How ‘The Holdovers’ Added Frame Stains and Real Snow to Create a 1970s Holiday Landscape

TheWrap magazine: “We shot in Boston and the whole schedule was designed around when we would be most likely to have snow,” says cinematographer Eigil Bryld

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in "The Holdovers" (Credit: Focus Features)
Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in "The Holdovers" (Credit: Focus Features)

“The Holdovers” not only takes director Alexander Payne away from his beloved Omaha, site of five of his eight movies, but it also goes back in time to the snow-caked landscapes of 1970 New England. There, a snarling, unpopular boarding-school teacher (Paul Giamatti) and a grieving cafeteria manager (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) find themselves in charge of a gaggle of young fellows with no family to swoop them up over Christmas break. Notable among them is a whip-smart, rascally teen (Dominic Sessa) who has a few hidden agendas. It’s not the first time Payne has left Omaha (“Sideways” is famously set in California wine country, “The Descendants” in Hawaii), but certainly, he’s never had a movie with this much precipitation.

“We shot in Boston and the whole schedule was designed around when we would be most likely to have snow,” said Eigil Bryld, the Danish cinematographer working with Payne for the first time after the director’s collaborations with Phedon Papamichael and the late James Glennon. “It gives the images a clean look and became the perfect canvas for the story. I didn’t want the movie to be dreary and bleak, so we always tried to add some warmth into it to counter the coldness of the environment.”

The result is one of Payne’s most comforting movies, a Focus Features release that also touches on his oft-explored themes of loss, unrequited romance and career disappointment. Bryld worked with the director on a wintry palette that would settle the audience in for a leisurely, character-driven dramedy. “We looked at a lot of Hal Ashby,” Bryld said. “Especially ‘The Landlord’ and ‘The Last Detail.’ And Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Rain People’ was a major one.” When it’s brought up that “Silver Joy,” the acoustic Damien Jurado ballad that plays over the opening credits in a snowy outdoor sequence, has a Leonard Cohen vibe that makes the scene deeply reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Cohen-heavy “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Bryld broke into a smile and said, “That is one of Alexander’s all-time Top 3 films.”

However, the tone is very much in the Payne universe, even as the director and Bryld employed some trial and error to nail down the ’70s feel. “We did test shooting on film (and) we did aging of the film as well,” Bryld said. “Like if it had been sitting in a camera feed for 50 years, which actually turns the negative a little more yellow as well. So we built lots of layers, put chemical stains on certain frames and really had fun going back to all the stuff that we would have found 50 years ago.”

Eventually, they settled on shooting on digital and added all sorts of pops, dirt and scratches after the fact, along with realistic-looking grain that has become much easier to do these days. The result walks a fairly invisible line in the celluloid versus digital debate.

“The Holdovers” is now available to stream on Peacock.

A version of this story first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

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