“Personally, I Like a Director Who Trusts Me to Do the Best Job I’m Trained to Do”: In Conversation with Costume Designer Wendy Chuck

“The Holdovers” (2023), directed by Alexander Payne. Focus Features

 

Costume designer Wendy Chuck has worked with Alexander Payne for the last twenty-five years. A collaboration of seven feature films that started with the blistering satire Election, continued with the paean of life that is Sideways, and which has recently given us one of the best films of last year, The Holdovers, a film that stands out through its compelling humanity, through not conforming to a traditional genre or to one particular view of life and people. In Alexander Payne’s sincere, unadorned and patient visualisation of the three characters (Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who are forced to stay together on the school campus over the holidays, we are right there with them, getting to know them and living it all through humour and sorrow, human frailty and hope. The communion is genuinely truthful, our investment in the characters is real.

What do the real people who are like these characters wear? There is hardly anything that helps actors more than the clothes they wear. Even the most everyday clothes turn into some sort of contribution, to both the actor and the film. That takes vision, skill and the art of collaboration. Paul, Angus and Mary’s clothes become the fundamental pieces to put their stories on, an intertext of sorts, and probably more than any other visual element, they have a defining role in getting us on this journey with the characters.

A couple of weeks ago, production designer Ryan Warren Smith took us behind the scenes to see how they recreated the 1970s and how they settled the characters, and us viewers, into that world, and in today’s interview, costume designer Wendy Chuck unlayers more aspects of filmmaking and character development. We talk about her long-term collaboration with Alexander Payne, why the movies of the 1970s were not where she turned to for inspiration for The Holdovers, how a costume designer can win an actor’s heart, and Angus Tilly’s jacket that she already sees it’s being copied everywhere.

 

Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 
 

First of all, Wendy, congratulations on your wonderful work on The Holdovers! You’ve worked with director Alexander Payne on many films. Was there something different this time that gauged your interest?

Thank you. Im delighted that the movie is getting the recognition it deserves.

My interest is to always work with Alexander. He was the first director to hire me when I came to the US and I hope to work for him as long as I can and he will have me. He makes the kind of movies I want to watch. He sent me the screenplay for The Holdovers and from the first page knew I wanted to do it even though I knew it was going to be tough to pull off given the minuscule costume budget. I loved the screenplay and the fact that it was a period piece made it even more attractive. He had “promised” me a period piece as all our previous work together had been contemporary or in the case of Downsizing, contemporary/fantasy/futuristic.

 
 

”Personally, I like a director who trusts me
to do the best job I’m trained to do.”

 
 

 

Dominic Sessa as Angus Tilly in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Which do you find more challenging, a contemporary or a period film?

There are challenges with both. For contemporary, there are multiples and sizes available which makes for easier accessibility, but people (actors, producers, directors) are likely to have more opinions and think they are helping. Period has a different set of difficulties given items can’t be shopped and need to be sourced from other places, therefore dependent of shipping, integrity of the cloth, fit and of course it’s unlikely that anymore than one piece can be found. Also a bigger budget is needed to MTO (made to order) pieces.

 

Are the directors usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution?

It can depend on the director. As their title suggests, they provide a “direction” which can include anything from character notes/fully fledged ideas/suggestions/ references to other movies or art or even colour suggestions. I try to work collaboratively. Some directors just trust me and let me run with my ideas which is very often in keeping with theirs, others “think” they should know it all and intervene in a way that is counterproductive, some are true collaborators and ideas bounce around between me, the DP, Production Designer, set decorator and the Director… Personally, I like a director that trusts me to do the best job I’m trained to do, which involves a collaboration with all of the department heads I just mentioned.

 

Dominic Sessa in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Yes, a film is as good as the sum of its parts, as they say. Speaking of which, on The Holdovers the director worked for the first time with cinematographer Eigil Bryld, having previously had Phedon Papamichael as frequent collaborator. The way the DP shoots a film weighs heavily on the look of the film and on how a costume designer must focus on the clothes and on what exactly they want to be seen. Was your relationship with the cinematographer different this time? Did you have to adapt to a different style of filming?

No, I don’t recall adapting in any way differently. I like to show the DP the clothes before we shoot and we didn’t do any camera tests, so I think Eigil came to the department and I was able to show him the racks by character. Sometimes things happen on the day and I remember the day that Angus sits in the background reading in a tan sweater and noticed the chair was the same color and I brought it up to Alex and Eigil and they were happy to leave it as it was and it actually works that he’s blending into the chair as he’s starting to feel more comfortable there.

 

I was talking to the production designer, Ryan Warren Smith, and he was telling me how Alexander paid great attention to the film not to look brown toned, so he picked these classic colours of the time period (mustard yellow, navy blue & maroon) to offset all the brown wood tones, sending you location photos and colour thoughts.

Yes, that’s the best collaboration. I also sent photos of the rental clothes I was pulling which was indicative of the period. The absence of black and grey were noticeable.

 

Nebraska was shot in black and white. What challenges do the costumes for a black and white film present?

As it was my first time shooting in black and white, I looked for reference from early designers of B and W films to learn a few things. For example, yellow made a good white, and looking at colours in their tonal values was helpful… And having modern tech helped as I could take photos on colour and convert to B and W to see how they worked… I was very surprised to learn that it was going to be release in colour in some territories.

 

Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (May Lamb) in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

The Holdovers is not only a movie set in the 1970s, but it looks and sounds like a movie made in the 1970s. The filmmaking style, the sense of story, of character, the rhythm of the film, it has its own unique look. And the costumes play such an important part in making this world of a New England prep school in the 1970s so believable and authentic. How did you approach dressing the characters? Did you follow the script, did you seek for inspiration in archival work, in other movies?

