Hank Corwin, ACE, was nominated for an ACE Eddie for The Horse Whisperer; and for an Oscar and won an ACE Eddie for The Big Short. Editing work also includes Tree of Life, Natural Born Killers, Snow Falling on Cedars and work as additional editor on JFK, Public Enemies and Moneyball.
Most recently, he was nominated for an Oscar, won the BAFTA and was nominated for an ACE Eddie for editing VICE, which is what we discussed in this interview.
HULLFISH: You’ve worked with a pantheon of directors: Malick, Levinson, McKay, Redford, Oliver Stone. Most of those guys you worked with multiple times. Is there an advantage to these long-term collaborations between an editor and a director?
CORWIN: Sure. You start speaking the same language. I think at the end of the day you have a level of communication and trust — or lack of trust sometimes. I have had directors that I’ve worked with – we just saw film differently.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about how you got into features. You had a long career as an editor before you started doing movies.
CORWIN: I was lucky. I was cutting commercials. I did a PSA spot for the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest that was shot by Bob Richardson who was Oliver Stone’s D.P. He’s a wonderful, wonderful D.P. and he recommended me to Oliver to work on JFK. And initially they brought me on for two weeks and I stayed on for about nine months. It was great because with commercials there were so many taboos about what characters could say or do. So I get into JFK and I’m dealing with characters who aren’t of the best character, and Oliver allowed me to run amok. It was like a candy store for me.
When he asked me to work on Natural Born Killers I was in heaven. I wasn’t really bright enough to understand the socio-political ramifications of working on any of these movies. Film is so powerful and it can be used as propaganda. I mean everything is propaganda. I’m not putting down what Oliver was trying to communicate. Natural Born Killers was actually really prescient.
CORWIN: It’s actually an anti-violence film. Editorially, my work was attacked. Before I did features, I cut a number of music videos and people said Natural Born Killers was MTV-ish. People were trying to find a way to categorize the movie. For the longest time, I was branded as an MTV-style editor. I didn’t understand what that meant. For me, editing has always been about communication. I can honestly say, in my career, I’ve never deliberately done something technique-y for technique’s sake. I never gratuitously cut. I hate that. I don’t believe, however, in the sanctity of a linear strand of film. Film should be appropriate and the way people edit should be appropriate.
HULLFISH: Many of your films have very different styles. Snow Falling on Cedars or Horse Whisperer are not edited the same way as VICE or The Big Short.
CORWIN: I loved Snow Falling on Cedars.
I learned a life lesson on Horse Whisperer. There is the scene where the Scarlett Johannson character is having her period for the first time and she and her mother are in the midst of a mother-daughter argument. They both start crying. At the time the scene made me cringe because it didn’t feel truthful. I wanted to get rid of it. It was a bone of contention between Robert Redford and myself. We went to a test screening and there was this big, hefty guy sitting in front of us — Redford and I were sitting together — and the scene comes up and the guy started to sob! He’s bawling. Redford elbows me and says, “The scene stays.” (laughs) I’ll admit it. I was wrong to be so adamant.
HULLFISH: That’s funny! I’m really fascinated by that idea of an editor and ego. I feel like I need to have an ego because I need to have opinions about whether that period scene needs to stay or go and I need to feel like I’m right. But you also have to go — at some point — “I guess I’m wrong.”
CORWIN: I came from commercials. There are a lot of bad and new directors in commercials. It’s your job to make what they do as good as it can be. It’s their neck on the chopping block. I’m not a director. I don’t want to direct. I’m one of those people who’s really blessed with doing and loving exactly what I want to do. I don’t have any other aspirations. But part of what I do — a big part — is serving my director. If I disagree with him or her, I will be very vocal, but I will ALWAYS — and YOU should always — make yourself understand what the director wants on as many levels as possible. In as many different colors as you can conceive. That’s what they pay us for.
HULLFISH: That’s something I’ve learned the hard way by making mistakes. I have been adamant about a scene or a line or a performance — just like you with that period scene — “please can we chop this?” Or “please can we cut out these six lines?” And I have died on that hill early in the editing process and what I’ve learned is to just wait it out and nine times out of ten that scene or those lines will take care of themselves without me sacrificing myself too early. Have patience.
CORWIN: You’re absolutely right. In my first cut, I will make it as good as I think it’s going to be — and I may take it pretty far afield from where the director wants to go. He’ll look at it. If he loves it, so much the better, and if he hates it, I’ll put it aside. I’ll always keep it there. And when the going gets tough, I’ll just sort of tease him with it. And maybe I’ll tease him again. Sometimes they go for it and sometimes they won’t.
