When a Film Becomes a Film: The Shaping of Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’
“Glad to see you’re not drinking.” “Beer ain’t drinkin’.”
3. The look of the film.
2. “I was there.”
1. “I’m here.”
Nebraska doesn’t much resonate in pop culture iconography except on rare occasions when the state’s name is evoked in a movie or a song or a novel. Bruce Springsteen took things to a new level when he came out with an album called Nebraska. But now that Alexander Payne has titled his new feature film Nebraska, which opens Nov. 22, things have been taken to a whole new place because no matter how well thought of Springsteen’s music is on that recording it’s safe to say that millions more people will see Payne’s film than will ever listen to The Boss’s rather obscure album. The following is the thrid story I’ve filed about Payne’s Nebraska. At least three more Nebraska stories will be appearing in the coming months. You’ll be able to find them all on this blog. In this piece I look at the editing and mixing process through the eyes and words of Payne, whom I viisted on the set of the fillm in November and sat in with during the final mix process in May.
I’ve also posted a longer version of the story at the bottom of this same post.
FYI: I have been covering Payne and his work for 17 years. I am the author of the book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film which is a collection of my journalism about the filmmaker and his films. You can order the book from this blog. It’s also available online at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and for Kindle and other er-reader devices. You can find it at The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha. I will be selling and signing the book at numerous events in Omaha this fall. Look for announcements here and on my Facebook page, My Inside Stories.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt from a story that ran in a shorter version in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
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.
Payne with Dern, Will Forte and company at Cannes
Forte, Dern and Stacy Keach in “Nebraska”
YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )
Now available at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net.
For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal
- Author Leo Adam Biga Joined Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Featuring Alexander Payne to Promote His Book About the Filmmaker, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Interview: Kevin Tent (harnessproductions.com)
- Bruce Dern to screen ‘Nebraska’ at Chicago film festival (voices.suntimes.com)
- The Best Picture Vol. 2 – The Oscar Predictions 2014 (fairytalepictures.wordpress.com)