Alexander Payne recently made headlines when he proclaimed, "There are too many damn long movies these days." Appearing at the Middleburg Film Festival, the Oscar-winning filmmaker explained, "Film is a constant search for economy. You want the screenplay as short as possible. You want the acting as brisk as possible, given whatever the basic rhythm of that film is. And then in the editing, you want it to be as short as it can possibly be, but no shorter."
"That's cribbing from Einstein. Like E equals mc squared, Einstein said, 'Science seeks explanations of the world, which are as simple as possible, but no simpler,'" Payne expounds now. "But you really need a lot of time to edit, and I'm not sure all filmmakers realize how long it often takes to beat up your own footage and fall out of love with things you've shot in order to keep the movie as economical as possible."
That job falls to Payne's longtime editor, Kevin Tent, who has cut every one of the director's eight films. He received his first Oscar nomination for editing 2011's The Descendants. Their latest collaboration is The Holdovers, a '70s-set dramedy about a splenetic boarding school teacher (played by Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti) stuck babysitting a group of students over the Christmas break.
At the 96th Oscars, The Holdovers received five nominations, including Best Picture and Tent's second nomination for Best Film Editing. "There is truly nothing better than being nominated by one's peers," he said of the recognition. "Working with Alexander Payne is hands down the best. Our ongoing collaboration truly means the world to me. I know I speak for the whole Holdovers family when I say we couldn't be prouder of our film, how it's been received, and now embraced by the Academy."
As for the film's running time, The Holdovers clocks in at 133 minutes. Although both Payne and Tent say they rarely disagree in the cutting room, the director admits the movie might be "too short" ("As I watch it now, there are about four shots that I think each need about six more frames," Payne nitpicks), while Tent wishes it "was a little shorter." In conversation with A.frame, the editor reveals why.
A.frame: You've been working with Alexander since Citizen Ruth. This is your eighth feature together. What is it about your relationship as director and editor that continues to work so well?
You know, that's a good question. I don't know. I think we have similar tastes, and over the years, our instincts have solidified more. I think we're very comfortable with each other. People always ask, "How does it work?" And I really don't know. When we close the door and go to work, there's no ownership. It's not like, "Oh, that was my idea, and that was his idea." We just work together and we're constantly trying to make things work better. And sometimes he'll be like, "I'm good with this," and I'm like, "I don't know... It feels like it could be better." But we rarely disagree about takes. We both are very in tune to performance. Maybe we have two outstandingly good takes and we'll battle over which one we like [more]. But I would say that our taste and our instincts are very similar after all these years.
I know that Alexander screened a number of films before this movie — The Last Detail and Harold and Maude and Paper Moon. Was there specific inspiration you took from those films into this one?
Nothing technical. We used a lot of dissolves, and some people don't like dissolves, but if you go way back, we've always been using them, and I love them. I've always loved them. I think they're beautiful. But we watched The Last Detail and there's one dissolve in it while the guys are on the train, and I forget what it dissolves to but it was a really long dissolve. So, we did a couple of those in The Holdovers. But I happened to see a clip from Nebraska just recently, and we also did one in Nebraska. So, we're doing the same things that we've always done. But people think the dissolves now are because we're trying to make it a '70s film, but not really. We always used them.
I think this movie could make some people reassess their stance on dissolves.
That's so nice to hear. I saw it last night, and I hadn't seen it since January, so I was like, "Oh, we probably should have cut back on a few."
If you know dissolves are in your toolbox, how do you decide when to use one?
In The Holdovers, there was not a lot of pre-designed dissolves. Sometimes in Sideways, let's say, we were very tricky with [them]. Some of them were designed, or at least the footage lent itself to them. But in The Holdovers, they were all made up in post. But they're very effective, and I think they smooth out cuts and stuff like that. Well, I'm glad we didn't overuse them. And there's some really cool ones. I think one of my favorites is when Paul is yelling at one of the kids at the table because of what he said about Mary, and it dissolves to him in the hallway. That's a really long dissolve, and it's kind of odd! When we first did it, people were like, "Is that a mistake?" And we're like, "No, that's not a mistake. We did that on purpose." Because his face was just so good, and we didn't want to leave it.
This movie in particular, but I think it could be said about much of your work with Alexander, is sentimental but never overly so. You refuse to sit in a poignant moment for too long. What is your approach to tailoring those moments in the edit and knowing exactly when to cut away?
I think we're pretty careful about not getting anything too sentimental or too sappy. For sure, my instincts are let's not do that. And Alexander, he doesn't go for schmaltz or anything like that. So, I think we're very cognizant of that as we're cutting the performance. If anything seems too cloying, we'd reject that and we wouldn't put that in the movie. It's really a discipline in how we're cutting the performances, I would say. If it doesn't seem like it's ringing true, then we would probably cut it out.
Alexander recently said that movies nowadays are "too damn long," and that you want a film to be "as short as it can be, but no shorter." How do you embrace that in your editing?
I agree. And I wish The Holdovers was a little shorter. I really do. It's got a six-minute end title sequence, so I always subtract that, but I wish it was a little shorter. But it feels pretty good. I talked to some editors that I know, and they saw it and they were like, "Nope, the pace is good. It seems to really be working." So, you can't rush things either. There's some things I know we could take out, but if we rushed it much more, then it might not have the same emotions. It's a little bit of a balancing act as you're cutting away.
What is that moment where you realize, "Okay, this is as short as it can be, and it actually can't be any shorter"?
I guess when you watch it at the premiere, and you have to accept that that's what it is. It's funny because when we were cutting, we had some preview screening. We'd been working really hard, and I remember we watched the movie just to technically make sure everything's good. I hadn't watched it for a while in one piece, and I remember I called Alexander right away and I said, "You know what? We're in good shape. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. Let's not f**k it up." That was over a year ago, but that was a moment where I was like, "Oh, this is going to be good." Knock on wood.
Is there anything that landed on the cutting room floor that you still wish could have found a place in the movie?
Nothing that I can think of. And we dropped a lot of stuff and combined stuff. We lost a day in Boston; we condensed the trip into two days. But I don't think there's anything that we dropped that I think should be in there. There's always nice things. There's always moments that you're like, "Oh, that would be nice to have," but its cost may be that you have to add three or four other lines to keep it. So, you have to weigh those things.
It sounds like you and Alexander are both pretty judicious in cutting.
We are. We're pretty hard on stuff, and both of us have to feel pretty good about letting a scene go. It's a long process, so it's not like if we're working on a scene one day, then that's done. We're ready to let it go for this pass and know that we'll go back and work on it some more later. Usually, if we can both tolerate the scene and say, "Okay, we can stomach it. It's good for now," then we keep on moving. [Laughs] That's how we work.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Film Editing category for an interview.