Director Alexander Payne’s long-time editor, Kevin Tent, ACE, on mixing humor and drama, using dissolves, working with a music editor, and more on his latest film.
Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with Kevin Tent, ACE, about his long-time collaboration with director Alexander Payne and their latest film, The Holdovers.
Kevin’s been on Art of the Cut before for his last Alexander Payne collaboration Downsizing and for The Peanut Butter Falcon. Kevin has been nominated for numerous ACE Eddies for his work on Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and Nebraska. He also won an ACE Eddie and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Descendants.
Thank you, Steve. It’s been really great how well it’s being received from people. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and texts from friends and fellow editors. You can’t ask for anything better.
That’s great news.
It was certainly a combined effort. All these amazing, talented people, including David Hemmings, the writer. And, of course, Alexander.
We started out with a great script and we had great actors. Paul Giamatti is just phenomenal. And he was just so damn good. He had some real tongue twisters to deliver when he’s teaching the kids, but he rarely dropped a line or had to go back - like maybe once or twice in the whole movie. That’s really something else. He was so locked into that character.
He’s always good.
A lot of it was the script, but we did do a lot of things where we combined beats, to keep it from being too much of a rollercoaster ride. We hopefully were easing into a section of humor and then coming out of that into maybe a few more dramatic sequences.
I’m thinking in one in particular, the montage where Angus is running around at night in the school, drinking the wine and eating ice cream. We played with that sequence because those were broken up in some spots, but we made it seem like he had stayed up an entire night by adding a little bit with him in the church when Mary comes in and he’s looking at the photo of a her son.
That part was somewhere else in the movie, but we made that part of the montage. The montage was kind of fun, but it was also a little lonely, then it really had some poignancy when we ended on him in the church seeing Mary. It was great for their bonding moment, too.
There were maybe a few others in there that we kind of rearranged things and dropped some things. We’ve done this before, in Alexander’s movies.
Sometimes there’s a dramatic scene and it shouldn’t be undercut by humor. We’d drop a couple of lines here and there if there were things that didn’t seem necessary.
Yeah. So we had a few moments of that. Then we dropped a few scenes plus a lot of internal tightening of scenes, which makes it focused on one emotional beat
That kind of evolves. When Alexander started shooting, he was just going to use the singing voices from those boys. Then, when he saw the teacher in front of them, he said, “Oh, let’s just shoot this real quick.”
They only did a couple of takes on it. And when I got it, I thought, “This is cool, but is this supposed to be a title sequence? It’s not long enough. And I was like trying to figure it out before he came to the cutting room. When he showed up, he actually wasn’t really clear what he was going to do with it.
My initial instinct was, “We need more choir, but I kind of love the way it just kind of changes.
A lot of music changes in the title sequence. We ran the titles over this whole long section of meeting the characters and seeing the world. And then hopefully the audience feels the movie really starts.
When you meet Paul and the principal in the school, in their office, that kind of evolved and I was pretty happy with how that actually came out in the end.
I think the example I just gave was a good example because and we loved it and we got some great music choices. The second song that comes in there was just a young, modern artist, but it sounds very much like a 60s or 70s song.
That was a great find. Our music editor, Richard Ford, found that for us. Then we just really mixed up the music. The music was really telling you so much about each character and each beat.
In Paul’s apartment, for instance, we listen to the old opera and then this sort of rock - the Chamber Brothers cue - that the kids are listening to. So we just switched it all up there and then we reused that sort of melancholy cue. We use that cue to wrap up the montage title sequence.
In answer to your other question: There are other moments where we had scenes where they were driving to Boston and there was scripted dialogue in those sequences, but we thought at that point, “Okay, people have heard enough of these people, blah, blah, blah.
Let’s take out the dialogue and just use it as a montage with some music. It was so much more effective than what we had planned on the beginning.
We’ve always used him, and I’ve always loved them. We’ve used him for pretty much every movie we’ve had: little dissolve sequences, or at least dissolves. Steve, do you remember using grease markers to draw out a dissolve on film?
You had to mark it with China marker. Then it was such a gift when you saw it come back from the lab for the first time, it was an A/B dissolve and they were sometimes so smooth and so beautiful. So I think early on we really loved dissolves.
We did some really long ones and at first, I thought, “We’ve never done that before.” But then I happened to see a scene from Nebraska not long ago, and we did do some similar long dissolves with action happening in the tail of them.
So they’re beautiful and they’re effective. They seem to sometimes just add a lot of emotion to something. And they also can give you a time transition. They kind of make it dreamy, which I think is kind of nice.
Yeah. All tools are at your disposal when you’re making a film.
Alexander loves to have at least one. He loves Kurosawa films, so we have to do at least two wipes.
I think it is in Boston. I think on the way to the building, the hotel room, or something like that.
Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
We can do anything with these digital tools these days. It’s pretty amazing.