Inspiration comes from everywhere.. and research can be the most fun part. Costume houses, vintage stores, year books, music of the era, libraries, and now we have the internet at our fingertips. A good assistant can be the best asset for research. There were some references in the script as well as knowing some double costumes were needed for certain scenes will dictate what you can use for a certain look, for example we needed doubles in natural fibers for scenes with and around fire and times when a photo double is needed. Alexander tries to eliminate the need for this and for a period piece such as this it’s disabling for a designer on a tiny budget.

 
 

”To me, movies of that time are another person’s
interpretation of the period, so they are less important than
photos of real people and events. I also made a playlist
of the top 100 music of the years to get me in the mood.”

 
 

The 70s were a furtive creative period in American cinema, and a culturally rich period in general as well. Were there also any films you watched as reference?

To me, movies of that time are another person’s interpretation of the period, so they are less important than photos of real people and events. Even though I was living in Australia in 1970, I was a teen that lived through it and had the recall. I spent time with a friend and colleague who had attended one of the schools that we shot in and, to me, that was more valuable than watching movies… I also made a playlist of the top 100 music of the years to get me in the mood.

 

The film itself has a great soundtrack, composed music as well as needle drops, that reflects the time period. Have you used music as a source of inspiration before?

I have not.

 

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Costume design is a key element in plot development and helps the actor form an identity of his/her character. But what exactly goes into the work of a costume designer today? How much ready-made shopping, how much vintage and how much making did the costumes in The Holdovers involve?

My workroom team was busy doing alterations, so I had to keep my builds to a minimum. I’d estimate 70 vintage/20 ready made and 10 builds.

 

What did you have to make yourselves? And was there a vintage find that you felt you absolutely had to have for a certain character?

I had found some great pieces for Lydia Crane, but in the end they were too fashion forward and had to strip her look back, but finding her party dress was important and having to ask “Who is she out of the school environment? And in the comfort of her own house AND because it’s a party?”

 

Carrie Preston as Lydia Crane in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Also, it was important to have the right coats for everyone, especially the boys, knowing it was deep winter and a coat would be a statement piece… And the right jackets for the boys in school once we decided to not have a uniform. I didn’t realise that finding their sizes would present such an issue as they are not adult sizes, especially the 2 small boys Ollerman and Park, and there were no tweed blazers in their size…

 

Why did you decide against the uniform?

Not having a uniform helped to define individual characters, not that it was the easier choice. In fact, the opposite.

 

”The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 
 

“Paul Giamatti was comfortable in his shoes, I made sure of that.”

 
 

Is it true that nothing can make actors feel more comfortable or uncomfortable than the clothes their characters are wearing?

True, but don’t forget the shoes… you can win an actor’s heart with comfortable shoes. And all those high heels you see, ladies take them off between scenes and pop them on just before they shoot!!!

 

Does Paul Hunham feel comfortable in his shoes (both literally and figuratively speaking)? What do his clothes tell us about him?

Paul Giamatti was comfortable in his shoes, I made sure of that. As to the character Paul? I think he was comfortable in his academic “uniform”.

 

Even his hat and duffle coat are such a big part of his character. Did you particularly look for those clothes as part of his “uniform”?

Yes, those elements were so critical in forming his character as well as his “rumpled corduroy” that it was important to get that look, then embellish from there. I chose to repeat that look to be his uniform even though it may have changed in colour and texture.

 

”The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Dominic Sessa. A newcomer and such a presence on screen! Barton is a traditional prep school and all the boys have to abide by a certain dress code. But somehow Angus’ wardrobe looks even more preppy than the other boys’. And when he is in the bar with Paul and has that altercation with the two local guys, they say to him, “You’re a fancy little prick, aren’t you?”, just by looking at him, instantly recognising him as a Barton boy. How did you approach dressing him? And his winter jacket… I feel like it’s already a classic, that I would like to reference again and again. Where did you find it?

I think his jacket was a rental, I don’t remember from where and I see it’s already being copied out there for sale. As stated previously, it was about getting the jackets just right and we tried many on him. Somehow, the one with the chevrons was the right one. He is as preppy dressed as the boys in his class, but does contrast with the other holdovers.

 
 

“The visual language is immediate
and signals the character before he opens his mouth.”

 
 

The varsity jacket on another one of the boys, Jason Smith, is wonderfully used to describe the character, as he is into sports. It’s also mustard and green, as in the colour palette for the film.

And another reason to not have a uniform… The visual language is immediate and signals the character before he opens his mouth.

 

”The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

There was another coat that caught my attention, in the most subtle way: Mary’s. Is there a military element to it? That was my impression, both the first time and the second time when I watched the film.

Oh, I didn’t notice that, but a lot comes through on a subconscious level I’ve noticed when I work with Alexander, and that coat does tie her to her son. I had that one made and sweated on it getting to us on time. In fact, it was delivered to set just before the scene was shot and the second one was delayed in the blizzard as it was being shipped from LA. It was based on a vintage find that was in a different colour.

 

You were trained in fashion. What made you interested in costume design?

I craved the limitless possibilities of Costume Design and to not be tied to a particular fashion, era or gender that is so often defined by fashion forecasters… But that was in the 70s. Currently, fashion and the fashion shows are an abundance of creativity and imagination… impractical to wear, but exciting visual art. This is where I’ve landed and still prefer to be.

 

Thank you, Wendy, for your wonderful contribution to the world of film.

