It was a normal fall day on the Deerfield Academy campus in Western Mass. when something unexpected happened.
“It was really quite curious: I got this email that said, 'we are casting for a new Miramax movie,’” said Catriona Hynds, director of Deerfield Academy’s theater program.
She received this email because director Alexander Payne and his team were wondering if instead of going with a well-known actor to play the student antagonist opposite Paul Giamatti, they could just pick a regular kid.
“And of course, I wrote back,” Hynds said. “Apparently some of the other schools who were approached didn't write back. And I often think, what would have happened if I had just allowed that email to sit on my laptop, or if it had gone to spam?”
The movie became “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti as a teacher at an all-boys boarding school in the '70s who ends up stuck on campus with a kid who has nowhere to go for the holidays.
They ended up doing auditions on the Deerfield Academy campus, and Hynds walked up to the casting agent with a message.
“I said, I'm telling you, the boy that you are searching for is just about to walk into this room,” Hynds said. “And she looked at me, [like,] ‘Oh, yeah, you know, whatever.’”
The boy's name was Dominic Sessa, a rising senior and a fixture of the school's theater program. But he'd never acted on screen before.
“He really is an amazing young man,” Hynds said.
The filmmakers picked him for the part, in which he goes toe-to-toe with one of the most charismatic actors of our generation throughout the film, with humor and depth.
The decision to cast Sessa falls in line with what film experts say is respect for authenticity in both the people and the locations on screen.
“It's a really tender, beautiful movie, and that quality happened behind the cameras as well,” said Sarah G. Vincent, a critic for the online publication Cambridge Day. “And I think it's really special because it shows that people still matter.”
Vincent said Payne and the other filmmakers behind "The Holdovers" put their trust into not just actors, but an expansive crew here in Massachusetts.
That includes twin sisters Sophia and Athena Parella. Both of them work in the local film industry, Sophia in construction and sets and Athena in scenic painting.
“We’re the MacGyvers of paint,” Sophia Parella said. “Like, we have to suddenly make a car look old. … ‘The Holdovers’ was set in the '70s, so we have to make things look earthy.”
What made their experience on "The Holdovers" unique was how much of it was plain and simple Massachusetts. No sets, no studio lots.
“When we started working on 'The Holdovers,' we knew this was going to be a good one because there were no built sets,” Sophia Parella said. “It was just going to be preexisting, really old boarding schools.”
And there is no experience quite like being on a set here in the Commonwealth with a local crew.
“It's such a smaller family here in New England, and everyone knows everyone,” Athena Parella said. “And there's also this kind of Boston roughness to everyone. So everyone's pranking each other all the time.”
“It feels like camp,” Sophia Parella added.
Just like Dominic Sessa, the Parella sisters are both young, in their 20s. They hadn't planned on working on sets. But with the state's new film tax credit, they've ended up becoming a part of some huge movies like "Little Women," "Hocus Pocus 2" and a handful of TV shows.
And with the release of "The Holdovers," and now the end of the Hollywood strikes, they're only expecting more opportunities for Massachusetts movies.