From his early collaborations with Oliver Stone on Natural Born Killers and Nixon, to his work with Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, Song to Song), to his Oscar-nominated outings with Adam McKay, editor Hank Corwin has never shied away from a challenge, finding one of his biggest, as he sought to tackle the enigmatic Dick Cheney with Vice.
Up for eight Oscars, McKay’s latest follows Cheney and his wife Lynne on a remarkable journey, charting his path from drunken mess to Halliburton CEO to a bureaucratic Washington insider, who found immeasurable power as a puller of the puppet strings, as George W. Bush’s VP. Like McKay’s The Big Short, for which Corwin received his first nod, Vice takes every imaginable risk, compressing half a century of story and complex ideas into visceral, potent cinema.
After his time on the former film—which investigated the 2007-2008 housing crisis—Corwin was “prepared to be unprepared” for Vice. With his latest effort, the editor needed to find a way to “relate to the unrelatable,” to a man who prefers to remain in the shadows. Yanking gorgeous scenes (including an all-out musical number) that couldn’t jibe with the final film, Corwin made his peace with that, while confronting another towering performance by Christian Bale, an actor who, during the course of this project, disappeared completely.
What were your first impressions when Adam McKay brought you the script for Vice?
Just on the face of it, doing a film about Dick Cheney was not anything I really had in mind. But when Adam started talking about it, I could almost visualize it.
What potential did you see in this project that got you excited about it?
For me, because I’m not necessarily the most political guy out there, I just saw it as this giant film challenge. Because there was so much you couldn’t know about the real Dick Cheney. So much of film story structure, and the way it’s taught—the Robert McKee kind of stuff—you have dramatic arcs, and you have storylines. And to me, that just wasn’t valid. It’s almost like we had to come up with a new way to tell a story.
It was sort of like it wasn’t film narrative, and it wasn’t reportage. I watched a lot of stuff of Dick Cheney; I watched how he breathed, how he spoke, how he laughed. I’ve worked on films with Christian a number of times, and I thought that maybe—I know this sounds kind of nuts—we would try to go for this sort of emotional, everyman realism. I didn’t want to make this bullsh*t internal narrative because it wouldn’t be truthful. What’s the point? I tried to find things with both Christian and Amy [Adams], all of the characters actually, where I as a viewer and an editor could relate on a human level.
I’ve been slammed, as an editor, for bouncing around in the film. But what I was trying to do…[For example], you’d have a scene where Colin Powell [played by Tyler Perry] would address the United Nations, and it’s a tragedy on a huge scale, and then I just jumped to this little scene where Dick and his children and grandchildren are sitting around the table, talking about American Idol. Juxtaposed, those two scenes said so much, and that’s what excited me about doing this movie.
In your work with McKay so far, you’ve both demonstrated a knack for compressing huge swaths of history and big ideas into comprehensive, compelling films, which entertain and edify at the same time. With Vice, what was the key to achieving that?
It really came down to this whole concept of emotional realism. You could almost follow a thread in Christian Bale’s performance. There were over 150 speaking parts in this crazy movie, and ultimately, I just tried to distill it for myself to a very human level. Then, it just became easier, because it’s really important to contextualize these kinds of movies. You have to know the history; you have to know the music of the times. You just have to try to educate yourself as much in the culture of the times, into the world when this is happening, and just before this is happening. So, it became this wonderful encyclopedia of the American empire.
You seem to have a penchant for visceral cinema, with fast-paced, fine-tuned cuts. How much raw material were you working with here—in terms of original footage and archival material—and how did you go about synthesizing it?
Well, Adam’s script was pretty unbelievable. It was phantasmagoric; it had so many moments of the times, and I spent a couple of months just looking for stock footage, looking again at what was going on, listening to what music was being played. I made myself libraries of cultural stuff, which for the most part, I didn’t end up using, because the film was so complete.
If I can jump back to The Big Short, there was an area where the Bale character’s over at Goldman Sachs, and they think they’re pulling the wool over his eyes, when he’s pulling the wool over their eyes. I cut it to this Ludacris track, which is kind of fantastic. It drives the emotion of the picture along, and it’s also a really truthful, valid part of the culture. So, I tried to do the same thing, in a more subtle way. We have all the eras in this film, and plus, we were blessed with having Nick Britell doing a crazy wonderful score.
Britell has told me that you collaborate very closely with him and McKay in crafting music, and its relation to these films. McKay is one of a number of prominent filmmakers right now who are thinking about music with their films from the word go.
Nick and Adam are both really dear friends. Sometimes with Nick, I would show him scenes; not even scenes. I’d show him takes, just film clips. I’d tell him what I wanted to feel and where I was taking it, and then he might play a tone on his computer. Then, he had a keyboard right there, and in a way, we became like jazz musicians. You’d have two shots cut together, and he would give me something, and it would make it synergistic. It would be even bigger, and then Adam would come in. Sometimes, Nick would go really far afield, or I would go far afield, and Adam would be like a conductor. It was very similar to this half-baked orchestra.