 

wendychuck.com

 

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (2023), directed by Alexander Payne. Focus Features

 

MORE STORIES

The Lost Daughter: In conversation with costume designer Edward K. Gibbon

The Holdovers: In conversation with production designer Ryan Warren Smith

Stéphane Audran, Vermeer and Lagerfeld: The visual richness of Babette’s Feast

Posted by classiq in Film, Film costume, Interviews | | Comments Off on “Personally, I Like a Director Who Trusts Me to Do the Best Job I’m Trained to Do”: In Conversation with Costume Designer Wendy Chuck

February Newsletter: Aki Kaurismäki, Brattlecast and An Odyssey of Humour and Human Failure

 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

”Individuals are miracles, societies are not.”

Aki Kaurismäki

 
 

Left: Jeanne par Jeanne Moreau, 2023, published by Gallimard

 

Fallen Leaves, 2023
Aki Kaurismäki

Aki Kaurismäki is an original. His films qualify as social realism with a very dry, brilliant sense of humour. Music is also very much ingrained in a Kaurismäki film, often featuring live performances, which are usually the most straightforward comic sides of his stories. Fallen Leaves, one of my favourite films of last year, is a love story, between Ansa (Alma Pösty) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), at its heart and it’s so unapologetically different than any other kind of love story on screen that it feels so fresh and bare and rough yet magical in a way, because despite the harsh world and the deeply melancholic atmosphere, the ending is radiantly optimistic and deservedly so, unlike so many forced happy endings. Silence isn’t filled with unnecessary dialogue, characters sit in silence with their thoughts, they drift from one soulless job to another through a dreary Helsinki, unexpectedly fall in love, watch Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die at the cinema (it’s wonderful how Kaurismäki pays homage to other filmmakers by the way he uses film posters in the film), almost, tragically, don’t end up together, and yet, despite the film’s simplicity and cynicism, you are left with a feeling of sincere warmth.

 

Tout en haut du monde (Long Way North), 2015
Rémi Chayé

“I think the style of Long Way North is a way to look at reality through light, shapes, and colours, evoking emotion and tickling the imagination. To me, drawing is about interpreting reality – it’s a way to look at a chair, to make the spectator interpret that chair in a way that says something,” director Rémi Chayé said in an interview with Cartoon Brew after the film’s release. “One thing I noticed that was strange to the Americans is our frequent use of holds. In American animation, something has to move all the time. Europeans are closer to Japanese animation in the way that we make greater use of silence. Personally, I very much enjoy those type of Japanese films where nothing happens except drinking tea.” Those special quiet moments that give both characters and viewers the respite to just be present and take in everything that is happening on a much deeper level. Tout en haut du monde tells the story of Sasha, an aristocrat Russian girl, who in 1882 goes on an journey to the North Pole to find out what happened to her explorer grandfather who had left on an expedition and never returned. With an animation and composition that are simple and captivating and very appealing aesthetically, and its storytelling quality, the film fuels the imagination and creativity of children and adults alike.

The film was inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which further reminded me of William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey, a firm favourite illustrated book of mine. In our interviews), William also said something that resonates with this minimalist type of storytelling: “I try and make the text as short as possible. Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers,” and he named films and documentaries as major sources for fueling his creativity. “With film, there’s so much you can learn about composition, colour, image quality and storytelling, while documentaries can open your eyes to so many different subjects that I wouldn’t be able to access through books because I’m a slow reader! I also love looking at paintings, prints and textiles, they all give me inspiration and ideas, too.”

And further down the rabbit hole I went, as I discovered the animation and illustration work of Marie Vieillevie, Rémi Chayé’s assistant director. But I will save this story for another time.

 

Julia, 2008
Erick Zonca

Tilda Swinton is riveting to watch. Just think of her character, The Expert, in David Fincher’s latest The Killer. She appears in a single scene, The Last Supper, she herself might ironically call it, which is easily the sequence that stands out in the film. Or Eve, a vampire, the lover of centuries past of Adam, in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, one of cinema’s last great love stories. Or her rock star Marianne Lane in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, where, after surgery, she can’t speak and has to express herself through other senses – something that Swinton herself brought to the role, an idea that worked beautifully “in this claustrophobic atmosphere between these characters, where the struggle to communicate is paramount”. Her characters on screen are as chameleonic as David Bowie’s perpetual reinvention. In Julia, she is an alcoholic with her life in pieces, and who, after losing her job, forms a bond with a little boy she kidnaps for ransom. She dominates every scene, she is a dynamic mess, capable of anything, is anything but a set identity that society lays on people (and in many cases that cinema lays on its characters), and she is fascinating to watch.

 

St. Ives, 1976
J. Lee Thompson

One of those 1970s films I would watch just for the atmosphere and neo-noir inflictions.

 

Contact, 1997
Robert Zemeckis

The scene that I will always remember from this science fiction film remains the one from the very beginning, with a small Jena Malone who, inspired by her father, is experimenting with amateur radio and wireless communication. That part alone has the power to awaken the sense of adventure in every child. I wish I could capture it in a balloon and show it to all children.

 

Sideways, 2004
Alexander Payne

After watching The Holdovers, I wanted to view Sideways again. 20 years on, it’s as good as it’s ever been. Set in California’s wine growing region, the film pairs two best friends, played Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, on a road trip that gradually descends into farce. Film still photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace described it best in our conversation: “Sideways was an odyssey of humour and human failure, and shooting it became a celebration of capturing director Alexander Payne’s uncanny vision and comedy of farce.” Robert Neubecker’s poster was another great interpretation of the film. The poster perfectly captured the increasingly uncomfortable and tense relationship of the two by encapsulating them in a bottle in a simple line drawing, while the background is green, the colour of the lush verdant landscape of the film’s location. A witty and creative representation of the film in a time when an illustrated poster would only break through every few years. Illustrator Robert Neubecker takes us behind the story of his poster.

