Born in Omaha, Nebraska, to two parents of Greek heritage, two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne was awarded Greek citizenship last year around the time he was working on his latest feature, The Holdovers.
In line with the honor, Payne has returned to his adoptive home to present The Holdovers as one of the centerpiece screenings at this year’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
More from Deadline
“I’ve screened almost all my films here,” Payne said, addressing the crowd at a presser in Thessaloniki this afternoon.
The Holdovers, Payne’s eighth feature, is a 70s-set comedy centered around Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a bad-tempered tutor at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually, he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — the damaged, brainy troublemaker Angus (Dominic Sessa) — and the school’s head cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who has just lost a son in Vietnam.
The pic was penned by writer David Hemingson, best known as the creator of Whiskey Cavalier, and marks the second feature Payne has directed from a screenplay he didn’t write. The director’s two Oscars are both in the Adapted Screenplay category. When asked whether he found it difficult to direct a script he didn’t originate, Payne wryly responded with a joke.
“If AI could write a script for me, I would be so happy,” he joked. “I trained as a director, not a writer. To be a filmmaker, you write, direct, and edit. But I much prefer directing to writing. Writing is hard, and I’m slow at it.”
Payne added that he considered The Holdovers as his first experience “directing a writer” as he commissioned the screenplay.
“I found the writer. I gave him the premise, and we came up with the story together. He showed me many drafts. I got involved in the writing even though I don’t have credit, and the result was something personal to us both.”
On his lead actor Paul Giamatti, with whom he reunited on this pic after 2004 Oscar winner Sideways, Payne said there was no version of this feature in his mind without Giamatti.
“The character is named Paul for a reason. I told the writer from the beginning that we’re writing for Paul Giamatti,” Payne said. “I called Paul, and I said, ‘We’re writing something for you.’”
Payne described Giamatti as “the greatest actor.”
“There’s nothing that he can’t do. If the part is generally right for him, give it to Paul Giamatti,” he said. “It’s like giving a part to Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier. You’re just curious what this great actor is going to do with the part. He’s that good.”
The Holdovers is currently on a limited release stateside and opens wide on November 10 via Focus Features, which acquired the pic out of last year’s Toronto Film Festival for around $30M. When quizzed on what he planned to work on following The Holdovers, Payne said he plans to reteam with Hemingson.
“We’re conceiving a Western right now,” Payne said of himself and Hemingson. “I’ve always wanted to make a real Western. There’s another project that I have. The screenplay isn’t quite ready, but it takes place in Paris and is in the French language.”
He added: “I still think just about movies and not TV series.”
The Thessaloniki International Film Festival runs until November 12.
Best of Deadline