“The Holdovers” Oscar-Nominated Editor Kevin Tent on Creating a 70s Vibe With Timeless Performances

Kevin Tent, nominated for this year’s best editing Oscar for The Holdovers, considers himself  “the luckiest editor ever” thanks to his 28-year collaboration with director Alexander Payne. Tent has edited all nine of Payne’s films dating back to his feature directing debut Citizen Ruth (1996). It’s an impressive list that includes Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), Paris, Je Taime (2006), The Descendants (2011), which earned Tent his first Oscar nomination, Nebraska (2013), Downsizing (2017) and now The Holdovers.

After all these years, Tent says, he and Payne’s creative partnership has a shorthand that often begins before there’s a finished script.

“Even if he’s just circling a project, he’ll send it to me to see what I think,” says Tent, a Buffalo, NY native who moved to California after dropping out of college because “they make movies there.”

“He sent me about 45 pages [of ‘The Holdovers’] up to when the boys leave. Mostly, I was excited about it because he was excited about it so I knew it would be something good. Hes grown as a director, but hes still basically the same guy I met 28 years ago. He’s just gotten better and more generous and more collaborative. He counts on you, and everyone works hard for him because we are all on the same team. He creates passion for doing a great job which is truly a gift.”

(l-r.) Director Alexander Payne and actors Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of their film THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Payne worked closely with screenwriter David Hemingson to develop the script. The Holdovers, nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, is set in the early 1970s at a fictional New England prep school. Best Actor nominee Paul Giamatti plays a veteran teacher forced to stay on campus during Christmas break to look after several students with nowhere to go. When he and a difficult student (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa) decide to accompany the schools head cook (DaVine Joy Randolph, also nominated) on a trip into Boston, the three loners gradually form a family bond.


Some critics have compared The Holdovers with Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), a three-character comedy-drama starring Jack Nicholson about two Navy lifers forced to escort a naive young seaman on a trip to the brig.

Tent says The Last Detail is a movie he and Payne “both love. They do long dissolves, and we’ve always done that,” he says. “AP screened it for the crew. It’s a phenomenal movie. I worked with Ted Demme years ago, and that was one of his favorite movies, too. I still have the VHS tape he gave me to watch.”

The 1970s aesthetic for The Holdovers was intentional from the start.

Payne, Tent says, “wanted it to look like a movie that had been in a vault and hadn’t been seen for a while. He wanted it to look and feel like it came from the ‘70s. That was something he did in production. In post, we did a few things to make it feel grainier in places and added some bits of negative dirt to make it look like it was from the film lab. Eighty percent of the choices we made were related to performance. We didn’t approach it any differently than any of Alex’s other films. As Alex said, ‘Maybe we’ve always been making movies that look like the 1970s.’”


The challenge of editing a dialogue-driven character film like The Holdovers is to keep the pace brisk.

“I’m always the one in the cutting room worried about people leaving or starting to think about where they parked the car,” says Tent, who serves as president of the board of the American Cinema Editors (ACE). “But I think the screenplay is so good because you are learning things all along about the characters. That’s part of the job in the cutting room — to make sure you are engaged with the characters. The way it’s written, you keep getting more information about them the deeper you get into the movie. You find out Paul’s mother died and that he was then railroaded out of Harvard, but you find out so late in the movie. Traditionally, they want to jam all that in the beginning, and there’s nothing left to discover.”


The Holdovers role was written specifically for Giamatti, who’d previously earned acclaim for Sideways.

“Paul is so good. I knew he would be; when I read the [script], I could see him perfectly in the role,” Tent says. “It was exciting when I was cutting to work with his footage again. There are some tongue twisters in there that David wrote and he just nailed them. I asked AP on the first day how exciting it was to work again with Paul, and he said, ‘We’re both giddy.’”


While editing the film, Tent attended an ACE luncheon, he says, and swapped stories with his colleagues about their projects. “One of them had worked with Paul on Billions, and someone else worked with him on another movie, and I was telling them how amazing he is in this film. They laughed and said, ‘Yeah, just cut to Paul.’”


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Featured image: (l-r.) Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC


Loren King

Loren King is an entertainment journalist whose features and reviews appear regularly in various publications and online. She is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and lives in Southeastern Massachusetts. You can follow her on Twitter: @lorenkingwriter

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