 

The Holdovers, 2023
Alexander Payne

I have had the pleasure to talk at large about The Holdovers with the production designer, Ryan Warren Smith, about how the film was made, the instinctive choreography of collaboration, the transportive recreation of the 70s and settling the characters, and us the viewers, in that world, and so much more in our interview. Later this week, costume designer Wendy Chuck, who has worked on every Alexander Payne film since Sideways, and I will unlayer more aspects of filmmaking.

 

The Sundance Film Festival has wrapped, but I wanted to leave here these words by Robert Redford on what led him to found Sundance. “I wanted to have a sense of place. I wanted to create a sense of home. I wanted to have a sense of community. I wanted to be able to do projects that were different from the run of the mill. So this is how this thing started. Storytelling needs a sense of place, I think it begins with a sense of place.”

 

Reading

Jeanne par Jeanne Moreau. A visual and written self-portrait of a legend.

 

Next on my reading list:

Burma Sahib, by Paul Theroux. Before he was George Orwell, he was Eric Blair, a member of the colonial police in Burma. Paul Theroux’s new novel is inspired by George Orwell’s years in Burma. Writer Sophy Roberts recommends it as her novel of the year so far and it will be the subject of her one of her up-coming podcast episodes, Gone to Timbuktu.

Island of the Blue Foxes, by Stephen R. Bown. The story of the largest, longest, and best-financed scientific expedition of all time, known as the Second Kamchatka Expedition or the Great Northern Expedition, triumphantly successful, gruesomely tragic and never before fully told.

 

Listening

The album: Journeyman, Eric Clapton

 

The soundtrack: The Holdovers

 

The Podcasts:

Brattlecast. At one of America’s oldest bookshops, Brattle Book Shop, there are just as many stories to be told outside the pages as in them. Bookseller Kenneth Gloss and do-host Jordan Rich share entertaining conversations and histories surrounding Boston’s favourite spot for bibliophiles.

The Rennae Stubbs podcast. The best tennis podcast, hosted by Rennae Stubbs, former tennis player and co-founder of Racquet magazine, and their cultural attaché Andrea Petkovic. Listening to their daily dispatches from the Australian Open was the highlight of the tournament.

 

Making

There was a time when music album art mattered. Cover art before Photoshop and digital technology. Everything was so natural and abounding creativity, so perfectly imperfect, so human. The 60s, the 70s. An era that shaped entire generations in how they perceived the music from that time. And now photographer Anton Corbijn (who has become almost as famous as the bands he shot) made a documentary about it: Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) – Hipgnosis was the design company before they came apart and before Corbijn came along.

 

Exploring

The World Press Photo exhibition, Sottopasso di Piazza Re Enzo, Bologna, 3-25 February. Organised by Cineteca di Bologna, home of one of the largest film archives of the world and one of the most important institutions in the preservation of world film heritage, the exhibition showcases the best and most important photojournalism and documentary photography of the last year.

 

The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Gone to Timbuktu, Sophy Robert’s podcast on the art of travel. Wachstumsversuche, with Sarah Schill. Sirene, Racquet, and Yolo Journal, all in print.

 

 

”I call it magic. So cinema from now on will be
more or less seen only in festivals. Let’s say five years,
no, not even five, three years, commercial cinema is dead.
We were lucky to be born when we were.”

Aki Kaurismäki, 2012

 
 

 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Comments Off on February Newsletter: Aki Kaurismäki, Brattlecast and An Odyssey of Humour and Human Failure

Room to Dream

James Dean photographed by Dennis Stock. Fairmount, Indiana, February 1955

 
 

“A fantasy, a dream, a young man whose passage was too swift
to clog any of the mechanisms of his flight: that is James Dean;
and that is why an adolescent throng has raised a statue
to him in snow, more enduring than many in marble.”

Jean Cocteau

 
 

Dennis Stock’s most famous photograph of James Dean is perhaps the one that shows the actor walking in rain in Times Square, bare-headed, shoulders shrugged, neck withdrawn into the collar of his big dark coat, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, Astor cinema, where Rebel Without a Cause, not yet released, would premier, in the background to the left.

But the photograph of James Dean that I find the most haunting is this one, taken by the same Dennis Stock, on the same February of 1955, the month of Dean’s birth. It was taken in Fairmount, Indiana, on the driveway to Winslow Farm, where he grew up with his aunt and uncle, as part of the same photo essay as the Times Square shot that Dennis Stock did for Life magazine before any of the actor’s films was even released. It was the last time James Dean would return to Fairmount. Six months later, in September, he would be dead, in a car accident. “The news, which we learned in Paris he next day,” wrote Truffaut, “did not arouse much attention at the time. A young actor, twenty-four years old, was dead. Six months have passed and two of his films have appeared, and now we realise what we have lost. […] James Dean’s acting flies in the face of fifty years of filmmaking; each gesture, each attitude, each mimicry is a slap at the psychological tradition.”

Fairmount, Indiana. “To get where I am today, you have to go back to where I came from” – I don’t know who said that, but it deserves more credit. The vastness of the land, the simplicity of the countryside. It was what had made him. That was his room to dream. That’s the story I see in this photograph. Hope, loneliness, dreaming, continual fantasising, an unpredictability called for by and beyond the stillness of his surroundings, the feeling of being an outsider and the desire to be in while refusing to change for the world. Without even realising it, or who knows, he was already a myth in the making. He was his own director.