I just feel so acutely that it’s our job to make the directors as good as they can possibly be. And if it means that they’re jumping into a pool of lava, so be it. We have to be there with them.
HULLFISH: Earlier, we were talking about stylistic differences, but to me, The Big Short and VICE are stylistically similar. Is that because of your style or is that Adam?
CORWIN: Both of these films were about very immediate topics. And both of them could be — if they weren’t handled well — really boring and obscure. In both these films — especially The Big Short — it was my obligation to make the movie engaging. Even to the detriment of what’s considered good editing. Fuck my editorial narcissism. For me, it’s all good editing if it serves the picture.
CORWIN: I never get asked to do films like Snow Falling on Cedars any more because I’m not considered to be a contemplative and gentle editor. I would love to edit a quiet, internal story. Maybe with age I’m getting soft in the head.
HULLFISH: Between Natural Born Killers and Big Short and VICE, you’ve got to be careful you don’t get pigeon-holed.
CORWIN: I know! But I do have a softer side.
HULLFISH: Yes you do, and you’ve got the films to prove it.
Big Short and VICE and even Natural Born Killers are socially and politically relevant. I was talking to William Goldenberg, ACE — who just cut 22 July — and he’s also cut Detroit and Concussion, and he’s actively seeking those kinds of projects out. Are you feeling like you want to make social statements?
CORWIN: At the end of the day I’m just a film editor. I don’t have great statements that I want to make. I have a very sensitive bullshit meter and I don’t want to do films that are fraudulent or that invoke false values. There’s so much spiritually that the world needs. There’s a time to poke people in the eye and there’s a time to soothe. I work on films because I get a great sense for satisfaction from cutting the films that I do. I haven’t done that many films, and I’m blessed that I can fall back into commercials when I need to bring home the bacon. If I have to do some big flatulent movie which I think is really detrimental to our culture, I’d rather just work on a commercial. The commercial is more honest. It is what it is.
HULLFISH: I loved your comment about having a sensitive bullshit meter. I think that’s one of those key ingredients of being a good editor.
CORWIN: I would agree with you there.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I loved about VICE was that a lot of the scenes seemed to have to do with subtext. It wasn’t what they were saying, but what was happening kind of underneath the words.
CORWIN: Just before the United States attacked Iraq, we have this almost surreal scene where the Cheney family is sitting around an outdoor dinner table and they’re just engaging in normal human behavior and they’re actually sort of sweet and lovely.
HULLFISH: What about the scene where he’s having a barbecue with Bush out on Bush’s back patio talking about what the vice presidency could become under Cheney?
CORWIN: You’re going to ask about the laugh?
HULLFISH: I don’t remember a laugh, but tell me about the laugh. I was struck by the fact that they’re talking to each other, but you can tell that Cheney is thinking deeper thoughts than what he’s talking about.
CORWIN: Let’s take the scene from the first meeting they have in Cheney’s office at the governor’s mansion in Austin. They’re both sort of sizing each other up. So that would be the subtext. You’re having an interesting conversation but the behavior is actually saying more than what’s being said. It’s almost like a silent movie with sound.
HULLFISH: When you’re trying to reveal that subtext are you just leaving it up to the actors or do you have to manipulate?
CORWIN: Totally. I screen my footage so many times. I screen my dailies and I take copious notes. I fill binders full of notes. For VICE I had five or six huge binders full of notes. I know where everything is. For MOS, I go through stuff and I’ll just pick little moments. Fortunately, Adam likes to shoot film, so I’ll take little moments where the camera’s being turned off or turned on — where the actors aren’t aware that they’re being photographed yet. Synaptically they haven’t responded. So you’ll see very natural behavior, and I’ll start making sequences using that stuff. And I can use that stuff. Many actors, when they start acting are acting. I’d rather be using the stuff where they’re not acting. I’ll use flash frames and step-print the exposure change to create ghostly Francis Bacon pulses because I’m trying to show a basic human moment. They’re like a chimera, right?
HULLFISH: Where they’re a combination of two things?
CORWIN: Yes! It’s a hybrid of sorts. So you have this chimeric performance where it’s part the actor and part the real person. I’m just always searching for human behavior.
CORWIN: I guess it could be interpreted that way. Or dishonesty, as the case may be.
HULLFISH: So all of the notes you’re taking are long-hand notes on paper?
