Hank Corwin always knew he wanted to work in film, he just didn’t know how his break would come. But after cutting his teeth in commercials, Corwin landed a job working with Oliver Stone. He worked on J.F.K and Natural Born Killers and also worked on Tree of Life.
I caught up with Corwin who’s been nominated for a BAFTA and Oscar for his editing work for Vice to talk about working with Mackay’s bold choices. Corwin says he did his own research to ensure he captured the cultural influences of America that shaped Cheney into the dreadful shape he became. We also talk about the false ending and the one scene he fought to have added that ultimately ended up getting cut.
You started in commercials and you went into features. What made you take that leap?
Initially, I was very heavily in the pre-med at Berkely. I followed my girlfriend to New York. I used to write plays and was a terrible writer. I didn’t know it at the time. I knew I wanted a job in film but I didn’t know anybody. The only place I could find was a commercial editing house. I started out carrying cans. I worked my way up and Bob Richardson was directing a public service spot for the Indigenous People of the Amazon rainforest. I cut it for him and we hit it off and he ended up telling Oliver Stone about me.
They offered me a job on J.F.K and that was my start. I was the first editor on Natural Born Killers and I worked from there.
You worked with Adam before on The Big Short and then Vice comes along. What was the first thing he said to you about Vice?
Adam was intrigued by the genesis of how America to where it did get and the unobvious ways. He was analyzing throughout semi-modern history the key points from the end of World War II. I read somewhere that he’d read a book about Dick Cheney and that started it off.
Where do you go once you’ve got that? We’re going to do Vice and we’re going to be bold and we’re covering decades?
For me, the early research I did was look at the historical, cultural and intellectual context in America. I looked at what was going on. What music people were listening to and what they were watching. I love American culture and it was a joy to be able to evolve the cultural times along with Cheney’s character.
Discuss that bold mid-credit ending and what that conversation was. Was it something in the script or decided in editing?
It was actually scripted by Adam. It was this fantasy of what would America have been like. What would his life have been like if he had stopped right there? He would have been a wonderful and successful man with a great family. I’ve never done that before and it was a way to stop the film completely. It was a dangerous thing.
It was initially worrisome for me trying to get people back into the second part of the film. I loved the device. Only Adam could pull that off and only Adam could come up with that.
How did you edit the film? It’s filled with bold cuts and interesting juxtapositions. One great example is when you have Powell in the UN and the next is the family watching TV.
Most biopics, and I’ve done my share of them, are really boring. They’re observational and third person. You’re watching an actor trying to play a historical character.
It seems like most of the directors and writers try to put together an emotional arc and an internal story. For both Adam and myself, it would be doing a disservice to invent an internal story for a character who’s living and is very mysterious.
What Adam was able to do was vet all the facts. We decided to find these very human moments. That moment you mention with Powell talking to the UN and the voiceover and then we cut to the family. It’s every family having dinner. They were sitting on the porch. Dick loved his grandkids. They’re talking about American Idol. These are things that we hope everyone can relate to. Maybe they can’t relate to American Idol, but they can relate to this common denominator that we all feel.
You have these powerful and obtuse characters and you shrink it into something everyone can relate to and then you can bang out to something else.
I know some people resented the fact we worked like this and felt we should have been more linear and I feel it was linear, emotionally.
We didn’t mean to be going back and forth. We were trying to set these emotional tentpoles. You have something that’s so intellectual and then you have something that’s emotional where people can relate to the characters.
Talking about relating to characters, you have Cheney right at the end breaking the fourth wall.
It wasn’t scripted. Christian mentioned to Adam that Cheney should have a say and defend himself and speak his mind.
We had this scene and we didn’t know where to put it. I love ambiguity in film. Someone is not totally good and not totally evil. Someone’s motives aren’t light or dark either. I think it gives a huge emotional texture to the film. If you like Cheney, this film was a strong defense of how he felt. If you weren’t a fan of Cheney, it could be construed as being this dangerous irrationality where power completely corroded his moral compass.
You talk about Bale doing a scene like that and doing improv. Adam works that way with his actors. How does that style work for you as an editor when making the cut?
The process for me is always about finding the emotional truth. A character could hold their head, look around, and breathe. In the improv process, I’m always looking for where the actor is searching for what he’s trying to say. It’s not really the character or the actor. It’s somewhere in between and that ambiguity. For me, it’s tough because I really have to screen the footage thoroughly and take such notes. I make everyone miserable when doing it because I’ll fill giant binders of notes with time codes where someone breathed or looked a certain way. I’m able to incorporate some of these moments into the performances. If Adam didn’t dig so deeply and let his characters go, I wouldn’t have this material to work with.
There was a musical number cut out of the movie and everyone knows about it. Talk about making decisions like that and the tough calls of making the cut as an editor here.
One of the reasons it took so long to cut was because that scene by itself was terrific. We fought so hard to try to save it. What kept happening was that it was a redundancy. You had conveyed the information that was being conveyed in the musical. We didn’t have the luxury of keeping it in because the film had to move quickly and even though it was entertaining, it slowed the film down.
Other directors I’ve worked with would have wanted to keep it because it was so entertaining, but it would have been to the detriment of the flow of the film.
Adam is amazing. He was able to ultimately decide against keeping it. I fought to keep it in.