People with different backgrounds dream differently. James Dean’s background was restrictive yet vast enough to allow him the freedom to disobey, the room to make his own myth. Dennis Stock remarked that James Dean posed for that shot as his own interpretation of “you will never see the farm again”. Maybe that’s true. Maybe even in the face of his promised fame there was a thread of disobedience. That’s why I think this photo speaks of the past as much as it speaks of the future. Everyone has their own image of James Dean, said Dennis Stock at the end of his documentary Comme une image, James Dean?. I believe that’s true. Because many still find something of themselves in James Dean.

“It is easier to identify with James Dean than with Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant or Marlon Brando,” Truffaut wrote. Dean’s personality is truer. Leaving a Bogart movie, you may pull your hat brim down; this is no time for someone to hassle you. After a Cary Grant film, you may clown around on the street; after Brando, lower your eyes and feel tempted to bully the local girls. With Dean, the sense of identification is deeper and more complete, because he contains within himself all our ambiguity, our duality, our human weaknesses.”

Or it could be that some find something in him that they could never be.

Jean Cocteau must have been right: “Moreover, all young people who are denied disobedience because they lack orders and hierarchies, are also deprived of mysticism and look around them for an ideal which will be the model of their dreams in flesh and blood.”

James Dean was that kind of an ideal.

Today is his birthday.

 

MORE STORIES

Jacques Henri Lartigue, the ultimate Peter Pan of photography:
Interview with Michael Hoppen

Bonnie Lee and the leather jacket flying men in “Only Angels Have Wings”

The story behind one of the most famous photos of Marilyn Monroe:
Interview with Pierre Vudrag

Posted by classiq in Editorial, Photography | | Comments Off on Room to Dream

The Holdovers: In Conversation with Production Designer Ryan Warren Smith

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (2023), directed by Alexander Payne. Focus Features

 

The Holdovers, the latest film of Alexander Payne, after a screenplay by David Hemingson, is set in a New England prep school, during a snowy winter break, on the backdrop of the 1970s. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the professor who has to supervise a handful of boys who have nowhere to go for Christmas. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is the only one of the five who will ultimately remain in campus over the holidays. Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is the school’s cafeteria’s manager who has her own reasons for not celebrating with her loved ones. The three of them are The Holdovers. The arrogant Classics teacher whose whole life is the school, a world that feels comfortable and safe, a world that feeds his intellect but keeps him isolated from the outside world, even if by choice. The smart but misunderstood boy, a misfit who would do anything to be with his family. The mother who has lost her son in war and still very much feels his presence in her life, and she always will.

“Yeah, well, friends are overrated,” Angus tells one of the younger boys trying to comfort him when the boy confines in him that he misses his family and that he has no friends. That is a great line and I also find it to be key in the film. Because, in the end, these three disparate and differing characters, who have to stay together in spite of themselves, will find a way to be together and get something of that which will help them move forward. But the storytelling, invisibly woven together by artists of so many crafts, takes time, as it should. It takes time to introduce us to the characters that Paul, Dominic and Da’Vine Joy so earnestly bring to life, lets us follow them around and finally reveals them with their innermost thoughts, demons and dreams.

Alexander Payne’s uncanny vision makes sure to avoid sentimentality and to remain honest to the very end, by steering from humour to drama and back again. The Holdovers is a film interested in human beings and allows room for everyone to behave in an unconforming manner, to disagree and still find a way to stick together and like the person next to them, on a different level, a more human level. I think we miss that in human relationships on screen, probably in life as well. We want to be “crying laughing loving lying”, sometimes all at once, at the same time with Paul and Angus and Mary. The film doesn’t offer a clear-cut solution for each of its character’s problems, but they become a little more unfraid of navigating life with everything it has to throw at them. There is a great truth that resides in that. The cold of the wintry backdrop suddenly becomes enlivening.

Production designer Ryan Warren Smith, whose films include Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, among others, takes us behind the scene to see how the movie was made and walks us through the instinctive choreography of collaboration. We also talk about the transportive recreation of the 70s and settling the characters, and us the viewers, in that world, about the movie theater that he grew up with, and The Holdovers scene that we both absolutely love.

 

Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Fist of all, Ryan, I would like to congratulate you on your work on The Holdovers. This was your first film with Alexander Payne. How did you get to work with him?

This was my second project with Alexander, our first project we had prepped and conceived and were 3 days out from shooting fell apart. We were so heartbroken. We kept talking and he eventually sent me The Holdovers, which I was very excited to read.

I got to work with Alexander on the first one, as he was looking for a new PD, as the one he had used for ever had retired. Alexander had been given a stack of resumes. Alexander doesn’t watch a lot of modern films, but had recently seen a film I did at Telluride, called Lean On Pete, which he loved. We set up a FaceTime call and within minutes we were laughing and very in sync with how we like to work, how we like to approach fictional storytelling with documentary senses.

 
 

“I strive to be invisible,
so the viewer is never taken away from the story.”

 
 

Have you always wanted to work in the film industry? What drove you to be a production designer?

Yes, I told my mom when I was 7 that I was going to make movies when I got older. It’s been a lifelong dream. I made movies with my friends growing up, and was just always obsessed with movies from a very young age. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a director, but once I got on to professional sets as a Production Assistant, I learned very quickly that I didn’t want the main attention being on me, and the Art Department would be a better fit. I’ve always liked being in the background with not too much attention brought on me. I loved characters and character development so much that I naturally gravitated towards the Art Department where the world building and character set pieces were.

 

“The Holdovers” set design, courtesy of production designer Ryan Warren Smith
Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers”. Focus Features

 

So cinema had an important role in your upbringing. Could you tell me a memorable movie experience from when you were young or which were the first films that had a lasting impression on you?