CORWIN: My handwriting is terrible and half the time I can’t read my own writing. So I color code things. I use a blue or a black pen if something is really good, then I use a green pen if It’s really really really good. And then I will use the red pen if It’s really really really really good. It’s a miserable process. Nobody wants to be around me when I’m screening. I’m a little dyslexic and I have a short attention span. But once I have notes on everything, I can figure out my editorial strategy pretty quickly. But I’m the slowest screener I know.
HULLFISH: I would love to see a scan or a photograph of a page of binder notes.
CORWIN: On this last film, I don’t know where those went. I could ask my assistant. I think they’re probably at Annapurna.
HULLFISH: One of the things that so impresses me with you as an editor, is that you’re pulling stuff from EVERYWHERE to make a scene. When I cut a scene, I rarely draw from outside of the coverage in the scene bin. In both VICE and The Big Short, you’re pulling in stock footage and stock photos and historical stuff and YouTube videos. How are you organizing stuff to be able to cut some of these scenes that have footage from all over the place?
CORWIN: You have to free-associate and you have to educate yourself. You have to really go very deeply inside and into your own worldview. I think it’s really important — especially for the kinds of editing that I do, to have intellectual and emotional knowledge — I can’t balance a checkbook, but I can figure out how to convey the times when the American economy was being pulverised. I’m a big reader. I think every editor owes it to themselves, their directors and the audience to educate themselves — whether culturally or historically or emotionally. It sucks when editors won’t try things because they think that they know the answer or they’re lazy. In commercial editing, I’ve heard editors tell directors “that won’t work.” In my estimation, that’s the definition of a bad editor.
HULLFISH: Oh man! I’m one hundred percent in agreement with you there. How did the choices in your movies come out of your reading?
CORWIN: What I was trying to do on these two films was to contextualize what was going on. In The Big Short, there’s a scene where Bale (Christian Bale’s character, Michael Burry) pulls the wool over the guys at Goldman Sachs even though they think they’ve pulled the wool over his eyes and I used this Ludacris “Moneymaker” video.
First of all, I love Ludacris. The video is a whole lot of fun, but it communicates terrible values. Maybe Ludacris meant it as a satire but I don’t think so. It was perfect for that era. But if I wasn’t listening to people and paying attention to pop culture and if I didn’t know about that video, or remember it, it never would have been in the movie. right now. There are times — most times actually — when you don’t use that other stuff. But you get to a point where you want to emotionally contextualize something that’s not part of the scene. In VICE, you have Christian Bale (as Cheney) meeting with George Bush when he agrees to run and they’re having a serious discussion, and Bush agrees to allow Cheney to run everything. Christian is looking very intently at Sam Rockwell (as George Bush) and that’s one level of the conversation. But we inserted did a jump cut of Bale’s character laughing at his fantastic win. It’s this humorless laugh. It just conveys so much about the Cheney character and about the situation. It could be argued that we’re leading the audience and indulging in propaganda. And honestly, I can’t dispute that. But life is propaganda. Life is political. It’s the Hegelian dialectic. It’s a struggle. Everything’s a struggle.
HULLFISH: I do not know that phrase: Hegelian dialectic.
CORWIN: Hagel was a Marxist philosopher. I’m not a Marxist, but for him, everything was always a struggle. There was always a struggle for him and out of the struggle came enlightenment. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel-dialectics/)
HULLFISH: I know The Big Short had a lot of ad lib and McKay is big on ad lib. Was there a lot of ad lib on VICE?
CORWIN: Oh totally. That’s something I had to figure out. That was one of the reasons why the note-taking process was so bitter. These actors are having such a fantastic time with Adam that they’re always trying new stuff and he’s goading them — but nicely — or he just lets them. They will try different lines or different performances and each one of these things becomes like three-dimensional chess. If you use a certain take, how does that affect the scene five cuts down the line?
HULLFISH: Absolutely. Or even another scene.
CORWIN: Another scene. Absolutely.
HULLFISH: And does that risk-taking behavior by the actors and their willingness to fail in turn inspire you as an editor to join them out on the limb?
CORWIN: Totally. But I think I think you have to give all credit to Adam McKay. I love this guy. You may have been in a place where you’re almost afraid to try things because your director will think less of you? I never feel that way with Adam. Good work doesn’t come from fear. I’m not a particularly courageous guy, but when it comes to film, I can be a lion.
