An Interview with Kevin Tent
Kevin Tent is an Academy Award nominated editor. Alexander Payne’s go-to editor, Kevin has edited all of Payne’s feature films to date (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska, Downsizing). His other credits as editor include, Girl Interrupted, Blow, The Golden Compass and The Peanut Butter Falcon. I spoke with Kevin about breaking into the industry, working with Alexander Payne, editing Girl Interrupted, and his experience directing Crash Pad.
Did you always think you would go into editing? What was your first experience in this line?
I didn’t. I really never even knew what editing was. I went to film school out here in Los Angeles at LACC. Kind of a pivotal moment for me where I kind of realised the path and power behind it, I was editing my short film and a friend came to see how I was doing. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was 16mm, it was my final film for LACC. He said: ‘what if you just went from that shot to that shot and cut out all of the stuff in between.’ And I was like, oh my God that just made the whole scene so much better! That was the first time I went wow editing is amazing. I didn’t even think about doing it, it was his idea.
Anyway after I’d made a couple of short films at LACC that same friend of mine, Tim Glavin, told me about a job where he was working. It was and educational film company that did ridiculously bad movies for kids and high schoolers. They needed an editor and I showed them my short films and they hired me. So I did that for a couple of years, and then I got a chance to recut a film for Roger Corman and that’s really where I started falling into the editing world in a bigger way. I’d also, by the way, been cutting my friends short films because I did like it. It was fun. Then when I started working for Roger Corman things really started taking off career wise. Corman’s was a great place to learn to be an editor. There was just so much going on lots and lots of films. There was such freedom and recklessness, it was just terrific. If you needed a shot of a car crash you could just go get one from your friend who was editing down the hall, and cut that into your movie. It was really fun and a really good place for editors to learn.
That’s basically how I got my start. I met with Alexander six or seven years after that when he was doing his first film (Citizen Ruth) and that’s really when my career started moving up. We had so much fun on it. It came out well. It went to Sundance and that was kind of exciting. I’d been to Sundance once before but that was the first time I had a film there. I remember being on a bus the next morning after it had screened and these two women were talking about it and at first I didn’t know they were talking about Citizen Ruth, but they were. They saw it the night before and they loved it and that was kind of a cool thing, when you’re a young filmmaker and you hear that. He’s very loyal and his next film was Election and he asked me to cut it. That film was like one of those you hope you get at some point in your career. It became a hit and anyone who had anything to do with it got a huge career bump. That’s when my editing career really started taking off. I like to say that editing found me and I found editing because it wasn’t premeditated. It was kind of organic how it all came together.
Election is a brilliant film. I really like that we see the different perspectives and storylines of each of the main characters. What was the experience like editing the film, and what was the most challenging scene to edit?
We edited that film for over a year and a half. It went on forever. We were making it for MTV films which was a division of Paramount and they kept testing it with young high school aged kids. We kept saying it’s really a film for an older audience, at least people in their 20s and with some college education. The film was going right over the head of some of the younger audience members. The biggest challenge was the ending which ultimately we wound up re-shooting. The studio at the time really pushed Alexander and Jim to come up with a new ending. The original ending was much more poignant and it caught the audience off guard, they thought wait a minute we’ve been laughing hard on this crazy ride and all of a sudden you’re getting serious on us? It didn’t fit the film exactly, so that’s why they embraced reshooting. The new ending still had some poignancy, but more importantly it was funny, ironic and everything the audience had been used to. Because we had to wait for Matthew Broderick to come back from shooting another movie, we had a lot of time to cut and we really fine-tuned the voice over. The movie is tight. Even now I look at it and it feels very snappy. Election was really a lot of fun to cut.
You’ve edited all of Alexander Payne’s feature films. How did this collaboration come about?
Just coincidence really. We had mutual friends. He called my friend Carole Kravitz who’s an editor and he said to her: ‘I can’t afford you, who would you suggest?’ And she gave him my name and one other editor's name. I met with him and I believe he liked the idea that I’d worked for Roger Corman and he also liked the movie Guncrazy that I had just done, maybe a year before. Which was kind of an early independent film, a hip film noir directed by another LACC friend Tamra Davis. We’re close in age, he grew up in Omaha, I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Old industrial towns. We kind of just clicked. That’s how we met. Carole I knew from LACC and Roger Corman’s studio.
Alexander Payne seems to have a very clearly set style and tone throughout all his films, even in stylistic outliers like Downsizing. How does your editing work with the tone of his films?
One time somebody said, that I had an editing style. But I don’t think that’s true. Every film is different and the style of editing for that film generally evolves organically while you’re cutting. It’s not like an editor comes in and puts their style on a film. It just kind of happens. I think that’s pretty much true of all of Alexander’s films too, because they are all different and the editing styles are all different. Though I will say after Election we consciously made the decision to "cut less” on his next film About Schmidt. That's what we wound up doing, which made for a slower film in some regards, but still good. Cutting less creates challenges on its own, but we figured it out.
There’s a scene in Sideways when we see montages of wine-making and Miles and Jack wine tasting. How was this put together? Did you have the montage worked out from the beginning?
