Over his storied four-decade plus career, Producer Mark Johnson has typically specialized in character-driven films. Just a quick run-through of his resume reveals gems like Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man (for which Johnson won an Academy Award), Bugsy, A Perfect World (a personal favorite of mine), Donnie Brasco, Ballast, and Logan Lucky, just to name a few. Johnson’s latest effort, The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti, is no exception.
In telling the story of three lonely souls stuck on a prep school campus over a Christmas holiday, Johnson has once again delivered a film about people and their ability to connect (or not) with one another. As the jaded teacher Paul Hunnam, Giamatti has never been better, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, playing a quietly grieving mother, shows that she is just as good at drama as she proved herself to be at comedy when she had her breakthrough role in Dolemite is my Name just four years ago. The film’s true revelation is Dominic Sessa, a complete unknown, who steps into the role of student Angus Tully, who’s outward sarcasm masks the young man’s deep pain and insecurity.
The Holdovers is a rare and special film that will test whether there is space in the multiplex for multi-layered films about human beings trying to find their place in the world. In our discussion, Johnson and I speak to those commercial considerations, as well as the long wait the film had before coming to audiences, and the inspiration the film took from movies of the ‘70s and a certain filmmaker from that era who Johnson and I share a deep admiration for.
Awards Daily: It was so unexpected to see a film that has this sort of shagginess about it, the shagginess of life–I guess you could say, and something that is so character driven. Was it hard to get this movie off the ground because, well, no one is wearing a cape?
Mark Johnson: It’s an apt question, because it wasn’t easy even with Alexander Payne, who has a very proven track record. Maybe not of blockbusters, but of movies that have done well critically and because he doesn’t spend a lot of money to make them, have made a modest profit. There are a couple of places I thought would have jumped for it who did not for some reason or other. I don’t know if it’s the period nature of it, but it was a tough one to get set up. We didn’t have a distributor when we made it, and I really thank Bill Block, who was running Miramax, for believing in it and saying that we know this is going to be good and we’ll take the chance and sell it once it’s finished.
Awards Daily: In thinking of Alexander, this was his first movie since Downsizing, which is probably the only film of his to get a lukewarm reaction. Did you have any sense from him that he had a drive to return to form?
Mark Johnson: He didn’t in any sense feel as though he had his tail between his legs or he was somehow recovering. The interesting thing about Downsizing for Alexander is that I think he’s very proud of the movie, he just didn’t really enjoy making it. I don’t think he liked making a movie of that scale, and he didn’t enjoy all of the visual effects. It wasn’t that he, from a career standpoint, said “Oh, I better get back to the smaller character films that I’m known for.” I think he just felt like let me go do something that’ll be fun, and I’ll enjoy doing. We don’t talk about Downsizing a lot. I fully understand the criticisms and agree with some of them myself, but it’s not like either he or I think oh yeah, we fouled up on that one.
Awards Daily: It’s far from a lousy movie. I just think it wasn’t what people expected from him.
Mark Johnson: I have a friend who believes that movies should be judged very much like a dive in the Olympics, so you get a score for execution, but you also get a score for difficulty. Downsizing tried a lot, and if it didn’t pull it off entirely, but it should get points for ambition.
Awards Daily: What I really loved while I was watching the movie is you made a film that takes place in 1970, and it feels like a ‘70s film. I got the sense that there was some intentionality around that.
Mark Johnson: I’m not quite sure at what point Alexander thought I would like to make this not just sort of like the movies of the ‘70s, but as though it was actually made in the ‘70s and somehow we just discovered it on somebody’s shelf somewhere. You can tell how filmwise an audience is watching it. Some audiences will laugh from the very first image, which is the MPAA rating, which is the old rating. It’s no longer called the MPAA, it’s MPA, and it’s the old graphics.
And then of course there’s that silly Focus logo with goofy music, which of course never existed. And in fact, the end joke is that Focus didn’t exist then. We tried to make it, not in a cute, obvious way—although some people are well aware of it—but we put some pops on the soundtrack and we put some dirt on the print, even though it was shot digitally. And things like the quick zooms. It was just fun to say well, it feels sort of like a ‘70s movie. Let’s try and make it like a ‘70s movie.
Awards Daily: I will tell you, in your post-screening Q&A at the Virginia Film Festival, which I was fortunate enough to attend, the thing that really warmed my heart, because he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, was when you referenced the films of Hal Ashby and that being an inspiration. There’s a gentleness and a bittersweet nature to the film that just fits right in his oeuvre. I think Hal Ashby would have been proud to call this his own.
