By Jean Lane
Editor Hank Corwin is no stranger to receiving accolades for his work — he has been recognized by the ACE, the Los Angeles Film Critics Society and the AICE — but this year he is nominated for the granddaddy of awards: the Best Editing Oscar for The Big Short.
Corwin has a diverse resume, having worked with Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life and The New World, Robert Redford on The Legend of Bagger Vance and Oliver Stone on Natural Born Killers, Uturn and Nixon. He also owns Lost Planet, a commercial editorial shop that has offices in Los Angeles and New York, where he keeps his hand in spot work and music videos.
Hank and I have a history together in the commercial world — once upon a time I worked for Lost Planet in New York as head producer — so after many years out of touch, we caught up about life, editing and the complex story of The Big Short, the Oscar-nominated film directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers).
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination, your first! Are you planning to attend the ceremony?
I think my wife Nancy would kill me if we don’t go. I’ve toyed with not attending, just to see how she would react, but yes I plan on attending.
Had you worked with Adam McKay before?
Never. He had already started shooting and my agent contacted me about the film. They sent me the script and it was exquisite. It’s an adaptation of the Michael Lewis book and it’s heady stuff, which I didn’t understand completely, but I saw it as a wonderful challenge.
What is Adam’s style of working? Was there a lot of improvisation on set?
He does come from an improv place and that world. What he would do, unlike many directors I’ve worked with, was first he would get the coverage he needed from the script and then he would allow his actors to start improvising. He would throw out new lines and new scenarios and have them riff off those. I would get loads and loads of footage, which I was able to use. I was able to use the mistakes as well as the scripted stuff.
Were you on set during the shoot or near set?
Adam was five or six weeks into the shoot when I came in. I had a commercial job in Prague, so I flew into New Orleans to meet him for the day. I think he wanted to make sure I had two hands and two eyes. He made reference to the Michael Winterbottom movie called 24 Hour Party People, which had some similarities to breaking the fourth wall. He wanted me to see it, which showed me that he was really open to trying new stuff. The most important thing with a director and an editor is the trust and feelings of safety in the relationship. The director ultimately has to trust the editor, and the editor has to feel safe to try things without worrying about getting fired.
I try things and sometimes directors don’t like them. I was very fortunate that I tried stuff and Adam liked it. We talked through the stuff he wasn’t happy with and it became a very musical relationship, like we were playing jazz. He would play one instrument and I’d play the other.
That’s a great analogy. So how did you tackle this multi-character, multi-story film?
What do they say? A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The financial part of the script is heady stuff and hard to understand. I figured the best way I could start is to try to understand and develop the characters and give each character his (and his group) editorial signature. The Steve Carell character, Mark Baum, was very angry and explosive, and I tried to reflect that in the editing. The Christian Bale character was very introverted and introspective, and I tried to make his editing very internal, almost like on a biological level. You know the real Mike Burry has Asperger’s, and Christian Bale, after meeting the guy, really captured him. I tried in the editorial to get very focused into details, the way he might be experiencing the world. I think the operative idea on the cutting of the film was it had to be experiential. I was trying to get us inside of them.
It sounds like you were focusing on Burry and Baum — your main instruments — and then you’ve got your other characters that fill in the composition. Am I on the right track?
You know, I’ve never thought of it quite that way, but absolutely. I was thinking of it more like a collaboration of ideas. We were working on a number of different levels. First of all, you have the levels of each character and each grouping, but then you have the flow of the film.
It starts with a surreal moment with the old bankers, then we go into the montage of the crash; it’s kind of wacky and funny, but tinged with anxiety. The film starts comically, and then toward the middle of the film, it becomes a dramatic film.
In the third act, after they come back from Las Vegas, you have this disintegration… the scene with Carell and Marisa Tomei shows all his anger has been washed away, like he’s gone through a breakdown. I tried, very deliberately, to fragment his conversation. That’s a very pivotal scene. It’s a scene I love very much — he completely changes. That act, toward the end of the film, funnels into this tragedy. Each chapter in the film had a different emotional valance. You started with a comedy, you went to a drama and then you ended up in a tragedy. It’s very sad actually, the movie is very sad.
