Island Life: Kevin Tent Edits 'The Descendants,' Alexander Payne's Film of Love and Loss
Alexander Payne is a director who makes human stories with a blend of comedy and drama that we all can relate to. Movies like Sideways and About Schmidt are about discovery of self, and audiences relate to the humor of awkward situations that echo familiar events in our own lives.
The Descendants trailer
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The Descendants, which continues this trend, introduces audiences to Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian lawyer and disengaged father who struggles with the realization that he will have to remove his wife from life support. She is in a coma as the result of a terrible boating accident. Payne has interwoven an additional storyline dealing with King's extended family and their plans to sell a huge piece of unspoiled land to a large developer. The King family members are "descendants," distant relatives of native Hawaiians and non-native immigrants who settled the islands generations ago. The film's title stems from this part of the story.
George Clooney as Matt King in The Descendants
Film photos by Merie Wallace
The Descendants was shot in about 50 days on location in Hawaii. Cutting was done in Hollywood (during principal photography) and later in Santa Monica (during postproduction). The production was shot on 35mm film, with FotoKem handling dailies and digital intermediate finishing at Modern VideoFilm.
Alexander Payne is one of the few directors who has the right of final cut on his films, and Kevin Tent, ACE (The Golden Compass, Sideways, About Schmidt, Blow), has been the editor on all of Payne's films. Since the dailies that the production crew would view had to travel back to Hawaii, and Hawaii is three hours behind Los Angeles, editorial got to see dailies before production. Payne would give Tent a daily call to get the rundown on how everything looked and sounded.
Alexander Payne and Kevin Tent edit The Descendants
on an Amtrak train.
Of the postproduction schedule, Tent says, "We'd sometimes get only a half day's worth of dailies, and other times a day and a half—the amount would depend on the crew's cut-off time to get the negative on a plane and then to the lab. I would assemble scenes and send them back to Alexander to watch over the weekends. When he got back to Los Angeles in June, we started working away. We had our first cut for the studio in late September. The first official audience preview was in late October, and we finished the film by late February 2011."
An Amtrak Cut
Kevin Tent and first assistant editor Mindy Elliott cut on Avid Media Composers (version 4.0.5) connected to Unity shared storage. Dailies were delivered by FotoKem on HDCAM SR tape for Fox Searchlight, as well as Avid DNxHD 36 media on FireWire drives to be ingested into the Unity system. The FireWire drives came in handy later when Clooney invited Payne and Tent to go to his villa in Italy for a couple of weeks. The two were able to continue cutting using a laptop and the FireWire drives both in Italy and subsequently on a cross-country train ride from New York back to Los Angeles.
Actress Shailene Woodley
"We're laying claim to being the first film cut on an Amtrak train," Tent jokes. "Alexander had this great idea to take the train across the U.S. on the return home. It was an old-style Hollywood romantic notion, where a writer would board the train in New York, and when he arrives in Los Angeles, the movie script is done. Our two families had booked rooms in sleeper cars, which were large enough to spread out the laptop and the drives. This let me get some editing in during the two days on the train, but it's awfully hard to concentrate on editing when you are going through some of the most gorgeous countryside in America!"
Striking the Right Tone
Tent shared some of his thoughts on editing the film. "We tried to keep up the pace throughout the whole movie, but it's the type of film in which you can't shift the tone too quickly or you'll lose the audience. Our feeling was that if you rushed it, the audience wouldn't have time to absorb and feel the emotion. The balance between the drama and the humor was probably our biggest challenge. We've had similar challenges on Alexander's other films, but The Descendants was a whole new level of trickiness. We had to be respectful of the characters and what they were experiencing. It's about raw human emotion and about death—something most audience members can relate to in one way or another. So we scaled back and trimmed some of the humor, being very careful of anything which might feel insensitive to our characters. Hopefully we struck a good balance and the humor feels like it could happen in real life."
Writer/director Alexander Payne on the set
King's wife is seen outside of the coma and hospital bed in only one shot, at the beginning of the film. I asked Tent whether changes were made in the edit to shorten the scene. "No, it was never part of a longer or larger scene. Just that shot of Patricia Hastie [Elizabeth King] on the boat. Its purpose was to catch just a glimpse of a person's life. Life is so fragile. She's alive and vivacious one moment, and the next... Patty did a pretty amazing job. Many people thought we used a mannequin in the later scenes, but it's all Patty. She lost all that weight and never broke her character even when other actors were yelling at her.
