Talking about his latest collaboration with Academy Award-winning writer/director Alexander Payne, editor Kevin Tent shares that the film was “a joy to work on” and most likely “the first major motion picture to be edited on Amtrack.” The filmmakers, who had worked for several weeks at George Clooney‘s home in Lake Como, continued to edit on the 2-1/2 day train trip back to Los Angeles from New York.
Although the film retains some of the comedic elements common to Payne’s previous films, The Descendants is a serio-comedic drama that explores the somber themes of death and legacy. The major challenge during postproduction was setting the tone for the picture. The story evolved into the final movie through the editing process.
At the beginning, the filmmakers thought it needed to be funnier, but eventually Tent says that they realized, “It was a delicate dance to get the right balance.” Although Payne “always finds the comedy… too much comedy subtracted from the power of the movie.” Comedic moments that were shot, and included in earlier cuts, were taken out because it seemed “wrong to diminish the drama.” There was a desire to keep it light, but also keep it true to the story.
“It was a tricky one,” admits Tent. “It was kinda hard in some ways.” Because the story doesn’t follow a classic three-act structure, the rhythms of the film were unusual. Keeping the story moving, but still being respectful and letting it take time to play out proved to be an additional challenge. Tent believes the The Descendants is indicative of what he sees as the director’s maturation as a filmmaker. “It presents a more mature look at life,” explains Tent. “I think all of Alexander’s movies look at peoples’ lives and the situations they get into, and they are always very realistic situations.”
As part of his editing process, Tent tries to trust his initial instincts about a performance and make a mental note to protect that gut reaction. He judges a performance on its believability and tries to keep the performance consistent. That was not hard to achieve with a pro like Clooney playing the protagonist Matt King. “George did a great job,” says Tent, “He is a generous actor.”
Clooney is also an actor who can carry the emotional intent of a scene. Payne originally planned to turn the end of the bar scene into an impressionistic montage of the offbeat clientele, intending it as a visual metaphor of how emotionally overwhelmed Matt was by the news of his wife’s lover being involved in a pivotal land deal. Clooney’s performance – the look on his face and in his eyes – was so powerful that the director held on him until it was time to dissolve out of the scene.
Tent attributes his positive experiences working with Payne to the many similarities they share, from being around the same age to both growing up in mid-sized cities. “We just kind of click,” says Tent. “We are creatively on the same page.” The editor also admires many qualities in the director. “He is warm and he is so smart. He is articulate. I am always impressed when I hear him speak in front of a crowd.” The comfort level between the two men has allowed them to work together on several films, including Sideways, which garnered Oscar nominations for best directing and editing. That successful collaboration has continued with The Descendants.