Collecting signs

Nate Carlson on Alexander Payne’s multiple Oscar-nominated The Holdovers

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alexander Payne’s longtime “secret weapon”, graphic designer Nate Carlson with Anne-Katrin Titze on his favourite scene in The Holdovers: “I think probably it’s the Christmas tree lot. That’s such an Alexander kind of a scene.”
Alexander Payne’s longtime “secret weapon”, graphic designer Nate Carlson with Anne-Katrin Titze on his favourite scene in The Holdovers: “I think probably it’s the Christmas tree lot. That’s such an Alexander kind of a scene.”

In the first instalment with graphic designer Nate Carlson, Alexander Payne’s longtime “secret weapon” (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska, Downsizing), we discuss his latest cloak-and-dagger work with Payne. The Holdovers, a sparkling gem of wit and insight on the human condition of feeling left behind, has garnered Oscar nominations for Best Film, Leading Actor (Golden Globe winner) Paul Giamatti, Supporting Actress (Golden Globe and BAFTA winner) Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Original Screenplay David Hemingson, and Editing by Kevin Tent. Susan Shopmaker won a BAFTA for Best Casting (including rising star Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Naheem Garcia, Darby Lee-Stack, Andrew Garman, Stephen Thorne, and Gillian Vigman).

Nate Carlson on the tree seen when Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti), and Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) are having their Christmas dinner: “It’s like, here’s the worst tree we have. Go take this.”
Nate Carlson on the tree seen when Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti), and Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) are having their Christmas dinner: “It’s like, here’s the worst tree we have. Go take this.”

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. The various logos and all the signs that populate a world at a certain time and place, are skillfully marshaled by Nate Carlson. 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 for the moment to stay put.

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 heartbreakingly by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, will feed them. She 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). Dressing with great sensitivity and humor the diverse guests, as well as the faculty, students, and staff at the boarding school, fell again into the accomplished hands of costume designer Wendy Chuck.

Christmas tree lot graphics on the signs by Nate Carlson
Christmas tree lot graphics on the signs by Nate Carlson Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

From a sub-zero Omaha, Nebraska on January 15, Nate Carlson joined me on Zoom for an-depth conversation on his longtime collaboration with Alexander Payne and The Holdovers.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi! I checked, Omaha has -6 Fahrenheit [0 °C] today!

Nate Carlson: Feels like more than that, or less than that, I guess. [He touches his indoor beanie]. That’s why I’m trying to keep warm. They told us to turn our heat down so that we don’t crash the power grid. It’s very very cold. Where are you?

AKT: I’m in New York, we have 24 Fahrenheit.

NC: I’m jealous.

AKT: Only very few people would say that, but I guess that’s Omaha. It’s very nice to meet Alexander Payne’s “secret weapon.” That’s what he calls you.

NC: Well, I guess.

AKT: The first words we hear in The Holdovers in front of the choir are “In the beginning was the word.” Different kinds of text are what you are adding to the film.

CHRISTMAS TREES and CHRISTMAS TREE'S banner confusion in New York City
CHRISTMAS TREES and CHRISTMAS TREE'S banner confusion in New York City Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

NC: Right.

AKT: Do you have a favourite scene in The Holdovers?

NC: I think probably it’s the Christmas tree lot. That’s such an Alexander kind of a scene. It’s just kind of sad.

AKT: It is.

NC: It’s like, here’s the worst tree we have. Go take this. I wanted to have a lot of fun with it and just kind of make it look like a place that’s usually happy and now it’s just kind of like the wrapping paper on the floor after Christmas morning, you know. It was joyous at one point but now it’s just a mess.

AKT: The whole Christmas tree story - it shows the stinginess of the school, the fact that they have arranged a deal to return their tree!

NC: The tree was important in a lot of ways, not so much in the movie, but afterwards. The broken ornament became kind of a big thing in the marketing. It was in the script but I don’t think it ever got in the movie that there were broken ornaments on the floor.

AKT: No.

NC: That was one of the things I keyed on early because we were making just a logo for the show. There was just a broken ball initially. I brought it in to what I was doing with the album cover and eventually it became a big part of what Focus did with their poster. So that was a very iconic thing, I think.

Nate Carlson on the mascot he created for the Barton Academy jacket worn by Jason Smith (Michael Provost): “I was actually trying to evoke the mascot that we did for Election, years and years and years ago.”
Nate Carlson on the mascot he created for the Barton Academy jacket worn by Jason Smith (Michael Provost): “I was actually trying to evoke the mascot that we did for Election, years and years and years ago.”

AKT: Of course the title designs in the beginning are great. The colour choices and the crackling that comes with it - it looks so authentic, although it obviously isn’t. But it gives you that feel. How did you choose these particular Seventies reds and blues?

NC: It came from the movie really, we had a palette we were working off, mixed in with what I thought was reality for what was going on at that time. That’s an interesting thing that you brought that up. That was one of those things where we did have to kind of make it look more like something people would recognise. Every time you look at something from that period it’s not nearly as detailed as that is. But if you showed it as it would have been, it would have looked bad.

That was one thing I did bring forward in time a little bit to accommodate. I knew, however hard we were trying to, it was never to look exactly like something from 1970. The colours, we didn’t want anything very stark or bright or pleasant. I think it’s just 25 years of making movies with him. He doesn’t really want to see those kind of colours that are really bright or ostentatious. And fonts as well. Always been very simple with fonts, for a long time he wouldn’t let me use anything, a script. Eventually I wore him down and he lets me do what I want to do now.

