Script to Scene: ‘The Holdovers’ Screenwriter David Hemingson on Bringing Humor to Melancholy Moments | THR

Oscar nominees Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Paul Hunham and Mary Lamb in Focus Features’ The Holdovers. COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES

David Hemingson describes this scene as a bridge that slowly brings the film’s central characters — teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti), angsty teen Angus (Dominic Sessa) and cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) — closer together. Not only does it put Paul and Mary on equal footing as he helps her prepare dinner, but she quickly takes Angus’ side and pushes Paul to be more accepting of the lonely student.

“We see Paul bonding with Mary, but she’s [growing] fond of Angus, too,” says Hemingson. Their shared disdain for the privileged students at Barton Academy establishes their intimacy throughout the film. Although Angus is one of the “little shits who do nothing but complain,” his presence during the holidays softens the grieving mother’s feelings about him — particularly in this scene, when she comes to his defense.

In a previous scene, Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) invites Paul to her Christmas party — but his crush on his school colleague makes him too anxious to attend. “He’s terrified of intimacy,” explains Hemingson, who also notes that the connection building between Paul and Mary allows Mary to slowly peel back the layers of Paul’s brutish demeanor. “Mary is curious, because she’s now starting to see this guy’s a dimensional person,” adds Hemingson. 

“Angus is too pissed off and in his own world, being an adolescent, to understand and recognize what’s going on,” says Hemingson of Sessa’s hot-headed character, who fails to acknowledge Paul’s trepidation about the party, seeing only how it affects him personally. 

Hemingson, a longtime TV writer, describes himself as “genre-fluid” but adds, “I see the world through a vaguely comic lens.” That made him a perfect collaborator for director Alexander Payne, whose films often find humor in the drama of discomfort. The biggest laugh in this scene comes from Mary’s heel turn after scolding Angus for cursing and then immediately spitting out her own colorful language when talking to Paul. “She’s not interested in lying to him,” says Hemingson. “She’s tolerating him, putting up with him, but she’s also telling the truth about the situation.” The screenwriter notes, “It’s that human response where the comedy lives.”

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