David Hemingson hadn't actually set out to write a movie. The veteran television writer had scripted a pilot for an hour-long dramedy about his formative years at an elite New England prep school in the 1980s. Unbeknownst to Hemingson, the pilot made its way to Alexander Payne, who asked the writer if he would be interested in writing a movie set in the same world.
Payne, himself a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter for 2004's Sideways and 2011's The Descendants, even had the logline: "An odiferous, ocularly-challenged teacher is obliged to stay over Christmas to babysit a group of students, one of whom has been stranded by his newly remarried mother."
That film became The Holdovers.
"The characters are different, the plot's different, the time period's different, but it is set in that world," Hemingson explains. What also didn't change was how much of himself he put into the story. "It's such a personal film and I poured my heart and soul into it, so it's a love letter to the people who raised me."
The '70s-set The Holdovers centers on a curmudgeonly teacher, Paul Hunham (Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), who finds himself stranded over the holidays with a bright but defiant student, Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), and the school's head cook, Mary Lamb (Best Actress in a Supporting Role nominee Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who is grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War.
After decades working in TV, The Holdovers marks Hemingson's first produced feature, and at the 96th Oscars, he is a first-time Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay. (The Holdovers earned five nominations in total, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing.) Hemingson says the nomination is "a dream come true."
"My mom and I used to sit up and watch the Oscars when I was a kid. I remember when Chariots of Fire won. I was a cross country runner and I remember just being so happy. I have such incredibly resonant, positive memories sharing the Oscars with my mother, especially," he tells A.frame. "I wish she was still here to see it. I think in some ways she is. She lives on in the film. But it's a hugely emotional thing for me, and I'm just really grateful."
A.frame: Before you heard from him, did you know that your pilot had landed on Alexander Payne's desk?
No, I didn't know that! I love my former agent-now manager, Matt Solo, because he's known as having the best taste and the worst bedside manner in Hollywood. When I wrote it, he was like, 'This is really emotionally resonant, and it's well-structured, and it's deeply personal, and it's really interesting.' And I'm like, 'Thanks so much, man!' He goes, 'We can't do f**king anything with this. No one's ever going to make this pilot.' But he believed in it as a piece of writing and as a memory play. And he had heard through another client of his that Alexander had had this idea about an odiferous, ocularly-challenged professor at a prep school and got it to him. But I wasn't fully aware of what happened to the script after I wrote it and then got this wonderful validation/tremendous head trauma from my agent/manager. I went on to create Whiskey Cavalier, while that pilot found its way to Alexander. That was a Charlie Bucket, golden ticket moment. I'm so grateful that Alexander saw something in my work and let me run with it. He let me write this script, and he didn't really lean on me at all. It was fantastic.
Did you end up hearing from your manager first or did Alexander just call you out of the blue?
He just called me! I honestly thought it was just a joke. I had a buddy who got me really good once. This is 15 years ago and he called me up, like, 'David Hemingson, this is Francis Ford Coppola,' and he did the voice, and I bought it. I was like, 'Oh my God, Mr. Coppola! It's such an honor to talk to you.' He said, 'Well, I have something I thought you might be interested in,' and I was like, 'This is amazing...' And then he was like, 'F**k you, it's me. Why would Coppola call you? Let's go get a beer.' I'm a comedy writer by trade and we really love to prank each other, so I assumed that I was getting my chain pulled until I saw the Omaha area code. I had the good sense not to start flinging obscenities at somebody I thought was a friend of mine and turned out to be world-class cultural luminary in the form of Alexander Payne.
So, Alexander Payne comes back to you with this logline, and I know that was inspired by the French film, Merlusse. Did he share that with you at the time?
No. He just had this idea, and I think the logline is very similar [to that movie], which is from 1935. But I wanted this to be my own thing, to dig down into what matters once we get past the logline. And he said to me, 'Populate this world. Build this story.' And I did that, and I did it largely trying to traffic in my memories as much as possible, ground in my uncle, and my mom, and me, to some extent. I just wrote the truth of what I knew that world to be, because I grew up in it. I saturated myself in those memories and tried to construct a story that landed some of the emotional imperatives that I wanted to get into the movie.
