IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Editor Kevin Tent Talks 'The Descendants'

Monday, 09 January 2012 10:28 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Editor Kevin Tent Talks 'The Descendants'

I believe one of the most important, and certainly underappreciated, jobs in the cinematic process is the editor. You don’t always realize it when you are watching a film, but their work is on every frame of the picture and without it, you’d literally have, well … nothing! Any good director will tell you that an editor’s contributions are absolutely vital to the filmmaking process. There have been many great director/editor teams over the years such as Steven Spielberg and Michael Khan, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Ron Howard and Dan Hanley/Mike Hill, Quentin Tarantino and the late Sally Menke, and most recently, Alexander Payne and Kevin Tent.

I first met Kevin Tent in 2003 when he gave a young aspiring actor a chance to see how movies are really made. He hired me to be his post-production assistant on a film called The Clearing, which starred Robert Redford and Helen Mirren. Kevin had already made Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt with Alexander, and would soon be starting work on his next film … Sideways. Kevin was kind enough to take me along for that film as well and I will never forget the experience. Once we got into post-production, I had the luxury of spending time with Kevin and Alexander, getting to know them, and watching them work together as a team. I’ll always remember the way they made the process of filmmaking fun, and extremely inclusive for everyone involved. They made me feel like I was just as an important member of the team as anyone else, even if I was only answering the phones. You could tell that they were working very hard on that picture, yet at the same time they made their work look absolutely effortless. Of course, Sideways went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards and ultimately earned Alexander an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

After Sideways, Kevin would go on to edit such popular films as Monster-in-Law, RV, and The Golden Compass. While Alexander co-wrote I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and produced a few film projects including Cedar Rapids, as well as the HBO series Hung, he would not direct another feature film for almost seven years. That film is The Descendants, which opened late last year to rave reviews and is currently still in theaters. The movie is on almost every critic’s top ten list (including mine), and is a frontrunner for multiple Oscar nominations when they are announced on January 24th

The Descendants stars Oscar-winner George Clooney as Matt King, a real estate lawyer from Hawaii put in charge of his family’s land deal while he is dealing with his wife’s terminal coma, and two young daughters. Soon after finding out that his wife is going to die, Matt is struck with more bad news … she’s been cheating on him. Along with his children, and his oldest daughter’s (Shailene Woodley) friend Sid (Nick Krause), Matt goes on a quest to confront the man his wife was having an affair with. But when Matt finally comes face to face with the man she loves, he discovers that they have a connection even he couldn’t have imagined, one that could threaten his family’s cherished land deal.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to my old boss, Kevin Tent, about his impressive work on The Descendants. He discussed the new film, his working relationship with Alexander Payne; their editing process together and how its changed since Sideways, Hawaii, George Clooney’s performance and what he brings to the project, the cast’s young actors, balancing comedy with drama, Oscar talk, and his favorite scene in the film to work on.

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, because I know you and Alexander from working on Sideways, I could see both of your fingerprints all over this movie when I was first watching it. Obviously you and Alexander have similar humor and sensibilities from working together for so long but with the exception of editing the pilot for Hung, which Alexander directed, you two have not worked together in almost seven years. Could you talk about your relationship, the trust and unspoken understanding that you and Alexander have as filmmakers, and what it was like coming back together after all that time away to make this film?

Kevin Tent: I guess I can say that even though it had been seven years since we made a movie, we are still very close friends, and we see each other all the time. I think it's been less than seven years, but that being said, it was really great to be back in the cutting room with him again. We have a lot of fun. He's great to work with. He cultivates a very creative atmosphere, and he's very open to input. Maybe there was a little bit of adjustment time, a day or two, but for the most part we just clicked right away went to work.

Is your assembling process during production the same as it was on Sideways, where Alexander shoots a scene on set while you are putting together a different scene that he has already shot in the cutting room?

Kevin Tent: It’s still the same. I do an assembly of scenes and usually send them to him to watch over his days off or the weekend. Sometimes he'll have a gathering of Jim Burke (producer), Jane Stewart (production designer), and Phedon Papamichael (cinematographer) over at his place and they'll have a little in house screening. Usually by the time he's wrapped the film he's seen everything I've cut. Maybe not in order, but at least all the scenes individually. Then when he's back to the cutting room, we start watching dailies and roughing in new versions of the scenes. This way he really gets to know his footage. 

