David Hemingson always tempers his expectations while writing. In his nearly 30 years of working in TV, he’s come to expect that whatever episode gets produced from his teleplays is going to be “two or three steps below whatever I envision in my head.”
“That’s fine,” Hemingson told TheWrap. “That’s just a natural consequence of the filming process.”
But such expectations just made his experience on his feature film writing debut, “The Holdovers,” even more mind-blowing to him, long before it nabbed him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
“‘The Holdovers’ ended up being four times the film I put on the page, and I credit Alexander [Payne, director] and the entire cast for that,” Hemingson said. “They not only captured the essence of the characters as I wrote them but just added more levels to it.”
Set in a New England boarding school in 1970, “The Holdovers” stars Paul Giamatti in a major Oscar-contending performance as Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly history teacher feared and hated by his students and kept at a distance by his fellow faculty.
When he is left taking care of the students who have to stay behind during the holidays, he forms an unlikely bond with a promising but troubled student named Angus (Dominic Sasse) and the school’s cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is mourning the loss of her son.
Given its setting and Giamatti’s nuanced performance as a snarky teacher, “The Holdovers” is sure to evoke memories of nightmare teachers in the minds of many who view it. But while the film’s snowy boarding school setting was influenced by Hemingson’s education at Watkinson School in Hartford in the 1980s, Hunham himself wasn’t inspired by a teacher, but by his uncle.
Hemingson said that with his mother working all day as a nurse, his uncle took care of him growing up. “He was a WWII vet from Washington State and read all of these classic novels that gave him a sort of 19th Century way of talking, and the war gave him a jaded view of humanity,” he explained.
“Pretty much all the best lines came from him. Lines like, ‘Sex is 1% friction and 99% goodwill,’ and, ‘Life is like a henhouse ladder: s—-y and short,’ were taken verbatim from my uncle,” Hemingson revealed.
When it came time to work on the script with Payne, Hemingson realized that he needed to brush up on his cinema in order to discuss the tone of “The Holdovers” with the veteran director, as Payne would assuredly want to use classic ’70s films like “Harold & Maude” as inspiration. So Hemingson turned to CineFile, the popular West L.A. video rental store next to the Nuart Theatre, to give him a crash course.
“I ended up watching all of Hal Ashby’s films, all of Robert Altman … just to get a sense of the tone and humanism of ’70s films that ‘The Holdovers’ commemorates,” Hemingson said. “Truffaut’s films were also a big influence, especially ‘The 400 Blows,’ which is a film about a misunderstood teen that really influenced the sense of desperation that Angus feels over the course of the movie.”
Another classic film influence was Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” from 1973. Starring Jack Nicholson, the movie follows two Navy lifers tasked with escorting an 18-year-old seaman to the brig on a trip from Virginia to Maine, but who turn the trip into a final ride of fun before the young man is put behind bars.
While the bittersweet ending of “Holdovers” diverges from the more depressing ending of “Last Detail,” Hemingson noted that the two films share the common thread of unlikely companions bonding while on a winter road trip.
“The ice skating scene in our film was a nod to the scene in ‘Last Detail’ where they go ice skating in New York,” he said.
Once his script was handed over to Payne and the cast, Hemingson said he was in awe of what they did with it. Randolph is the early frontrunner in the Oscars’ Best Supporting Actress race for her performance as Mary, whom Hemingson wrote after his mother but tried to leave spaces in the script for Randolph to add her own take on the character. Giamatti is also a major contender to win Best Actor, having already secured wins at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards.
“The subtle strength with which Da’Vine approached her portrayal of Mary … the looks that she gave, the quiet moments that are just sublime, they are just driven by her performance,” Hemingson said. “And Giamatti just floors me. There are scenes where I’m looking at his eyes and I can see five thoughts moving through his head just by looking at him, and he’s got a glass eye!”