‘The Holdovers’: How an Unmade TV Pilot, an Obscure 1930s French Film, Some Viciously Erudite Insults, and a Party Bus Shaped Alexander Payne's New Prep-School Comedy

In Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, classics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) hurls some of the best onscreen insults in recent movie history. They’re devoid of foul language, but somehow they hit harder than any F-bomb would have.

The film’s writer, David Hemingson, has weathered them all. Hemingson’s uncle, Earl Cahail, had a hand in raising him, and many of Hunham’s best jabs— “entitled degenerates,” “snarling Visigoths”—came straight from Cahail’s mouth. It all came from a place of love, Hemingson says, but “everything was filtered through these incredibly rococo insults.”

“It’s like being in a writers room,” he says. “If they’re insulting you in a writers room, it means they love you. If they’re being polite to you in a writers room, you have something to worry about.”

At 59, Hemingson is making his (big-)screenwriting debut, after a long career in television that included creating spy show Whiskey Cavalier and the short-lived adaptation of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, as well as stints on shows like How I Met Your Mother and Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23. (Hence his intimate knowledge of writers’ room abuse.) And while the idea for the Christmas-set film originated with Payne, Hemingson made it personal.

Before The Holdovers, Hemingson had written a “90 percent” autobiographical pilot about a kid from a lower-middle-class background being sent to a tony prep school on a scholarship to get to know his father, who is teaching there. The script found its way to Payne, who didn’t want to make it—but had another idea he thought Hemingson could tackle.

Payne had gotten the idea for a film about a character Hemingson describes as an “odiferous, ocularly challenged professor” after seeing the rare 1935 French film Merlusse. The unfilmed pilot gave Payne the sense that Hemingson knew the world he was trying to capture, and Hemingson jumped at the opportunity. “If Alexander Payne calls you up—out of the blue, ostensibly—and says ‘do you want to write a movie for me?’ The answer is always yes,” Hemingson says.

What resulted is Payne’s acclaimed new film, in which Giamatti’s Hunham, a stickler with a chip on his shoulder, is stuck at school over Christmas with an angry rapscallion Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) and cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who’s grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam.

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