Director Alexander Payne first mentioned the script for Nebraska to editor Kevin Tent, ACE, nearly a decade ago when the two were finishing Sideways. Tent, who’s edited all Payne’s features, recalls the director’s summary of the project: it would star Bruce Dern, be black and white and have the feel of Peter Bogdonavich films, particularly The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon.
(Left to right) Bruce Dern is Woody Grant and Will Forte is David Grant in
. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The father/son road picture, premiering November 22, does star Bruce Dern, along with Saturday Night Live veteran Will Forte. The widescreen black-and-white feature, shot on ARRI Alexas by Phedon Papamichael, ASC, definitely resonates the earlier Bogdonavich film, with its stark look at the aging and decaying of central characters and their way of life.
Kevin Tent and his assistant editor, Mindy Elliot, discussed the technical and aesthetic issues involved in editing Nebraska.
Nebraska is certainly not the kind of high-concept movie the studios turn out these days. Did you have to get in a certain mindset to edit the film?
Kevin Tent: It’s a deliberately paced drama so Alexander and I struggle with the need to keep it moving without losing the drama that comes out of the performances. He’s a big believer—and I agree—that if you move too quickly, you lose the nuance and the emotion of the performances. It’s something we talked about on About Schmidt a lot and then on everything we’ve done since. We want to let the actors do their job on screen and not try to manufacture too much in the editing. So we’ll let things play out in long takes if that’s the best way to get the feeling across.
You have a lot of scenes where I think the audience wants a cut, not because they’re bored but because they’re …
Tent: Uncomfortable! Yes.
(Left to right) Bruce Dern, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll and Will Forte is David Grant in
. Photo by Merie Wallace/Paramount Vantage.
There’s a scene where Will Forte’s character is sort of stuck in that living room in front of the TV surrounded by all those annoying family members and it just feels so claustrophobic and you don’t even cut to another angle. It’s very effective.
Tent: That’s great! That’s what’s supposed to happen. And then finally you get that comedic release with the cousin’s last remark. That’s the intent: buildup and release.
When did the editing process begin on the film?
Tent: We started the same day as shooting. We were working in L.A. while they were off shooting and we’d get dailies very quickly.
Mindy Elliot: Phedon Papamichael shot ARRIRAW files. The color information was retained because a color version of the film was required for certain territories but the DIT made sure that everybody was looking at black and white on set and the dailies he sent to us were black and white.
He sent H.264 files over PIX so Kevin could see the material very quickly but he also sent us the DNX-36 files we used in our Avid [Media Composer] 5.5 systems over Aspera. Then we would use PIX to send cuts back so Alexander could follow Kevin’s progress.
Bruce Dern and Alexander Payne on the set of
. Photo by Merie Wallace/Paramount Vantage.
Every Friday during production I would send him cuts. At first, it’s a very loose assembly that I put together just so Alexander can see the whole scene from the angles. They could be painful to watch. Gradually, it starts to take shape.
Was the cutting room networked so editor and assistants were sharing media?
Elliot: Yes, we were on an Avid Unity server.
It’s obviously not a big, effects-heavy movie. Did you make use of any of the Avid’s other tools—compositing for example for intraframe editing?
Tent: I do that a lot. We might do a simple split-screen between two characters in a shot so I can use different line readings for each of them. Or just do some very subtle timing changes. We would slow Bruce down sometimes to just make him a tiny bit more off kilter. There are also a lot of driving montages and we did a fair amount of repositioning with the resizing tool to make sure that if we dissolve from one landscape shot to another, there would be something in the negative part of the frame that could dissolve through. We used the 3D Warp tool a fair amount. The Avid did a lot of the heavy lifting.
Elliot: Our apprentice editor, Brian Bautista, was very handy with Adobe After Effects, so if a shot required tracking or complicated matting or something, he would handle it in After Effects. Some visual effects companies would then re-create the work in the higher-res files and they also did some more elaborate effects, like sky replacements.
Kevin, what would you say was the most challenging part about maintaining the film’s tone?
Tent: Aside from pacing it enough to let it breath, I’d say it was certainly hard to find the right music. I tried to use some music I had and if it was too much orchestra, the whole thing got sappy. I tried some Leo Kottke 12-string guitar music and it was good but it was just too fast. Alexander didn’t want the music to ever be commenting too much on the movie—telling people it’s funny or sad or anything like that. He brought in Richard Ford as the music editor and he suggested Mark Orton and he created some pieces that work really well.
Movies today are very often paced for viewers with a limited attention span. Is there a completely different way of thinking about the craft when you’re editing an Alexander Payne film?
Tent: I think those decisions come from the story and from the actors he casts. The chemistry between director and editor is different on different projects. Some directors don’t like the cutting room. He loves it. He knows how much can happen in the cutting room and that makes the whole process feel very rewarding.