(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 018 November/December 2023)
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
By Darek Kuźma
Cinematographer Eigil Bryld embraced a particular spirit of freedom to give Alexander Payne’s vintage dramedy The Holdovers a distinctive 1970s vibe.
There is something alluringly subversive in the way director Alexander Payne invariably evades tired tropes of contemporary dramedies to portray his tenderly Capraesque stories of misguided characters regaining their humanity and self-assurance through the bonds they form with others.
His latest film, The Holdovers, is certainly no different, recounting a heartwarming story of a kinship between a prickly teacher, a troubled student, and a cook grieving her son’s death in the Vietnam War. For various reasons, the trio stays on-campus of a private New England boarding school during the Christmas break of 1970, before taking a life-affirming journey to nearby Boston. Where The Holdovers differs from other movies in Payne’s oeuvre is in the way it evokes the spirit of a bygone era.
“Alexander’s idea was to shoot a period piece that did not adhere to the way many period pieces are done, by hiding modern sensibilities behind a prestigious and aesthetically-fake window dressing,” offers Bryld, for whom this was a first collaboration with Payne.
“We wanted to take it a step further, to make a film that would look-and-feel like it was recently found in some kind of archive and released. We were committed to limiting the modern means we used as much as possible so as to resemble the shooting process from the ‘70s.
“We had lots of fun deciding where to put the camera and how to frame the shots”
“We started chatting a long time ago but two other projects that we were going to shoot in Scandinavia and England fell through. When he sent me this script and explained his vision, I knew this was something I wouldn’t want to miss.”
Bryld admits that although shooting The Holdovers in the spirit of the 1970s was a largely satisfying process, he found establishing its look in prep quite a difficult task.
“Whereas we could replicate the visual style and ideas of Hal Ashby’s collaboration with Gordon Willis ASC on The Landlord (1970) or with Michael Chapman ASC on The Last Detail (1973), which were two out of our many references, the big issue was the filmstock – because there is no modern filmstock that looks anything like those from the early ‘70s. I’m old enough to remember shooting only on film and observing how filmstocks evolved and changed throughout the years, especially after the introduction of the digital intermediate, when they were eventually digitised and started to have much finer grain and low contrast.
“We shot tests on both digital and film, we even tried 16mm but we didn’t pursue it in the end as Kodak said that, due to Covid-era logistical issues, they couldn’t guarantee us the amounts of stock we needed. And, we realised that if we decide to shoot on film, we’d still have to build-in a lot of the artifacts of the early ‘70s stocks in post. We would basically have to de-grain the image, then add grain again, etc., which was quite discouraging, so we abandoned the idea.
“So we settled on shooting digital, based on a LUT I did with the brilliant DI artist Joe Gawler, at Harbor, who has done a million Criterion restorations, and is an expert in recreating vintage looks. We pulled old stocks and experimented with building-in their characteristics, contrast ratios, colour fading. Not only to mimic the look, but also to make our film seem like it was sitting for decades in some archive.”
The first part of The Holdovers is set in and around the campus, and was shot in the winter of 2021 in the Northfield Mount Hermon School and the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. The second part revolves around the transformative journey the characters go on, and was shot in various locations in Boston. This brought Bryld and 1st AC Glenn Kaplan to choose ARRI Alexa Mini.
“We were nowhere near any soundstage, so I needed a tried-and-true camera. I like Alexas for their sense of intimacy and condensed images suitable for this kind of drama. And it went well with the 1.66:1 aspect ratio we had decided upon. Historically, it was a bit of a stretch to shoot 1.66:1, as it was a more European format at the time, but there was this kind of humbleness to it that suited the story, so we decided to cheat this one time,” he laughs.
Bryld equipped the Alexa Mini with Panavision H-series spherical lenses (24, 29, 32, 35, 40, 55, 75, 100, 150mm) and Panavision Super 35 zooms (21-100, 26-300mm) provided by Panavision USA and specially-tuned by the company’s lens guru, Dan Sasaki, to suit the filmmakers’ needs.
