Alexander Payne calls editor Kevin Tent his filmmaking partner.
The two first met running in the same L.A. film school circles. Tent cut “Citizen Ruth,” Payne’s feature directorial debut, after editor Carole Kravetz Aykanian recommended him. Ever since, Payne has relied on Tent to come in whenever he’s reading scripts, considering projects and, ultimately, edit his films.
Their latest collaboration, “The Holdovers,” is set in the early 1970s at the fictional Barton Academy, a New England prep school. Paul Giamatti is the curmudgeonly teacher forced to stay on campus during Christmas break to look after the students with nowhere to go
They discuss their shorthand and how they tweaked the film’s opening sequence while shooting it.
Where did “The Holdovers” begin for you?
Payne: It had a unique genesis. The story is taken from a 1935 French film that I saw at the Telluride Film Festival, and it takes place at a boarding school. I hadn’t done anything with that idea yet, but I met [screenwriter] David Hemingson through a pilot script he had written that also takes place at a boarding school. I called him because I thought he could be a good candidate to write this idea up, and we developed the screenplay together. With Kevin, we’re always in touch, so I let him know what I’m up to.
Tent: It seemed like a great story, and he was excited about the idea. Usually, he’ll send me a script and ask for any thoughts.
Payne: I also send them if I happen to read a script that I’m flirting with doing that I’ve not written. I get his input as my filmmaking partner. If I take it on, it’s something that he also is going to take on, so I want him to be on board.
What was it like working with Paul Giamatti again?
Payne: Paul said he enjoyed this experience more than he remembers enjoying “Sideways.” Maybe he felt he could dig a little bit deeper or knew this character a little bit better. But we have a very good sense of what film we’re making and can communicate with each other in monosyllables. We have a very short shorthand. I feel very lucky to work with that guy. As far as guiding him in a performance, I don’t have to. Every take is different. And every take is truthful.
Tent: I talked to AP on the first day. I always do. I said to him, “AP, what’s it like working with Paul again?” and he said, “We’re both giddy.” Paul was so dialed in. David wrote a lot of very difficult language, but Paul was right there on it. I was at our annual meeting at A.C.E. and telling them Paul was in the movie, and one of them said, “Oh yeah, just cut to Paul.”
How did you land on that opening and establishing the town and the school?
Payne: It’s scripted. The first two-thirds of a page of the screenplay suggests introducing the town and the school. The surprise for us was the opening with the choir. I thought we would hear them over the opening credits, but when the choir came, it happened to be on a day we were shooting, so I said, “Why don’t we shoot them as well?” In the cutting room, Kevin and I thought, “Hey, wait a second, why don’t we just open up the movie with that shot and get everyone into the Christmas spirit?” Some of it is scripted, some of it you discover.
Tent: We’ve had a lot of great title sequences, but this is one of my favorites. It’s unusual and it goes on for a long time. You forget you’re watching titles and they come back, and it delivers you right to Paul, which is fun, and we made that up as we were going along.
Payne: We realized the story kicked in in the principal’s office. The director credit falls right before that. The credit sequence is over, the mood music is over, and now let’s get to the story.