Edit This!: Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska'
Issue: November 1, 2013

Edit This!: Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska'

Editor Kevin Tent, ACE, was reunited once again with director Alexander Payne, this time on the Paramount feature, Nebraska. The film, which is presented in black & white, follows the journey of an aging, alcoholic father (Bruce Dern), who is making the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son (Will Forte) to claim a million-dollar prize.

Tent has collaborated with the director for years. His work on The Descendants garnered him an Oscar nomination for “Best Achievement in Film Editing,” and the partnership extends back to the films Sideways (2004), About Schmidt (2002) and Citizen Ruth (1996).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Tent details his work on the film, his relationship with the director, and how the film’s style, location and subjects influenced his edit.

Post: Was it your past relationship with Alexander Payne that led you to work in this film?

KEVIN TENT: “That is exactly the reason I was involved. I’ve worked with him since Citizen Ruth. We are a team. He has his core people that he works with a lot, or as much as possible, and I am one of the core people.”

Post: How would you describe his directing style?
TENT: “I think what he does really well is that he captures the location, and the location becomes almost like a character in the movie. He’s really done that from the get go — certainly from About Schmidt on. Locations are very prevalent in the movies: Sideways, the coast and the wine country, Hawaii for The Descendants, and Nebraska. His first three films were in Omaha. And About Schmidt was certainly about the Midwest and its people, and about what they are going through. He finds the location and story. There’s a lot of realism with how the characters react within the locations. He goes to locations and spends quite a bit of time there before he shoots, so he knows all the small details of the people who live there and incorporates them in there. I remember in The Descendents, people take their shoes off before they go in the house. I remember there was a point he made that Clooney’s character do that whenever he entered someone’s house — they would take their shoes off. Small details like that add to the reality of the story.”

Post: The film is presented in black & white. How did they shoot it?
TENT: “They shot on the [Arri] Alexa and they had a guy on location who did a great job, who turned the color files into black & white. They uploaded them every night, and we would have dailies the next day. We used the Pix System, and I was able to watch dailies at night on a laptop, and I’d come in, in the morning, and they were ready to cut.”

Post: Was there transcoding or treatment to the footage involved?
TENT: “The Pix files were small files that I could download and watch on my laptop. During the night and early morning, the larger files would come in and be imported to the Avid. I don’t know exactly what those were, but they were certainly good enough for us to cut with and good enough to preview with. Basically, once they were in the Avid, we went with those, and went with the color correction that was done. We previewed it a couple of times and screened it, and looked at it on the big screen, and it looked great.”

Post: So, even early on, you were cutting in black & white?
TENT: “Yes, we were. It all looked great. It was beautiful to cut with and look at, and we made it better at the final DI stage, where they fine tuned the black & white.”

Post: Are you an independent editor?
TENT: “I kind of work everywhere. I am a freelancer, but I make myself available to work with Alexander or directors I work with all the time. Basically, people need an editor and look around and go, ‘What about this guy?’ And are foolish enough to hire me [laughs].”

Post: You lean strongly to the Avid?
TENT: “I do. I have an Avid and I love it. Sometimes I work from home. I have a small system, which is great. Usually, productions have three to four Avids all going at once. And we’ll have a Unity or ISIS, so we can share media.
“I am absolutely dedicated to the Avid. There have been one or two projects where I have come in to help out, and they have been on the Lightworks system, but almost everything is on Avid. I am very comfortable with it. People will say, ‘Kevin, what are you comfortable with? And what are you and Alexander comfortable with?’ When it comes to the versions, it’s always tricky. I think Nebraska was 5.5. Version 6 was coming out, but there was some reason we didn’t go for it.”

Post: Where were you set up for Nebraska’s edit?
TENT: “We started at Paramount, while they were shooting on location. Then, Alexander has offices in Santa Monica, so we rented a few rooms in the building that his office is in and worked there. Everything is so easy to pack up and move that if you find a cool space, you just grab it.”

Post: Are you the sole editor, or do you have assistants?
TENT: “We have assistant editors. Mindy Elliott is my first assistant, who I have worked with a number of times. She’s really fantastic. She organizes everything. There is a lot that goes on with turning over cuts and what dailies are happening. She does that. We worked on The Descendants. We met on a movie called Management, years ago. She’s pretty important to our cutting room. We also have an apprentice, named Brian Bautista, who did a lot of comps for us, and cleaned up some shots for us in the offline process. And then we had a PA, who would get us coffee or make us martinis [laughs].”

Post: How much creative input do you have as the editor?
TENT: “I think a lot of my input is in there, but it’s in conjunction with Alexander. We look at it and say, ‘This part of the movie is slow, we’ve got to pick up the pace, or slow it down.’ He and I go back and forth. I’m always worried that it’s moving too slowly, and he’s worried that if it moves too fast, you lose emotion, so we are always going back and forth on what the right amount of time is to hold things and let things play out. In the early stages, he likes to see what I come up with on my own, so I’ll just basically put scenes together very rough and they are usually very long at that point, knowing that we’ll tighten them and trim them. I also put everything in that he wants to see — everything that he shot, all of the lines. Even though I know we are probably going to drop a line, I’ll put it in there.”

Post: Are you using music during your edit?
TENT: “That’s a good question. [For] Nebraska, I did cut [with] temp music, but I was having real hard time finding the right music. It was a tricky one. Alexander, too, was like, ‘I’m not quite sure what the music is here?’ We brought our music editor, Richard Ford, on early for him to start looking for the sound of what the music would be. He found this band, the Tin Hat Trio — Mark Orton’s band — that was the greatest find. We used some of their cues for temp, and we said, ‘Let’s get it.’ That wound up being the music for the movie. And for a few places, where we needed something specific made and didn’t have a source cue, he wrote a couple of pieces for us too. They also took some of their old tracks and tweaked them a little bit. It’s amazing what they did. But originally, it was a difficult movie to find the right music for. A lot of what I was originally temping with was by Leo Kottke, which worked a little bit, but it was kind of fast. The movie is dealing with old people and old towns, and it wasn’t quite right. It was a tough one.”

Post: How was the film onlined?
TENT: “We did go back to the original files, and Technicolor did all that work. Then we went to a big DI stage and got our color/black & white timing done there. That’s how we did it, all at Technicolor.”

Post: Did working with black & white footage influence you as an editor?
TENT: “The black & white is really beautiful. And it was interesting to cut with because I think your eye focused on faces a little more than normally you do in color. There are less distractions. My eye, at least, goes to faces more. And we have great faces in the movie — beautiful and intense and old. And the camera seems to really embrace them.”

Post: What are you using for monitoring?
TENT: “We have a small, cool, little Sony monitor and then a big one, maybe a 60-inch? And we’d have screenings in the cutting room with friends and family on that, and it was good enough to give them a sense of what the movie would be like.”

Post: Is Alexander Payne involved closely in the edit?
TENT: “Our relationship is that he is in the cutting room all the time. Every relationship is different with a director, but Alexander likes to be there pretty much every day, unless he is out of town or something. He was there, going through dailies and going through the cut, and changing, tweaking, watching and editing. He loves editing and he’s a good editor himself.”

Post: Do you feel pressure when the director is sitting right there as you edit?
TENT: “It’s not pressure at all. It’s collaborative. There is pressure for us to get it done, and he feels pressure. He’s just a terrific director and a great person. Even if he is feeling pressure, it’s not like he takes it out on anybody. We know we have work to do, so we put our heads down and go to work. It’s actually kind of relaxed.”

Post: What’s next for you?
TENT: “I pick up little jobs here and there. I’m waiting for next big thing to come along. You never know when that will be.”