one I bought in Sioux City and when I was gathering my stuff to take, I thought, okay, this is a useful piece and I didn’t know who it was going to be for but it worked out perfectly for her.

AKT: It’s a beautiful bag. I liked the bag very much, but in this context it felt like a devils’ tail.

WC: I love the way you notice those little things. You’re a real aficionado, you’re a costume designer’s friend, that’s for sure.

AKT: The shoes in The Holdovers are not very prominent. Weejuns? Wallabees? Nurse’s shoes? That’s where you went?

WC: All of those, yeah. Weejuns says it all, that have the tab over the front and they’re flat.

AKT: I used to love Weejuns and still do. That was my childhood and teenage shoe.

Elise (Darby Lee-Stack) with Angus (Dominic Sessa)
Elise (Darby Lee-Stack) with Angus (Dominic Sessa)

WC: I got them from rental houses, they were rentals. And they’re heavy, so we had to cut back on those for transportation budget purposes. The shoes we might’ve been able to recycle easier. We had to hold a lot of clothes because it was COVID and we were told we would get the same background but they would just appear as different people. But because the schedule got upset we had to hold on to the clothes, all bagged top to toe with everything in, but I think we were able to recycle shoes.

AKT: Whenever I spoke with Isabelle Huppert about her costumes, she said that her characters always start with the shoes. That’s how she finds them. I believe you dressed her for The Romanoffs, didn’t you?

WC: Yes!

AKT: Did you start with the shoes?

WC: Probably. Yes! I had good things with her, I liked working with her. She knows. She has really good sensors for clothes and character. I don’t remember the shoes.

F+ grade on Blue Book
F+ grade on Blue Book Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

AKT: I don’t either, I have a image of very round glasses and puffy vests as a director.

WC: Yes, it was kind of high-end sportswear of its time.

AKT: Thank you for this!

WC: Oh you’re welcome! It’s good to talk to you!

AKT: What are you working on now?

WC: I was working on Lilo & Stitch in Hawaii. Disney is remaking it, a live-action version. I’m going back to Hawaii to finish Lilo & Stitch. So there’s that and then I’m waiting for phone calls for my next exciting project. I’ll let you know!

AKT: Please do! Say hi to Alexander, should you speak with him before I do. We emailed and I hope to talk next week.

WC: Oh good! Very busy man right now! But he seems to be really enjoying it. It’s his moment.

AKT: It’s a lovely film!

Wendy Chuck in New York for the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Wendy Chuck in New York for the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

WC: Good to see you! Next time I’m in New York, I’ll look you up!

Coming up - Wendy Chuck on Virgin Mary colors for Mary Lamb, connecting with shades of blue, the party scene as a slice of Massachusetts in 1970, Marvin No-Pants, fitting all the boys, and Alexander Payne’s Hitchcock moment.

The Holdovers is in cinemas in the US and will open in the UK on Friday, January 19.

The 81st annual Golden Globes will take place on Sunday, January 7, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles.

The Oscar shortlists for the 96th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, December 21.

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