Since filming wrapped on The Holdovers in Boston earlier this year, director Alexander Payne has been splitting his time during the editing process between Los Angeles and his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. “The editor and I have just finished the very first cut of the movie and are starting to show it to people to get comments and reactions,” says the 61-year-old filmmaker.
Every movie’s postproduction process is an exciting new experience for the two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker. “Editing is so interesting. No matter how many times you’ve done it and how skilled you think you are, every film is new, every cut is new, and you just have to try things out,” says Alexander Payne. “It’s a beautiful and mysterious process.” It’s also extremely time-consuming.
According to Payne, “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, editing. You just put the movie together. How hard can that be? It’s already been shot. You just string it together.’ No. It is the third part of the filmmaking process: writing, directing, and editing. Editing is as full of discovery and invention as the other two parts are. And at least if done well, and you really have to take a lot of time to really see how the film is functioning and to streamline it.”
Editing is a very fluid process, and filmmakers must be flexible. “At the beginning of the process, you’re telling the film what you want it to be,” says Payne. “And then it starts telling you what it wants to be.” However, since The Holdovers will not premiere until 2023, Payne prefers to keep tight-lipped about the nitty-gritty details of the dark comedy, which stars Sideways actor Paul Giamatti.
“When I’m making a film, when anyone’s making a film, it’s all in. You typically have no time for or interest in anything else. It’s like you are out to sea,” says Payne. “The only thing I do while editing is I cook a lot because I’m there with the editor the whole time, but sometimes he needs a few minutes to do something on his own. And during that time, I run into the kitchen and make lunch or dinner. I really up my cooking game with every new movie.”
Working With an Editing Partner
Just as Alexander Payne has co-written multiple screenplays with his writing partner Jim Taylor, he’s also teamed up with film editor Kevin Tent numerous times. So what does Payne like about working with a collaborator? “When you work with a partner, you are not only going through an arduous process with a companion, but you are throwing a larger net for ideas,” explains Payne.
Tent was first hired to work on editing Payne’s first feature film, Citizen Ruth, and again on 1999’s Election. Since then, he has worked with Payne on all of his films, including Sideways, Nebraska, and About Schmidt.
According to Tent, for About Schmidt, Payne wanted to make “a character story, the opposite of what he had done in Election. Nothing flashy.” And that meant making sure that the film’s star, the legendary Jack Nicholson, didn’t act like himself. “Alexander did not want him to play Jack Nicholson … On the set, they tried to keep Jack from doing any Jack-isms, and in the cutting room, we were very diligent looking for those moments.”
According to Tent, “Normally you do an assembly [rough cut], and the director comes in, and it is horrible, and you freak out, and from that point on, we started not watching the assembly. The way we work now, [Alexander Payne] doesn’t watch anything I do, and he comes in fresh, and we start building scenes. Then we go back and watch what I did.”
Tragedy Can Play an Essential Role in a Comedy
Alexander Payne is known for making dark comedies and biting social satires. “I prefer a comedy that is somehow rooted in pain and reality and truth,” says the writer/director. “At its finest, comedy is an entertaining and useful distancing lens through which to see human experience. We take the stuff of our human experience, including, and perhaps especially the most painful or puzzling — death, relationships — that kind of stuff. And it allows you to look at it mercifully without feeling it. Well, you feel it somewhat, but you also laugh at it. You get a bit of distance from it. I think it is a really serious form, and it is very difficult.”
The intersection of comedy and tragedy has timeless appeal. “In ancient Greece, the two masks — the drama mask and the comedy mask — were never separated. They were always together because life has both of those things built in, drama and comedy all at once,” explains Payne. “Life isn’t a single-note melody. It is made up of chords, including blue notes and black notes. So comedy is rooted in a genuine experience, and there’s little difference between drama and comedy other than the lens through which you look at life.”
Alexander Payne’s Roots Run Deep in Omaha
“Often, people are moored to where their roots are. I am no exception,” says Payne. “It was in Omaha where I fell in love with contemporary films and old films.” And it is where he returns time and again to spend time with his mother, Peggy. “Because my mother’s 99 years old and I’m the only living family member, my editor and I have made an arrangement where every other month will be in Omaha,” shares Payne.
Alexander Payne has made multiple movies in Omaha, including Election, Nebraska, Citizen Ruth, and About Schmidt, and thinks it’s “wonderful” that parts of the AMC black comedy series Better Call Saul are set there, too. “The funny thing about Omaha is that people couldn’t wait to get out of this cow town when I was growing up here. My generation, the generations before me, if you could, you’d get out and go to college somewhere else. And not so many people came back. But Omaha has blossomed since then. Now it’s a really groovy provincial city. Young people love it.”
Payne is enjoying splitting the editing between LA and Omaha and says that his goal for the rest of this year is to finish The Holdovers. When that’s done, what would Payne like to work on next? “I still want to make a Western sometime. I’m going to start working on a Western.” Yeehaw!