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‘Vice’ Editor on Why It Was ‘One of the Toughest Movies’ He’s Ever Worked On

Hank Corwin has worked with some of film’s most iconic directors — Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson and Terrence Malick. He’s frequently edited earnest dramas, like Stone’s “Nixon” and Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

But his two latest feature outings — Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” released in 2015, and the Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” a Christmas release from Annapurna, took a more ironic approach to storytelling. 

Corwin was surprised three years ago when his agent sent him the script for “The Big Short” because, he says, “McKay is comedy, and if you look at my work, I’m not exactly a comedy editor.” It turned out that McKay was looking for a replacement editor because the first individual attached to the film wasn’t working out. Corwin loved the script, started cutting, and he and McKay hit it off. The movie went on to earn him an Oscar nomination for editing. 

The two also talked about McKay’s upcoming Cheney film, which Corwin thought would be a challenging project, partly because it focused on a living person. Nonetheless, he held out to work with the director again. “I just trust Adam,” he says.

After the project got under way, the duo collaborated in the editing suite to find the story’s emotions and “human arcs.” The result: a film that was two and a half hours long, says Corwin, “which was much more complex than what we ended up with. Initially there was a childhood section that was just lovely, and a fun musical sequence, all shot and cut, but they congested the flow of the movie. It was so difficult to give them up, but then one day we just let them go.”

Vice” was shot mostly in Southern California; the music and post work took place in London, where composer Nicholas Britell and music editor John Finklea traveled to record the score; and at Skywalker Ranch just north of San Francisco, where Corwin mixed the music to picture. The editing itself was done at Sony Pictures on Avid systems and lasted just over 10 months. 

“‘Vice’ was one of the toughest movies I’ve ever worked on.” Corwin says. “Every time we tried to editorialize, the film would spit it out. We ended up with a film I’m very proud of.”

Working with McKay, as with all directors, was a unique experience. “They’re all different,” notes Corwin. “Oliver [Stone] was fearless, editorially. He wanted to editorialize more than any of the others. For him, the edit was inherently muscular.”

Redford, in Corwin’s words, was more “relaxed,” although he sometimes needed persuasion. “I showed him a scene on ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s a jump cut, an accepted convention.’ He said, ‘Not on my film.’ It became a bit of a struggle, but the jump cut stayed.”

And Malick is “brilliant,” per Corwin. “With Terry, it’s an exercise in letting go of your conscious editorial mind. He saw God and truth in randomness.”

When asked about the hardest part of being an editor, Corwin points to screening all the footage. “There’s so much potential in a piece of film,” he says. “I go through every single take and make copious notes. Once I have everything screened and annotated, the cutting itself goes quite quickly.” 

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