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How do you travel back to 1970s Massachusetts in the movies? Location, location, location.

Location manager Kai Quinlan helped make the Bay State a star in Alexander Payne’s new film ‘The Holdovers,’ set at a boarding school during Christmastime in 1970

Kai Quinlan, who recently worked as a location manager on Alexander Payne's new movie "The Holdovers," in the Somerville Theatre.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

When Kai Quinlan came on board as the location manager for “The Holdovers,” Alexander Payne’s buzzy new film, she had her work cut out for her.

The film, set during Christmastime in 1970, centers on a cranky boarding school teacher (played by Paul Giamatti) saddled with supervising holdovers — or students unable to travel home — over holiday break. Many of the film’s scenes take place at Barton Academy, a fictional all-boys boarding school in rural Massachusetts.

“Alexander’s a director who really loves to find the real thing,” Quinlan explained during a recent interview at the Liberty Hotel in Boston. His scrupulousness meant that authenticity was paramount.


So Quinlan and Payne embarked on a school-visiting trip around New England. All in all, scouting took around nine months. Whenever Quinlan arrives at a location that works, she said, “I feel it in my bones.”

Dominic Sessa (left) and Paul Giamatti in director Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers."Focus Features

The team landed on Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Northfield Mount Hermon in Gill, and Fairhaven High School and Academy in Fairhaven. Each location served a purpose: The grand, sprawling dining hall at St. Mark’s would be Barton’s cafeteria; the chapel at Northfield Mount Hermon could provide indoor and outdoor vistas; and Fairhaven offered an abundance of Tudor and Gothic architecture.

Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in director Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers."Seacia Pavao/Focus Features/Seacia Pavao

The beauty and history of these local institutions presented an embarrassment of riches. But there was a problem. They were all overflowing with real students.

The team had only one option: to capture all of the on-campus scenes during actual winter breaks. “Everything had to be done — prep, shoot, strike, restoration — all within those vacations,” Quinlan said.

“Our concerns were: When do the students leave campus? At what juncture can we arrive?” she added. “And then there was a moment where we said, ‘Oh dear. What if we have some actual holdovers?’”


Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in director Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers."Seacia Pavao/Focus Features/The Holdovers

Quinlan, who grew up partly in Cambridge, attended a Boston-area private high school herself: The Cambridge School of Weston. Her parents were into “the whole back-to-the-land, good-hippie thing,” she said, and moved her family frequently, which allowed Quinlan to immerse herself in different communities. “I think that that gave me an appetite for newness and also a real appreciation for place,” she said.

Quinlan went on to attend film school and live in Los Angeles and Paris. She moved back to Somerville a decade ago. “Holly, holly Boston-wood,” she said. “The industry was here at my doorstep. It just made sense.” She added that her work, which hinges on hunting for obscure gems, “makes an old place new.”

Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in the trailer for the 2015 movie "Black Mass." Warner Bros.

Over the course of her scouting career, Quinlan has worked on a number of seminal Massachusetts movies, including “Black Mass” (2015), “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), and “Spotlight” (2015).

For “Black Mass,” Quinlan helped secure the Polish American Club in East Cambridge, which was decorated to resemble the Whitey Bulger hangout Triple O’s Lounge. Quinlan had grown up near the club. It’s now gone.

Whitey Bulger's hangout Triple O's Lounge as shown in the 2015 movie "Black Mass." Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

While scouting for “Spotlight” at the old Boston Globe headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard, she said, she leaned in a little too close to the printing press machinery, splattering her white blouse with indigo ink. She wore the accidental tie-dye around for the rest of the day. Tom McCarthy, the film’s director, “was laughing so hard,” she said.

The Boston Globe newsroom set for the 2015 film "Spotlight."

In addition to Barton Academy, there are a handful of other important settings in “The Holdovers.” In the film, Giamatti’s character forms an unlikely friendship with one of the student holdovers (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa), and takes him on a short trip to Boston. The pair stop by a liquor store, visit the Museum of Fine Arts, and go to the cinema for a film.


Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in director Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers."Seacia Pavao/Focus Features/The Holdovers

For the movie theater scene, Quinlan scouted cinemas throughout the state. The hardest part, she said, “was finding an interior and exterior that hadn’t been too messed with or updated. Old seats are not that comfortable, but our movie’s 1970. So the seats had to be 1970 or prior.”

In a happy coincidence, she and Payne settled on the Somerville Theatre, a century-old independent cinema right down the street from Quinlan’s house. During production, Payne became friendly with the cinema staff, and even used the venue to host a screening series for his crew. He chose movies that mirrored the look and feel of “The Holdovers,” like Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (1970), a screening that Quinlan attended. It was her first time back in a movie theater since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Sitting in this space where we were going to film, in my hometown, doing a movie that is about this place that I know so well — it was so moving,” she said. “I teared up.”

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the variety of locations used to portray Barton Academy. The team shot at a combination of schools and other locations. The Globe regrets the error.