There’s a version of Payne’s career that could have gone very differently. His debut film, “Citizen Ruth,” came out in 1996, decades before young indie talents would be routinely hoovered up by the Comic Book Industrial Complex — a fate that, under different circumstances, might have been his.
“How do you know?” Payne asks sharply, adding that his creative and career decisions have always been based on one thing: the screenplay. “If I were in it for the money, I would have gone to law school like my parents wanted me to.”
Payne, 62, possesses the kind of courtesy, almost courtliness, associated with bygone notions of decorum and gentlemanly comportment. He’s unfailingly, almost self-consciously, polite. But that doesn’t mean he won’t push back over the course of a 45-minute interview that will pick up again during a post-screening Q&A. “How do you know?” “What does that mean?” “How so?” He peppers conversations with professorial challenges worthy of his protagonist in “The Holdovers,” a grumpy prep school teacher named Paul Hunham, portrayed with prickly bravura by Paul Giamatti.
“The Holdovers,” which opens in Washington on Nov. 3, takes place at the fictional Barton Academy over the Christmas holiday in 1970, when Hunham is tasked with looking after a group of students who aren’t able to join their families for the winter break. Ultimately, their number is reduced to one: a bright, disaffected junior named Angus Tully, played by newcomer Dominic Sessa. Together with the school’s cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the lonely, motley crew form something of an ad hoc family, with all the bickering and bonding that one expects will ensue.
With its calibrated balance of humor and pathos, attunement to the details of human behavior and fine-grained realism, “The Holdovers” is of a piece with Payne’s past films, which include “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska” and 2004’s “Sideways,” which also starred Giamatti. As Payne has said often while doing press for his latest film, it exemplifies the 1970s movies he has been trying to make throughout his career.
“Those films were imprinted on me, on us, the way musical taste is imprinted on us when we’re in our late teens, and it kind of doesn’t change for the rest of your life,” Payne explains, adding that he also loves the era as the last great golden age of American cinema, when an alchemy took place between the old and the new. “The commitment to literate, human comedies and dramas with good screenplays and good characters came out of studios and went onto the streets,” Payne continues, “and entered into a more modern vernacular where you can show nudity, say bad words, really approximate real life. But still within the context of well-structured, thoughtfully made, sensitive movies as interpreted by a new generation of artists.”
Well-structured, thoughtfully made and sensitive could apply as easily to “Election” and “The Descendants” as to “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska.” With “The Holdovers,” which was written by David Hemingson, Payne has taken his love for the sensibility one step further, into the visual and aural texture of the film itself. It opens with period-correct logos from Miramax and Focus Features, complete with pops and skips on the soundtrack; the rest of the movie has the wintry, slightly muted palette and lilting folk soundtrack that evoke Mike Nichols or Hal Ashby at their most wistfully humanistic.
“At some point, I just made the decision, ‘Huh, wouldn’t it be fun to make it look and sound as though it had been made in 1970?’” Payne recalled after the “Holdovers” screening at Middleburg. “I don’t remember at what point I thought that, but I thought it would be a fun little parlor trick to try.” But the last thing he wanted was kitsch. He cites “my aversion to a lot of period films that rub your nose in how period they are. ‘Look at this wallpaper, look at these cars, look at this hairdo, look at this wardrobe.’ Like, if they make the movie in 1958, everything is from 1958. It’s supposed to bring me into the movie and it takes me right out of the movie.” With “The Holdovers,” he says, “I wanted it to seem as grimy and banal as though we were making a low-budget film then, in 1970.”
Payne knew he had succeeded when “The Holdovers” played the London Film Festival earlier this month; he sat next to the legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who worked with Francis Ford Coppola on “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now,” and whom Payne called on for advice. After the screening, Murch commended Payne with a terse “Nice job.” Then, Payne recalls, “he said, ‘But you know what the most ’70s touch was?’ And I said, ‘No, what?’ He goes, ‘That they didn’t hug at the end. They shook hands.’ And I said, ‘I’ll see you and raise you: We didn’t even get a close-up of the hands clasping.’”
“The Holdovers” was filmed in New England (Sessa was a casting coup, having been recruited from the drama club at Deerfield Academy, one of several area schools that play Barton), continuing Payne’s dedication to filming on location, often using locals as supporting players. Although he owns a home in Topanga Canyon, he hasn’t made a movie in Los Angeles since he was a film student. “I have three arenas of life right now,” he explains. “I’m in Omaha for my 100-year-old mother. I’m in Athens, Greece, for my 6-year-old daughter. Then, with whatever time is left, I have some filmmaking to try to do. I’ve got career, mother, daughter.” (Payne has been married and divorced twice, from the actress Sandra Oh and from Maria Kontos, who lives in Greece with their daughter.)
