Cutting Nebraska With Editor Kevin Tent

The internal personal struggles of Woody (Bruce Dern) ignite an emotional pendulum editor Kevin Tent based the film's pacing on in "Nebraska."
Paramount Vantage

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Martin Scorsese found it in Thelma Schoonmaker, Steven Spielberg in Michael Kahn, and Francis Ford Coppola in Walter Murch.  Many of cinema’s finest directors found an irreplaceable partnership with a gifted editor.  These pairing have resulted in a body of work marked by beautiful, visual storytelling that explores the human condition.  Director Alexander Payne met his storytelling match when he hired editor Kevin Tent.

Tent had experiences working as an editor on a number of producer Roger Corman’s projects in addition to art-house fare such as “GunCrazy” prior to encountering Payne.  Their connection was made through mutual friend and fellow editor Carole Kravitz Aykanian.  Payne was in search of an editor for his first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” and Aykanian recommended Tent for the job.    After a brief conversation and a review of his work, Payne was convinced that Tent was his man, however his decision was met with push back.

“The studio told him no way and offered people with more credits,” said Tent.  “He stuck to his gun and persuaded them to hire me.”

Payne’s determination to work with Tent has resulted in a nearly two decade-long partnership that’s resulted in acclaimed films including “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”   “Nebraska” is the most recent addition to this list..  A comic and touching drama about the complexities of family and community connects, “Nebraska” follows David (Will Forte), a hapless man stuck in a dead-end job who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, takes a road-trip with his aging, often drunk father Woody (Bruce Dern) to collect a million dollar sweepstakes Woody’s convinced awaits him in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Tensions build, relationships are stressed and family secrets revealed when the two stop in Woody’s home town.

The movie was shot on location in Montana and Nebraska, however Tent conducted daily edits off-site in LA.   He hasn’t been on a Payne filming location since “About Schmidt,” a system that reinforces the trust the two have in each other as well as saving production dollars.  Payne generally doesn’t watch dailies until production wraps, and doesn’t always watch Tent’s rough cuts as they are received.  Tent has found it helpful to provide more shots than necessary in the preliminary cuts, aware that Payne has clarity of vision and shoots very purposefully when on set.

“It’s very rough and upsetting to him, and he wants to fire me,” joked Tent.  “I put in all the angles knowing we can’t have everything.  He knows what he’s doing and we pretty much have exactly every shot we need.  If I do get to ask for something that’s missing, he’ll get it.”

“Nebraska” is a character-driven movie where the viewer’s journey hinges on the strength of the actor’s performances.  Payne was particular about every nuance within the performances, providing material that was believable and sincere. In the editing room, Tent emphasized those emotional moments while simultaneously providing a balanced rhythm to the story’s momentum.

“It’s tricky with the pacing,” said Tent.  “We had to keep the story moving along, yet not moving too quickly.  The audience nneds time to absorb and feel what the characters are going through; what the characters are feeling.”

In addition to setting a pace, it was importance to establish a sense of place in “Nebraska.”  The emotional beats are highlighted with static environment shots early in the movie, and pans of the Nebraska landscape appear as David uncovers the secrets his father has harbored as they travel the road together.

“This film is beautifully shot by Phedon Papamichael, and Radon Popovic, our 2nd unit DP also provided absolutely gorgeous footage,” said Tent.  “We punctuated the movie with these shots of the landscape; it gives a sense of place and offers a real haunted, barren feeling.”

Shooting perspectives also aided in reinforcing emotions at points throughout the movie.  When Woody returns to his childhood home for the first time since his teenage years, Tent combined shots ranging from  tight to very wide, reinforcing the emotions embodied in the actor’s performances.

“When Woody goes back and sees the house where he grew up, it is haunting,” said Tent.  “Bruce Dern is carrying the scene   There is a pan out to the barn and he is very small in the frame.  It’s a lonely shot, and it gives the audience a real sense of profoundness.”

Over the years Tent has been able to excersise many different editing styles on a diverse array of projects.   He finds the experience of working with a variety of directors stimulating and a means of acquiring fresh ideas and techniques.  It’s his work with Payne, however, that’s presented him with a number of award nominations and wins, including an Oscar nomination and  Association of Cinema Editors win for “The Descendants.”  Modestly, Tent attributes the accolades to his peers’ abilities to recognize excellent storytelling.

“It’s completely flattering to think I’ve been nominated just because of my editing, but in all honesty it’s really due to Alexander’s style of storytelling.  They may appreciate the restraint in the cutting, but I think it goes much deeper than that; they like the stories he chooses to tell, the characters he presents, his overal humanistic approach.  They are responding to the whole package not just the editing,” said Tent.  “They are a smart bunch.  Take ‘Breaking Bad,’ they knew from the beginning it was something special.  ‘Breaking Bad’ took time with the scene and the story lines and the editors were nominated for Eddies every year.”

“We have such short attention spans nowadays.  It’s nice to allow for fewer cuts, let the actors do their jobs, and let the audience trust them.”

For more information about “Nebraska” visit:

http://www.nebraskamovie.com/