HULLFISH: Yeah. Making those suggestions to a director sometimes takes guts. I just came out of a film-editing session where I had to suggest brutal cuts to my director and it was so hard to put my ego aside and make suggestions that I knew that the director would not like but COULD possibly be good for the film. He hated many of my suggestions, but some he took. I knew some of them would get a bad reaction, but without bringing them up, how do we know whether they’d work?
CORWIN: This is part of the brilliance of Adam McKay. There are scenes that are just fantastic. There was a musical number in this movie that was great.
CORWIN: Oh yes. It was a scene with young Cheney that was like 15 minutes long where they’re growing up in Casper. It was amazing! Adam can look at it very analytically after a while and say, “This isn’t advancing the story. Let’s get rid of it.” And I will fight him. I will get really upset. I’m the one that gets emotional. And he’s right. The musical number will be released. I’m sure it’ll be on a Blu-ray or on the internet. It’s really good. It just didn’t work in the context of the film. The film was just getting so congested when it needed to be light.
HULLFISH: I thought the film was a great length but I don’t know if I could have taken a 15 minute addition to the early Cheney days.
Snow Falling on Cedars took a sound designer credit. Tell me a little bit about how important sound design is to you on a film.
CORWIN: It is huge. Sound or the absence of sound is as powerful as the film itself. In both of these last two films, I was experimenting with frames of black and sound underneath.
HULLFISH: I remember that happened a few times in VICE.
CORWIN: Jean Luc Goddard made this film called Hail Mary (1985). There’s a scene where a character’s walking around a kitchen and you hear jackhammers really loud. It just makes such a strong statement. When I was working on Natural Born Killers, there were places where we wanted the sound to just cut out. He’d be talking and then the music would take over and I had a hellacious time with the first mixer doing that because he said when people are speaking you have to hear what they say. There are these archaic not-great rules that some people still adhere to. Sound has always been considered sort of a stepchild – and sound is so utterly important.
HULLFISH: It seems like you did that in The Big Short where people would be talking and you wouldn’t hear what they were actually saying — like maybe a discussion with Steve Carrel’s character? My memory on that is fuzzy.
CORWIN: Yeah. It didn’t matter sometimes when people were beating their chest, you got the point. You could just drop the sound out and put other sound in, you could put music in… you could put the sound of wind in…. Each one of those sonic options gave you a different emotional coloring as opposed to just hearing the characters talk. Sometimes in The Big Short or even in VICE where – right in the middle of a word – I cut out of the scene. You get it. Often it’s more impactful not to hear what the character is going to say.
HULLFISH: That was my next question, actually was about that cutting out mid-sentence, because I think there are at least two places in VICE where you cut mid-sentence or in the middle of a music cue, hard to the next scene.
CORWIN: It’s all just to serve the movie.
HULLFISH: I’d love to talk about that BBQ scene with Cheney and Bush eating BBQ. That was done with some contempt for continuity. I’m assuming you are with Murch and Schoonmaker and so many other editors that say that continuity can’t hold emotion or story hostage in a scene.
CORWIN: Yeah, I am. Continuity is for sissies.
HULLFISH: Joel Cox told me selects reels are for sissies.
CORWIN: Now, wait a minute!
HULLFISH: (laughs) Because you said you use selects reels sometimes. So do I.
CORWIN: Good for you. Selects reels was the way I cut film on a KEM. I grew up with film. You’d be at the Moviola. You’d make your selection at the Moviola with your grease pencil, then your assistant would tie them all together and you’d run them back and forth on the KEM . What I find — when you have selects reels — Joel knows exactly how he’s going to cut the scene. He’s probably smarter than I am, or has a way better memory. I’m always exploring the colors of a scene when I’m cutting. Sometimes – when I’m running the takes backward and forwards – I see some weird juxtapositions that can create an amazing synergy.
HULLFISH: At some point, an editor gave me a tip to just run a KEM roll in the background, even when you’re doing something else, making a phone call maybe, that if they glance up at the screen or see something out of the corner of their eye, they might find a great moment.
CORWIN: I don’t think I could do that. For me, it’s all too deliberate. I have to be looking for something. I may not know what it is that I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it. I’m not saying it’s not a good way, but for me, it’s too random.
HULLFISH: Got it. And when you when you’re doing selects reels, are you just doing pulls of interesting moments, or are you stringing line reads?
