“People ask ‘How is it you’re making these human comedy-dramas? I’m like, ‘Why aren’t other people?’ And I don’t want to say I am the only one. A lot of quality stuff is being done on streamers, both features and series. Now that the superhero kind of hegemon takes up a lot of real estate in theaters, a lot of other writing is taking place on streaming. And I am so grateful for that. But I do wish we had a larger percentage of theatrical real estate dedicated to more human films,” Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) said during a Q&A at Deadline’s Contenders Film event in LA.
The film from Focus Features, which premiered at Telluride, has been in theaters since late October and is doing quite nicely. It stars Paul Giamatti as a cranky history teacher at a New England boarding school who is forced to remain on campus over the holidays with a troubled student – newcomer Dominic Sesa — who was dumped by his mother and stepfather and has no place to go.
Also staying at fictional Barton Academy is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) the head of the school’s cafeteria who is grieving the loss of her son, a Barton alumnus, in the Vietnam War. After a rocky start, the three form a kind of ad hoc family but things go a bit off the rails when they take an impromptu trip to Boston.
Payne said he’d always wanted to do a kind of left-at-boarding-school-for-the-holidays film since seeing a 1935 French picture called Merlusse, but he never got around to researching it. Then he read a prep-school-set television pilot by Hemingson and called him.
“When you get the phone call, you immediately say ‘yes’. At first I thought it was a joke, I almost hung up the phone, but then I saw the Omaha area code,” recalls Hemingson, who called the screenplay “deeply emotional” and a “love letter to the people who raised me.”
The film set in 1971 has a grainy look that they were all proud of. “It was shot digitally, but we put a lot of work into making it look like an old movie,” Payne said. “That was the thought experiment fantasy challenge that I gave myself and my collaborators…It’s a period movie but we told ourselves we are not making a period film, we are making a contemporary film pretending we are in 1970.”
Check back Monday for the panel video.
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