“Our go-to portrait lens was a 55mm. I’m not a fan of the regular 55mm as they are kind of stuck between what other lenses offer, but this set of H-series lenses had a beautiful fall-off and a real gentleness to them and the 55mm proved a wonderful tool to portray our characters’ inner journeys,” Bryld recalls. “Because everything was shot on-location, we were often limited by the physicality of the surroundings, but tried to stay true to this classic slightly longer lenses’ feel. We did sometimes shoot wide, but not necessarily super-wide.”
It is fair to say that the ‘70’s vibe was often Bryld’s only guide through the project’s challenges.
“The 1960s and 1970s saw this break from big studio movies, it was all about the independent spirit, new handheld technologies, a sense of liberation from the former limitations. This unique kind of revolution fascinated me from my early years, and I promised myself not to be bogged-down by too many rules in The Holdovers. Rather than copy certain ways of moving the camera or lighting a scene from others, I just went with the spirit of the era and shot even if it was a bit underexposed,” he reminisces.
“Alexander is an intuitive filmmaker who isn’t precious about a misplaced prop or whatever and allows himself some freedom on a set. We had lots of fun deciding where to put the camera and how to frame the shots.”
Though the characters move a lot within frames, there is not that much camera movement in The Holdovers.
“I’m a big believer in moving a camera only when it serves the story’s dramatic purpose. Then it’s much stronger, memorable. If there’s something about the frame that doesn’t chase the action, people start to notice details like finger twitching, etc., little things that make them feel the characters on a deeper level,” he offers.
“I promised myself not to be bogged-down by too many rules”
“We talked a lot about when and how to move the camera. We didn’t want Steadicams or cranes, it was mainly a dolly which is elegant and very immersive if done right. The only time we really shot handheld was when we had to steal some shots in Boston, working in this guerilla-style because we couldn’t get permissions to close the streets.”
“Alexander has this saying, I believe it’s a quote from Kurosawa, that you should block a scene and then shoot it like a documentary. It means that if you block well, it becomes obvious where to put the camera,” he recalls.
“The same thing applied to lighting – if we knew how the people would behave in a given space, it was a matter of refining the tools we had at our disposal. Keeping with the ‘70’s spirit, I wanted to maintain a level of inconsistency between different set-ups and not to be too self-conscious. Back then, films were not as balanced as they are today, this whole seamless way of shooting appeared when the digital gave us more control. Hence, the set-ups we did with my gaffer Frans Weterrings III were quite simple to achieve this sort of transparency that films like The Last Detail had.”
They used Octabanks with Tungsten bulbs and Rosco DMG Lumière LED fixtures as their colour, whose ease-of-use made them good to mix with Tungsten, high pressure sodium vapour (HPS) and other light sources. They also used a ton of Astera Titan and Helios tubes. During night scenes they put up 20 of these on lifts to bounce instead of using large soft boxes.
“I went through a period when I wanted to be a purist for authenticity’s sake, but I realised this mindset was getting in the way of what we wanted to achieve, and so I started to have fun within that limited playground we had created for the film,” says Bryld.
“When we moved a lot, I embraced being fast, efficient. When we had time, I tried to get inside of the characters’ heads with higher-contrast Dutch angles, etc.” The lighting gear came from Red Herring MPL Inc. out of Boston.
Bryld admits that he and colourist Joe Gawler did some extensive work in post.
“We went back-and-forth, added grain here and there, took out grain from other scenes, put in low light to make blacks richer.”
But he emphasises that the project was much more than a technical achievement.
“Alexander Payne is a joy to work with, he’s a classical storyteller in that he’s right next to the camera, interacting with everyone. You’re really there with him, not in front of a monitor, doing these tiny adjustments on the fly. It’s ensemble filmmaking in its full glory, everyone is important, from a dolly grip to a sound recordist. You’re doing this little dance with the actors to capture moments and emotions that shape the film the audiences will hopefully fall in love with.”