Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers’ takes place over the course of the Christmas break in 1970, where Paul Hunham, a grumpy teacher, is forced to stay back and look after a group of kids who don’t go home for the vacations. As the days unfold, the teacher and the students get a better understanding of each other, with the focus being on Hunham and a student named Angus Tully. Forced to stay in one location, Barton Academy becomes their prison and acts as another character rather than a plot device in the story. But is it a real place?
Barton Academy is Fictional but a Mix of Real Locations
‘The Holdovers’ is set in New England, with Barton serving as the primary location. There is no such boarding school in New England, but there is one in Mobile County in Alabama. Established in the first half of the 19th century, the school was shut down for a while before being reopened in 2021 as Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies. It has no connection whatsoever with its namesake in the movie.
Because Barton is such a critical part of the story, director Alexander Payne knew that every part of the academy that appears in the movie had to be a real location and not a set. It had to feel true for the audience to relate to the isolation and alienation felt by Angus and the other kids, along with their teacher and the head cook. The director and the production designer for the movie scoured all kinds of places to get the perfect fit for Barton. They couldn’t find a location that could sit in for the entire Barton, so they had to make do with fitting together pieces of different schools to make a complete Barton.
One of the things that Payne was very particular about in choosing the right schools was that they had to feel close to the schools that would have been in the 70s. They found some that hadn’t had any extensive renovations since the 70s, making the production’s task easier, but even then, a lot needed to be covered up or stripped away. They didn’t want to catch anything modern-looking as it would disbalance the entire aesthetic of the movie.
Talking about one such situation, production designer Ryan Warren Smith recounted how they shot the scene on the basketball court. “It was funny. We found two basketball courts that hadn’t been changed too much, but in the script, the basketball court has just been redone, so it needed to look new for 1970. So, we knew everywhere what we were going to have to do was take down any of the clear basketball hoops and put up wooden ones, and we’d need to strip everything modern away or cover it up. That would work,” he said.
The same went for other rooms, like the dorms, the kitchen, the gymnasium, etc. Luckily, the crew found some great schools to fill that requirement. Schools like Groton, Northfield Mount Herman, Deerfield, St. Mark’s, and Fairhaven Public School were used for filming, which took place during the time the students were on a holiday break. The mix and match of different locations of the schools allowed the filmmakers to shoot on location and not resort to making sets for the movie.