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‘Downsizing’ Editor on Cutting Alexander Payne’s Quirky Sci-Fi Movie Down to Size

At first glance, “Downsizing” seems like a major stylistic departure for director Alexander Payne.

While it’s true that the film reunites him with many of his collaborators on earlier films — including screenwriter Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and editor Kevin Tent — the theme and scope of the movie center less on intimate human drama and more on a sci-fi view of a future society in which people miniaturize themselves through a medical procedure in order to improve their lives materially.

For Tent, this wasn’t his first time cutting a sci-fi tale. He edited 2007’s VFX-heavy “The Golden Compass” and was at ease working with “Downsizing’s” visual effects team.

In the film, which arrives in theaters Dec. 21, normal-sized people frequently interact with the downsized people, who are only inches tall. To make such scenes work on the screen, Tent sought the best angles among characters of ostensibly vastly different sizes, passing the rough cut to VFX editor Joseph Carson. In turn, Carson would work on the effects and then pass the cut back to Tent for review. The editorial and effects teams worked in the same building, which enabled rapid transfers and revisions.

But despite the movie’s eye-catching effects, “Downsizing” retains Payne’s signature of character-driven storytelling filled with drama, comedy and emotional twists. Tent relied on the performances of the actors — including Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau — to guide his editing.

To inform the rhythm of the cuts in some scenes, such as those between Damon’s Paul Safranek and Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, the editor found a range among the still silence of the setting and each actor’s intensity.

For the poignant moment when Paul learns that his wife (Wiig) has reneged on her commitment to downsize herself alongside him, Tent had many takes but few camera angles to work with. He experimented with adding and dropping dialogue, but found inspiration in the score provided by composer Rolfe Kent for the scene’s final cut.

For a drug-infused dance sequence that had a wide range of footage, Tent’s assistant editor, Angela Latimer, made the first pass. Tent enhanced her cut with coverage of Damon and finessed it to fit that aspect of the story.

Kent has edited all of Payne’s features and always feels he’s in sync with the director, since the duo share creative solutions. Prior to the release of “Downsizing,” they held numerous screenings and studio previews to gauge audience reaction. Helmer and editor used what they learned throughout the process to add and remove scenes, perfecting the finished product.

“Alexander is really good at responding to challenges,” Tent says simply.

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