So you don’t have an assembled rough cut of the entire film to show Alexander once production is over, you just start putting it together with him from scratch?

Kevin Tent: Well... I have one, but he doesn't watch full assemblies anymore. I think About Schmidt was the last time he sat all the way through one of my cuts. I think it's all too overwhelming for him and it burns him out. Which is fine by me... I find them overwhelming and they bum me out. Like I said, our process of late has been to watch dailies for a scene or a couple of scenes and then start cutting. We'll always go back and compare it to how I cut the scene originally but I think this process really allows him to know his footage intimately well. As he likes to say... "I remember that take. I was there when they shot it." 

That does sounds like something Alexander would say.

Kevin Tent: He has a lot of great quotes. I have a new one for you. During the long process of cutting Election he once said, "You know what? Every day we make this film suck less." That's classic Alexander. On The Descendants he was leaving one night and in a philosophical mood he said, "You know what? Editing is the ongoing process of masking how bad your film is." Funny but also insightful and honest. He's really hard on his own material, which I think is why his movies come out so good. 

Sideways was one of the first films that I worked on in post-production and I remember the first day I saw the dailies come in, I had a feeling that we were working on something very special. I have worked in many cutting rooms since then, and as you know, that unique experience definitely does not happen on every film. Did you have a similar experience making The Descendants? Did you know from the first moment that you saw the dailies that you were working on something special that could become an Oscar-worthy movie?

Kevin Tent: I don't know if I knew that right off the bat but I did feel very early on that I had never seen George Clooney better. I knew he was nailing it, and when the first few scenes of Shailene Woodley came in, the pool scene and the following scene in the living room, I knew this girl was phenomenal. I knew we had some very powerful scenes and like always, Alexander was getting great performances. We had a lot of hurtles to cross to make it into a movie, but I guess in hindsight... yes, I was hoping that we'd have something special on our hands. 

You and Alexander have made a handful of really excellent films together, and it seems like each new one you make is better than the last, are you ever surprised by the constant level of cinematic quality that you have been able to achieve together as a team?

Kevin Tent: Thanks, I think they're all good too, and each one unique. I love them, but I'm sort of biased. Alexander is really a great filmmaker and director, and I think with each film he gets better at his job. Same goes for me. I do a lot of cutting on other films with other directors and each time I feel I grow as an editor. So when we hook up... he's a stronger director and I'm a stronger editor. As far as feeling surprised? I don't know, I think we both put our heads down and go to work. We don't think about or over analyze our process. We just keep working. I don't think we know exactly where we're going to wind up. We just keep trying to make the film better and better, and hope it comes out great in the end. 

I seem to remember from working on Sideways that Alexander doesn’t shoot a lot of takes, he’s very efficient on the set, is he still the same way?

Kevin Tent: Actually this time he did shoot more and in some scenes he shot a lot. Quite a few takes, different angles, and he gave us a variety of ways to play out the scenes. In a couple, he really dissected the scenes and really explored with the camera. "I shoot to edit," is another quote. But... we often didn't wind up using some of the more "arty" shots because our editorial choices were so performance driven, which is usually how we work. 

One of my favorite shots in the film comes early in the movie when Clooney is walking up the staircase at the hospital. Was that scene in the script that way or did Alexander decide to shoot it after he found that location?

Kevin Tent: Oh yeah, that a cool shot! I don't think the shot was specifically mentioned in the script. Although I can't remember for sure. Probably Alexander and Phedon saw it and decided to shoot it. It was however actually shot for a different spot in the movie. We had done a lot of rearranging and losing stuff in the beginning, voice over and what not. If you look closely George is wearing a different colored shirt. We also added a very slight push in on the avid. 

The location itself is really a character in the film, isn’t it?

