The last time that Alexander Payne went big, he had to go small.
In 2017, the writer-director best known and loved for his grounded relationship dramedies (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants) took a giant high-concept leap with Downsizing, a comedy which imagined a world where it was possible to shrink humans – and their existential problems – down to a mere five inches. The critical and audience reaction, which ranged from middling to hostile, likely made Payne feel about the same size as his film’s teeny-tiny Matt Damon.
But six years later, Payne is back standing tall with a new film, The Holdovers.
An intentionally small-scale drama following a prep school’s irascible history professor tasked with watching over a group of students who have nowhere to go over the Christmas holidays, the dramedy marks an explicit return to form. Not only by harkening to the filmmaker’s best-loved project in its casting of Sideways star Paul Giamatti as its central grump, but also in the way in reaches back further in time to ape the look, sound and feel of the character-first dramas of the 1970s that Payne grew up watching.
While attending the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Payne sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss making small old-fashioned films in an industry obsessed with the big new thing.
There is a deliberate seventies feel to this film, from the faux-retro Focus Features logo to the occasional scratches across the frame. What was the inspiration for that direction?
I’ve kind of been making seventies movies in a way my whole career – trying to continue those human comedy dramas, whatever the heck they are called. But this is my first period film, so I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to make it look and sound like it had been made in 1970? A couple other movies have done something similar, like Bait, which some maniac director made to look and sound exactly like it had been filmed in 1963. Paper Moon was also a contemporary filmmaker making a movie that looks like it was made in the thirties.
The scene in which Paul Giamatti’s character takes a trip to Boston looks like it was very expensive to recreate that older time period. The cars, the buildings, the street signage.
It was less expensive than you might think. We had a big budget for cars, yes. But we also digitally removed a couple of offensive modern things. The whole digital fad is good for removing things – I’m not so much interested in putting things in. I did a visual-effects-heavy movie a couple of years ago, and couldn’t stand using digital effects that way.
In addition to being tech-heavy, Downsizing was a high-concept film. The Holdovers is a stripped-down story. Was that something you’ve been trying to pursue ever since?
Yes and no. Every movie requires its own set of circumstances, its own budget and attack. But freedom lies in lower budgets. I remember hearing once, John Huston came up to Luis Buñuel and asked him how he made these wonderful, subversive masterpieces. Luis asked him, “How much are you paid, and how much do you think I’m paid?”
Last year, The Holdovers was sold for distribution during TIFF in the biggest deal to come out of the festival’s market. Do you find it’s getting harder to get these kind of movies made, even for someone like yourself who has such a strong track record?
I don’t remember it ever being easy. At certain points in my career, it’s been maybe less hard. But it’s always been a challenge. This is my eighth feature, and my budgets are often low. Mostly because I don’t want to have a big star in them – I want my movies to look more like real life. If there is a star, like George Clooney in The Descendants, which was perfectly cast, or Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, that’s awesome – it lowers everyone’s blood pressure. But with Sideways, I had to accept a much lower budget because I wanted Paul and Thomas Haden Church, and the studio wanted Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
How has the relationship with Paul developed over the years since Sideways?
It was a little bit in aspic. We had an awesome time doing Sideways and stayed in touch, but then it dwindles. But we always knew we were going to work together again.
Is there a shorthand between the two of you?
Extremely short. Between takes, I’m just like, “Paul, can you … ?” and he’s, “Yep, I got it.”
When we talked a few years ago for Downsizing, you mentioned how a through-line for your films is kindness, as in: What else do we have but that? That still seems to be the case in The Holdovers …
In general, I’m pretty loath to talk about themes in interview situations – it’s easier to talk about process. However, I think I can say that since then, I can recognize my own work. The Descendants has a theme where, in the climax, it’s one of sacrifice. In Nebraska, it’s what the son does for that crazy father. In Downsizing, Matt Damon has to find peace in just giving someone a meal. And in this one, too, yes. I like the idea where the climax of a film is an act of kindness and not violence.
Yes, you’re not making John Wick movies. Though I would like to see your take on that genre with Paul in the lead …
I do want to make a detective noir with Paul where he just gets beat up and shot at over and over, though he solves the case in the end. That’s the kind of movie I want to see.
The Holdovers opens in Toronto theatres Nov. 3 before expanding across the country Nov. 10.
This interview has been condensed and edited.