I think that’s why it’s so beautifully edited — it really does take you through this experience. I was able to follow all the finance stuff, which I’m not familiar with at all.
It comes so much from Adam. One of the really big ideas editorially was if you are able to understand emotionally where these people were coming you would be able to understand the terms and stuff, as opposed to just talking about financial instruments that are abbreviations or initials, like CDOs and synthetic CDOs.
When postPerspective spoke to Adam about making The Big Short, he mentioned that the composer was housed next to your cutting room, and that he would score as you cut. Whose idea was that?
The composer is this young guy named Nicholas Britell. Nick and I just sort of evolved it. We would look at dailies and talk about them even before Adam got involved. I would tell him the emotions I wanted to feel and he would tell me the emotions he felt. He would sit at his computer and come up with tones and we would play it against some of the shots. He was developing the music as I was cutting. He became my co-editor on a certain level.
I’ve never heard of a process that unique.
I’ve never had that kind of collaboration before. I think Adam, Nick and I wish all our film projects could stay this way. I would love to work this way again.
Were you involved in the DI? Were you present for the color?
A little, but Adam primarily did that. Our DP Barry Ackroyd was working on a film out of the country, but he was looking at stuff. One of the neat things about this movie was that it was shot on film! There were just little elements that I loved that you don’t get anymore because digital is so clean. I was able to use the flash frames so we could flare out. I could take a flash frame and slow those frames down and make an impressionistic moment. The cuts themselves didn’t have to be classically beautiful, but they had to work very well on an emotional level.
You’re taking a character and trying to feel what they’re feeling and making connections via images. It’s sort of the way I see the world. It’s not linear, but most people don’t see the world in a linear way.
You definitely don’t see the world in a linear way!
You’ll walk in the street and hear a horn from a car on your left, then somebody’s baby will be crying on the right then there’ll be an old lady with a walker. These are all just impressions. The sum total of it makes your experience, so why not do that on film? Film gives you the ultimate opportunity to take those events. This is where you need a really smart director so you can create a more whole character, a more three-dimensional character as opposed to a one-dimensional third-person character that you’re looking at.
Clearly, he captured a lot of footage that you were happy with.
I’m so lucky. Adam is such a student of film, so he was able to get that stuff.
What is your favorite part of finishing after you lock picture? Color, visual effects, sound?
I love the mix. Traditionally it’s where film really comes alive. We had a sound supervisor named Becky Sullivan who was just wonderful and understanding. It’s tough being a mixer or a sound person because everybody has different aspirations. I wanted her to try things kind of ass backwards and she indulged me in some places and then came up with ideas that were fantastic.
The work itself was the best part of cutting this movie. I was trying stuff and felt safe. Again I attribute that to Adam. I would see things and they would be the culmination of ideas that I‘d been working on for years.
You worked solo on The Big Short as opposed to The Tree of Life, where you were one of five editors. Which do you prefer and why?
I did have an additional editor, Liza Espinas, who cut a couple of scenes. When you work with multiple editors, like with Terry Malick, it was very collegial. He only had people in one at a time. Oliver Stone, would throw in multiple editors and pass scenes around.
You share your time between features and commercials, and you pick your features carefully. How do you decide which ones to do?
I’ll read the script and if I really love the script, if I love something about it, then maybe I’ll go for it. I get great rewards out of doing commercials occasionally as well. The process can be very similar. I’ve had wonderful times doing commercials.
I envy that you’re able to choose projects because it’s what thrills you.
Thank you. I love working with film and I can’t believe that people are actually paying me to do what I do! It’s not like playing a guitar, where if you have the guitar, you can play it. Somebody’s gotta pay for this. Making films is an expensive proposition, so I am blessed in that sense and that my wife puts up with me.
Jean Lane is a post production supervisor based in New York. She was head producer at Lost Planet NY from 2003 to 2005.