'Nebraska' Editor Explains His 'Honest' Collaboration With Alexander Payne

Editor Kevin Tent also tells THR of crafting Bruce Dern's delayed responses and elevating Payne's signature move to undercut his characters.

Writer-director Alexander Payne has described editor Kevin Tent as his "co-writer," and their collaborations have included Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and, most recently, Nebraska.

Their partnership has resulted in two Oscars in writing for Payne, while Tent was recognized with an Oscar nomination and an American Cinema Editors's Eddie Award for cutting The Descendants, as well as three additional Eddie nominations.

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Their latest collaboration, Nebraska, tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man who drags his son David (Will Forte) on a road trip to Nebraska after receiving a notice claiming that he won a $1 million sweepstakes. June Squibb co-stars as Woody's wife, Kate.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Tent about pacing the patient film, crafting Dern's delayed responses and elevating Payne's signature move to undercut his characters.

When Payne received American Cinema Editors' Golden Eddie Award in 2012, he described editing as "the ongoing process of disguising how bad a film really is." How much truth is in that statement?

He's right on; I agree with him. (Laughs.) He has another saying: "Every day, we make the film suck less," which is also true. You try different things until you crack it. Sometimes it takes a long time. It's good to be hard on your footage; it makes the film better.

What's the secret to your successful collaboration with Payne?

It's hard to articulate. We trust our instincts, and we are incredibly honest with each other. We scour the performances and try to find the parts that we think are best and make the characters the most believable. There's a lot of back-and-forth. He's a very good editor in his own right and has a great understanding of the process, and that is enormously helpful. On Nebraska overall, the challenge was allowing the emotions and the sparseness of the story to play out, but also keep the pace going. That was the biggest challenge because it is a slow-paced movie, but it shouldn't be so slowly paced that people lose interest.

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Tell us about shaping Dern's performance.

Bruce was really great. We picked the parts that we thought were best. His character is unusual; sometimes he's coherent, sometimes he's not. Sometimes we would delay his responses, just by a few frames. This made it seem that he was just a little slow picking up on stuff, or maybe didn't hear something. We also used his looks a lot. He had great looks and reactions; for instance, a shot of him just looking out the window when he was riding back to his hometown.

You've said that one favorite scene has Woody talking with David outside the bar, just after Woody was mocked for believing that his sweepstakes letter was legitimate. Describe cutting that scene.

It's heartbreaking when Bruce says to his son, "I just wanted to leave you boys something," considering there is no money but he thinks there is, and [passing it to his two sons] is what he wanted to do. We had many line readings from Bruce, and it really came down to choosing which one to use. It's slightly a profile; he's not really looking at Will. He is so embarrassed or humbled by it that he can't really look at his son. It's really moving. We put an extended pause and really let the line hang there. That makes it appear that it was more difficult for him to say. I think if it came too quickly, then it would have appeared that it wasn't a struggle for him. We tweaked it a lot. I think we have it in a good spot; when I watch it again, it gets me right in the chest.

Another scene has Woody's wife, previously critical of Woody, jumping to her husband's defense. What was the challenge of that scene?

There's a lot going on in that scene. … The great twist is in June's character when she sticks up for her husband in such a strong way, and you realize that she does really love him. Alexander does that often with his characters -- they are presented one way and you think they are one way, and then they are undercut. That was her scene to undercut the audience's perception of her character.

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Secondary characters were played by farmers, not actors. Was that an added challenge?

Basically, no. They were really amazing. During the dinner scene, [those who played] Aunt Betty and a bunch of the characters were never in a movie before. But they have great faces. … Alexander likes to create a reality, and I think when you see people that you don't normally see in movies, they seem authentic to the town. He likes to pepper his movies with real people. They were fantastic.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA