What’s in a name?

Alexander Payne on Paul Giamatti, Carrie Preston, Westward The Women and The Holdovers

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Holdovers director Alexander Payne (in Nirvana T-shirt) with Anne-Katrin Titze on Westward The Women: “It’s as though Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa got together to make a Western.”
The Holdovers director Alexander Payne (in Nirvana T-shirt) with Anne-Katrin Titze on Westward The Women: “It’s as though Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa got together to make a Western.”

In the first instalment with Alexander Payne on his intricately layered Golden Globe-nominated The Holdovers (screenplay by David Hemingson with an Oscar-shortlisted score by Mark Orton) we started out discussing a film he recommended, William A Wellman’s Westward The Women (screenplay by Frank Capra and Charles Schnee), starring Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel with a formidable supporting cast of women, led by Hope Emerson.

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) and Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) with Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)
Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) and Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) with Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)

From there we touched upon his longtime collaborators, Wendy Chuck and Nathan Carlson (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska, Downsizing), production designer Ryan Warren Smith, a scene between (Golden Globe-nominated) Paul Giamatti and Carrie Preston leading to Slavoj Žižek’s comment in Sophie Fiennes’s The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack in James Cameron’s Titanic, and the infamous Marvin No-Pants, fitting in with Miuccia Prada’s Miu Miu Fall/Winter 2023 collection.

Barton Academy, a traditional all-boys boarding school in rural Massachusetts is preparing for their winter 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 (brand-new Payne discovery 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 for the moment to stay put.

Alexander Payne on Miss Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) with Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti): “It’s a little bit ambiguous, like, does she like me? Does he like me?”
Alexander Payne on Miss Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) with Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti): “It’s a little bit ambiguous, like, does she like me? Does he like me?”

The teacher chosen, or rather condemned, to take care of them is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), expert in ancient civilisations, 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 (including an F+) marked on the blue books of their end-of-term finals, while gleefully whistling Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is unparalleled. Giamatti gives Hunham, whose afflictions are many, a transcendent, idiosyncratic grace rarely seen in movies these days.

So that the boys won’t starve, the head of the kitchen staff, Mary Lamb, played by Golden Globe-nominated Da'Vine Joy Randolph, will feed them. She had just recently lost her son in Vietnam, who was one of the few Black Barton alumni. Miss 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 favour to let her know she has lipstick on her teeth, may develop feelings for her.

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) with Christmas cookies brought to him by Miss Crane (Carrie Preston)
Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) with Christmas cookies brought to him by Miss Crane (Carrie Preston)

With his singular eye for detail and mischievous sense of humor, Alexander Payne serves a Christmas treat that lingers in your head. Scenes may return as specters, characters mingle with those of a fictional or personal past.

From Omaha, Nebraska, Alexander Payne joined me on Zoom for the first instalment of an in-depth conversation on The Holdovers.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, good to see you, are you in Omaha?

Alexander Payne: I am in Omaha, Nebraska, busily wrapping presents for my six-year-old daughter before I go out to see my 100-year-old mother and I leave at 5:00am tomorrow.

AKT: First of all, thank you so much for recommending Westward The Women!

AP: Oh it’s a magnificent film.

AKT: I had never seen it, had never even heard of it. I watched it last week and was blown away! It’s beautiful.

Alexander Payne on Westward The Women: “It’s a magnificent film.”
Alexander Payne on Westward The Women: “It’s a magnificent film.”

AP: It’s as though Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa got together to make a Western. I cried three times in that movie.

AKT: Which places?

AP: I cry when the one woman is giving birth and the wagon wheel is broken and they all lift the wagon so she can give birth. And then a moment later when they give the baby to the Italian woman who’s lost her own son. And then later when they get to the end of their journey and the men are anxious to meet them and the women say, we need time to get pretty! If any man comes before we are ready, we’re going to kill him!

AKT: I love it! Also the little dog in the bucket under the wagon!

AP: I know! And the love scene between Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel on horseback. Basically the f..k, but it’s done in such a beautiful cinematic way on two horses and then going into water and then they come back on the same horse. That’s beautiful cinema, pure cinema.

