Taking flight

Alexander Payne on WC Fields, Artie Shaw and The Holdovers composer Mark Orton

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alexander Payne (Adapted Screenplay Oscar wins for Sideways with Jim Taylor and The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) at JFK airport with Anne-Katrin Titze on the WC Fields poster in The Holdovers: “I remember that. I had that poster in my room growing up.”
Alexander Payne (Adapted Screenplay Oscar wins for Sideways with Jim Taylor and The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) at JFK airport with Anne-Katrin Titze on the WC Fields poster in The Holdovers: “I remember that. I had that poster in my room growing up.”

In the second instalment with Alexander Payne, director of the Golden Globe-nominated The Holdovers (screenplay by David Hemingson), starring Dominic Sessa and Golden Globe nominees Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph, we start out discussing the Oscar-shortlisted score by Mark Orton after my recommendation of Wurzel-Sepp, an apothecary shop in Munich from 1887. From there we move on to the Trapp Family recordings of The Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night, plus Cat Stevens in the soundtrack; the influence of Marcel Pagnol’s Merlusse, Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Robert Donat in Sam Wood’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Jean Vigo’s Zéro De Conduite. A personal memory of a WC Fields My Little Chickadee poster, a song from an Artie Shaw record, Evelyn Keyes, John Huston and Brigitte Berman’s 1987 Oscar-winning documentary Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got lead us to Alexander’s upcoming projects.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham are Golden Globe nominees for The Holdovers
Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham are Golden Globe nominees for The Holdovers

From JFK airport the day before Christmas, Alexander Payne joined me on Zoom to continue on in-depth conversation on The Holdovers.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi!

Alexander Payne: Hello, my dear.

AKT: Your flight was okay?

AP: Yes, I’m strong like bull!

AKT: For your trip to Munich, I have another recommendation [we earlier spoke about other places to visit.] It’s a shop for herbs and teas from 1887, called Wurzel-Sepp. It looks as though it hasn’t changed in at least 100 years.

AP: Like an old apothecary?

AKT: Yes, exactly. It translates to Root-Joe.

AP: Okay, great [he writes it down]. Thank you! Danke schön!

AKT: Keep me informed!

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) packing and My Little Chickadee poster on the wall
Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) packing and My Little Chickadee poster on the wall

AP: I will!

AKT: Yesterday after we spoke, the original score for The Holdovers got Oscar shortlisted! Congratulations!

AP: We’re happy about that. At first we thought he [Mark Orton] might not get it because the Academy operates on some percentage, like how much of a percentage of all the music is original. But finally he made his case and he qualified. We’re so happy about it; he’s a wonderful film composer.

AKT: As far as the songs are concerned, I noticed that you used some Trapp Family recordings.

AP: Because it’s period appropriate and we used it as score, The Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night Holy Night. They were wonderful.

AKT: It felt very nice, together with Cat Stevens. The music is beautiful.

AP: Thank you!

AKT: From Marcel Pagnol’s Merlusse you took the eye and you took the smell! What was it about this film that left such an impression you?

Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) plays Artie Shaw’s When Winter Comes for Danny (Naheem Garcia)
Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) plays Artie Shaw’s When Winter Comes for Danny (Naheem Garcia)

AP: Actually, to tell you the truth, the movie as a whole did not leave a huge impression. I admired it but I wasn’t in love with it. It’s simply the premise, you know, a premise can come from anywhere. I just liked the basic idea of it, that this man is made responsible this year to watch over the boys with nowhere to go and has a special relationship with one of them. And the writer, David Hemingson, has never seen the movie. I really just gave him the idea. But I like the idea, I just think it’s a good idea for a movie.

AKT: This man, who has this affliction from birth that is such an obstruction in life, it’s very touching. I only really very vaguely remember the film, the bulging eye.

AP: Oh you’ve seen it? You’ve seen Merlusse?

AKT: A long time ago, I think at a Marcel Pagnol retrospective in Paris. It’s one of those teacher films that were made in the ‘30s in Europe. Germany also had these films that were dealing with questions of authority in the shape of a teacher.

AP: What leaps to mind is even The Blue Angel [directed by Josef von Sternberg], this film that made Dietrich a star, is about a teacher. In England, no, I guess it’s an American film, you have Goodbye, Mr. Chips [directed by Sam Wood], with an English actor, Robert Donat, he won the Oscar [in 1940] for that, I think. There are some other teacher films - Zéro De Conduite [directed by Jean Vigo].