Kevin Tent: That's something Alexander always does great, way back to Citizen Ruth and Election. He really immerses himself into a region or the world he's filming. Not just Omaha but Sideways with the Central Coast and now Hawaii with The Descendants. He throws himself deep into these locations and pays extreme attention to the details of everyday life. Jane and the rest of the team help with that too. I think the result is that his films feel very authentic. Here is a quick example of that. People take off their shoes when entering homes in Hawaii, so we put that in the movie. It's a smallish detail but when you have twenty, fifty, or a hundred of these small details they add up. I think they make for a very real experience for the audience. 

Did you go to Hawaii for the production or did you begin cutting in Los Angeles?

Kevin Tent: No I was here in L.A., but I did go once to Hawaii to show Alexander a bunch of cut scenes and attend the mid-way party.

Obviously when you made About Schmidt you had Jack Nicholson in the lead role, and here you have George Clooney, but when Election was released Reese Witherspoon was not a well-known actress, and the same could be said for the cast of Sideways. So my question is, in your opinion as an editor, does it change the dynamic of a film to have a Jack Nicholson, or a George Clooney, someone of that stature, in the lead role, or is good acting just good acting no matter how famous the performer is?

Kevin Tent: I think good acting is good acting. We pay attention to all the performances, in all the roles big or small. It definitely changes what those actors bring to the film when you're trying to get it made or when it gets released but while we're cutting they're treated like every other actor. We try to cut the best performance we can no matter who they are, even if they happen to be a movie star. I don't think they'd want it any other way. 

You mentioned before that you realized early on in the production that George Clooney was giving one of his best performances to date, and there is a great example of that towards the end of the film. Without giving too much away, Clooney’s character is saying goodbye to his dying wife and during one long close-up, a big tear falls down his face. I was wondering if Alexander had always planned to have the scene play out in the film like that, or if it was a choice made in the cutting room to keep the moment untouched, rather than cutting away to another shot?

Kevin Tent: Again... that's really a performance driven moment. So yes... I think it was always Alexander's hope to play it simply and let the emotion of George's performance carry the weight of the scene. I believe Alexander may have shot a cut-a-way just in case but he never intended to really use it. I think George had done six takes of that scene, with different levels of intensity. A big commitment on his part. Really hard to imagine doing that six times. We had two hero takes that we were constantly swapping out with each other. Very subtle differences between the two. Finally we narrowed it down to the one in the movie. 

Something else I remember from working on Sideways is that Clooney had originally been interested in playing one of the leads in that film, do you think that has something to do with how he ended up in The Descendants?

Kevin Tent: I don't know a whole lot about that but I've heard that story too. One of the studios had wanted George, he liked the script and wanted to do the movie. But it's hard to imagine anyone but Paul (Giamatti) in that role. 

Alexander and Clooney seem to have really found a common bond together making this movie, can you talk about their relationship as filmmakers?

Kevin Tent:

You're absolutely right. They're both great guys. They are similar in the way they deal with other people, they're gentlemen. They're respectful and generous. They have a light touch, which allows the people around them (actors, crew) to feel safe, and feel free to be creative and open. George was amazingly generous with his fellow actors. Other editors will know what I'm talking about when I say this. He was always there when it was the other actor's turn in front of the camera, like for their close ups or whatever. I've been on films where actors of his stature don't feel it's necessary to be there for the other guy. When the camera turns around they split, so the director or script supervisor wind up reading the lines to the actor. George was there for all of them... really acting for them so they could respond with a better performance. I've always thought he was a great, and have been a big fan but after seeing that I had even more respect for the man. I think too... because George is also a director, he brings a lot of knowledge and experience to the table when he shows up in the role of an actor. In a lot of ways Alexander and George are similar in their generosity to others. They're good, decent guys... like I said, gentlemen. 

I think that definitely shows in the final product, don’t you?

Kevin Tent: Yes, I think the film has a relaxed, natural feel. It unfolds slowly but in a real way and I think a part of that is a result of how comfortable and safe everyone felt on the set. They felt free to express themselves and to be creative. I often remind Alexander that a fish rots from the head. He's our leader, he sets the tone and the vibe of the set, and in the cutting room too. 

That’s definitely how it felt for me on Sideways.

Kevin Tent: Yes, exactly, and it was just the same on The Descendants. He's very nurturing and everyone kind of gets in the same groove. We're sort of like a family.