AKT: You did all the logos around Barton Academy, the mascot - when I spoke with Wendy [Chuck, the costume designer] I told her that at first I thought it was a hamster.

Barton Academy jacket logo designed by Nate Carlson
Barton Academy jacket logo designed by Nate Carlson Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

NC: I know! I read that article!

AKT: When you look at it closer, is that a lion’s roar that comes out of its mouth?

NC: Yeah, I don’t know what kind of hamsters you’re used to.

AKT: Ha, I’m not an expert on hamsters.

NC: Well, that’s a funny thing, I was actually trying to evoke the mascot that we did for Election, years and years and years ago.

AKT: The wolverine?

NC: Right! It’s kind of a similar looking critter. That was fun. We always wanted a lion and the lions from that period were really rather cartoonish, obviously. It just seemed like a natural fit to go after that.

AKT: It’s great. I would definitely wear one of those sweatshirts. Do you have one?

NC: I never got one.

AKT: You should get one!

NC: I want the Letterman jacket, that’s what I wanted. They only made one. It was an expensive piece of clothing.

Nate Carlson on creating the business sign for Hildegard's heavenly Nails: ”I saw it as a little homage and it got some nice screen time.”
Nate Carlson on creating the business sign for Hildegard's heavenly Nails: ”I saw it as a little homage and it got some nice screen time.” Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

AKT: I asked Alexander about Hildegard’s Heavenly Nails. That was when he brought you up. Those shops look great when the two of them, Tully and Hunham, walk by. What’s the deal with Hildegard?

NC: Hildegard is my mother’s name. About two or three years ago in a little neighborhood around where I live there was a storefront that was being renovated. This façade, that had been on there for as long as I can remember, had been stripped off. And there was a handprinted sign on the building that said Hildegard’s Heavenly Cakes. I had never heard of that and it was a really beautiful sign so I did some research on it.

It turns out that this Hildegard, she actually lived in my neighborhood and was like a master confectioner in the Thirties or Forties and actually had a cake shop in this little area by my house. So I just combined the two together because he wanted a nail salon. Usually a tanning salon we would do, we’ve done those in the past, but they hadn’t really been invented yet, so we switched it to nails and that’s a pretty good representation what that sign looked like originally. I saw it as a little homage and it got some nice screen time.

AKT: It is next to the Colonial Trading Store. I don’t know what they are selling. Antlers?

Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) in front of Pollo del Rio
Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) in front of Pollo del Rio

NC: It’s a real place.

AKT: And Pollo del Rio is the third one!

NC: The chicken of the river. That was a catfish homage. Because catfish are a big thing around here. It was supposed to be reminiscent of El Pollo Loco, which is a big chicken chain out in Los Angeles. It ended up being the river chicken, Pollo del Rio.

AKT: I love it. Tully has over his bed a sign that says No Trespassing, No Hunting.

NC: That’s a real one too.

AKT: It feels real - boys collecting signs.

NC: My house is full of them.

AKT: I actually have a very nice one right behind me, saying No Fishing Beyond This Point. You want me to get it?

NC: Oh wow, of course! Wow, where did you find that?

Nate Carlson on Pollo del Rio: “It was supposed to be reminiscent of El Pollo Loco, which is a big chicken chain out in Los Angeles. It ended up being the river chicken, Pollo del Rio.”
Nate Carlson on Pollo del Rio: “It was supposed to be reminiscent of El Pollo Loco, which is a big chicken chain out in Los Angeles. It ended up being the river chicken, Pollo del Rio.” Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

AKT: This is my spouse’s [Ed Bahlman], he found it in New Mexico. They knocked it down, he picked it up. It’s great.

NC: Somebody engraved it in there, it’s not just paint?

AKT: It’s engraved and has a bullet hole. Now it’ll also be part of this. Wendy told me about the necklace that Miss Crane is wearing is the one from Election.

NC: Oh, I didn’t know that.

AKT: Tracy Flick is wearing it and now Miss Crane is wearing the little heart necklace. Thank you for this conversation!

NC: Great talking to you!

AKT: Stay warm!

NC: Okay! Thanks so much!

Coming up - Nate Carlson on stained glass windows and memorial inscriptions in the school chapel, a running theme of pharmacies and prescription bottles, the mastery of punctuation humor from Election to Marcus Aurelius, the art of combining the pre-existing with the new, and the family polaroid.

Read what Alexander Payne had to say on The Holdovers team, Paul Giamatti, Carrie Preston, and Westward the Women from Omaha, Nebraska.

Nate Carlson on Anne-Katrin Titze’s NO Fishing Beyond This Point sign: “Wow, where did you find that?”
Nate Carlson on Anne-Katrin Titze’s NO Fishing Beyond This Point sign: “Wow, where did you find that?”

Read what Alexander Payne had to say from JFK airport on The Holdovers composer Mark Orton, Marcel Pagnol’s Merlusse, WC Fields, Artie Shaw, and what’s coming up.

Read what Alexander Payne had to say on the scene in the cinema, where Angus Tully and Mr. Hunham are watching Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (starring Dustin Hoffman), and how it connects to Hunham and Miss Crane’s mistletoe exchange at her Christmas party; plus who came up with the whistling of The Ride of the Valkyries when handing out the final term exams and the choice of grades prominently featured on the blue books.

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

Read what Wendy Chuck had to say on Virgin Mary colours 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 the UK.

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

The 77th BAFTA winners were announced on Sunday, February 18 at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

The 96th Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, March 10 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

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