No. We did that all at the very end. I should give credit to our title designer. The guy that does all the graphics for Alexander’s movies, Nate Carson, he’s in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s so talented and he absolutely made the Focus logo.
He made a bunch of them for us and Focus was great about letting us change their logo. They were like, “Sure, let’s do it!” which doesn’t always happen. And Miramax was the same way. So a lot of people get a kick out of that, which is great.
One of my first jobs in Los Angeles, actually my first job, I was still in film school, was working at a film lab. I would watch prints and if that print came through.
I would probably have rejected it because it had so much negative and positive dirt on it. Some of the pieces of dirt just cracked me up. When they go by, I think, “Oh, that’s funny.”
Alexander is big on that. There’s always a sort of battle between us. I’m always pushing to tighten up some of those moments, but respectfully, I understand what he’s going for. I think he wants the audience to be able to absorb things.
If you’re referring to Paul walking down the hallway, maybe the further he gets, the lonelier it seems. There’s emotion in those kind of moments. There’s lots of beats like that in The Holdovers, because these are hurt people, damaged souls.
There’s a lot of pathos with them. So I think some of those shots and some of those beats are hopefully portraying that a little bit.
Director Alexander Payne on the set of The Holdovers
I don’t do hand notes anymore. I do locators and I do a cut. Then when Alexander comes to the cutting room, he has not watched dailies at all when he’s on set. Usually, I’ll send them whatever scenes I’m done with by Friday for the weekend if he wants to watch it, but he often doesn’t want to watch anything.
I think he’s busy prepping and doing other things. So when he comes to the cutting room, we start watching dailies together again. We cut Citizen Ruth on film and we used to line up our takes and we’d line up sections where we would take something as far as we could and lined them up.
And we still do that kind of today. We also stack takes.
We’ll have a couple of hero takes, maybe two or three, sometimes four, that will just stack in the Avid and mute the top ones or the bottom ones. Then as a cut progresses, we go back and check those periodically to make sure we still have the best performances that we like and then sometimes we switch them out, live with it for a couple of cuts and switch it back… or not.
But me personally, I line up everything in my timeline while I’m doing my first cut. If I even hear a door close or a phone ring, that or even a footstep that sounds like, “Oh, that’s footstep’s pretty good.” I’ll just throw it in this giant, massive mess of the timeline, then I start cutting with that.
So when I have my first timeline, it’s really kind of ugly, then I go back and try to save things.
We go straight to the dailies. So what we wind up having is sort of a hybrid editor’s assembly/director’s cut. It’s better than an editor’s first cut, and it’s not quite a really good director’s cut, but it’s the first thing we have.
Let’s say we’ve cut a scene, then we’ll go back and watch what I had done in the first cut. He’ll say, “Oh yeah, that is good - the way you did that, so let’s incorporate that into what we’re doing.”
Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers
Great question. It was interesting on The Holdovers because besides source cues - which I have a mental library of seventies music in my head - but I was having trouble hearing what the score might be.
Mindy Elliott, our longtime assistant editor - who now who got an associate extra credit on the movie - deservedly so. She gave me a Swingle Singers cue, which is the choir, the Christmas music thing, and she kicked off using that kind of music, then we added to it.
Then our music editor came on and we started using that. It became a thematic type of music that we used a lot of.
So the acapella versions - we used the Von Trapp family for the Little Drummer Boy and stuff like that - it wound up being really terrific because it was countrapuntal and ironic and added humor and being Christmasy, so credit goes to Mindy on that.
Then Richard Ford, our music editor, really kind of gave us lots of other options. Then we kept swapping things, then the score came in.
I couldn’t really hear the score in my head when I started cutting. I think every editor can say, “I know what would work there” and go to their mental library and pull out a cue that will work. I was having trouble doing that with this one.
But composer Mark Orton, who’s amazing - he worked with us on Nebraska - once Alexander decided that he was the right person for it our music editor gave us a lot of some tracks from some Mark’s work and Alexander was feeling comfortable that was the direction to go.
It’s time consuming because you fall in love with the needle-drops and then they tell you it’s $100,000. We had to make a lot of choices and tough calls when we were finalizing things.
Richard does more than just music editing. He kind of like our music czar, if you will. He believed Mark was the right person. So he gave us a lot of cues from Mark’s earlier work and stuff like that and worked with Mark.
I think maybe he even did a couple of demos of some cues that we started using - getting used to it.
When it comes to working with the composer, Alexander likes to step away when he’s feeling really good about the cut itself, then he kind of focuses on music and he’ll go off with Mark and work on cues, and he doesn’t like to have a lot of voices in his head, people telling him, “Oh no, that’s good or bad” or whatever.
So when he feels comfortable, it’ll come back to the cutting room and he’ll say, “What do you think of this? We got some great cues for here. Here’s some options.”