Strangely, the movies that were more influential to me, not from a plot standpoint or a specific character standpoint but from a tonal standpoint, were '70s movies like The Last Detail and Five Easy Pieces. These small, meditative films that got you into a character's headspace and history with maximum clarity, and that also take their time. These movies take their time. And I wanted to do that.
After so many years working in TV and in writers' rooms, what was it like to set out on your own to write this feature? Was it an adjustment?
It was terrifying and spectacular. I've written a lot of pilots — I've created five TV shows and run seven — and being a showrunner is a weirdly solitary process, in some respects. So, as much as I am a social animal and very much love being with writers on a TV show, I'm used to doing some heavy lifting on my own. I was used to the loneliness of the long-distance runner — to quote another '70s movie — because a lot of writing is done that way. But the great thing about writing a movie is it's on a longer timeline, so you can relax around the ideas and give yourself time to think, and explore, and accept and reject things that may or may not work. Whereas in television, the beast has got to be fed. And I wrote this movie on spec, so it wasn't like we had a timeline, and then COVID hit. So, there was a lot of time for me to sit with this idea and with these people and get to know them, which was incredibly gratifying, and at times scary.
When you know that you're writing for a filmmaker with a very specific voice, how do you balance writing to that voice and also maintaining your own?
The good news is the Venn diagram of the way Alexander and I think and approach things is very close. It's very, very close. Also, I'm super conversant in what he does, because I was a huge fan before he asked me to do this. I knew his tone. I knew that there was a smart, wry, emotionally-grounded, humanist perspective that he was running toward. And if you look at the movie, it's distinguishable from his other work. There's a tone that's slightly different but still Alexander, and I think that that's the combination of the two of our sensibilities. And I think part of the reason he tapped me is he wanted that different perspective. I'm the soppy one — I'm the easy crier — but I don't think the film is at all soppy. But I do think I knew that he wanted truth, but he wants to say it without saying it. He's not an obvious filmmaker. He's a subtle filmmaker, but he's got a definite perspective on the human condition, which I fundamentally share. So, it was really not hard for me to crawl into his headspace, and also to maintain my own independence and my own sense of the narrative and these characters.
Because these people are real to me. They're very much based on the people that I loved and had a huge impact on me. Writing Paul was not incredibly hard, because we knew that we wanted this pedantic prep school professor, but I was raised by this guy! So, I was just channeling my uncle. I tried to leave as much space for Da'Vine with Mary, because that wasn't my lived experience, but I knew what that kind of love and that kind of ferocious dedication and that kind of strength looked like because my mother had it. So, I was able to keep that alive.
Alexander has said that he was always thinking of Paul Giamatti for this role. How early on did he share that with you? Were you also writing for Paul Giamatti?
It was the second conversation. The second conversation he said, 'How do you feel about Paul Giamatti?' And my answer was, 'I love Paul Giamatti! What's not to love?' Strangely, his dad and my dad knew each other in college, I found out. Isn't that crazy? But I didn't know that Paul and I were born in the same hospital. We grew up in the same town. So, the Paul Giamatti of it all was manna from heaven. It was exactly what I wanted to hear, because he's a brilliant actor, and he has such incredible range. So, I tailored this for him like a suit.
What did you lean into?
His timing and his capacity for the slow burn. His face is so expressive that you could give him that frustration. You could give him that zeal for a topic, like his passionate defense of Marcus Aurelius, or his deep and abiding belief in certain principles, and I knew that he could express that kind of unshakable belief, and he could do it comedically. I knew that whatever language at whatever speed I threw at him, that he could manage that, because I'd seen his other work. He's incredible in John Adams, so that was a big inspiration for me. Big Fat Liar was a big inspiration! Miles [in Sideways], obviously, Harvey Pekar [in American Splendor], all those great characters, I knew his work, so I knew that his range was extraordinary, and I knew specifically that his comedic timing was exquisite, so I knew that I could lean into that.
He has these delicious burns, for lack of a better word. How many of those were set in stone in the script, or were you writing endless alts to try on the day?