There’s actually a funny story behind that. So when we were editing Citizen Ruth, we obviously had hours to talk and get to know each other. When talking about our favorite films we both hit on the original Thomas Crown Affair, which uses all these really inventive split screen montages. When Election came around we did one little spilt screen sequence which we loved and thought we were so cool. About Schmidt as a film really didn’t lend itself to film trickery like that so we didn’t bother. Come around to Sideways and one day during shooting we started getting lots of second unit footage. Thousands of feet of film of migrant workers picking grapes, wine being bottled all sorts of stuff. I called him up and I was like where the hell is all this footage going? He said, ‘Oh I thought we’d do one of those split screen montages.’ He had had it in his mind, but didn’t tell me. It really helped us a lot. We truncated huge sections of the movie into those montages and rearranged a number of scenes. The montages gave us a lot of freedom to do a lot for the movie. Not only were they cool visually, but it gave us "truncation time.”
You were nominated for an Oscar for your work on The Descendants. What was the workflow like editing the film?
They obviously shot in Hawaii but I stayed in Los Angeles. I went over one weekend to show Alexander cut scenes. When he got back we basically started cutting from scratch. Watching dailies together and cutting. It’s how we’ve worked since. Our first pass was really an “editor’s assembly” and a “director’s cut” at the same time. Again we went back to the trying not to cut too much. The film has a very, not static… but reserved feel. There was a lot more humor in the script and in some of the earlier cuts, but as the film evolved that humor seemed forced. The movie became more, I wouldn’t say sombre, but more serious as it evolved in its cutting. More respectful of the characters as what they were going through was pretty rough emotionally. It was a beautiful film. He just told me that he watched it recently. He hadn’t seen it for years and thought it was really good. That’s high praise coming from him.
Do you happily watch films you’ve edited, having seen them hundreds of times in the cutting room?
Sometimes I’ll turn on the TV and I’ll catch a movie that I worked on. Citizen Ruth came on a couple of years ago, on HBO or something and I did sit down and watch it. It was so funny because there is this one cut that bothered us while editing, we couldn’t figure out how to get it smoother. Then that cut came by again and I was like, ‘oh yeah you! I remember you’! It was trouble twenty years ago and it still bothered me when I saw it again. But, I don’t really watch my old movies unless I happen upon them. My son never saw Sideways and we’ve been watching movies here at the house lately. Movie night. We all put three names of movies into a little bowl and then dump them on the floor and let our dog pick one. I thought Sideways might be fun to watch so that’s on my list.
What were the biggest challenges you faced editing Nebraska, and how does the process differ when editing black and white?
No, people ask that question a lot. If you’re cutting for performance, which we almost always are, you still cut more or less in the same place you’d cut in black & white or color. I will say though that the performances seemed to come across stronger in the black and white. Bruce Dern's face was so intense and wrinkly and beautiful and I think the black and white made his close ups more compelling. There were other challenges in Nebraska however. There were a lot of oners which makes pacing the film harder at times. But we managed. I think the ending is terrific, when Bruce drives his truck through the town. It’s just a beautiful thing. Unexpected, kind of profound and really sweet. June Squibb is also so good in the movie.
Do you find the greater the amount of creative input in a project the greater the enjoyment?
It's true, if you feel like you’re making a difference in a movie you’re going to enjoy working on it more. If your instincts are right or you have a hunch and you convince your director, producers or whoever to go with you on something and it’s successful - it feels great. So in answer to your question: yes!
You were also editor on Girl Interrupted. What was your approach to editing the film?
Interestingly about that, Girl Interrupted was my first big budget feature. I remember I was really nervous. Millions of dollars, a huge cast it was daunting. I do remember at one point early on coming to the realization that what I was getting from the lab was just film like all the other movies I had worked on. So, I just put my head down and did my job like the movies before. Jim Mangold was great, Cathy Konrad the producer was great and I’m very proud of that movie. We did a lot of cool stuff. It was very challenging, the first cut was really long, but we wrestled it down to a good place. The performances were amazing. Angelina was new on the block, she was a revelation. All the girls in it were terrific. Like I said I was very proud to have worked on it.
Is there an editing software you find particularly intuitive or enjoyable to use?
I have my personal favourite which is Avid. I’ve been working on it for years. I started out on 35mm film and when the film world was going digital I jumped to Avid. I’m pretty much an Avid junkie so if given the choice - that’s the one I use. I’ve used Premiere, Lightworks and Final Cut in the past but Avid is what I grew up on. So I’m hooked. They’re always making it better too.
You’ve also ventured into directing. Is directing something you’d like to pursue?
Yes, I directed a movie called "Crash Pad”. And yes, I’d like to do it again. I learned so much. I can’t even tell you how much I learned. It was a very challenging thing for me to work with actors, hadn’t really done that before, in a cutting room yes, but not on a set. I was in awe and intimidated by them. I had a great cast too. And they were so good. All of them. Domhnall, Thomas, Christina and Nina. Hopefully I’ll get another opportunity to direct again. That’s my goal. You should check it out, it’s not terrible, it’s pretty funny. 'I’ve seen worse' I like to say. Domhnall Gleeson is so good, he plays a whacky kooky character, which he completely nailed. I just remember being so happy with everything he did on set. He loved the character of Stensland as much as myself and Jeremy the writer did.
I worked with Franco, an editor, who was one of my assistants from years ago who is now a cutter. We worked together really closely, but also remotely he was in Vancouver, where we shot, and I was in LA. The internet is so incredible. He would cut things, send them to me, I could cut them, send them to him and it worked out really well. I couldn’t have done it without him that’s for sure. I realised I was a better editor than director for sure, but that would make sense as I’ve been cutting for so long.
I was always very empathetic to directors on set, some editors get all riled up when the footage comes in and they can’t really work with it, or there’s problems, but the fact we get any footage at all is a miracle. I’m even more empathetic with directors than I was before. It’s tough out there, it can be.