Mark Johnson: A lot of the movies we love from the ‘70s were very serious and really didn’t have a funny bone in their bodies. Hal Ashby did, of course. So you’ve got Harold and Maude, but the one that Alexander and I and our DP, Eigil Bryld, like to talk about is of course Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail, because it has a lot of funny stuff in it. It’s very serious, and it’s very heartwarming, but it has Ashby’s humor, which a lot of the filmmakers of the ‘70s didn’t. I think that was the one that probably we were most going for.
Awards Daily: It’s inspired me to just do a Hal Ashby Film Festival some weekend. It’s just so pleasing to even hear the reference because I feel like he has been, I don’t want to go as far as to say forgotten, but because his decline was so quick after the 70’s, there’s a sense that he’s not fully appreciated now.
Mark Johnson: I agree with you. He is one of my favorite American filmmakers along with Preston Sturges and people who can just make you laugh but are connected to the world, to our real emotion. You’re right. His name doesn’t come up a lot. And when you think about Harold and Maude and any number of them like Coming Home, he was such a good filmmaker.
Awards Daily: You mentioned getting distribution. The thing that I found fascinating was that Focus sat on this film for a year. It’s almost unheard of. Usually when films get held back that long it’s because they’re very problematic and they get dumped into a few theaters or go straight to VOD at some point or nowadays, they turn into write offs, which is just deplorable. Did it make you nervous to have to sit on the film that long before showing it to the world?
Mark Johnson: It made me nervous. It made me anxious, but that’s just me. We showed it a year ago this past September at the Toronto Film Festival in a private screening to distributors and Focus saw it and immediately jumped on it and made the deal. I was hoping somebody would be really bullish and say okay, this is crazy, but let’s go for broke and try and open it this Christmas and get a campaign together.
In retrospect, I think Focus wisely said no, we want to take the time to do it right, make sure we have the right materials, all of that. In terms of awards last year, I thought it was a particularly weak year and that we would have fared well. I’m very glad that Focus had the sense to wait until this year, but it was sort of excruciating to know that you had this film that I thought was really good and wanted to share with people and had to just sit on my hands.
Awards Daily: I want to talk about the three main performances in the film. It was so nice to see Paul Giamatti get to hold the screen for so long, and I am always stunned by the idea that he has only one Oscar nomination. It just staggers me. Was he the first, last, and only choice to play Paul Hunnam?
Mark Johnson: Yes, all of those. First, last, and only. There were people who were suggested, I won’t come up with any names, but big movie stars, and how with this person you can get more money to make it and it’ll do better. Alexander believes that Paul is the finest actor working in America today and said this is perfect for him. I was talking to somebody the other day, and they didn’t realize that he had a lens in his eye. They thought that was just Paul’s vision, which is so odd. Maybe we know him, but we don’t know him. As a side note, I produced the movie Donnie Brasco and Paul was a day player in it. He plays a cop who’s asking Johnny Depp what does “fuhgetabout it mean?” (Laughs).
Awards Daily: Da’Vine Joy Randolph is somebody I’ve spoken to for her part in High Fidelity, which was far too short-lived a series. Like many people, I discovered her in the Dolemite film, and I wonder how did she not get a nomination for that? You brought her into this film and gave her a completely different part. As you referenced, in Virginia, you felt that she was the heart of the film. What did she show you, that we hadn’t seen, that made you believe that she was right for this role?
Mark Johnson: Alexander was aware of her from Dolemite, which he loved and loved her in it. I had seen her in a number of things, mostly television things, and she was always good, but I never saw anything quite like this. I’d love to say I knew that she had it in her. I knew that she was that good an actress, so that if she felt she could play this character, she would find an original way to play her.
From the first day on the set, she used that accent, which we didn’t really know she was going to use, or know what it actually represented. And of course, it’s fantastic. It is part and parcel to who her character is. You know, she’s a Yale Theater School person and is very serious about her work and comes on the set and doesn’t spend a lot of time talking to people or horsing around, just comes on and does it and then leaves. So much of that performance is directly from her. Obviously she spoke with Alexander and they agreed on a lot of things, but she had such good ideas.
Awards Daily: What I loved about her performance is that there’s never a big breakdown scene. She just plays this constantly composed, but very sad person. Sunlight tweaks in, like kindness and a mothering instinct towards Dominic Sessa’s character, and she becomes a true friend to Giamatti’s character. Was that the idea of never giving her a scene where she overly emotes over her own tragedy?
Mark Johnson: No, it’s all from within. She has a couple of moments. She has the one moment in the kitchen at the party when she’s drunk and she says he’s gone. For me, the key scene that gets me every time I see it is when she unpacks her son’s baby clothes and prepares them for her sister’s new child.