AKT: The whole beginning! We see the perspective of the women, which we know so little about. Westerns are so androcentric and there they are mail-order brides being sent West. I just found out this year that I have an ancestor who founded a county in Western Missouri.

Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) fuming behind Angus Tully’s (Dominic Sessa) back
Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) fuming behind Angus Tully’s (Dominic Sessa) back

AP: Oh my goodness! A Frenchman?

AKT: German, John Barth. And he arrived in America around the year the movie is set, 1851/52 as a 14-year-old. Later in life he developed Henry County and founded a bank and had 14 children.

AP: Wow!

AKT: It’s mesmerising, that whole prairie, pioneer world, we actually know only fragments about.

AP: I saw your piece with Wendy Chuck and am so glad you did that. She’s so lovely.

AKT: She is and she told me lots of interesting things. Marvin No-Pants

AP: Yes, Marvin No-Pants.

AKT: He is actually very much in fashion right now. Miuccia Prada’s Miu Miu Fall/Winter 2023 collection has that look. The models dress like him. Did you go to the new Delmonico’s when you were in New York?

Paul Giamatti honouring Alexander Payne at the George Eastman House Light & Motion Gala in 2014
Paul Giamatti honouring Alexander Payne at the George Eastman House Light & Motion Gala in 2014 Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

AP: No, I haven’t been.

AKT: One scene I liked very much in The Holdovers, which is so perfectly acted, perfectly directed, plus the music is at the party when Paul Giamatti sits on the sofa and behind him Miss Crane’s boyfriend [Ian Lyons] comes through the door. We see everything at once on Giamatti’s face, and the two of them by the doorway sway a little. And the song is It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, exactly when “hearts will be glowing.”

AP: The irony is a little obvious but I’m happy. I like her [Carrie Preston], I think she’s such a good actress.

AKT: She is fantastic.

AP: It’s late in the party and they had some drinks and she lets her guard down. What I like about her character as written and then how she played it - and I haven’t really seen this in a movie before - is when you’re with someone and the person is kind of attractive and you don’t know if the person is also attracted to you or is just nice to everybody. It’s a little bit ambiguous, like, does she like me? Does he like me? Oh, no he’s just nice to everyone. And then it kind of penetrates that for a moment, oh maybe she really does like me. And then the boyfriend comes in. She plays that very well though. Her performance is so good, so real. She’s such a good actress.

Angus (Dominic Sessa), Ye-Joon (Jim Kaplan), Alex (Ian Dolley) and Jason (Michael Provost) with Mr. Hunham, (Paul Giamatti) waiting to be served by Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)
Angus (Dominic Sessa), Ye-Joon (Jim Kaplan), Alex (Ian Dolley) and Jason (Michael Provost) with Mr. Hunham, (Paul Giamatti) waiting to be served by Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)

AKT: In that scene, how we see them both is really great. Did you ever see The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology on Slavoj Žižek by Sophie Fiennes?

AP: No. Oh yeah, Žižek, I know about that. He has Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Pervert’s Guide To Ideology. No I’ve never seen it. Should I?

AKT: You should. There is a moment that reminded me of that scene we just talked about. Žižek explains that in Titanic the real catastrophe is not the boat and the iceberg, the real catastrophe would have been if Leonardo DiCaprio’s character hadn’t drowned and the two would have had a relationship.

AP: That’s funny.

AKT: It’s the same in The Holdovers, any relationship [between Paul Hunham and Miss Crane] would have been a disaster, his dreams, her niceness, what you were describing. I have a question about the names. Were they David Hemingson’s names for the characters or yours?

AP: Angus Tully, I never would have thought of that name. Paul Hunham, Miss Lydia Crane, those are all David Hemingson’s names. I put the name Clotfelter in.

The Holdovers attention to detail by production designer Ryan Warren Smith
The Holdovers attention to detail by production designer Ryan Warren Smith

AKT: Why?

