Here's What It's Like to Be in the Cutting Room with Alexander Payne
Editor Kevin Tent discussed his career and long-collaboration with Alexander Payne during an event at this year's Sight, Sound & Story.
Editors frequently share long and fruitful collaborations with their directors, and one of the most fruitful in recent years would have to be the one between writer/director Alexander Payne and his Oscar nominated-editor Kevin Tent, ACE. The two recently sat down for a wide-ranging conversation and discussion of his career during an "Inside the Cutting Room with Bobbie O’Steen" event at this year's Sight, Sound & Story in New York City.
O'Steen and Tent went over highlights from Tent's career, from his beginnings with B-movie king Roger Corman to his work on Girl, Interrupted and his several-decade collaboration with Payne.
Ultra Warrior and Roger Corman
After starting his career cutting 1950s style industrials with titles like Salt: The Hidden Threat, Tent got his real start, as have many in Hollywood, working with B-movie king Roger Corman. Tent had a great deal of freedom here, even while working within the tight guidelines of the company's founder, who would often cut entire scenes from films in favor of racy content. "It was a great place for editors," Tent reminisced, "and it was a great place for anyone who wanted to try out the film business. It was a great place to be an editor and learn editing. Roger was ruthless. He had no qualms about cutting a scene out if he thought it was slow...You always tried to make it exciting, and keep it moving, before Roger got his hands on it."
While working on the film Ultra-Warrior, a post-apocalyptic tale of the search for the element Zirconium, Tent actually got a co-director credit. As he explains it, "I knew where certain shots were. There was a movie Roger had produced in Peru, and it was terrible. They asked me what to do, and as a joke, I said, 'It needs a space war.'..' Because he knew where to find all the shots in the company's library, Tent recut the film so that each character had flashbacks, incorporating voice-overs and scenes from completely unrelated movies. "I can't figure out why studios don't do that today," Tent recalls, "they have warehouses of movies that no one's seen. They should get that footage and reuse it."
"Cut your brother's wedding video. Just cut stuff...and doors will open and you'll be ready and feel confident."-Kevin Tent, ACE
Using Corman's film "to keep money on the table," Tent also collaborated with directors like Tamra Davis on the film Gun Crazy, (Davis had also gone to L.A. City College, where Tent had studied for a few years.) Eventually, his reel fell into the hand's of Alexander Payne, and he was hired to work on Payne's first feature, Citizen Ruth.
Tent recalled that for the film, which was being produced by Miramax, "They were pushing much bigger editors, and [Payne] was resistant to that. He said that he wanted a partner, he didn't want [someone] telling him what to do." As far as experience goes, he stressed the importance of cutting all time, and of being ready for any opportunity that comes your way. "Cut your brother's wedding video. Just cut stuff...and doors will open, and you'll be ready, and feel confident."
His next movie with Payne was 1999's classic Election, which wasn't initially successful, partly because the studio didn't understand that "it wasn't a teen comedy." The film was actually a biting social satire (just like Payne's previousCitizen Ruth) about a contentious high school election, featuring Reese Witherspoon in the role of an obsessively ambitious high school student. It was a relatively experimental film, featuring elements like freeze-frames and a structure that incorporated four perspectives and different voiceovers.
1999 was also the year that Tent worked on his first big budget film, James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted, an adaptation of a memoir about a teenage girl who spends time in a mental hospital during the late 1960s. Starring Angelina Jolie, "who nobody knew at the time," and Winona Ryder, the film was, by Tent's recollection, the largest budgeted production he had worked on up to that point. He said it was a little intimidating at first, although he recalled sitting in the cutting room at the beginning of the process.
"It freaked me out at the time, "Tent recalled, "and I remember [sitting] in the cutting room [and thinking] 'it's film, it's just more expensive film. I'll do my job and not worry about it." Mangold, he recalled, shot a great deal of footage for the movie, consisting of a first cut of over three hours.
For Payne's About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson as an "old curmudgeon," Tent said that the director's goal was to do "a character story, the opposite of what he had done in Election. Nothing flashy." It started, as O'Steen noted, a trend in Payne's movies for more character-driven films. "Alexander did not want him to play Jack Nicholson...on the set they tried to keep Jack from doing any Jack-isms, and in the cutting room we were very diligent looking for those moments," Tent revealed.
"Normally you do an assembly, and the director comes in and it's horrible and you freak out."-Kevin Tent, ACE
They used voiceover in a completely different way for this film, with the conceit being that "Warren Schmidt was sponsoring a child in Africa, and told the story through long letters. The first time [the audience] thinks, 'Oh this is how he feels,' and they don't suspect that he'll be doing this through his whole journey."
Tent and Payne's process also began to change. Up until this point, the editor had run assemblies for Payne, i.e. a roughcut of the film assembled from footage shot as the production progresses. "Normally you do an assembly, and the director comes in and it's horrible and you freak out," Tent admitted, "and from that point on, we started not watching the assembly. The way we work now, he doesn't watch anything I do, and he comes in fresh, and we start building scenes. Then we go back and watch what I did."
During Sideways, "a gorilla of a film" with a 146-page script and two very inspired performances from Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, much of the art lies in the performances. Tent said that part of the trouble during cutting came from knowing when to reign in Church's performance. "We realized he was a really strong spice, and he could overpower scenes, so we were constantly regulating how much he could say, but as we kept cutting the film, we realized that audiences were just hungry for him to say something."
Tent also recalled a part of the film that didn't make into the final cut, a long and heavily stylized sequences that Payne had filmed of Giamatti's morose Miles character "in a boat floating down the River Styx."
2013's Nebraska was one of the most interior-reliant films the two had worked on, a slow character study starring Bruce Dern that was shot in black-and-white. Tent said people have asked him what it's like to cut in black-and-white and he said that "most of the time, it doesn't matter," although he did mention that during the cutting he became "more attached to faces. We had such great faces, Bruce's face is amazing, and I thought there was something magical in that." Tent also revealed that during Nebraska (among other films he's worked on), he has made extensive use of Avid's fluid morph tool, which allows "the computer [to] digitally create frames, so you can basically take a jump cut and make it invisible. I'm guilty and I use it a lot."
Kevin Tent has had a very busy career in the cutting room, working on short films with Martin Scorsese, eight films so far with Payne, and collaborations with directors such as Barry Sonnenfeld, Garry Marshall, Tamra Davis and beyond. Whenever an editor sits down (and especially with a well-informed interlocutor like O'Steen) to talk about their work, the results provide a window into the cutting room, an aspect of moviemaking that often times is more seen than heard. Tent's engaging personality and ability to work on all types of films provide evidence as to why he has had such a long and fruitful career, and though his work speaks for itself, it's always good to hear the artist's words too.