In both The Big Short and Vice, McKay has taken big swings, using clever metaphors or figurative devices to take his stories to a different place. Here, you had Bale and Adams speaking in Shakespearean sonnets, from their bed, and other scenes that gave the film unexpected colors. How did you work through scenes like that, which do away with the internal logic of conventional dramas?
The thing is, you almost have to look at those areas as working the way that Margot Robbie in the bathtub did in The Big Short. The Shakespeare was a way that Adam wrote to be able to communicate their internal lives as much as we could without making it into a fabrication. Honestly, it was really hard to make that stuff work. For the longest time, it just didn’t hold together.
I’d heard that the Shakespeare scene was cut out of the film for a long time, as the edit took shape.
It was cut out, put in, cut out. I believe it was the last week before we locked, and Adam and I just sort of looked at each other and said, “Let’s put Shakespeare back in.” And it works. That’s the thing. These damn films take on lives of their own. You can screen them as many times as you want, but when they get out into the world, they take on their own life. When I’m cutting, the film is mine, and then it’s mine and Nick’s, and then it’s mine and Nick’s and Adam’s. Obviously, it’s really all Adam’s, but then when the film comes out, it’s none of ours. It’s either going to live, or die.
So there was a lot of testing throughout the process of cutting Vice, and a number of different iterations of this movie?
Yeah. Adam comes from an improv world, [where] he loves to screen films for audiences, and he doesn’t look at cards. He just wants to feel the way an audience is reacting. It’s crazy. For me, working with the directors I’ve worked with, it’s always been an anathema. Everyone hated these screenings. I mean, I felt like crying sometimes, because Adam just loved these screenings. I come from a place where I hate them, but they were very helpful. I learned a lot just by seeing audience members reacting, and ultimately, they gave us the courage to put Shakespeare back in.
Having scenes cut from a film is par for the course, but those that were cut from Vice sound remarkable—particularly, a full-fledged musical number crafted for it.
In most films, you have shots, sometimes scenes, that don’t make [it], that don’t live. Adam had written this incredible musical scene. Nick wrote a beautiful piece of music; Nick and Adam did the lyrics. We had the choreographer for Hamilton doing the choreography. Basically, it’s a scene which happens in the congressional cafeteria, and it is wild. Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes was the singer, and you had 50 people dancing. Christian Bale and Steve Carell are walking through, and Carell is giving Bale life lessons, explaining the rules of the road.
What we found was that the scene by itself was fantastic, just a blast to watch. But when we put it in, it was a redundancy. We’d already had these same life lessons, so it would weigh the film down in a place where it had to be sprightly, where it had to move. So, that was a very painful thing to have to pull out, and to Adam’s credit, I fought him. I really wanted it, and Adam was like Attila the Hun. He pulled it out, and he was right.
You mentioned your various collaborations with Bale. What is it like seeing the first rushes on a project with actors of his caliber? Could you reflect on the scene early on, where Adams’ Lynne chastises a young Dick, leading him down the path to becoming who he was?
For the kind of editing I do, I’m always looking to see where an actor slips out of character. I’m always looking to find human moments, and because Adam shoots film, I’m trying to find flash frames where I can step print them, and make this weird ghost, that’s this duality. It’s the real actor, and then the character.
For what I do and the way I work, I really comb through my dailies, but it’s like Christian became Dick Cheney. I couldn’t find Christian Bale. So, that bastard was actually really tough to cut. It was really something because for me, he became Dick Cheney, and then I felt a real responsibility, both to Christian and to Dick Cheney, [to be as] truthful as I possibly could. Because again, Christian embodied the character. He wasn’t acting, so in the scene you’re talking about, where Amy’s character chastises him, I don’t know if you noticed, but there were flies in the room. It was humbling, because I really felt like I was a voyeur, watching two real characters involved in their lives. This rarely happens in any film I’ve ever cut. On a Terrence Malick film called The New World, Christian played John Rolfe, an English nobleman, and it was the same thing, but a completely different character.
Could you expand on the way you work through structure and rhythm in the films you cut? Does each come with its own shape? With a project like Vice, are you finding your way through it, one cut at a time?
The thing is, I don’t believe in the sanctity of a linear take of film. I remember I worked on a few films with some older editors, and they would be upset when I did a jump cut. I mean, I have a very short attention span, and when something rings false, I feel it very acutely. So, I was never burdened with certain filmic editorial rules.
Viceis a film that takes risks. What was the biggest risk you took with your work here?
Honestly, there were so many moments. It became like a Socratic academy with Adam, Nick, myself, Jeremy [Kleiner] and Dede [Gardner], the producers. When we put Christian at the very end, addressing camera, that was such a huge jump. There were a lot of discussions about that; we screened it with it and without it, and I was a huge proponent to have it there at the back end.
Was that moment scripted?
No, it wasn’t ever really scripted. What happened was that Adam and Christian were on set, and Christian just came up to Adam and said, “I think that Dick should have his say.” So,we have this incredible scene, and it can be interpreted in a few different ways.