AP: A nice German name. My next-door neighbor growing up was Colonel Raymond Clotfelter. A German American who was highly decorated in WWII, he flew many missions over Germany and was shot down and was a POW. We have an Air-force base here in Omaha, so I grew up next to Colonel Clotfelter. I’d never heard that name before or since.

AKT: I noticed that the protagonist’s all have names of meat.

AP: Meat?

AKT: Angus …

AP: Oh yeah, Lamb.

AKT: And Hun - HAM! And even Crane, although you don’t eat cranes.

AP: Animals. Crane is also the name of Marion Crane in Psycho.

AKT: Yes.

Angus (Dominic Sessa) and Hunham (Paul Giamatti) in the liquor store
Angus (Dominic Sessa) and Hunham (Paul Giamatti) in the liquor store

AP: But I never heard that all three are meat. I’m going to call Hemingson today and ask him about that.

AKT: I’m teaching a course on fairy tales and storytelling and we had just discussed Rumpelstiltskin when I saw The Holdovers. One list of the wrong name guesses is all about meat, leg of lamb, mutton chops, etc. The last guesses before she has the right name are Heinz or Kunz? And there is a Kountze in your movie as well!

AP: That’s an Omaha name. That’s a big family here in Omaha.

AKT: I loved the scene in the liquor store and the man in the liquor store and especially the detail of the poster in French, warning that alcohol makes a brute of a man, victim of a child, and martyr of a woman. Did that exist there? Did you find the store like that?

AP: That was actually in that liquor store, we just kept it.

AKT: And the guy who says “Here you go, killer!”

An Edward Hopper shot with Angus (Dominic Sessa) and Hunham (Paul Giamatti)
An Edward Hopper shot with Angus (Dominic Sessa) and Hunham (Paul Giamatti)

AP: Yeah, he works in the liquor store. We were scouting that location, the production designer [Ryan Warren Smith] and I. We had another liquor store in Beacon Hill in Boston and it fell through, we couldn't get the right permits. So during the middle of production we had to look and walked into that one in downtown Boston and liked it very much.

And as I was leaving the owner said “Mr. Payne?” I said “Yes?” He said “A guy who works for me loves movies and he’d like to be in the movie. Can he?” And I said “Sure, let me give you the number of the casting director [Susan Shopmaker].”

No, I said, “Well, can I meet him?” He said, “He has Covid. He’s here, but he’s down in the basement. When he knew that the movie company was coming over, he hid in then basement.” I said “Well, can I see a picture of him?”

So Leonard, the owner of the liquor store, ancient store, went behind the counter, opened a trap door on the floor went down the staircase like that [he motions a spiral staircase]. He came back five minutes later with a picture of Joe [Howell], lit by a naked lightbulb surrounded by cartons of wine and liquor. I took one look at the picture and said “Tell him he’s got the job!”

Angus (Dominic Sessa) on the phone
Angus (Dominic Sessa) on the phone

AKT: Hildegard’s Heavenly Nails?

AP: That’s by Nate Carlson, my Omaha-based graphic designer. He’d be a good subject of an article, by the way. He’s been doing the graphics, including the title sequences on all of my films since Election. He’s been my graphics guy for 25 years and he’s a quiet genius. Secret weapon of my films.

AKT: Did he design the Barton logo?

AP: Yes, everything.

AKT: I talked about that with Wendy, I thought the logo was an orange hamster at first.

AP: We put a lot of little jokes in the film. There’s a Latin phrase in it. It says: The Tree of Knowledge is Fertilised in the Manure of Ignorance.

AKT: Absolutely perfect. Are you a Nirvana fan?

AP: No, I’m just wearing the shirt.

Angus’s mother Judy (Gillian Vigman) with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (Tate Donovan) and Wendy Chuck’s bag
Angus’s mother Judy (Gillian Vigman) with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (Tate Donovan) and Wendy Chuck’s bag

AKT: So, I’ll see you tomorrow for part two!

AP: See you tomorrow, bye darling.

Read what Wendy Chuck had to say on dressing The Holdovers cast.

Coming up - Alexander Payne on The Holdovers from JFK airport.

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 final nominees are scheduled to be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2024. The 96th Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, March 10 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

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