Director Alexander Payne, Paul Giamatti, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph on set
We really have three kinds of music in The Holdovers. We have the Christmas music, which were needle drops, but they were a lot of acapella versions of Christmas songs. Then there’s the period piece music - the Sixties Rock. And then there’s Mark’s score.
The first thing we settled on was the Christmas music. Those were really helping the scenes. They were kind of really important in the scenes. I never really got too worried about the rock tunes because you’re going to get one that are going to be great.
Just drop it in at some point. I was never worried about that.
We had a couple of things that Mark did versions of or he did his own version of the rock kind of themes because we couldn’t afford the source tunes, so Mark helped us out on some of those. It’s really a shame that it gets so expensive. “That song is $100,000?”
We talked about the title sequence earlier and there’s actually a big break in there where the Chamber Brothers song “Time has Come Today” is playing. If you put titles over that song, it jacked up the price another $30,000.
I wasn’t really happy about it because we had to pull the credits out over that but it feels like there should be a title in that sequence somewhere where we’re seeing Mary and the boys talking and when you meet Angus and the other boys and stuff that we used to have them in there, but we had to get take them out since it was too expensive.
So there are titles, and then no titles for a while, and then titles again.
I think Die Hard is a Christmas movie, so I guess this one is too. Die Hard’s got a Christmas ending. It’s got a happy ending.
Yeah, it’s got Christmas trees and it’s got Christmas music.
Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
Usually he’ll send me the script when he’s even thinking about something. He’ll send me a script and he’s sent me about 35 or 40 pages of this early on and I thought, “This is good. This is in his wheelhouse. It’s a good script. I think the script only went up to where the rest of the boys take off.
So when he really hones in on something, I usually give notes on the script - my personal thoughts about pacing and whether something seems repetitive. Sometimes he takes those notes, sometimes it doesn’t.
He’s always appreciative of them. When he’s wrestling with the casting, I’ll watch casting tapes, and that was the case on this one, and just give my $0.02. I mean, I’m not the only one he’s bouncing this off. He’ll tell me what he’s thinking.
For instance, in The Holdovers, he said that he hopes that people feel like they opened some vault somewhere and this seventies movie came out, as opposed to being a movie made now of the seventies. I looked at camera tests and stuff like that, so he’ll keep me looped in on that thing, but I’m in the loop.
All editors are good at navigating relationships with directors, and I haven’t lost that because I do work with lots of different people when he’s not making a movie. So I think like we all are respectful of what what directors want to try to do and try to help them get what they’re looking for and they don’t know how to find it with them.
There are always those first few weeks when you’re working together and you can see they don’t completely trust you 100%, but there’s usually a moment where all of a sudden they say, “This person’s with me.” It’s like this little barrier drops, but once you’re on that side, the trust is there.
Then I think you just have to be yourself and share your mind as well as you can. Every relationship’s different. Every film is different. You could work with a director a couple of times on a film that’s super stressful, that’s maybe not working, and that could be the end of a relationship. Editors are good people-people, I think. That’s one of the job requirements, I would say.
Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
Patience is a huge one. A huge one. You’re so right.
I’m a big believer in stepping away from something. You can only beat your head against the wall so many times, then you really need to just say, “Let me come back tomorrow on this or let me come back in a week.
I’ll look at this again.” And usually I find it’s not as bad as I thought it was, and it’s not as good as I thought it was. But just having that distance is really good, I think, for all editors to just say, “Wait a minute. Let me just step away” and I find that really helpful.
Dominic Sessa and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers
That can be the tell. Or if you come up with something that they hadn’t thought of and they say, “Oh, that just fixed this thing I was so worried about.” Then they think, “Oh, okay, you just saved my fanny on that little moment.”
That’s always a big one too: to think of something that they hadn’t thought of. That’s normal. I mean, that’s what our job is.
He gave very subtle differences, that were all good. He was just phenomenal. He was always really good and it was really subtle. There was never a problem with things not being consistent from take to take.
I think because they were close enough together that we could just be very comfortable jumping in between if we had one line that was really good from one other.
And he’s very good with his body positions and being consistent and he’s such a pro. I can’t say enough wonderful things about him. He just made your job a hell of a lot easier.
Such a funny scene. He nailed that. I think there’s maybe maybe four or five takes of that.
That scene - and I’m trying to picture it in my head - reminds me of shot size and shot selection. You would never go in for a big close-up on a scene like that…
No. We had that two shot, which we definitely wanted to have the deadpan stare from the guys he’s playing opposite, so that kind of dictated the coverage of Paul’s side. You wouldn’t want to be close on him and then cut to that two shot.
Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers
The Newlywed Game. There’s two times they watch it. The first time, Paul doesn’t know what it is. The second time he comes back and he only did in one take, but he’s laughing and enjoying it.
