David Hemingson has been working in television for nearly three decades, as the showrunner of series like Kitchen Confidential and Whiskey Cavalier. His latest pitch was an hour-long dramedy, entitled Stonehaven, based on his experiences at an elite all-boys prep school in the '80s. The pilot landed on the desk of two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, who liked the script but asked Hemingson to instead write a film set in the same world.
"He gave me 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,'" recalls the writer. "After that, he gave me free rein."
The film is The Holdovers. Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti plays a cantankerous boarding school teacher who finds himself stranded over the holiday break with a band of misfit students and staff (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa and Da'Vine Joy Randolph). Like Stonehaven, the film is set in New England, although the time period was ultimately changed to the 1970s.
"Writing The Holdovers taught me to run a different kind of race," Hemingson says. "If TV is a marathon, movies are a sprint. Your entire story — every theme, every joke, every escalation, revelation, reversal and resolution — has to fit into a parking spot that is only two hours wide. There is no 'next week' in movie land."
The Holdovers marks Hemingson's feature film debut as both a screenwriter and producer. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and screened at TIFF, where it was first runner-up for the People's Choice Award. Hemingson has already begun discussing another collaboration with Payne, in addition to scripting a feature for Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ramin Bahrani.
"Writing and producing The Holdovers has been a revelation for me," he reflects. "I am so grateful for the opportunity to make this movie, because I got to work with some of the most extraordinary artists I've ever encountered — Alexander chief among them. The process taught me to elevate the emotional truth of the story above everything else. Whatever I do in film and television going forward, I'm going to keep that Holdovers spirit alive."
Below, Hemingson shares with A.frame his Top 5.
Written and Directed by: Bruce Robinson
My favorite comedy of all time. It's a two-hander starring Richard E. Grant in a career-making performance as Withnail, a wine-swilling, weed-smoking, out-of-work actor whose brilliance is matched only by his destructive self-loathing. Paul McGann is Marwood, the 'I' of the title, Withnail's handsome, anxious, and marginally more stable flatmate. The two desperate thespians escape soot-smeared London for a weekend in the country, only to encounter slashing rain, lurking poachers, randy bulls, an empty larder, and Withnail's flamboyant Uncle Monty, who shows up unexpectedly with desperately needed food and booze — and a secret agenda.
These increasingly desperate circumstances drive some of the funniest, sharpest, most deliciously profane dialogue in the history of cinema. Withnail and I is a fractured coming-of-age story, set at the end of an era, and like most of my favorite movies, it's also a love story.
Directed by: Richard C. Sarafian | Written by: Guillermo Cabrera Infante
In 1971, when I was barely 7 years old, Vanishing Point came to Middletown, Connecticut. My Uncle John was a big movie buff and he wanted to see it, so he piled me and my cousin, who was 6, into the trunk of his Olds Delta 88 and snuck us into the drive-in.
Vanishing Point is a gritty B-picture starring Barry Newman as Kowalski, a Vietnam vet-turned-speed freak who is hired to drive a supercharged white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. Kowalski quickly draws the heat of the highway patrol. In the process of outrunning the growing army of cops trying to stop him, he becomes a turbo-charged John Dillinger, low on gasoline, high on Benzedrine, and increasingly determined to go out in a blaze of glory.
Vanishing Point rattled my child's mind like a thunderclap. It was the first time I realized that heroes didn't have to be Disney-perfect; they could be dangerous and desperate, as long as their quest makes sense to them and to the audience. I've been drawn to complicated antiheroes ever since.
Written and Directed by: Mike Leigh
This great little movie from director Mike Leigh stars Sally Hawkins as Poppy, an unfailingly kind primary school teacher with an incredibly sunny disposition. When her bicycle is stolen, Poppy decides to take driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan), a lonely, rage-fueled conspiracy theorist who gradually falls in love with her despite being initially infuriated by her easygoing approach toward the rules of the road.
When Scott's affection curdles into obsession, Poppy learns that there are limits to what kindness can do. Yet even after narrowly escaping real violence in the harrowing climax, Poppy refuses to abandon her generous view of humanity. I just love how Sally Hawkins embodies this luminous, decent, quietly heroic woman. It's a brilliant study in soft power that makes me want to create characters with compelling and unexpected points of view.
Directed by: François Truffaut | Written by: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
François Truffaut's autobiographical debut is so real, so fraught, so utterly heartbreaking, it's impossible to watch — and impossible not to watch. 14-year-old Antoine is an only child marooned in his parents' unhappy marriage. From the first frame, we see how life conspires to push Antoine's world off its axis. A bright kid who is humiliated at school, Antoine plays hooky, only to witness his mother cheating on his dad. Scorched by the shock of her infidelity, he tries to run away, turning to thievery to fund his escape and landing in reform school in the process. Truffaut masterfully shows us how parental neglect and institutional cruelty transform a sweet, sensitive, lonely kid into a truant and an outcast. The heartbreaking arc of Antoine's bitter coming-of-age story leaves me legless every time. It's a humanist masterpiece.
Written and Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
What's not to love about The Big Lebowski? Jeff Bridges is masterful as The Dude, a 40-something slacker who stumbles backwards into the role of a Chandler-esque private eye. The plot is a teetering Jenga tower of dizzy escalations and unexpected reversals. There's gunplay, seduction, amputation, police brutality, lingonberry pancakes, two dream sequences, and an aquatic marmot attack. But as fun as all of this is, it's eclipsed by the real joy at the center of this movie: The friendship between The Dude and Walter — John Goodman.
These two are a perpetually bickering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, caught in a crossfire hurricane of deceit and betrayal on the eve of their bowling league semifinals. They argue over nothing, break up, make up, alternately curse and rescue each other as their plans spiral out of control. When their dim-witted companion Donnie — Steve Buscemi — dies suddenly at the bottom of the second act, it's a punch in the gut, because somehow, the Coens have breached our emotional defenses inside a Trojan horse of comedy and profanity. This movie has such a rabid fanbase that it's spawned a religion — Dudeism. If that's not something to aspire to, I don’t know what is.