Awards Daily: Even in those moments, she never takes it to what might’ve been the obvious level that someone else would have, which I found very admirable and even more touching because of it.
Mark Johnson: I completely agree. And I think if you look at that scene again, she doesn’t shed a tear. She doesn’t stop in motion. You just see her reflect. And given what you know about what happened and where she is and so on, it’s a real compact with the audience, where that emotion comes from both the audience and from the actress.
Awards Daily: We have to talk about Dominic Sessa, who I had never heard of before, but no one in film had heard of him before. (Laughs). You seldom see somebody come out of what amounts to nowhere and seem so fully formed from the first second he’s on screen. I just can’t imagine. What was his audition like? What was his screen test like?
Mark Johnson: Well, he screen tested some scenes from the movie. Our casting director saw 800 boys for the part. Alexander probably saw 100-150 of those. We tested him a couple of times and then we tested him with Paul. That was a real test. You say alright, this kid’s really talented, but that’s a hell of a responsibility to give that part to somebody who had never been on film before. He was in his school acting department. That was it. Had never been filmed before. And, it’s one of those things where you live a little bit in fear and then almost immediately you felt like oh, we’re in good hands here. There’s that pivotal scene after he sees his father and he is at the restaurant dining table. It’s all in one take, there’s no cutting. He talks about his father and how he’s afraid he’s going to grow up to be his father. And Paul gives him the speech about nobody is their own father.
That’s the very first take. That’s sort of emblematic of what he did throughout. He never fell apart. He never didn’t bring it. It’s just remarkable. I’ve worked obviously with a lot of first time actors and have wonderful things to say about them, but this is another layer all together. It’s funny, I see these scenes and the pundits talk about different awards and his name pops up every now and then for awards. And you say how can this be? A year and a half ago, this kid was in school taking acting lessons from a school teacher. I don’t even know if he has seen the movie with an audience because of the Screen Actors Guild strike. He hasn’t participated in any of our junkets or festivals.
Awards Daily: I had somebody ask me what the movie is about? I thought about it for a second, and I actually ended up putting this in my mini review, and I said how I felt about it, it was about how people can come into your life for a fairly short period of time and leave a remarkable impact on you. And that was what I thought the movie was about. These characters when they part may never speak to each other again, but they will never forget each other and they will carry pieces of that person with them as they move forward in life.
Mark Johnson: I hope that’s true. That’s what I feel about it. I think this may sound a little bit too neat, but I see them as three orphans. They’re all alone and they have been left by somebody and they find each other for a moment. It ends on a somewhat, as you say, ambiguous note, and in all likelihood, they will never see each other again. But it’s very uplifting, because you felt these three lost souls really find, through each other, a sense of their purpose and their worth and family, if you will.
Awards Daily: All three of those characters are a little better off than they were before for having orbited each other.
Mark Johnson: I think that’s absolutely true. You think of the people who made a sizable impact on your life as models or just moments and they’re not always your father or your uncle or your school teacher that you look up to. It’s some misfit, somebody you came across, somebody you met on a vacation, and whoever she or he was, you happen to meet them at the right time. It’s a confluence of that, and you learn something either by example or direct instruction from this other person, and you’ll never forget it.
Awards Daily: During the time we’ve chatted, we’ve talked a lot about the bittersweetness, and the sadness that takes place in the movie, but it’s also very, very funny. Frequently, laugh out loud, like hurt your stomach funny. The balance of being able to walk that line between the pathos and the humor I thought was brilliant.
Mark Johnson: I love the relationship between Paul Hunham and the really obnoxious kid who comes back. We already know he’s not paying attention, probably not very bright to begin with. He’s come back from this skiing vacation with his face burned to a crisp and Hunnam says, Oh, or should I call you Icarus? And he looks at him like, huh? And then Paul immediately turns away like, of course he doesn’t know who Icarus is.
Awards Daily: Now that the film has been getting seen at festivals and by critics, the response, obviously, has been extremely positive. You already know you have a good movie. Now you know that others know you have a good movie. And the test, of course, is going to be whether this film can find an audience. All of that being said, though, it has to always feel good to make a movie this good.
Mark Johnson: Oh, it does. Somebody asked me the other day, what were the most important moments for me as a producer, and one of them really is when the movie’s finished, sneaking in–as I often do–in the back of a movie theater, and just hearing it play with an audience. If you can feel an audience connect to it, whether they laugh or cry or whatever, but you can feel they’re with it, it is incredibly rewarding to feel like you had something to do with putting this together. That’s what I feel right now. It’s so exciting, because yes, the response we’re getting, the reviews, the exit surveys from theaters is maybe as strong, if not stronger than anything I’ve ever had.