The Descendants

Alexander Payne is a director who makes human stories with a blend of comedy and drama that we can all relate to. Movies like Sideways and About Schmidt are about discovery of self and audiences relate to the humor of awkward situations that echo familiar events in our own lives.

The Descendants continues this trend with Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian lawyer and disengaged father who struggles with the realization that he will have to remove his wife from life support. She is in a coma as the result of a terrible boating accident. Payne has interwoven an additional storyline dealing with King’s extended family and their plans to sell a huge piece of unspoiled land to a large developer.  The King family are descendants, distant relatives of native Hawaiians and non-native immigrants who settled the islands generations ago.  The film’s title stems from this part of the story.

The Descendants was shot in about fifty days on location in Hawaii with the cutting being done in Hollywood (during principal photography) and later in Santa Monica (during post production). The production was on 35mm film, with Fotokem handling dailies and a digital intermediate finish at Modern VideoFilm. Alexander Payne is one of the few directors who has the right of final cut on his films and Kevin Tent (The Golden Compass, Sideways, About Schmidt, Blow) has been the editor on all of Payne’s films. Since the dailies that the production crew would view had to travel back to Hawaii and Hawaii is three hours behind Los Angeles, editorial got to see dailies before production. Payne would give Tent a daily call to get the rundown on how everything looked and sounded.

Tent described the post production schedule, “We’d sometimes get only a half day’s worth of dailies and other times a day-and-a-half. This would depend on the crew’s cut-off time to get the negative on a plane and then to the lab. I would assemble scenes and send them back to Alexander to watch over the weekends. When he got back to Los Angeles in June, we started working away. We had our first cut for the studio in late September. The first official audience preview was in late October and we finished the film by late February 2011.”

An Amtrak cut

Kevin Tent and first assistant editor Mindy Elliott cut on Avid Media Composers (version 4.0.5) connected to Unity shared storage. Dailies were delivered by Fotokem on HDCAM-SR tape for Fox Searchlight, as well as Avid DNxHD36 media on FireWire drives to be ingested into the Unity system. The FireWire drives came in handy later, because Clooney invited Payne and Tent to go to his villa in Italy for a couple of weeks. The two were able to continue cutting using a laptop and the FireWire drives both in Italy and subsequently on a cross-country train ride from New York back to Los Angeles.

“We’re laying claim to being the first film cut on an Amtrak train,” Tent joked. “Alexander had this great idea to take the train across the US on the return home. It was an old-style Hollywood romantic notion, where a writer would board the train in New York and when they arrived in Los Angeles, the movie script was done. Our two families had booked rooms in sleeper cars, which were large enough to spread out the laptop and the drives. This let me get some editing in during the two days on the train, but it’s awfully hard to concentrate on editing when you are going through some of the most gorgeous countryside in the US!”

Striking the right tone

Tent discussed some of his thoughts behind the editing of the film. “We tried to keep up the pace throughout the whole movie, but it’s the type of film in which you can’t shift the tone too quickly or you’ll lose the audience. Our feeling was that if you rushed it, the audience wouldn’t have time to absorb and feel the emotion. The balance between the drama and the humor was probably our biggest challenge. We’ve had similar challenges on Alexander’s other films, but The Descendants was a whole new level of trickiness. We had to be respectful of the characters and what they were experiencing. It’s about raw human emotion and about death – something most audience members can relate to in one way or another. So we scaled back and trimmed some of the humor, being very careful of anything, which might feel insensitive to our characters.  Hopefully we struck a good balance and the humor feels like it could happen in real life.”

King’s wife is only seen outside of the coma and hospital bed in one shot at the beginning of the film. I asked Tent whether changes were made in the edit to shorten the scene. Tent responded, “No, it was never part of a longer or larger scene.  Just that shot of Patricia Hastie [Elizabeth King] on the boat. Its purpose was to catch just a glimpse of a person’s life. Life is so fragile. She’s alive and vivacious one moment and the next… Patty did a pretty amazing job. Many people thought we used a mannequin in the later scenes, but it’s all Patty. She lost all that weight and never broke her character even when other actors were yelling at her.”