All those burns — hormonal vulgarian, snarling Visigoths — those were all things that I wrote because they were leveled at me when I was a kid. I was accused of the most heinous crimes that I didn't commit, but by a man who I loved very deeply and who saved me from a troubled adolescence, and he did it with the most extraordinary baroque profanity. So, absolutely none of those burns were improvised. Those were my Uncle Earl.
Is there one of those insults that you're still particularly tickled by when you hear it in the movie?
I do love it when he says, 'Listen up, you hormonal vulgarian. That woman deserves your respect, not your erotic speculation.' I just love the idea of erotic speculation as being something that Angus would engage in and that Paul would judge. I love that one. I love, 'Sex is 99 percent friction, 1 percent goodwill.' I love the fact that he calls him a cretin and a bore after basically saving his life, because it was always going to be about that almost drill sergeant mentality of never allowing this kid to get away with anything. Because I was never allowed to get away with anything! And it was a great experience for me, because it's easy to feel sorry for yourself when you're broke, you got a single parent household, and I was always told to love and respect my mother, and he — Uncle Earl — would always close his letters to me with the line, 'Take care of your mother. She's valuable.' He never let me forget that when she was working as hard as she did, and so it was great to be able to take that love filtered through that degree of baroque profanity and put it on the screen.
That speaks to what I find so impressive about your script, which is that it's poignant without being schmaltzy or overly saccharine. How did you find that on the page?
For me, it's really about the emotional truth that I lived. It is my lived emotional truth, for lack of a better term! Maybe it's because I'm from New England, maybe it's the nature of the people who raised me, but I think you can say 'I love you' without having it be this super saccharine Hallmark moment. I think with most things, it's not what you say, it's what you do. And so, the idea of being there for someone unequivocally and unswervingly — like my uncle was there for me, like my mother was there for me — and also blowing that same person's s**t at the same time gives it a richness. It becomes a utilitarian thing if it's not just, 'I love you.' It's, 'I love you, and here's some things that you need to work on.' I always found that to be a really lovely way of believing in someone, because if you believe in someone, you take the time to think through what's best for them. And I got very lucky in that regard. And I think that Paul is trying to do that with his students. I think he does love them. He resents those kids, he's wounded by what happened to him, but he says, 'I love Barton. Barton's my life. I don't know where I'd be without Barton.' I think all of that is a hundred percent true, and I think all of that is concretized and finally expressed in what he does for Angus ultimately, which is to stick to his principles and do the thing Bartonmen don't do, which is to lie to save the kid.
When you think back, is there a scene you're particularly proud of in this moment? Either because you know how hard it was to crack, or you just like the way the writing sings on-screen?
That's a tough one! Because I spent so much time and I worked so hard on this movie. One of the hardest scenes to write was Angus's monologue, which starts with, 'He used to be fun. He used to be better than fun. He used to be great. He used to be my dad.' You'll notice that Alexander holds off on his close-ups in this movie — he uses them very judiciously — and the fact that we're on that kid's face, and by the way, I think it was the second take. It stays right there on him. I put a line in the middle of it so that it wasn't a solid page-long monologue. But that monologue is long. And that was really hard to write, because it had to be true. And I had to get into all the things that I was scared about when I was growing up, about my parents, the collapse of my parents' marriage, and the fact that I felt very alone, what that meant for me, and what was my destiny based upon what had happened? That was probably the hardest one to write. And the fact that it works, and that Dom pulls it off, and I hope that it impacts people, I think that is my proudest moment in some respects in the movie.
But that was the hardest one, honestly. My wife would come into my study at one o'clock in the morning and I'd be pretty overwrought sitting there with a cup of coffee, like, 'Goddamn it!' And she'd be like, 'What is it? You seem really upset.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm trying to put myself in the headspace of this kid again.' It's got to be true; the audience can smell falsity. If you're lying to people, they can smell it. So my goal was to be as real as possible with these people, have it be this time in this place and have it be slightly elevated and comedically charged, but the emotions have got to be real and the emotions have got to be felt. So, for me, it was hard to get to, but it was a very valuable process. I think my therapist would agree.
By John Boone
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category for an interview.