Writer David Hemingson On Turning a Spec Script Into a Major Motion Picture
- The Holdovers is the latest film from director Alexander Payne, starring Paul Giamatti and newcomer Dominic Sessa in a heartwarming story set in a boarding school during Christmas break.
- The film, written by David Hemingson, was originally envisioned as a TV pilot but was reworked into a feature film by Payne. It is a mix of intimate drama and knee-slapping comedy.
- Hemingson worked closely with Payne during the production, who had a specific vision for the film. The collaboration resulted in a beautiful snapshot of 1970s New England.
Paul Giamatti and young newcomer Dominic Sessa star in The Holdovers, the latest film from director Alexander Payne, and his first collaboration with Giamatti since 2004’s Sideways. Set in 1970, Giamatti stars as a somewhat cantankerous teacher at a boarding school for boys who are forced to spend Christmas on campus with a group of “holdovers,” or students who are unable to return home for vacation and must remain at school themselves. Sessa, in his feature film debut, plays one of the students, who begins to form an unlikely bond with his ornery and odiferous professor.
The Holdovers is one of the rare Payne projects to not be written by the man himself, a quality it shares with 2013’s Nebraska. Instead, The Holdovers is written by David Hemingson, who initially envisioned the story as a television pilot before he was asked, by Payne himself, to heavily retool the project into its current state. The result is one of the year’s most intimate and heartfelt dramas, but also one that’s loaded with knee-slapping comedy moments that underscore its coming-of-age sensibilities.
Screen Rant interviewed writer and producer David Hemingson about his work on The Holdovers, from the research required to craft an authentic 1970s setting to drawing inspiration from his own life and upbringing. He spoke about how the story went from a television pilot set in the 1980s to a feature film set a decade earlier, and how he almost thought his first phone call with Alexander Payne was nothing more than a prank played by a mischievous friend, to the point where he nearly cursed him out and hung up the phone.
Writer David Hemingson Reflects On The Youthful Vibrancy Of The Holdovers
Screen Rant: I saw the movie weeks ago now, maybe a month ago, but it’s been pinballing around in my head.
David Hemingson: Oh my God!
Screen Rant: I mean, there’s not a whole lot else going on in there, but…
David Hemingson: (Laughs) Yes there is! You’re a complicated guy. You’re a complicated guy, don’t tell me you aren’t. I know you are, I can tell.
Screen Rant: I’m so glad you said that, because I think of what it means to be human, and the idea of having these paradoxes, like hating school and hating your teachers, but carrying their wisdom for your entire life.
David Hemingson: Yeah! They have a positive, and sometimes negative influence. Sometimes they model what not to do. But oftentimes, you know, there’s stuff you’re not ready for, back in the day. It could be the context of adolescence, which is a difficult and fraught time to begin with, but oftentimes, teachers, and my dad was a teacher, teachers will give you things that don’t really come to fruition for decades. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll be like, “Oh my God, that’s what they were talking about,” you know? Which is awesome! I think that’s what great teachers do. And even bad teachers do that sometimes, you know? (Laughs)
Screen Rant: Sure! So, if I’m not mistaken, this started out as a TV spec script. As an idea for a series, right?
David Hemingson: Yeah! What happened was, I wrote this pilot about my own personal experiences at this prep school. The name of the pilot is “Stone Haven.” It’s very much the story of me going to this school. My parents had divorced and I was kind of estranged from my dad. He was teaching there, and it was sort of like, my uncle, who had become my de facto father, and this sort of troika of people who were influencing me. Alexander got a hold of it and had been thinking about this idea for about a dozen years, about a prep school over Christmas. He called me up out of the blue. I almost hung up on him because I thought someone was bullsh*tting me! I’m dead serious, man! I have a buddy named Bob, he’s a screenwriter, and he has, in the past, called me up and kind of disguised his voice and said, “David Hemingston? Francis Ford Coppola.” And I’m like, “Oh, oh, oh God, how did you…?”
And I’ll get all breathless and be like, “I don’t know what to say!” And he’s like, “Sike! You’re an idiot! Let’s go get a beer!” And I’m like, “Why are you so cruel to me? I don’t understand!” The phone call came while I was driving back from LAX, and I didn’t even see who it was, since I was kind of tired. I picked up the phone. “David Hemingston, it’s Alexander Payne.” And I was about to say, “Fu*k you, Bob!” and hang up, but then I saw the Omaha area code, and was like, “Is this really Alexander Payne?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah. yeah, I know.” He said, “I read your TV pilot, I loved it.” I thought, okay, great, he’s going to make my pilot!
Immediately, he says, “I don’t want to make your pilot.” “But I would love it if you wrote a movie for me in the same world. So would you write a prep school movie for me?” And I was like, yeah, I’ll do that right now, absolutely! And that’s how it happened. He read the pilot. And he had a logline for the movie he wanted. It was kind of like, ‘ocular-challenged, odiferous professor stuck at Christmas as punishment with these kids, and one of the kids’ mother has abandoned him because she’s gone on her honeymoon.’ That’s what he had. Go! Everything else, I kinda made up everything else.
Screen Rant: That’s awesome. That’s a great story! So, you didn’t know Alexander at that point?