“The voice-over at the beginning was always scripted and we recorded much more than we used. In early screenings, our audiences were having a little trouble getting insight into George’s character, Matt. Alexander wrote a couple of new lines, which substantially changed the beginning of the film and the audiences’ understanding of Matt and his wife. The lines we added were, ‘Wake up Elizabeth… Wake up… I’m ready to be a husband and a father… I’m ready to talk.’ These simple lines were enormously effective. Our audiences now immediately understood the back-story, their troubled marriage, his disengaged parenting and probably most important, his desperation. It was interesting that such a simple change in a couple of lines could have such a big impact.”

“Initially there were more scenes in the hospital in which the Matt King character told us about being a lawyer and the land deal – all in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie.  We cut them out and wound up waiting until after Matt and Scottie visit her little friend to apologize. The first time the audience hears anything about the land deal is from the mother of the little girl out on the front porch. We let her make the introduction and then we followed with a montage of dissolves of him working, looking at photos and the voice-over.  This was a very organic way to firmly set up the new story line.”

The Descendents offers a real sense of Hawaiian authenticity. Instead of a film score produced by a single composer, Payne opted for a series of songs and tracks recorded by Hawaiian musicians. Dondi Bastone (music supervisor) and Richard Ford (music editor) combed through tons of local Hawaiian tracks to come up with the right feel. Many of the scenes play well with little or no music at all – just simple slack key guitar tracks to augment or accent a scene or transition between scenes.

Avid script-based editing

Kevin Tent has been cutting on Avid Media Composer systems since his transition from film editing. Tent said, “When cutting on film, you really had to think about the ramifications of the changes you were going to make. Cutting on film was a lot like playing chess. You’d have to have the whole board in mind before you’d make your move. But, I’d never go back. I love the Avid. It’s a brilliant piece of machinery. This is the first time I’ve used ScriptSync. It was fantastic and Alexander loved it, too. We’re constantly reviewing for performance and looking at our back-up takes.  ScriptSync made this process so much easier.”

Mindy Elliott explained how ScriptSync was used on the film. “Each scene had a folder within the Avid project. Inside were the dailies bin and a script for just that scene.  Preliminary scripting of the dailies was the main task of our apprentice editor, Mikki Levi. We didn’t really use the automatic features. Almost everything was done manually, which was determined by Alexander’s directing style.  There are many ‘resets’ and ‘line repeats’ within a take, so we devised ways of marking that in the script. We also manually entered and scripted the voice-over, live musical performance and a lot of non-verbal action.”

Effects and the DI

Elliott also described their process for the DI finish and the handful of visual effects in the film. “We did a temp mix and color-correction pass (the picture was assembled off of tape using EDLs) for our two HD tape preview screenings. Our production assistant, Brian Bautista is a visual effects whiz. Using his After Effects and Photoshop skills, Brian did the preliminary work on the Hawaii maps (used when Matt and Scottie travel to The Big Island to pick up Alexandra – and when the whole clan goes to Kaui), green screen shots (plane and car windows when Matt and Scottie travel to The Big Island) and a time warp to extend the tail of a shot (when Matt disappears behind a hedge after spotting his wife’s lover). We inserted QuickTime versions of the temp effects for preview screenings and provided the templates for the finished work done by Nate Carlson (credit sequences and maps), Custom Film Effects (green screen shots, Banyan tree CGI) and Modern VideoFilm (split screen comps, time warp). Delivery for the DI at Modern VideoFilm was very much like delivering to a negative cutter, including a reference QuickTime for each reel, plus Pull Lists and Optical Pull Lists. We received ‘confidence’ check reels of the DI back from Modern that we loaded into the Avid to gang against our locked cut to make sure it all matched.”

Asked for some parting editing wisdom, Kevin Tent offered this humorous anecdote about his Amtrak experience. “My big take-away was that you can edit on the train and you can drink on the train, but you can’t drink and edit on the train. Nope… not so easy. I learned that one night after dinner and a bottle of wine in the dining car. We decided to go back to work afterwards. Trying to click on a tiny laptop with the combination of wine and the constant movement of the train – it was just too damn hard [laugh].”

Written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

©2012 Oliver Peters