When a film becomes a film: The shaping of “Nebraska”

Alexander Payne talks about editing his new feature

After wrapping Nebraska the end of 2012 Alexander Payne holed up with editor Kevin Tent in L.A. to edit the film starting Jan. 7 and finally put the project to bed in early August. When I caught up with Payne and a small post crew in mid-May at The Lot in Old Hollywood they were days from completing a mix before the film's Cannes Film Festival world premiere.

The seldom glimpsed edit-mix process is where a film becomes a film. Over a four-day period at the Audio Head post facility, with its long console of digital controls and theater projection screen, I watch Payne, Tent, mixer Patrick Cyccone, sound designer Frank Gaeta, music editor Richard Ford extract nuance and rhythm from the minutiae of sound and image, time and space that comprise a film.

I ask Payne how much more can really be massaged this late into the edit from something as simple as the soundtrack?

"Seemingly simple," he says. "There's always little complicated stuff to modulate and calibrate."

It may be a snippet of dialogue or the sound of a character walking across a wood floor or music from a jukebox or the rustle of wind. It may be how long or short an actor's beat or a shot is held. Nothing's too small or incidental to escape scrutiny. Anything even vaguely amiss is ripe for "a fix" often only arrived at after several adjustments that might involve raising a level here, dropping a level there, sweetening the pot with a bank of recorded sounds or snipping a frame.

To the untrained eye and ear, few problems appear obvious or even to be flaws at all. But to the hyper-attuned Payne and his crew, who've watched the footage hundreds, even thousands of times, the slightest element out of synch is a jarring distraction. When something really bothers Payne he's apt to say, "That's hideous."

There's a poignant scene in Robert Nelson's original screenplay when taciturn protagonist Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) gazes upon a field outside his family's abandoned farmhouse and relates a childhood story to his son David (Will Forte). I was visiting the northeast Neb, set in November when the scene was shot. The barren, wind-swept location made an evocative backdrop for the nostalgic moment. But the part where Woody reveals this incident from the past didn't make it in the final cut because try as he might Payne decided it just didn't work.

"You know, so much of filmmaking is if you can't make a perfect omelette you try to make perfect scrambled eggs," he says. "So we just cut the scene down."

As I glimpse the mix process Payne asks me, "Are you finding this interesting or are you bored out of your skull?" I admit the attention to detail is mind numbing. "it's all important though," he replies, "because there's always discovery. You're discovering it frame by frame. Ways to make it delightful so it never breaks the spell it has over the audience. Kevin (Tent) and I will have knock down-drag out fights over two frames, over tenths of a second."

I ask if he ever risks micromanaging the life out of a picture.

"i never worry about that," he answers.

Even to the filmmakers themselves the fixes can be hard to quantify.

In July Payne tells me, "I was just watching the film with Phedon (Papamichael), the DP. He had seen it in Cannes and then he saw it again here in L.A. and he said, 'It feels so much better,' I mean, it's the same movie but after Cannes Kevin and I came back and spent two weeks doing some more picture cutting. And we did another pass of course on the mix. We remixed it. It smoothed out some of the way the music was functioning. It made it less repetitive and more emotional.

"Film is in detail and squeezing that last one, two, three, four percent out of a film like in any creative work makes a big difference. And there's nothing you can even concretely point to. It just feels better, it just feels more like a real movie."

Tent, who's edited all of Payne's features, says the filmmaker is "more involved than most (directors) with the small details." Payne says what makes he and Tent a good team is, "number one we get along really well and number two we both want to be and are the actor's best friend. We go through the takes over and over again to make sure we're getting the best stuff up on screen in terms of what represents the actor's work and then, of course, what's appropriate for the character. And then beyond that I think we both have a pretty good storytelling sense – telling a story effectively and making it rhythmic."

Located on Santa Monica Blvd. The Lot owns a storied history as the Fairbanks-Pickford Studio and original home of United Artists. For most of its life though it was the Warner Hollywood Studio that served as the smaller sister studio to the main Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. Some film-television production still happens in the cavernous sound stages but today it's mostly a post site for finishing films.

Even a stellar performance like star Bruce Dern's in Nebraska, which earned him Best Actor at Cannes, is partly shaped in the editing room.

Payne says, "It's definitely what the actor's doing but its also the work of editing where you're combing through and getting the best of every set up and then creating both from what they gave you and from what you're choosing and culling as absolutely necessary to tell the story. You tease out a great consistency to performance and to the creation of the character and then once we do that the work the actor's done really starts to pop. Bruce did a good job."

During my visit last spring to the Audio Head suite Payne introduces me to the insular post production world where he and his crew were under the gun preparing the film for its Cannes debut.

"We've been working 12-hour days. It's been very much a mad dash to the finish because we're getting ready for Mr. Frenchy," Payne says to me shortly upon my arrival.

Nebraska is a six-reel picture. Each pass through a reel takes four to six hours. It's time consuming because each team member has notes made from previous screenings of what fixes need addressing. With each successive pass, there are new notes to respond to.

After a screening of the 20-minute reel five with a running time count on the screen Payne announces, "I have a bunch of little things, so maybe we should fast track." After noting several areas of concern and the corresponding time they appear in the reel, everything from extraneous noises to wanting some bits louder and others quieter, he says, "Sorry, I have a lot of notes here guys."

Then Payne invites Tent and the others to chime in with their own notes. Payne interjects, "I'm looking froward to our whole film playback so we can gauge all of these things." He asks for input from personal assistant and aspiring filmmaker Anna Musso and first assistant editor Mindy Elliott before asking, "Anyone else?"

That's how it rolls, day after day.

During my stay I watch an uninterrupted playback of the entire film at a large screening room on the Paramount lot with Payne and the edit-mix team poised with notepads and pens in laps. Several folks are moved to tears despite having seen the film countless times.

For the duration of the edit-mix the post crew becomes Payne's family.

"I spend more time with the post production crew than with the other (the shooting crew) and each thinks it's THE filmmaking family. Many of them never meet each other. But I meet all of them, down to the musicians who play on it or to guy who designs the titles."

Payne says post work on Nebraska took 28 weeks, marking "the shortest period of time I've posted a film (by comparison The Descendants took 38 weeks). "And in these 28 weeks I took time out to go to Cannes, I took a week off after Cannes. I went to Bologna, Italy to watch old movies and even with that it's been a faster process than my previous films." He attributes the fast turnaround to the "austerity" with which he shot the film, thus giving him fewer camera angles to process. He prefers holding shots and making minimal cuts anyway. Another timesaver was the absence of a voiceover track and all the tweaking it requires to get it right. He loves voiceover, having used it on most of his pics, but Nelson's script didn't include it and Payne didn't impose it.

Nebraska screened to strong reviews at the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day weekend and is expected to show at the upcoming New York Film Festival. After opening in late Nov. it should be a prime contender come awards season.

The Nov. 24 Film Streams Feature Event welcomes Payne, Dern and Forte in conversation with Kurt Andersen.

Leo Adam Biga is the author of "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film." Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

posted at 12:39 pm
on Monday, September 02nd, 2013

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