David Hemingson: No. But one of the reasons I’m still with my non-manager, used to be my agent, was, I wrote this pilot, and he was like, “I really like this weird little pilot you wrote, it’s so specific nobody will ever make it, thanks for wasting my time and yours. (Laughs) But I guess I’ll hold onto it because it’s a nice piece of writing.” And he managed to give it to a friend of Alexander, because he’d heard from the friend, who was also a client of my manager, so he had a client who knew Alexander, and got it to him through that client.
Screen Rant: Not to put the cart in front of the horse or anything, but would you like to expand that pilot as like a sequel/spin-off kind of thing to the movie?
David Hemingson: I don’t think it would ever line up with The Holdovers, because it’s set in 1980. I think, between you and me, brother, I think it would make a great TV show, I still do. I think, who knows, we’ll see what happens with The Holdovers, but I’d love to make that show, because I think, it’s a period piece, but from 1980, that one. It’s a slightly different vibe, you know?
Screen Rant: Had you written a movie before? Most of your published work is TV, I imagine it’s a similar, but different skill.
David Hemingson: It is, that’s exactly right, you’re entirely correct. It’s a similar but different skill. I had written films, I sold a movie, with my buddy Bob, I want to say 15 years ago. I had written one or two movies. But I spent all my time developing and working in television. I would say, I know how to write a movie, but I didn’t know how to write an Alexander Payne movie. Which is a different thing, you know? I had to learn. I kind of went to film school on Alexander’s back, because I had to educate myself. We wanted to make a 70s film. I knew his whole oeuvre, I knew everything he had done, but he was like, “I want to make it a Hal Ashby movie!” I had seen Hal Ashby movies, but in order to write The Holdovers, I basically… I want to give a shout-out, and this is really important to me, to CineFile Video on the corner of Sawtelle and Santa Monica Bl, and two guys, Greg and JP, who work there, who basically helped me become a screenwriter, a real, true screenwriter, by turning me on to movies. I’d go in looking for the Ashby stuff, and we’d get into it. and he’d go, “You’ve gone through that, but you’ve gotta check out the Altman over here, or you know what dovetails nicely?” Because they knew the nature of the project. “This Truffaut movie, The 400 Blows, check that out!” So I spent, honestly, man, about 18 months watching dozens and dozens of 70s movies. And French New Wave cinema, and Italian Neo Realist cinema, to be able to write The Holdovers.
Screen Rant: Nice. And it’s not just watching them. It’s dissecting them!
David Hemingson: Absolutely, man! 100%! Taking notes. Sometimes outlining the pictures as they’re going by, as quickly as I could, to go, “what is the narrative sequence? How are the characters changing? What’s the shift? What’s the amplification?” You know? It’s very granular.
Screen Rant: Wow. So, you write the movie, and then are you on set? Or is it like sending your kid off to school?
David Hemingson: I produced this one, too, so I was on set for this one, which was great! And I’m very glad I was. I hope I offered Alexander some insight. The nature of our collaboration is that, when I was on set, I would watch, because I’d been a showrunner, so I know you don’t want to step into anybody’s zone, so I would just watch. And if I thought there was something in the screenplay that was being missed or needed amplification, I’d just whisper in his ear. And then he’d either do it or not do it. But film is a director’s medium, so I was honored and delighted to be on set, I never want to be anywhere but on set, but you don’t always get that, you know? I was very lucky.
Screen Rant: As producer, did you have any input on casting?
David Hemingson: Absolutely! All the major roles, we went through together. We disagreed sometimes, and honestly, director is the tie-breaking vote, but I leaned on a few things that got done, and that made me very proud. He might have gone in that direction, but a few actors, I was like, “That kid is amazing, you have to get him. I think he’s perfect and here’s why,” and he would listen. Alexander is a brilliant guy and a great collaborator. I mean, it’s really lovely to work with him, you know?
Screen Rant: I’ve talked to writers and all the collaboration that just has to happen, just by the nature of the beast, it’s you and it’s Alexander, and I imagine Paul has a lot to say about his character.
David Hemingson: He does! The thing about Paul, and you know, I wrote this for Paul; that’s why the character’s name is Paul. That was the second or third conversation with Payne was sort of like, “How do you feel about Paul Giamatti?” And I was like, “I love Paul Giamatti! I want to go on vacation with Paul Giamatti! What can I do? I’ll do anything with Paul Giamatti!” He’s like, “Write this picture for him.” I said, “No problem.” So yeah. He’s great. His interpretation was pretty consistent with… Honestly, he did exactly what I was hoping he would do with the character. I wrote it with him in mind, and he crushed it. I’m biased, man, but I think he crushed it. I think he did a great job.
Screen Rant: The movie is fantastic. It’s a beautiful snapshot. I wasn’t around in the 70s, but it felt like I was there.
David Hemingson: Awesome, I’m so glad to hear that, thank you. It was meant to be a moment in time, both timely and time-less. I wanted it to be of that time, but also have implications for now and going forward, you know?
Screen Rant: I’m from New York City, but that depiction of the northeast region is so lovely! I love it.
David Hemingson: You’re from New York City, are you in New York City right now? I love New York. I went to law school in New York.
About The Holdovers
From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) 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 — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
Check out our other interview with composer Mark Orton.
The Holdovers is playing in select theaters now before expanding nationwide on November 10.
Cast:Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston
Genres:Comedy, Drama, Holiday
Studio(s):MiraMax, Gran Via