Payne grew up in Omaha, where his father ran a 24-hour restaurant (Payne’s mother was a professor of French and Spanish at a local college). When he graduated from Stanford in 1983 (he missed his 40th reunion to attend Middleburg), he applied to five film schools and Columbia journalism school — the latter of which aligns not only with his dedication to documentarylike authenticity, but also with the curiosity that has animated all of his movies. “It’s all the human story,” he says, noting that, had he become a journalist, “my dream job would have been, like, Buenos Aires bureau chief of The Post or the Times or the Miami Herald or something like that. … A career like [New York Times reporter] Alan Riding’s: Madrid, Buenos Aires, Rio, Paris. What a groovy career he had.”
Instead, Payne went to film school at UCLA, where, he recalls, “they encouraged the art spirit and, for lack of a less pretentious term, the auteur spirit. We were proud of Coppola having attended there, [and] Alex Cox, Charles Burnett, the Doors — the Doors met there.” After breaking out with “Citizen Ruth,” a stinging social satire about abortion politics starring Laura Dern, Payne enjoyed a strong run of films that met with critical and, particularly in the case of “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” commercial success. (Payne won Oscars for the screenplays he co-wrote for both films.)
In 2017, Payne directed the futuristic satire “Downsizing” from a script he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator, Jim Taylor. As a sci-fi fantasy — about a world in which people need to shrink to take advantage of dwindling resources — it was a major departure for Payne. It not only bombed at the box office, but also was the worst-reviewed film of what until then had been a preternaturally charmed career. Payne’s memories of the project are mixed. “It was a bit arduous to make,” he says today. “I didn’t enjoy doing visual effects. That stuff’s for the birds. It’s hard enough to shoot people in a car, or people sitting around a table. And then add endless hours of ‘Hmm, there’s not enough contrast in the cloud.’ Who cares?”
He watched “Downsizing” again this past summer, at an environmentally themed film festival in Greece. “I’m still proud of many passages in it, and of midwifing Hong Chau’s performance,” he says. “There’s a very good passage about a half-hour, 40 minutes into the film, where you follow Matt Damon being downsized, that was very impressive to me. And the music is very good … In about 800 years, when everyone actually is small, it will be hailed as a masterpiece.”
Payne had been wanting to do a film like “The Holdovers” for years when, out of the blue, Hemingson sent him a script for a television pilot set at a boarding school; Payne told Hemingson he didn’t want to direct the pilot but asked him to create a script for a feature project that takes place in the same world. Although “The Holdovers” reunites him with Giamatti and shares tonal DNA with his past work, Payne considers it simply his latest movie. “I’m getting questions like, ‘Is this a return to form?’ or ‘Is this a reaction to “Downsizing”?’ You know, ‘going back to a nice, small, human film’? And I say, ‘No, it’s just what the next film is.’ And if it’s more in the pattern of what my films previous to ‘Downsizing’ were, well, it’s just who I am.”
Albert Berger, who with his partner Ron Yerxa produced “Election” and “Nebraska,” had seen an earlier cut of “The Holdovers” but saw the final version at Middleburg. What he saw was “a director, completely on top of his game, who’s able to convey the depth of the human experience, all within an image of two sisters sitting on a bed, or an outdoor bookstore in the snow, or in the way an extra delivers a line. His films are alive with comedy, pain and grace.”
Those were the values that drew Seiji McCarthy, a bespoke shoemaker in Tokyo, to Payne’s films, especially “The Descendants,” which McCarthy re-watched last spring and then emailed Payne (they’re both Stanford graduates). Payne wound up inviting McCarthy to Middleburg, where he sat cross-legged on the couch in McCarthy’s hotel room and asked him about his life for an hour and a half; then McCarthy measured Payne for a pair of shoes.
For McCarthy, the experience was akin to watching one of Payne’s movies. “I found talking to him, and the entire experience at Middleburg, very human, in the best sense of the word,” McCarthy wrote later in an email. “He seems genuinely interested in the human experience — not just his own, but in general and across gender, age, culture, etc. — which is reflected in both his art and in the conversations he has with people.”
Payne agrees with some observers that his films have softened recently, especially since “Sideways.” There are moments of lacerating humor in “The Holdovers,” especially when Hunham is insulting his most lackadaisical students. But there are moments of aching, unapologetic tenderness as well. “With aging, you value emotion more,” Payne observes simply. “And you don’t have that knee-jerk adolescent-based or American-based suspicion of emotion.”
That’s about as far as Payne will go in explaining what “The Holdovers,” or any of his movies, mean. Fans might see a clear through-line, whether the films have to do with road trips, father-son relationships or the turning of a curmudgeonly heart — all of which are on full display in “The Holdovers.” For Payne, however, questions of theme are best left unanswered.
“It’s not my job to talk about theme,” Payne says. “I might get it wrong, too. When I’m making a movie, I’m the one who most knows what it should be. When I’m done making a movie, I’m the one who least knows what that movie is. … I’ll need about 10 years or 15 years to go by and not see it, and then watch it and go, ‘Oh, now I see what they were talking about.’”