May 19, 2024

Hollywood might have ground to a halt in recent months during the recent labor strikes, with the role of artificial intelligence in the moviemaking business a key stumbling block between studio bosses and both the writers and actors guilds. But two-time Academy Award winner Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) quipped at the Thessaloniki Film Festival this week that when it comes to AI, he’s all for it.

“If AI could write a script for me, I would be so happy,” Payne joked. “I trained as a director, not a writer. To be a filmmaker, you write, direct and edit. But I much prefer directing to writing. Writing is hard, and I’m slow at it.”

The Oscar-winning screenwriter is in Thessaloniki to present his latest feature, “The Holdovers,” the “Sideways” director’s portrait of a curmudgeonly history teacher at an elite New England prep school, played by Paul Giamatti. Slated for a wide release by Focus Features on Nov. 10, the film bowed to rave reviews at Telluride, with Variety awards pundit Clayton Davis saying it “feels like the slam-dunk Oscar contender the establishment members of the Academy can get behind.”

Speaking in Thessaloniki, Payne, whose two Academy Awards came in the adapted screenplay category, described “The Holdovers” as his “first experience directing a writer.” 

“I found [David Hemingson, known for ‘Whiskey Cavalier’ and ‘Kitchen Confidential’]. I gave him the premise, we came up with the story together. He showed me many drafts,” he said. “I get involved in the writing, too, even though I don’t have credit, but the result was something personal to us both. Personal to the screenwriter and personal to me.”

Asked to elaborate on the ways in which his nostalgic period piece felt personal, however, the helmer punted on the question, to audible groans and laughter from the audience.

Alexander Payne is in Thessaloniki to promote “The Holdovers.”
Focus Features

Payne was nevertheless happy to gush about his reunion with Giamatti, the star of his critically acclaimed Oscar winner “Sideways,” noting that he’d cast the actor in the lead role “absolutely from the beginning.” “The character is named Paul for a reason,” he said. “I told the writer from the beginning, ‘We’re writing for Paul Giamatti.’ And I called Paul Giamatti and I said, ‘We’re writing something for you.’”

Payne went on to describe Giamatti as “the greatest actor,” adding: “There is nothing he can’t do. It’s like giving a role to Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier. You’re curious to know what this great actor will do with the role. He really is that good.”

“The Holdovers” is expected to be a prime contender at this year’s Academy Awards and could land Payne his first directing Oscar. Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge praised the film, which he said “feels like a lost ’70s classic,” describing it as “a rare exception to the complaint that ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to.’”

While discussing the film, Payne fielded a question on the subject of making period movies, explaining that “when you open a camera, you put time in a capsule, you put time in a bottle.” Nostalgia, however, is not easy to pin down. “At least politically and socially, it’s hard to feel nostalgic for any particular period of time,” he said. “With everything happening in the world, all you think about is whether we’ll ever live in a time where we can say the world is moving in the right direction.”

The director, who was born in Omaha but boasts Greek ancestry, was also grilled about his relationship to the host country. Payne was granted Greek citizenship last year and was in the country this summer for the Evia Film Project (pictured, top), a sustainable filmmaking initiative run by the Thessaloniki Film Festival.

Replying to a comment that “The Holdovers” was the “most Greek” film he’s made, the director noted that it’s the first movie of his that has characters speaking (ancient) Greek. Asked if he would consider making a film in the Greek language, he said he’d “love to” — but only if the script was right, adding: “This is all about the story and the screenplay.”

Payne also teased a pair of upcoming projects he’s alluded to in recent appearances, including a Western he’s conceiving with “The Holdovers” scribe Hemingson and a French-language film shot in Paris, although in the case of the latter, he said “the screenplay isn’t quite ready yet.”

The Thessaloniki Film Festival runs Nov. 2 – 12.

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