Oscar Chat: Best Film Editing Nominee Kevin Tent on Cutting for Tone in The Descendants

Kevin Tent had been nominated for three ACE Eddies before winning this month for The Descendants, which the American Cinema Editors deemed Best Edited Feature (Drama). Tent’s work in the cutting room played an important role in placing The Descendants firmly in the drama category. The longtime collaborator with Alexander Payne — Tent's other Eddie nods were for Sideways, About Schmidt and Election — says that much more comedy from the King family was shot than what we see onscreen and that removing it just felt right. In a few days, Tent will vie for the Best Film Editing Oscar for the first time. Movieline spoke with him about how the movie’s dramatic story came together, the attention from the Academy and his plans for Oscar night and beyond.

How has awards season been treating you?

TENT: It's been a blast. And also a little odd and strange because, especially being an editor, you don't usually find yourself in the spotlight. I can't imagine what it must be like for actors like George [Clooney]. But for me, it's all good and just like they say, after the initial shock wears off you start to think, “Wow … this is really an honor.” And it is.

What was the collaborative process like on this film?

TENT: Alexander [Payne] and I work very close with each other. He loves the cutting room. As he likes to say, "I shoot so I can edit." He's very collaborative. There's a lot of back and forth between us. People often ask how we work with each other. It's hard to describe. Editing is such and abstract exercise and I don't really like to analyze our process, but what I can say is we shut the door, put our heads down and go to work. We just keep looking at the footage and trying different options. We usually agree on what are strongest performances are and build scenes around them. If something sucks we try to fix it or cut it out or do something to mitigate its suckiness.

What specific decisions did you make early on to set the tone of the film?

TENT: It became pretty clear to me early on that it was going to be more of a drama than a comedy. The script was written with much more humor, and much of it was shot. But as we began cutting the humor, in many cases felt forced and insensitive to the tragedy that the King family was going through. It's not like from Day 1 we thought “let's dump the humor.” It was a slow process. As the film evolved it became evident that the humor was becoming less important. We still needed it, of course. Otherwise we'd have an incredibly bleak movie. But we had to work to get to a sort of organic or natural balance between the two big elements of the movie — the humor and the drama. So we just kept cutting and trimming till we got to the place that is now the movie.

Was there a scene or storytelling device that stood out for you as the most difficult or challenging on this film?

TENT: I think as I said above getting the tone right was really a big challenge. And as always pace was an issue, especially the last third of the movie. The scene in which Matt King confronts Brian Speers at the beach house feels (to the audience) like the climax of the movie. But there was still a whole big chunk of the movie to finish. Plus we had a two story lines moving along at the same time: the mother's death and the sale of the family's land. The sale was much more than a subplot, and we had to keep it alive for the audience. So all that being said, keeping the pace moving was very challenging. And also making sure it didn't move too quickly. We wanted to make sure the audience had time to absorb what was happening from an emotional perspective. I mean, they understood what was happening from a story perspective — that wasn't complicated — but allowing them to actually feel was what we were protective of.

Who is accompanying you to the ceremony?

TENT: My wife and 14-year-old son are going. My wife is beside herself. She's so excited. My son's a little dubious about the whole thing, but I know he's going to have a good time.

How are you following this film? What’s your next project?

TENT: Mr. Payne is due to start his next movie in April. Hopefully that will be our next outing. I can't wait.

Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Documentary Feature
Best Foreign-Language Feature
Best Animated Feature