Kevin Tent on His 30-Year Partnership With Alexander Payne and Why He Knew ‘The Holdovers’ Would be a Hit | THR

Kevin Tent has edited all of Alexander Payne’s feature films. MICHAEL BUCKNER/PENSKE MEDIA/GETTY IMAGES

As Alexander Payne’s longtime editor, Kevin Tent is one of the very first people to see footage of each film. When he watched the first round of dailies come in from the Massachusetts set of The Holdovers, he was struck by the progression of star Paul Giamatti, with whom he first worked on Sideways two decades ago. “He was just so solid,” exclaims Tent. “Alexander and [screenwriter] Dave Hemingson gave him some real tongue-twisters, and he was nailing them all. He was so locked into the character.” Here, Tent reflects on the success of The Holdovers and what he’s learned from Payne.

How did you and Alexander Payne first meet and start working together?

We had mutual friends but didn’t really know each other — we were circling the same Silver Lake groups. When he got his first feature off the ground, he couldn’t afford Carol Kravetz, so he asked her for a list of people he could afford — my name was one of them. We met and just hit it off. I had done a lot of Roger Corman movies at the time, and he liked that. We wound up working well together on Citizen Ruth, so when he was making Election next, he asked me to do it. He’s very loyal. 

And it seems like folks feel loyal toward him, too.

When you’re working with him, he is just a really nice guy. But he’s also such a strong director — he has his vision, and it allows everyone else on the film to follow that lead. 

Did you see any early signs, from that first film, of what later became trademarks of an Alexander Payne film?

I can see them in hindsight, I couldn’t see it at the time. He really embraces his characters, and even though he likes to be this analytical guy, there is a lot of love in his films. I remember back then thinking, “Oh, he really cares about Ruth Stoops” [played by Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth]. 

How early do you tend to board his projects? Had you talked to Alexander about his idea, which preceded the eventual Holdovers script, of doing some sort of boarding school movie?

I’m telling you, he always has so many good ideas in his head, he’ll tell me about them when we’re cutting something else. Later, I’ll say, “What happened to that amazing idea about that lady who owns the dog park?” When he gets really serious about a script, I’ll send him my notes on it, like how to pace it up. For The Holdovers, I first heard about it when he had the first 45 or so pages. 

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Giamatti (center) and Dominic Sessa in Focus Features’ The Holdovers. SEACIA PAVAO/FOCUS FEATURES LLC

I know that you edit as the dailies come in. What do you remember of the first days of footage on The Holdovers?

I remember how beautiful it looked, with all the wood detailing in the locations, and just the overall feeling of the cinematography. It just looked great — like The Godfather or something. 

Dominic Sessa was a brand-new actor on this film. What was your impression of him from the beginning?

One of the most exciting things for an editor is when you see somebody like Dom on camera for the first time and go, “Oh my God.” The last time that happened to me on an Alexander Payne movie was with Shailene Woodley on The Descendants. She had been on a television show, but I had never seen her on camera. The first scene they shot with her was in the pool with George Clooney, when she finds out her mom’s going to die. She blew me away. It’s a privileged position, to be an editor and be the first person seeing these performances on camera. Seeing Dom gave me the same feeling as seeing Shailene.

Are you a “kill your darlings” type of editor?

I’m pretty brutal. I’m just like, “Let’s cut it.” It’s a little harder for [Payne] to let things go. But I’m patient, so I’ll just wait until it feels like it’s time to mention it again. I don’t think there’s anything that we miss on this film. We dropped probably 40 minutes out of the first cut, but it was mostly a line of dialogue here and there — we would realize the actors were doing such a good job, they didn’t need to speak as much — so we didn’t lose any monumental scenes.

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in 1999’s Election, Payne and Tent’s second film. PARAMOUNT/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

During your time working on Payne films, has the success or reception of a project surprised you?

When Election came out, I decided to go see it at a movie theater on La Brea Avenue, and I was standing in line and a car drove by and a guy leaned out, yelling, “Great movie!” I was like, “Oh, that’s weird.” But then I watched it with the audience and they loved it. Even though it didn’t make any money and felt like it disappeared right away, it wound up having legs. Sideways was a surprise, too, though we started getting hints that it might do well when we previewed it for audiences. 

As the president of the American Cinema Editors, what issues feel like they’re most pressing to the guild? What keeps you up at night?

Top of mind is how much we’re reeling from the strike. So many editors are still out of work. I can see that things are going to keep contracting. I feel like an old-timer saying this, but I’ve watched expansions and contractions in the business — I think we’re becoming a boom-and-bust town. I still really believe in this industry; there are so many creative people and I think we’ll figure things out. People are always going to want to watch good entertainment.

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