Hidden gems in plain sight

Nate Carlson on Alexander Payne and graphic design in Election and The Holdovers

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Campaign poster Paul Metzler YOU BET-ZLER!! in Alexander Payne’s Election, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, designed by Nate Carlson
Campaign poster Paul Metzler YOU BET-ZLER!! in Alexander Payne’s Election, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, designed by Nate Carlson

In the second instalment with Alexander Payne’s longtime 'secret weapon' graphic designer Nate Carlson (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska, Downsizing), we discuss their latest multiple award-winning collaboration The Holdovers’ stained glass windows and memorial inscriptions in the school chapel, a running theme of pharmacies and prescription bottles, the mastery of punctuation humour from Election to Marcus Aurelius, the art of combining the pre-existing with the new, and the family polaroid.

Nate Carlson on Alexander Payne: “He always likes to put those little hidden gems in there and I am certainly open to accommodate.”
Nate Carlson on Alexander Payne: “He always likes to put those little hidden gems in there and I am certainly open to accommodate.”

The Holdovers (screenplay by David Hemingson), stars Golden Globe winner Paul Giamatti, Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA winner Da'Vine Joy Randolph and BAFTA Best Supporting Actor nominee Dominic Sessa and has a terrific supporting cast led by Carrie Preston with Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Naheem Garcia, Darby Lee-Stack, Andrew Garman, Stephen Thorne, and Gillian Vigman.

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 students are packing their bags for a visit home, vacations in the sun or on the slopes. Angus Tully (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.

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. So that the boys won’t starve, the head of the kitchen staff, Mary Lamb, (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.

Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA winner Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb with the Meditations book created by Nate Carlson for The Holdovers
Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA winner Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb with the Meditations book created by Nate Carlson for The Holdovers

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

Anne-Katrin Titze: In The Holdovers Barton Academy, the stained glass windows and the memorial of the fallen are so impressive. I couldn’t believe that you didn’t find this, but actually made it up. It felt incredibly real.

Nate Carlson: Thank you! That was one of the first things I did when post-production started. That was very challenging.

AKT: Did you choose the names with Alexander?

NC: He kind of picked those out. I think we might have gone a little bit back and forth with it. Some of the sayings and the quotes were compiled from what else was on the wall.

AKT: It says so much about the place. Dupont, Pendergast, Grosvenor - okay, we understand that this is an important American institution we are dealing with.

NC: Pretty lofty. There was something about “being lost at sea,” I don’t really remember what it says, but he definitely wanted something about being lost at sea.

AKT: And “Died at Brest” is another one I noticed.

NC: That was fun. And even the slogan on the stained glass, that wasn’t there all either. That was kind of challenging to give it that hard look and make it look not digital.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, book designed by Nate Carlson
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, book designed by Nate Carlson Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

AKT: It didn’t at all, I bought it totally. Pharmacies and prescription bottles and things like that seem to be a running theme in your collaboration in the Payne universe?

NC: Yeah, I don’t really know where that started. It was big thing in Downsizing. Maybe that was really where it kicked up. Making Hertzel’s Pharmacy and a couple of other things, just some callbacks to some older things that we’ve done, it’s always fun. He always likes to put those little hidden gems in there and I am certainly open to accommodate. There’s a pretty major closeup in this one.

AKT: You two are really the masters of punctuation humor, from Election onwards. “Paul-itician!!” if I remember correctly. Did you also make that card from the “teacher” Dave to Tracy Flick?

NC: The flip book?

AKT: In Election her teacher [Mark Harelik as Dave Novotny] gives her that horrendous card.

NC: That was a combination of me and the prop master on that show. You mean the “Let’s fly away” one?

AKT: Exactly that one. The quotation marks around the word teacher are priceless. In The Holdovers, you did make the Christmas gift book, didn’t you?

NC: Meditations, right.

AKT: And the colour change cuts off at Me! As in Me-ditations by Marcus Aurelius!

NC: I’m surprised that you picked that one up. Nobody else has ever said anything about it.

AKT: Where words are cut with colours, those things are really wonderfully funny.

NC: That was a fun little project too. And they actually made the book and I have one of those.

Nate Carlson on the inscription under the stained glass windows in The Holdovers: “That was one of the first things I did when post-production started. That was very challenging.”
Nate Carlson on the inscription under the stained glass windows in The Holdovers: “That was one of the first things I did when post-production started. That was very challenging.” Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

AKT: It’s not the Barton jacket you wanted, but you can at least contemplate Marcus Aurelius!

NC: And our set decorator was great and added on a lot to what we were doing.

AKT: How you combine the preexisting and the new to make it seem as one is really spectacular. Sometimes in movies one can spot it clearly but in The Holdovers I couldn’t tell. The Life Magazine cover we see at the start is an actual cover, I suppose?

NC: Yeah. We had some trouble getting them to allow us to show an actual full cover. There’s a whole bunch of legality that goes along with that stuff, photographer’s rights and who is in it and other things. I like to hint at it but whenever it’s featured we try to make it look real. That’s a big part of selling the era. Sometimes you have to sell it to an audience that doesn’t really know what it looks like, so you kind of tweak things so that people recognise something even if it’s not 100% accurate, it reads as accurate. I don’t know if that makes sense?

AKT: Yes. In the Hunham household at the start we get to know him through his objects. There are some shots of his bathroom, did you make those creams? That’s a really a quite disgusting shot.

NC: Some of those are real. I’m not sure if what I made ended up in the film, even I can’t tell.

Nate Carlson on what Alexander Payne wanted for the RIDGELY JAMES PENDERGAST JR dedication in The Holdovers  “He definitely wanted something about being lost at sea.”
Nate Carlson on what Alexander Payne wanted for the RIDGELY JAMES PENDERGAST JR dedication in The Holdovers “He definitely wanted something about being lost at sea.” Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

AKT: That’s a good sign. Do Easter eggs have to be on the brink of discovery in order to be talked about? Is there something to the polaroid of the family?

NC: That was mainly just a technical challenge to find the imagery to make it look authentic. I had to de-age Dominic to give him that boyish look. I had to smooth out his skin and soften his features. Originally that was a different looking picture, it was a beach picture. I had to experiment with some unusual software to make that because the photos that I had didn’t look like they went together.

I had to put it through a piece of software that allowed me to rotate these faces in the space to make them more focus on each other. That was one of the longer things in terms of time to get that one figured out. I think it turned out really good. The message that was scrolled into it, that was something we went back and forth on, too. In fact I think that took me longer to do than anything else.

AKT: That’s why it got the screen time and we get to see it in closeup twice?

NC: Yeah, it was really hard. And I think Alexander always knew that it was going to be kind of a big thing and that’s why we took so much time on it.

Read what Nate Carlson had to say on the Christmas tree lot, the title designs and the film’s colour palette, what the Barton Academy mascot has in common with Election’s wolverine, the story behind Hildegard’s Heavenly Nails and the chicken of the river.

Nate Carlson designed the pharmacy for The Holdovers
Nate Carlson designed the pharmacy for The Holdovers Photo: courtesy of Nate Carlson

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

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.

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