CORWIN: For sync scenes my notes become my additional selects reel, so I always have access to everything all the time. As soon as you have a select reel, the extraneous stuff is no longer there and something — like that little laugh in the Cheney scene — Bale was just laughing at some joke that Adam had made when he didn’t think they were actually rolling, so that would have been cut out. It wouldn’t have been in a select reel. I make notes. I have my in and out timecode numbers and my silly colored pens. I still end up looking at everything a million times anyway.
Now when it comes to MOS, that’s a different story. I’m able to go through and make selects rolls, but generally, I’ll put them together myself.
HULLFISH: When you’re taking those notes, are you finding that WRITING them is more important than actually going back and referring to them later? Or are you regularly referencing them?
CORWIN: I really really really need my notes. But writing them definitely commits them to your brain.
HULLFISH: I read this great book about psychology and the way your brain works and it posited that when you make notes like that you’re almost outsourcing your brain. In other words your brain is in your skull and it’s the things you think about, but now the notes themselves are part of your brain. It’s in a book called “Supersizing the Mind.” (https://www.amazon.com/Supersizing-Mind-Embodiment-Cognitive-Philosophy/dp/0199773688.)
CORWIN: That’s really something.
HULLFISH: It’s not that your brain is outside your body in an existential way, but that the world around it and the way you organize the world around you — becomes part of your mind. For editors it has huge ramifications of how do you organize? How do you organize inside of a bin? I got turned onto that from a video from This Guy Edits — Sven Pape — and an interview he did with Dr. Karen Pearlman.
When you’re not cutting features, you’re editing spots at your shop in LA called Lost Planet, right? How long have you had Lost Planet?
CORWIN: Going on 30 years. Spots keep me sharp. I’m so depleted after I finish a film. I go cut some commercials and it re-patterns my brain. It’s a really healthy thing. Plus, I like the interaction with some of the nutty people in advertising.
HULLFISH: I actually saw an interview with you that you did for The Big Short, and you talked about communicating with the composer and telling him what you want to feel in a scene. Is that common for you? That seems partially like editor’s territory and partially like director’s territory. I’ve also interviewed composers and some feel like that’s exclusively their domain. Do you feel like that’s your place? That you’re in your own lane making those suggestions?
CORWIN: Adam introduced the composer, Nicholas Britell, to me. He just scored Beale Street. He scored this film. He scored The Big Short. He did Moonlight. The guy really gets it and the way I love to work with him — and the way I like to work with sound designers too — is I show him a scene and he brings his computer and he just outputs some sound. Nick’s amazing He edits the film with music. We’re like a couple of jazz musicians riffing on the same theme.
HULLFISH: “Trading fours.” That’s kind of a jazz term for that… each musician just riffing for four bars before handing off to the next guy, then circling back.
CORWIN: That’s exactly how we work. I’ve never worked with anyone like this but I never want to work any other way.
HULLFISH: That’s awesome. And he has a place at Lost Planet?
CORWIN: There’s a sound room here and he brings a keyboard in. He’s a New York guy, so when he’s in LA, he can work here when he needs to.
HULLFISH: Did you cut VICE at Lost Planet?
CORWIN: I started by VICE at Lost Planet because they didn’t have any room at Sony for us. But then when the rooms opened up we moved over to Sony.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming you’re not a proponent of “editing is the invisible art.”
CORWIN: Not as a rule. But it can be.
HULLFISH: Do you have a favorite scene or a scene that you struggled over on VICE that eventually came together really well?
CORWIN: It was a tough movie to cut. It was more the giant arc of the film. I mean, we were covering 50 some odd years of the man’s life. Especially when you’re dealing with a living person, to make a dramatic arc — to give a character a traditional dramatic arc — would be a lie. That’s one of my huge, huge problems with most biopics. You know Robert McKee?
HULLFISH: Yeah… screenwriting guru. He wrote “Story.”
CORWIN: Yeah. I just think that storytelling formulas can sometimes be really detrimental. I didn’t have access to Dick Cheney. I studied as much as I could about him. I read as much as I could. I just watched how he breathed. To know what lurks inside of a man, it’s imponderable and a lot of it is an interpretation, but I would never foist an internal life on someone that wasn’t real. I’d be doing Dick Cheney a disservice and the viewers a disservice. I figure that I owe every character as much truthfulness as I could muster. I tried to treat him as respectfully as I could.
HULLFISH: I have totally enjoyed this conversation. I really appreciate your time today.
CORWIN: Thank you so much.
HULLFISH: It was wonderful talking to you. Have a great day.
CORWIN: It was such a pleasure. Take care.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.