Yes, when I was 8 years old I got a VHS copy of Stand by Me for Christmas. It was a film I had seen and loved, but when I got my own copy I watched it over and over over. I couldn’t watch it enough. I started to realise that it must have been shot out of sequence, which blew my mind. Shortly after this, I started making movies with friends, using a friend’s dad’s camera. I continued this into high school where we would make movies, and took a AV class where the teacher watched one of my films and encouraged me to keep making them. That was gold to me. At this point, the films that impacted me the most were The Shawshank Redemption, La Haine and Natural Born Killers.

 

What was the starting point of your work as production designer on The Holdovers, in creating, or recreating, this believable and authentic world of a New England boarding school, set in the 1970s?

My starting point before Alexander and I went out and Director Scouted was to jump into research, and find as much information and photographs from the time and area. From there, I created a lookbook, which has a lot of these reference photos, along with colours, and tone references for the film. That way, when he and I start scouting, we have a guide to go by.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Thank you for showing me the lookbook. There is a clear vision of the film there. And I think that also speaks about that approach to fictional storytelling with documentary senses that you were mentioning earlier. There is a realism to Alexander Payne’s films, they are historically accurate. When you are working on a film, do you usually have a strong design base early on to keep referring to and to keep the look of the film true?

Yes, very much so. I always dive in and do a ton of research, and pull a lot of reference photos. This always becomes my guide as I’m a production designer that never wants to look flashy or stylised. I always want things to look and feel real, above all else. I strive to be invisible, so the viewer is never taken away from the story. My lookbooks help tremendously with this.

 

Did you come up with the red yellow green colour palette? In what stage of the production design do you also consult with the costume designer?

Yes, once Alexander and I started picking schools, we realised how much dark brown wood was used in them. Alexander was very afraid of making a brown toned film, so I picked these classic colours of the time period (mustard yellow, navy blue & maroon – all faded, nothing too bright) to offset all the brown wood tones. I started speaking to Costume Designer Wendy Chuck as we picked locations, as I start before her, and could start sending her location photos and colour thoughts.

 

I’ve just realised that there is also a Barton Academy emblem somewhere, I think it’s also on one of Paul’s notebooks, if I recall correctly. Who designed it?

Yes! We used this on the tests, at the school Headmasters Office, and on the wardrobe. Nate Carlson was our incredible graphic designer on the film. He’s worked with Alexander on all of his films for 20+ years. He’s so talented and funny, and he and Alexander have a beautiful shorthand that proved invaluable on the project. Nate also designed the vintage studio logos and movie posters.

 

The Barton Academy emblem created by graphic designer Nate Carlson for “The Holdovers” (2023)

 

Was it from the very beginning a thing about finding the right places to begin with or did you also have to build some sets in order to get what you were looking after?

Since Alexander wanted this to feel like a film that was created in 1970, we wanted to find all real locations, and avoid doing any big builds on soundstages. Alexander fights for a lot for prep so we had time to scout a ton, and find all practical locations to shoot in. We did build set pieces to hide non-period within these locations. We also built the bar in the bowling alley, as this did not exist.

 
 

”Since Alexander wanted this to feel like a film that
was created in 1970, we wanted to find all real locations,
and avoid doing any big builds on soundstages.”

 
 

On the school grounds, we have the lecture halls, the dorms, the principal’s office, the staff offices, Paul’s quarters, and Mary’s, the infirmary, the kitchen, the dining hall, the gym, the park-like settings, the sports field, and I am sure I am missing out a few. How did you put all these pieces together to create Barton Academy?

This was the most important and difficult part of the project, as we knew not 1 school would have everything we needed for the time period. We ended up shooting at 5 different schools to make up our Barton. The key to this was finding locations that feel like they could be in the same place, and then using paint and set dressing to tie them all together.

 

Where did you film the exterior of Barton Academy?

We filmed the exteriors at two of the schools: Northfield Mount Herman & Deerfield Academy.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

The Holdovers is not only a movie set in the 1970s, but it looks and feels like you are stepping into that world watching the film. The filmmaking style, the sense of story, of character, the rhythm of the film, it has its own unique look. The beauty of The Holdovers is actually that it’s its own thing. But I would like to ask: did Alexander Payne show you any films as reference?

Yes, many. We would watch tons of films together in prep, and then, when more people arrived, we’d have a weekly movie night where we would watch a film from the era. Our main influences on the look of the film were Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail and The Landlord.

 

Production design is first and foremost meant to create a detailed fictional world that would help the characters inhabit that world. Many of the props, for example, remain in the background and are hardly noticed by the audience although they may be of paramount importance for helping the actors get into a certain setting and atmosphere, into character. Were there any particular little things, period props that you used to help define the image of the protagonists? And I am especially referring to Dominic, who is a newcomer, and so marvelous in his role.

Yes, many. Especially in Paul, Angus and Mary’s Sets, which we see very quickly, but need to tell a lot in a short amount of time. Markus Whittmann, the Set Decorator, and I have worked with each other for years now, and have gotten into a routine of dressing our sets completely, so even if it’s not scripted that a closet or drawer will open, we always prepare in case an actor wants to do something different and open a drawer; it won’t take them out of the scene to see it empty. So to answer your question, we worked tirelessly to have the correct books for Paul’s character near his bed, and made a room for Mary’s deceased son, even though it wasn’t scripted, and we put pictures of Dominic’s real family in his dorm room drawers, so they would make him happy and feel not alone in his process. All of which the actors were grateful for later.

 
 

“We put pictures of Dominic’s real family
in his dorm room drawers, so they would make him happy
and feel not alone in his process.”

