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Director Alexander Payne Returns to Middleburg Film Festival

Reunites with Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

Because Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska helped launch the first Middleburg Film Festival in 2013, there’s symmetry in his return to the Director Spotlight this year. With him, he brought The Holdovers, his eighth feature film and one that united him with his Sideways actor Paul Giamatti.

In the movie, Giamatti plays a curmudgeonly instructor at a 1970’s-era New England prep school forced, as punishment for flunking the son of a big donor, to babysit students who must remain on campus during Christmas break. The universally disliked teacher ends up forging a makeshift family with a “damaged, brainy troublemaker” – a student played by an ingenue actor Dominic Sessa, who was a drama student at one of the four Massachusetts boarding schools where the movie was filmed – and the school’s cook, who just lost her only son in Vietnam, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Why a boarding school a half century ago? Payne quipped, “The script was ready,” a reference to the recently resolved writers’ strike. But on a deeper level, he says he liked a script the author David Hemingson wrote for a series pilot with the same theme, and ordered up a feature-length version. He says he wanted to return to a period in film that made the biggest “imprint” on his own sensibilities as a filmgoer. But it’s not a period film, rather a film produced as if it were a low budget film actually made in the 1970’s, complete with seventies-appropriate fonts in the title screen.

He typically detests “period” pieces that overdo attention to detail – “Look at this wallpaper; look at this costume; look at these hairdos and look at these period appropriate kitchen appliances.” Rather than immerse the viewer in the film, they become more of an attention draw than the actual story. By shooting in Massachusetts, he says he found many locations which haven't changed since the era. “There's a candle pin bowling alley there; there's a diner and they're really unchanged.” The fictitious academy is an amalgam of four boarding schools and a public school, and the extras included 150 “teenage boys with the right hair.”

Beyond atmospherics, of course, there’s the assembled talent. Of Giamatti, he said, “The reason he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar [for Sideways] was because he made it look so easy.” Giamatti rises to a level of professionalism like Meryl Streep or Sir Laurence Olivier, he added, admitting he often asked for a third or fourth take of a scene that was already perfect, “because I can and because in that moment I become as much filmgoer as filmmaker, just wanting to see what he’d do with it.”

It's an approach he takes into all of his filmmaking, assembling all the right ingredients, then waiting to see what happens. “If I don't have a really great idea of how the scene should go, that's okay. We'll figure it out.” He explains that filmmakers should embark on each film with the same eagerness and nervousness as their first, but especially with “curiosity about how it's going to turn out.... It's like cooking. You try to get good ingredients. You don't know exactly how your recipe is going to turn out. Every time you make it. It's a little bit different. We just hope it's edible!”

Payne has been lauded for how often he can make audiences both laugh and cry in the same movie. It’s not so much intention as observation that lends his work that facility, he says, and maybe that comes from his second career choice, journalism. “I'll say this. I think that it's comedy directors who are uniquely at that depth, not drama directors. Comedy directors are most capable to achieve what's called emotional effects without sentimentality.”

Being a truly great director may also rely on another quality: “The degree to which you can make friends with despair. Honestly, if you want to be a filmmaker, it's not a job choice. It's a lifestyle choice and part of that lifestyle is making friends with despair – how long it takes to get things done. What happens if you fail? Picking yourself up, blocking yourself off. It's a tough road. And now, at 62 I certainly feel more grateful than ever.”

We’re grateful for two reasons: That Payne also has made himself a friend of the Middleburg Film Festival and that The Holdovers will at least in part quench our thirst for more of Giamatti after Billions’ last season is history.

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