‘A very real, natural, dirty comedy’: Waldemar Centeno on ‘Big Time Adolescence’

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 3:39pm

NOSELL

American High/LD Entertainment

“It’s not saturated. It’s not going to look colorful. It’s going to be very subdued. Sometimes, it’s not as pretty as you want it to be,” says Waldemar Centeno (“The Goldbergs”). He’s talking about the look and feel of one of his recent projects as a film editor: Jason Orley’s (“The Intern”) “Big Time Adolescence,” a coming-of-age comedy starring Pete Davidson (“Saturday Night Live”) and Griffin Gluck (“American Vandal”). The film has been selected to premiere later this month at Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. dramatic competition.

I spoke with Centeno about “Big Time Adolescence” for upward of 45 minutes. Not once did he assume personal credit for the festival honor —or for any aspect of the film, for that matter.

He recounted the day he found out about the film’s selection for the festival. He remembers hearing it from Orley, who “with a very stoic face, just said, ‘We got the call. We got into Sundance.’” Centeno explained the personal significance of that moment, admitting, “I won’t lie to you: It has been 13 years of really hard work to even get the phone call to work on a project starring Pete Davidson, but I obviously kind of teared up, and gave him (Orley) a hug. You know, I went home, and pretty much cried for a whole night.” But he also spoke to what it means for the entire team involved, whom he got to know while cutting the film on set: “We were shooting for that (the Sundance recognition). It wasn’t expected, but we’re really excited as a group.”

Even when I gave Centeno a premium opportunity to foreground his contributions to “Big Time Adolescence” in asking about the particular role he played as editor, he refused, and instead underscored the collaboration necessary for effective storytelling in film. Centeno praised the performances of the cast: “As an editor, that’s all you really want, some really great acting, so you can actually do your job.” He added, “I was always told as I was coming up as an editor, working as a technician and running the edit is just twenty percent of the work. 80 percent of it is the camaraderie that you have with the person you’re working with when I’m giving feedback, it’s not that I go, ‘This is how I want it.’ I go, ‘This is the way Jason (the director) is envisioning going forward.’”

This vision centers on the friendship of teenage Mo (Gluck) and twentysomething Zeke (Davidson), and the strain that helpless matters like age difference and growing up puts on their relationship over time. Centeno told me that this story is “close to the heart” and named the aspect of the story that he found most persuasive: “It’s about an outsider, essentially, that thinks he’s an insider, but then ends up being shunned later on in the story. I grew up on the East Coast, understanding this type of person that was the page … that’s what drew me to it.”

Of course, with Davidson and Gluck playing the lead roles, the film foregrounds male companionship. I pressed him about that, and, to my surprise and delight, Centeno did not plead the Fifth, regurgitate a rehearsed response or dodge the crucial, oft-dodged question of representation on screen. Instead, he answered the question directly and thoughtfully and did not feel the need to go on the offensive when supplying a counterpoint. He assented that the film “does center on these two male companions and some of their friends that are male,” but clarified, “Since the beginning of our screenings of this, we really wanted to make it a point to talk about this: How do people feel about the women in this movie?” He then added, “there are three women in the movie who really shine. They play these three really strong female characters that are entwined with Zeke and Mo’s life. They have some powerful moments. They’re not just there to let the boys do whatever they want. They’re there to make sure they speak up for what’s right,” and are able to “speak for themselves.”

As a coming-of-age film, “Big Time Adolescence” also situates itself in a genre that never sees a shortage of films and that has, as of late, seen an increase in representation of marginalized voices and experiences. Pressed a second time, Centeno was once more refreshingly direct and earnest with his answer. “We still have a long way to go in the film industry,” he recognized, in terms of honoring diversity and tipping the scales of representation. But he pointed out another important dimension of diversity that lies in the storytellers themselves, commenting, “There is diversity in the people that worked on it (“Big Time Adolescence”),” and drawing on his own experience as an example. “I’m Puerto Rican, and a Puerto Rican editor, I was able to give my insight on something that was not necessarily of my culture. I was able to say, ‘No, that’s not the way you should say that. There’s a better way to say this.’”

In terms of what makes “Big Time Adolescence” stand out in a crowded genre, Centeno highlighted the unique interplay between comedy and drama at work in the film. “The way we looked at it was a comedy where we would try not to heighten the comedy; we’d heighten the drama,” Centeno explained, “because Pete Davidson’s story is a cautionary tale of this older kid who befriends this younger kid and thinks they’re really good friends and will be for a very long time. But at some point, people get grown out of.” Elaborating on what it meant to heighten the drama in the context of a comedy, Centeno contrasted the unremitting speed of some comedies to the more measured pace of “Big Time Adolescence.” “That’s essentially what we did: we lived in those moments” — meaning the slower, dramatic scenes in the film — “instead of trying to get to the next joke.” Centeno distinguished the breed of comedy that emerges from this sensitivity from the network comedies he has cut in the past, calling it “a very real, natural, dirty comedy that a network show would never be.” The anchor of the comedic dimension of “Big Time Adolescence” is, according to Centeno, Pete Davidson. He called Davidson “one of the driving forces of the comedy,” and indicated that “the way he acted really drew the comedy out of everybody else.” As a bonus, however, Centeno believes the film will also show audiences Davidson “has a lot of depth in him,” as do “all the other characters.”

At that point in the conversation, we had hit the 40-minute mark. For my last question, I asked if Centeno wanted to say anything about his experience at the University as an alumnus and former sports writer for The Michigan Daily. After narrating his jagged trajectory toward undergraduate degrees in English and film, he remarked, “I always tell people I did storytelling as a major.” After elaborating on his investment in storytelling at the University and The Daily, I posed my standard, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” Centeno’s reply was one of the last things I would ever expect an interviewee to say to an interviewer: He told me he would like to hear about my experience at the University and The Daily.

Pleasantly surprised for the third distinct time, I began to ramble about my love of The Daily and my inability to declare a major; Centeno listened patiently and responded thoughtfully. When I finally stopped talking and let Centeno go, I returned to what Centeno had said about majoring in storytelling. Because in my rambling, I had responded to Centeno as though he were someone I could unhesitatingly trust with my story — as though I’d been speaking with a storyteller.