 
 

The small things that put the actors into a real world, that of their characters. It’s amazing how, for example, Mary’s son is such a powerful character in the film, even if we get to know him only through the perspective of the others and through the things his mother kept.

Yes, these little things add up, and become so big! It’s magical.

 

“The Holdovers” set design. Production designer: Ryan Warren Smith. Set decorator: Markus Whittmann. Graphic designer: Nate Carlson.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Warren Smith

 

At the beginning of the film, we get a glimpse, just a glimpse, at Paul’s quarters, all cluttered with books, papers, toiletries, and the Jim Beam, and we immediately form an image of him. And Paul fits right in, he belongs there. And then we see the space empty when he’s packed everything and he’s about to leave and we are kind of lost, just like the character. I love this visual storytelling. That’s why we love movies in a different way than we love books and written narrative.

Agreed. You can say so much by showing so little. That empty room feels so heartbreaking, yet it’s also a visual clue that things have started to become unstuck for Paul.

 

I am curious about the books. How does that usually work? Do you work with bookshops to give you or rent books for the film, do you get them from the libraries?

It depends where you are. In Los Angeles, you can rent books from a prop house. But here we found a collector and rented old books from him. Then, any of the hero books we wanted to feature, we would send to our clearance coordinator, who would work to get us permission to film the books.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Who came with the idea of the silver Christmas tree at Lydia’s house? I liked the whole space age, Moon Landing remarks.

I love this, too. This was scripted, so it came from David Hemingson’s mind.

 

And what I find interesting about the scene taking place at Lydia’s house is that this is the only time we see one of the characters from Barton Academy outside that environment, showing a different side of their lives. And you are suddenly aware that Paul and Mary are very much the outsiders, while Angus feels good there.

Very good point, yes, that’s true. They have anxiety in this environment and Angus doesn’t want to leave.

 

The production designer also has to know every visual aspect of the movie, he along with the costume designer, set decorator and cinematographer, they are in charge with creating the look of the film. For cinematographer Eigil Bryld, this was also the first film working with Alexander Payne. How was your collaboration with him?

Eigil is one of a kind, he started later than ALexander and I and came in and fit in. He’s so talented, kind, and funny. Very easy going. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t say a lot, but when he does it’s either super wise or hilarious. Our collaboration was seamless, we all liked the same things and had watched so many of the 1970 films that we knew what look we were going after. Can’t wait to work with him again.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

When Paul, Angus and Mary are having their Christmas meal and Paul is trying to cheer them up, Angus says he wants to go to Boston, because he wants a real Christmas, he wants to go ice skating, he wants to see a real Christmas tree, with real ornaments. And so they go on the “field trip” to Boston. And Paul does take Angus ice skating, he takes him to the cinema (which cinema was it, by the way?), to see Little Big Man, to the Museum of Fine Arts, to an outside lot of a bookshop. Were all the Boston locations scripted, or did you have to change any of them?

All of those Boston locations were scripted except one: the bowling alley. This scene was originally scripted as a winter carnival. When we set out shooting, we were limited in budget. Focus hadn’t bought the film yet, so we were having a hard time figuring out how to create a 1970 winter carnival, with period rides, and booths. While scouting, we stumbled into that beautiful bowling alley, which is like a time capsule. We loved it instantly and later Alexander and I were having a drink at the hotel bar, and wondered if it could work instead of the Winter Carnival. We called up the screenwriter, Dave, and asked if he could rewrite the scene for a bowling alley. The next morning we woke up to a new scene re-written for there, and the rest is history. I love how open Alexander is to allowing the outside world inform what we do, such a beautiful way to do it.

The exterior of the theater was shot at the Orpheum, which was showing films in Boston at the time. The interior was shot at the Somerville theater.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Speaking of movie theaters, what does the movie going experience mean to you? Do you have a favourite cinema, or a favourite movie theater you grew up with?

I love going to the movies. I’ve always gone to the movies alone, and it’s such special time. When I was young and broke, I would buy 1 ticket and see 4 movies. It was refuge. Growing up, there was a theater across the street from our apartment, the Lakes 6 theater in Tempe, AZ. I watched so many films here. So much of who I am now is because that theater was so close and accessible. Now my favorite theater to go to is the Hollywood Theater here in Portland, OR. I recently got to take my kids to see The Holdovers here, which was a very special experience for us all.

 
 

”So much of who I am now is because
that theater was so close and accessible. […]
It’s been a joy watching The Holdovers with an audience.
I can’t imagine it any other way.”

 
 

Are you feeling optimistic about the future of the movie theater?

I am. Here where we live in Portland, there are numerous privately owned theaters that are showing original prints of 35mm films, and making events of going to the Cinema again. And the theater is always packed. I believe after covid people are hungry for a shared viewing experience. I know personally it’s been a joy watching The Holdovers with an audience. I can’t imagine it any other way. This all gives me much hope that we can get back to this experience.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

While doing research for the interview, I came across a podcast of The Brattle Book Shop, in Boston, where bookseller Kenneth Gloss talks very nicely about the crew and cast filming there and the way you transformed their sale lot and surroundings into a part of Boston’s gritty, bygone Combat Zone. Was it difficult to make Boston look like back in the 70s?

I love this book store so much. They were so kind and helpful. Alexander and I spent many days just walking around downtown Boston, looking for corners and sections that haven’t changed much architecturally. From there it’s just a matter of switching out signage, adding period set dressing into windows, and then dressing in snow and period cars. For the book shop, we had a team of people pulling non period books. This was a ton of fun. Difficult, yes, but so much fun.