"The voiceover at the beginning was always scripted, and we recorded much more than we used," Tent continues. "In early screenings, our audiences were having a little trouble getting insight into George's character, Matt. Alexander wrote a couple of new lines, which substantially changed the beginning of the film and the audience's understanding of Matt and his wife. The lines we added were, 'Wake up Elizabeth... Wake up... I'm ready to be a husband and a father... I'm ready to talk.' These simple lines were enormously effective. Our audiences now immediately understood the back story, their troubled marriage, his disengaged parenting and, probably most important, his desperation. It was interesting that such a simple change in a couple of lines could have such a big impact.
(L-R) Shailene Woodley (Alexandra), George
Clooney (Matt King), Amara Miller (Scottie)
and Nick Krause (Sid)
"Initially there were more scenes in the hospital in which the Matt King character told us about being a lawyer and the land deal—all in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the movie. We cut them out and wound up waiting until after Matt and Scottie visit her little friend to apologize. The first time the audience hears anything about the land deal is from the mother of the little girl out on the front porch. We let her make the introduction, and then we followed with a montage of dissolves of him working, looking at photos and the voiceover. This was a very organic way to firmly set up the new storyline," adds Tent.
The Descendants offers a real sense of Hawaiian authenticity. Instead of a film score produced by a single composer, Payne opted for a series of songs and tracks recorded by Hawaiian musicians. Dondi Bastone (music supervisor) and Richard Ford (music editor) combed through tons of local Hawaiian tracks to come up with the right feel. Many of the scenes play well with little or no music at all—just simple slack key guitar tracks to augment or accent a scene or transition between scenes.
Judy Greer as Julie Speer and Shailene Woodley
Avid Script-Based Editing
Kevin Tent has been cutting on Avid Media Composer systems since his transition from film editing. He says, "When cutting on film, you really had to think about the ramifications of the changes you were going to make. Cutting on film was a lot like playing chess. You'd have to have the whole board in mind before you'd make your move. But I'd never go back. I love the Avid. It's a brilliant piece of machinery. This is the first time I've used ScriptSync—it was fantastic and Alexander loved it, too. We're constantly reviewing for performance and looking at our backup takes. ScriptSync made this process so much easier."
Mindy Elliott explains how ScriptSync was used on the film. "Each scene had a folder within the Avid project. Inside were the dailies bin and a script for just that scene. Preliminary scripting of the dailies was the main task of our apprentice editor, Mikki Levi. We didn't really use the automatic features. Almost everything was done manually, which was determined by Alexander's directing style. There are many 'resets' and 'line repeats' within a take, so we devised ways of marking that in the script. We also manually entered and scripted the voiceover, live musical performance and a lot of non-verbal action."
Effects and the DI
Of their process for the DI finish and the handful of visual effects in the film, Elliott says, "We did a temp mix and color correction pass [the picture was assembled off of tape using EDLs] for our two HD tape preview screenings. Our production assistant, Brian Bautista, is a visual effects whiz. Using his Adobe After Effects and Photoshop skills, Brian did the preliminary work on the Hawaii maps [used when Matt and Scottie travel to the Big Island to pick up Alexandra—and when the whole clan goes to Kauai], greenscreen shots [plane and car windows when Matt and Scottie travel to the Big Island] and a time warp to extend the tail of a shot [when Matt disappears behind a hedge after spotting his wife's lover]. We inserted QuickTime versions of the temp effects for preview screenings and provided the templates for the finished work done by Nate Carlson [credit sequences and maps], Custom Film Effects [greenscreen shots, banyan tree CGI] and Modern VideoFilm [split-screen comps, time warp]. Delivery for the DI at Modern VideoFilm was very much like delivering to a negative cutter, including a reference QuickTime for each reel, plus pull lists and optical pull lists. We received 'confidence' check reels of the DI back from Modern that we loaded into the Avid to gang against our locked cut to make sure it all matched."
Asked for some parting editing wisdom, Kevin Tent offers this anecdote about his Amtrak experience. "My big take-away was that you can edit on the train and you can drink on the train, but you can't drink and edit on the train. Nope, not so easy. I learned that one night after dinner and a bottle of wine in the dining car. We decided to go back to work afterward. Trying to click on a tiny laptop with the combination of wine and the constant movement of the train, it was just too damn hard."