Wurzel-Sepp
Wurzel-Sepp Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

AKT: Of course!

AP: I’m just thinking off-hand about teacher films from the Thirties.

AKT: What about Artie Shaw?

AP: Yes, that was in the screenplay.

AKT: Did you talk about how his music is used?

AP: No, I don’t remember asking David about it. I just thought that was an interesting choice for a young Black boy in the late Sixties. It kind of points to the fact how he liked Artie Shaw and then later I made him a cellist. You see his cello. He’s kind of square. Just a nice kid with interesting musical taste and it’s just too bad that he’s not with us anymore.

AKT: My next Zoom film conversation after you, that is, after Christmas, is actually about a documentary on Artie Shaw, that he’s been restored. It won the Oscar in 1987.

AP: Wow! What is it called?

AKT: Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got. The director’s name is Brigitte Berman.

AP: And it won the Oscar you said in ’86?

AKT: Yes, and it’s the 4K restoration Film Forum is showing starting on January 5.

AP: Cool! Whenever I think of Artie Shaw I think of what Lana Turner said about why she divorced him.

AKT: What did she say?

Jason (Michael Provost), Angus (Dominic Sessa), and Kountz (Brady Hepner) studying
Jason (Michael Provost), Angus (Dominic Sessa), and Kountz (Brady Hepner) studying

AP: One day I just asked myself, what am I doing under Artie Shaw?

AKT: You really wonder that after seeing the documentary. He is such a strange man. The interviews were done between 1982 and 1984, so it’s a totally different documentary from what we are used to now. His work with Billie Holiday.

AP: Good.

AKT: All his wives.

AP: He had like eight or nine wives.

AKT: Yeah, Evelyn Keyes, I think was his last wife. They’d been divorced for eight years, but in the film she says that she thinks of him every time she changes a roll of toilet paper because he was so specific. If she did it wrong, it was a disaster, it seems.

AP: That’s quite a change going from John Huston to Artie Shaw. I think she’d been with John Huston.

AKT: Oh, she had? What about the WC Fields poster in The Holdovers?

AP: Yes, I remember it from the period and I asked for it specifically. In the late Sixties, early Seventies in college dorms and high school people were crazy about Laurel and Hardy and WC Fields and the Marx Brothers. There was a real renaissance of interest in their work, 30, 35 years later. I remember that. I had that poster in my room growing up.

Professor (Un-)Rath (Emil Jannings) with Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel
Professor (Un-)Rath (Emil Jannings) with Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel

AKT: Nobody would have a WC Fields poster now.

AP: But they did then. When he’s playing cards in My Little Chickadee, that’s the film.

AKT: What’s coming up for you after you’re done with all your Holdovers press? What are you working on?

AP: Get back to writing. David Hemingson and I are conceiving a western, Jim Taylor and I are going to talk about what we might do with the Election sequel and there are a couple of other things floating around out there.

AKT: Something French, I think I read somewhere?

AP: Yes, that’s one of the other things floating around. It’s a project, a screenplay based on a non-fiction article that appeared in Vanity Fair about five or six years ago, concerning rival antique chair dealers in Paris.

AKT: Was that where somebody was licking the chair that tasted of licorice?

AP: Yes, that’s the one. Because they paint licorice to make it look old.

AKT: And he was licking the chair to discover the fraud. That detail stuck with me.

AP: Yes. You are very well-read. As well as very well steeped in movies.

Oscar winner Robert Donat as Mr. Chips in Sam Wood’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Oscar winner Robert Donat as Mr. Chips in Sam Wood’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips

AKT: Do have people attached to that one?

AP: I’ve been working with a couple of French screenwriters. Right now I’m doing a pass, Jim Taylor and I are, and then I’ll get it back to them to pour some Chanel N°5 over it.

AKT: Sounds good. Thank you!

AP: Thank you for your interest! It’s delightful to meet you again. You do lovely work, really lovely work! And you have your own niche, your own very delightful and idiosyncratic point of view toward film, which I appreciate.

AKT: Thank you so much! Have a wonderful flight and Merry Christmas!

AP: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Read what Alexander had to say on The Holdovers from Omaha, Nebraska.

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

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

Barton Academy in The Holdovers
Barton Academy in The Holdovers

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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