One of the most highly anticipated movies this year at Sundance, Cedar Rapids is the comic story of a naive insurance agent (Ed Helms), who gets more than he bargained for when he’s sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at an insurance convention. Directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt; The Good Girl), produced by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and featuring a surefire supporting cast that includes John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat and Rob Corddry, Cedar Rapids has all the makings of a comedy classic.
The movie was edited by Eric Kissack, a man who knows a few things about the comedy genre, having cut such hilarious films and TV shows as Bruno and “Stella.” Cedar Rapids debuts at the Sundance Film Festival this week, and opens nationwide February 11. Just before the movie’s Sundance premiere, MM caught up with Kissack to discuss the art of editing comedy.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Comedy seems to be your forte, as you’ve edited some of the funniest movies of the past few years, including Bruno and Role Models. What’s the key to cutting a successful comedy? Is the process any different than editing a drama?
Eric Kissack (EK): I don’t think there’s a single “key” to cutting a successful comedy. But I have learned two things that seem to be consistently helpful when I’m editing comedy. One is to always remember the first time you laugh at something. That’s a tough one. When you see a joke for the 10th, 20th or 30th time, it stops being funny. The challenge is to remember how you reacted when you first read the script, when you first saw that improv or heard that ADR… because that’ll be the audience’s experience. If you have a bad memory, write it down. Write down your laughs. But don’t forget.
The other thing is that the more times you can watch the film with a crowd, the better. You learn so much every time you watch it through someone else’s eyes. The value is not so much in hearing what an audience thinks about the movie (although that can certainly be very helpful) but more about feeling the energy in the room. At what point do you lose them? At what point does their energy lag and their attention wane? That’s where you need to do work. Directors are always asking if I think something is funny. And I always tell them, ‘It’s funny if people laugh at it… now let’s have a screening!’
MM: You used Avid Media Composer to cut the film. What are some of the benefits of utilizing Avid’s editing system?
EK: Speed, stability and ScriptSync. Every editor is different, obviously, but for me Avid Media Composer has the edge when it comes to how fast I can navigate through a timeline. It’s also more reliable than Final Cut (again, a very subjective, personal opinion). And ScriptSync rocks… although I have suggestions to make it even better. Avid, let’s talk…
MM: What was the biggest challenge you faced during the editing process of Cedar Rapids? How did you address the problem?
EK: The biggest challenge on any comedy is how to cut it down to size. Cedar Rapids was probably the most thoughtful, carefully constructed script I’ve ever read (granted, I haven’t read The Social Network) and yet, when it was all assembled, it was still about 40 minutes too long. So the game begins… How do you remove 40 minutes of material and still have the plot and the character arcs make sense? What information is essential and what is superfluous?
Once again, the screening process is the best way to address this. We had about a dozen screenings of Cedar Rapids—some small, some big—and we were consistently amazed at how little information an audience really needed. Audiences are much more clever and intuitive than we give them credit for. So we stumbled our way toward (hopefully) the perfect balance of exposition and comedy.
MM: Do you have to be a funny person in order to be a comedy editor?
EK: Nope. Not at all. I think anyone can be a comedy editor. But it helps if you have an easy laugh. The editing room is a much more fun place to be when it’s full of laughter.
MM: What’s on the horizon for you? Any projects you can tell us about?
EK: I’m seven months into editing the third Harold & Kumar movie [titled A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas]… in 3-D! It’s hilarious. And I only have 3-D induced migraines for a few hours a day. Just kidding… it’s one or two hours, tops.