And I thought that was so funny that now he’s hooked. Now he thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. So it’s very subtle. I was thinking about that scene earlier when I was talking about how good he was, because the coverage where he talks about that he almost got married once and all that stuff, beautiful performances and like all four takes on this coverage, he did subtle things in all of them. And she’s terrific in that scene, too.
Another editor said that shot size is somewhat determined by the geography of the scene. They’re sitting six feet apart, and therefore that dictates the shot size to some extent.
I think that’s probably a good way to think about it. We are really performance-driven on almost everything we do. At certain points. We do let performance choices dictate where our cutting goes a lot.
So that’s the way he’s kind of developed our cutting styles. Probably if a shot size really bumped us, we probably negate the shot size. But if we thought we could get away with it and it was a subtle way into it. We try not to cut too much.
We’re always trying to resist cutting, over-cutting. So if there’s a way for us to sneak something in a wider shot, at a certain point, we’ll go for it. When they’re talking, we went back to the wides and that was definitely because their performances as a team were so good.
When you see that repartee without cuts, it’s way stronger than if you were cutting to each thing.
Dominic Sessa and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers
…Are real and not manufactured. Agreed.
No, no coverage. There were nine of those, maybe 11, maybe 12. We had three heroes and we were always swapping out one for the other. Alexander tells a funny story about the guy that is the liquor store clerk.
He’d never been in a movie before and he was great. At the premiere, people laughed so hard at his line, “Here you go, killer.”
So we only previewed it one time. We had a lot of small screenings with friends and family and stuff like that. Like ten, 12, 15 people. We had a bunch of those, but only had one major preview and we were in good shape by the time we previewed it.
It was pretty honed in. We basically walked away feeling very good about the cut.
Yeah, jokes that fall flat or the timing seems off and stuff like that. We always are adjusting that stuff. But you know, that’s always so subjective and so relative. You can go to one screening and a joke will land perfectly and then you go screen the next week and for some reason nothing’s changed and it doesn’t get a laugh.
It’s the most bizarre thing. We learned a lot about that on Election because we previewed that so much and that was shocking how sometimes things got such huge laughs. There were a couple of solid laughs that we knew and they were consistent.
Yeah it is. Trust yourselves. Just trust yourself that you know what’s working or not.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Giamatti, and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers
I think they start out as completely different projects, but our approach of really fine-tuning performances, it’s one of his strengths as a director. I think he gets great performances from people.
Our job in the cutting room is to trim them up and condense them because he’s really good and super good on the set with them. So he does give them a lot of time. So there’s lots of times where things are just taking longer.
He’ll tell them to hurry up but because he’s respectful of their process, sometimes we get into the cutting room and the scenes are long. So we get to try to figure out how to cut a good performance.
That was definitely a moment. It comes late in the script. Even when we were working on the script, I remember saying, “Is there a way we can make the helicopter land while they’re running track? I would suggest it because I thought that was pretty late.
30 would be traditional, but we couldn’t condense it any more than we did without harming it. We talk about everything. Everything’s on the table when we’re in the cutting room.
But I think any other cuts, like let’s say you could cut out the scene where Angus talks to a young Korean boy because he wets his bed. Cutting that was an option. But we thought it was so good for Angus, his character, to keep that in there.
Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers
It really saved this character because otherwise, he was kind of a prickly kid, but it kind of warmed him up right there, that little scene. We could have done those cuts, but they probably would have done more harm than good to take them out.
Well, he’s better about that than I am.
Yeah. Also, I said, “This movie should be 90 minutes long.” But Alexander’s right. He’s almost always right. He’d say, “No, the audience has to feel this, you know?” I agree with that. Especially with his movies, if you cut them too tight, then you’re losing stuff. He marches to his own drummer. He cares deeply what the audience thinks, so he wants to make it faster and all that stuff.
Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers
I wouldn’t say I pushed, but we discussed it. We talked about, “What if we did take this out, what would happen?” But once it was in the script and shot, we just tried to make things happen as quickly as we could.
I dropped a couple of small scenes and tightened things up in spots. It’s a really good script and I think there’s always something happening. You’re an audience member, so you saw it fresh and clean.
There was always something happening, so it wasn’t this interesting. You kind of got into it. You’re going along for the ride and I think it’s wonderful how certain things are revealed so slowly.
There are a couple of scenes in there that I thought, “Well, I don’t know if it’s going to work.” They go to the Christmas party and basically in a plot-driven movie, not much happens there, but it’s all character stuff happening.
We spend 10 minutes - more maybe - at this Christmas party, but each character’s getting their moments.
Him taking the snow globe?
Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers
They didn’t shoot either of those things. You see that he focuses on it. We did the old “take out the sound and let them trip out on it.” It’s a good script thing. Another good script thing is that you find out Paul’s backstory very slowly, but it’s so good and it’s heartbreaking.
Steve, thank you.