The two-Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Alexander Payne, official guest of the 64th Thessaloniki Film Festival, gave a press conference on Sunday, November 5, at the John Cassavetes Hall, a few hours before the premiere of his new film Children of winter at Olympian.
The press conference was moderated by the head of the Festival’s program, George Krassakopoulos, who welcomed Alexander Payne: “We are always happy to have you around. We had the pleasure of having you in Evia last summer for the Evia Film Project, and now you’re here for your new film, which, if I may, is wonderful and intelligent.”
“The film was born from an old film and a TV series. The idea came when I saw a relatively unknown 1935 French film by Marcel Paniol twelve years ago at a festival. I thought the central idea was very good and a new movie could be based on it. I put it on my list of ideas for future projects, without doing anything, until five years ago I read a proposed pilot from a writer for a TV series set in a boarding school, a world I had no experience with. So I called David Hemmingson and asked him if he would be interested in writing something for me,” said Alexander Payne.
Asked if he was comfortable directing someone else’s script rather than his own, he joked that he wouldn’t think it was a bad idea until AI wrote a script for him. “I’m trained as a director, but to be a creator, you direct, write, edit. But I prefer directing more. Writing is a difficult and time-consuming process,” commented Mr Payne. Children of winter is only the second film of the Greek-American creator, in which he has not been involved in writing the script. “Let’s say this is my first film, in which I am directing a screenwriter. I found the screenwriter, gave him the idea for the case. Together we found the story, he showed me many drafts. I was also involved in the script, although I am not credited. The result, however, had a personal meaning for both of us, both for David Hemmingson and for me.”
Discussing the film’s identity, Alexander Payne emphasized that it was easier for him to talk about the process involved, rather than the themes. “The director is more interested in realizing a film, seeing it take shape. The art and the process of directing is the fun part.” Regarding the personal touch of a film, he commented characteristically: “Once you have the skeleton of the story, you add the skeleton of the character, the sense of humor, the sense of drama, the sense of passion, how the story is completed. In this way the film becomes personal. However, you must distinguish the personal from the autobiographical. This particular film was more autobiographical for David, who comes from that world, New England, and the boarding schools of that time. To me it was personal only in its sensitivity.”
As for the casting of the film’s main character, who is actually a high school student and first-timer, Mr. Payne revealed that it took a long time to find. “The difficulty with casting young people, children or teenagers is that professionals from TV series or movies, look too ‘Hollywood’. They sure don’t look like real kids in a teen movie. But I don’t want to have actors in their 20s playing teenagers. I want real teenagers,” said the director. They settled on the lead actor Dominic Sessa after considering many candidates. “The casting director had seen 800 applicants. I saw maybe 80. We didn’t like anyone. Then we contacted the schools where we were going to film and called the drama teachers. That’s when we spotted Dominic.”
On reuniting with Paul Giamatti, his co-star in the Oscar-winning Sideways (2004), Alexander Payne clarified that the role was written for him. “From the beginning,” the director characteristically said, speaking in Greek. “Absolutely from the beginning. The character is called Paul. I told the screenwriter from the beginning that we were writing a role specifically for Paul Giamatti. Then I called him and told him that we are preparing something for him.” Regarding Paul Giamatti’s contribution to the film, Alexander Payne said: “He’s the greatest actor. There’s nothing he can’t do. It’s like giving a role to Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier. You are curious to know what this great actor is going to do with the role. He’s really that good.”
In response to a question about whether this is the most “Greek” film he has ever made, as there are several references to Greece, and whether The children of winter represent a commentary on modern society and the education system, Alexander Payne commented: “It’s the first film I’ve made where someone speaks in ancient Greek. I think the references to the poor fighting in the war, as opposed to the rich, who don’t, reflect today. This was done 50 years ago, this is always the case. But I don’t think they necessarily constitute a commentary on today. It’s not even a comment. It is the recognition of a fixed situation.”
Speaking about period films and the nostalgia they evoke for a bygone era, with his film set in the 70s, the director was clear: “When you open a camera, you put time in a capsule, you put time in a bottle . But politically, socially, culturally, I don’t know how one can feel nostalgia. At least politically and socially, it’s hard to be nostalgic for any particular era. With everything going on in the world, the only question is whether we will ever live in an age where we can say that the world is going in the right direction.”
Asked what advice he would have to give to young directors from Greece, Alexander Payne said: “Make more comedies.” He even made a reference to the comedies of the old Greek cinema. “If you find the people you want to work with, try to keep them around as much as you can,” he added.
In closing, Alexander Payne said that in his future plans is a film that will be shot in Paris, in the French language, while he did not rule out a film in Greece, if a story is found that will fascinate him.
The movie Children of winter starring Paul Giamatti, Dwayne Joy Randolph and Dominic Sesha, written by David Hemmingson, takes place at a prestigious American college during the Christmas holidays in the 1970s. It is a journey of self-awareness of three disparate characters at a turning point in life them, interspersed with tenderness and humor.
*The movie Children of winter will be released in theaters from January 25, 2024, by Tanweer.