I’ve heard that several of the young actors Alexander chose to use for the film had never been in a movie before, is that correct?

Kevin Tent: Yeah! Amara (Miller) the little girl who played Scotty had never been in front of the camera before. He was really looking for somebody fresh and real. I think he found that a lot of the young actresses he was seeing were overly prepped by their parents and seemed to be "acting" instead of being "natural." He found Amara at the very last second. She was the last one cast as a matter of fact, just a couple of weeks before shooting. She's terrific. I think this might be Shailene's first movie but obviously... it's not going to be her last. I don't think Nick (Krause), who plays Sid, has been in a movie before either. It was pretty gutsy casting on Alexander's part, and quite a gamble. You never know how that kind of thing will work out, but as usual with Alexander it worked great. 

Unlike many directors, Alexander has really mastered the ability of balancing both comedy and drama in the same movie. Could you talk about that from an editor’s standpoint because all of his films are like that and I’m curious if it’s difficult to find that balance in the cutting room?

Kevin Tent: Yeah, probably our biggest challenge was keeping the balance between the drama and the humor. In the script and even in early cuts of the film there were many attempts to make the movie funnier. Eventually we trimmed back and removed a lot of the comedic elements. Originally, I think Alexander felt the comedy would be needed in order to not make an unrelentingly bleak film. But as we were editing I think we felt that if the audience was going to connect with the film - they'd connect through the characters. They'd have to feel and empathize with them, and believe emotionally what the characters were feeling. Some of the early attempts at humor felt like an external force being pushed upon them. It felt disrespectful of the tragedy they were experiencing. In a way forcing a disconnect between the audience and the characters. So... we kept trimming it back. I think there is a natural, organic balance between the drama and the humor. Kind of like real life, but it was tricky to get there.  

It’s kind of his signature thing, isn’t it?

Kevin Tent: Yeah, pain equals funny. There are painful character moments followed by a release of something funny. He likes to beat up his characters emotionally and sometimes physically, which the audience relates and connects with. I mean everyone feels beaten up sometimes, and then he slips in something funny, which is a big release for the audience. 

Did you have a favorite scene or moment in the film to cut? Was there one part that you were really excited to get to work on each day?

Kevin Tent: There’s a bunch of scenes that I love, but one of my favorites is with George and Judy Greer on the beach, when he's testing her to see if she knows anything about his wife or the affair. I love the way it's shot, the sound of the waves, the subject matter, and the performances are so natural. There is a moment after when Judy asks, "You must know my husband?" We built in a long beat of George not answering - just long enough for the audience to wonder, "Shit... what the hell is he going to say?" He eventually answers, "No... can't say that I do." But that suspended moment is really powerful. That whole scene, although so simple cutting wise, is one of my favorites. Judy and George are great in it. I also love the scene with George and Sid (Krause) in the hotel room at night where Sid reveals that his father recently died. Again, so simple from a cutting standpoint but the performances are so strong. I just find it so moving, even after watching it a thousand times. Same goes for the scene with Beau Bridges at the bar, where Matt finds out his wife had something to do with the land deal. It's starting to sound like I have a lot of favorite scenes, which is the case I guess. 

Finally, Oscar nominations will be announced soon and clearly The Descendants is one of the frontrunners this year, how does it feel to be a part of that?

Kevin Tent: It’s really exciting. You never know really how the movie’s going to be received out there in the real world. We tested it a lot and it tested well, but it's been very exciting to get such a positive response. Even people not in the film business have been calling me and saying, " I saw the movie, it's great!" That's been nice and very exciting.

Several critics predict that you will earn your first Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing this year, are you excited by that prospect or do you try not to think about it too much?

Kevin Tent: No, I try not to think about it. It’s a little hard when people keep asking about it. You could drive yourself crazy with that kind of thinking so I try not to, but it’s very flattering. There are a lot of very good films out there and there’s a lot of outstanding editing as well, so who knows?

The Descendants is still in theaters now!

To watch our exclusive video interview with actor Robert Forster about The Descendants, please click here.

To read our exclusive interview with actor Beau Bridges about The Descendants, please click here

To read our exclusive interview with actor Matthew Lillard about The Descendants, please click here

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