 

I would like to confess that I love talking about all different details in the film, but what matters most is in fact that you aren’t caught up in saying “What a great set!”, or “What great costumes!”. You just become part of the story. Because the beauty of Alexander Payne’s films is that they are just like life, with drama, and comedy in them, and people who are not just acting, but reacting to each other. And when you watch Angus in that scene when he steals the keys from Paul and roams the school at night on the song of Labri Siffre’s Crying Laughing Loving Lying, you can not help feeling that you somehow relate to him and that you witness something special.

This makes me so happy to hear. I love this part of the film. The sets, wardrobe, that beautiful song, and Dom all just fit perfectly together like a puzzle. I fell so lucky to be a small piece of what makes this all work. Like I said before, our work on the sets should never stick out or bring attention. So to hear you are able to just fall into the story is the best compliment I can get.

 

“The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features

 

Thank you for your wonderful work and for holding onto craftsmanship in filmmaking. Do you know what your next film will be, if you are at liberty to say?

Thank you for writing about the artists creating films! I love what I do, and feel so lucky to be able to do it. I am currently looking for the next project to follow up The Holdovers. Alexander and I are trying to find the next project and I’m also speaking with James Ponsoldt about his next film, which would be a ton of fun and another 1970’s set piece. I continue to be picky and only take projects that speak to my heart. So we will see!

 

Please do continue to be picky. I will be looking forward to that next film!

 

ryanwarrensmith.com

 

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Posted by classiq in Film, Interviews | | Comments Off on The Holdovers: In Conversation with Production Designer Ryan Warren Smith

Plakiat on Designing the “Napoleon” Film Poster

“Napoleon” (2023) film poster design by by Maks Bereski © Plakiat

 

A film about Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix. It’s hard to resist putting the actor center stage on the film poster. And yet, that’s what film poster designer Maks Bereski aka Plakiat did. Not only that, but his concept for the poster is so vast and ingenious that it contains a whole world in itself, bordering defying categorisation and allowing the film to exist in its own space. I have had the pleasure to talk to Maks about his work at length in a previous interview, and today he goes into every detail of the making of his poster art for Napoleon.

 

Can you tell me a few words about your approach for your poster for Napoleon?

Let’s start with the context, as it’s crucial here – I created the post in August 2022 as The Plakiat Poster, at the time there were no trailers or official images from the film yet. There were a few news reports that Ridley Scott was planning to make a Napoleon film, but not much information about the film itself. So the poster required research and intuition, something that is usually important in my posters. A film director friend called it ‘Francis Bacon-esque’ and this is partly true, but I think the main inspiration was the Polish School of Posters, the corporeality, the disappointments in the chambers and in life outside politics (quite failed marriage), sexuality and the theme that I assumed would be important – creating a symbol and an iconic uniform that is a monument, a top layer, a certain creation for the audience, but underneath it all is a human being, full of doubts and emotions. I hadn’t watched the film at the time, so I found after the fact that I had hit on a prediction, gathering few clues. In the summer of 2022, I knew I wanted to reference the French leader, also remembering Kubrick’s unfulfilled film. I wanted the poster to be dark, somewhat reminiscent of retro Polish poster paintings with painted typography; I had a model who I shortened in proportions and widened at the waist to match Napoleon’s figure. I also wanted to play with the iconic hand gesture, so that the ruler’s excessive responsibilities and numerous failures could be depicted with a distressed face hidden under the gesture of a politically-created persona. The film was initially going to be called ‘Kitbag’, a tagline was given in the media, which was the inspiration for the Scott I painted on the poster. At the time, it was my 268th poster for Plakiat, it came out before all the other Napoleon material on my channels and the Movie Poster of the Day profile made for MUBI.

 

Have you ever made a film poster in this way before, not only without having watched the film, but especially without having seen any images or having known much about the film itself?

Yes, and to be honest I can say that not so rarely. Few examples are ‘Interstellar’, ‘Blonde’ (editorial note: here is what Maks said about his Blonde film poster in our previous interview), ‘Mary Magdalene’, ‘Cruella’. If one knows the backstory and the movie industry, the message and the moral of the film, then the screening itself doesn’t bring that much new, it only confirms the aforementioned. We also live in the age of trailers, interviews and press articles. There have also been posters created from the script, without any visual references.

 

Did your design style also take into consideration the period the film takes place in? Do you usually reference that in your style of illustration?

This is one of my rules, although not used every time – there are many deviations, depending on what I want to convey to the viewer. The plasticity of the image and the visual side responds and dialogues with what I will communicate, each film is a different, separate and distinct whole created by different teams, so it would certainly be a mistake and absurd to create with one technique. The multiplicity of titles undertaken gives me the opportunity to create in multiple styles, often in inspiration, reference, evocation of design history and so on.

 

What did you think about the poster after you watched the film?

I try to show the poster only when I am satisfied with it myself, as a movie poster artist, a person with a Fine Arts background, a cinephile and someone immersed in the film environment. When a poster post comes out on Plakiat, I can sign off on it and the screening afterwards is for me only a confirmation of what I have done before. I also try to attend pre-screenings and film festivals, so I happen to see a film in before mass audience in cinemas. I remember saying to myself after a screening of ‘Cruella’ or after ‘Dream Scenario’, ”I would have done it exactly the same now as I did then”. If you go deep enough into the subject matter and create with heart, it will show – whether it’s before or after the premiere. Besides, I’ve been creating Plakiat for 15 years, so I can say that I’ve adapted my mind to work like that.

 

Thank you, Maks, for taking us behind the story of your poster design.

 
 

Website: plakiat.com | Instagram: @plakiat
Facebook: @PlakiatDesign

 
 

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Posted by classiq in Film, Film poster design, Interviews | | Comments Off on Plakiat on Designing the “Napoleon” Film Poster