Art of the Cut: All-Star Comedy “Don’t Look Up” Pulls No Punchlines

Today we’re speaking with multi-Oscar nominee Hank Corwin, ACE about editing Adam McKay’s film, Don’t Look Up.

Hank’s been winning editing awards for 25 years. He was nominated for an ACE Eddie for editing The Horse Whisperer. He won or was nominated for many awards for his editing on The Tree of Life. He was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA and won an ACE Eddie for his brilliant work on The Big Short. And was nominated for an Oscar and an ACE Eddie and won a BAFTA for his editing of the movie Vice. I last interviewed him ahead of that win in 2019.

His other work includes The Legend of Bagger Vance, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers, in addition to working as an additional editor on films like JFK, Public Enemies, Moneyball, and Ad Astra.

Listen as you read…

CORWIN: I loved making this particular movie. I always love the last movie I work on, but I really love this one. Have you had a chance to see it?

HULLFISH: Absolutely. I loved it.

CORWIN: Thank you.

HULLFISH: I want to start out talking a little bit about some things that I saw in the movie that I just loved. You don’t start this movie about this gigantic earth-shattering event with a huge exterior of the telescope. That would be the obvious way to go, right? You went small, which I love. Talk to me a little bit about those choices.

CORWIN: They say God is in the details. This is a movie about an unimaginable catastrophe and it starts with the sound of a tea kettle. Then, we go to just a tiny shot of hot water being poured into a cup. I just love the intimacy.

HULLFISH: The other thing that I noticed about the beginning is that there’s no score. You just use sound effects.

CORWIN: I’m so glad that you picked up on that, Steve. Absolutely. There’s no music and no narration. It was just natural and it just went on and on. Even the score that starts coming in is almost subliminal. I never liked score that motivates your feelings.

I try to use score as being almost a component of the picture. I try to cut this thing like a collage. The whole picture is a collage and the music has the same value as the picture in that way.

For the opening, I could have had this grandiose discovery and I just love the intimacy of it and how personal it was. It’s the only time Jennifer Lawrence’s character is happy in the entire movie. It was joyful and I just wanted to internalize it for her.

HULLFISH: I love that. My note on that was, “The score creeps in as realization dawns.” Talk to me about deciding when to have that cue start. Was there something in her face or in her eyes that made you think, “This is when she realizes.”

CORWIN: It actually starts very quietly under the telescope when the laser sight is turned on into the stars. And then we bring it up and I love the cacophony of sounds. She’s singing a Wu-Tang song, I’ve got the score fighting it, and it’s this synergistic thing.

Nicholas Brittell’s score is part of what made her even a little more human and that fighting of her singing in the score.

HULLFISH: Another thing that I loved is that when she’s realizing something bad is gonna happen, she goes to her professor to talk about it and when his realization happens, he just says, “Kate, you stay,” and you cut to black. Talk to me about that decision. Is there just no other point to have another shot? Did you want to have a space before you went to the next scene?

CORWIN: It’s interesting because I certainly had other shots, but it’s almost like using phrases as opposed to sentences.

HULLFISH: That reminds me of an interview I did with a documentary editor who said that the narration in the documentary had to be haiku. I thought that was perfect. It’s not a big elaborate poem. It’s quick, short thoughts.

CORWIN: I totally respect that. Years ago, when I was just starting out in my early twenties I worked for this commercial film editor on film at the time, and I would reconstitute his trims. Say, if it was a cereal commercial, the seminal part of the shot might be where the guy is bringing the spoon up to his mouth, and so I would splice the piece before where he’s thinking about it or where he doesn’t know the camera’s on him, or afterwards where he’s feeling satisfied. None of this is what a normal editor would want to use.

What I found when I joined these shots is that it was another way of communicating. It became this new language for me in editorial.

Unbeknownst to me, German impressionists were doing it in the twenties, but I didn’t know that. I always try to work with subtext as we’ve discussed, and I find that sometimes the purest form of communication on film is to have an action and to have light, and then to have the absence of light. That’s what the cut to black does. If you were eating sushi, it would be the ginger that clears your palate.

That’s what the cut to black does. If you were eating sushi, it would be the ginger that clears your palate.

HULLFISH: Speaking about those kinds of phrases, on the revelation of what’s about to happen to the government when they call the head of NASA, you start doing jump cuts which we have not seen up until now. There’s also flash forwards and flashbacks. Talk to me a little bit about the decision to use those.

CORWIN: What I wanted to do is create this sense of discomfort. We’ve been almost classical before that in the editorial, and I wanted to disrupt brain chemistry. I think we’re now visually sophisticated enough to be viewing certain scenes in different times and in different realities. So, I figured by doing that, not only would I be able to move through something faster, but I was making the tension much more apparent. It was a device that I used just to heighten the tension and the anxiety.

HULLFISH: I totally get that. There’s that moment where Leo DiCaprio’s character yells at the head of NASA and it cuts to a shot of the plane on the runway. You definitely feel that. I love those choices. They’re bold and it makes the movie really interesting. As you said, it changes your brain chemistry.

CORWIN: Absolutely. In the last two reels of the film, the last 20 minutes, it becomes very contemplative, beautiful, and terrifying. In order to make those really work, I just had to build the anxiety and the acceleration of what was going on in order to be able to have that release when they discovered the comet in the night sky.

When I cut these things—and you and I have discussed this before—I liken it to cutting in a collage form as opposed to a montage. I may use a sound or an image that won’t have resonance for another five minutes, 20 minutes, or even half an hour later.

So, it becomes a question of tone, it’s like playing this crazy chess game when it’s in different dimensions. You’re constantly refining and revising.

HULLFISH: As you were saying, some of the stuff that you were doing was allowing you to jump forward and accelerate the pace, but you also held on things like the moment when they stepped off the plane in DC, right? You could’ve just cut it so that the plane hits the skids and the next thing you know they’re in an office someplace, but there’s this moment of realization and trepidation. Why hold on that section of them getting off that gigantic plane?

CORWIN: Throughout the film, I have moments where we freeze. They almost become postcards of a reality, just a scrapbook that gets launched into the universe of what humans were like. It’s separate moments either when they were really anxious, they were very loving, and very joyful in the launch. We have moments where I freeze in moments of great joy. I wanted to have this catalog of emotion told in these stills.

I find stills coming off of a moving image can be extremely powerful, especially as an editor. If you don’t just freeze a frame but you jump ahead even ten frames, it’s jarring to the eye. It’s a matter of affecting brain chemistry and eye chemistry

HULLFISH: Was the cut from the freeze frame to the opening credits scripted or was that something that you guys found in the edit?

CORWIN: I gave all credit to Adam McKay. He’s the guy that came up with the credits in the middle of Vice. That’s something I really want to emphasize. The guy is the best partner I could have. Every editor should have an Adam McKay in their life, at least once.

Every editor should have an Adam McKay in their life, at least once.

HULLFISH: Hopefully he says the same about you [laughs]. Is there an advantage or a difficulty in working with a director that has also written the screenplay?

CORWIN: No because he’s very clear. Sometimes he’s so clear that it’s a little uncanny. I can’t do my voodoo moves on the guy because he knows what he wants. He wrote it. It’s wonderful because then whenever I’m cutting, I love just talking metaphorically with the director about what he’s trying to say.

Adam just knows exactly what it is that he wants on so many different levels. At least with Adam, I’ve had nothing but… not an easy time because this was a challenging movie to cut, but a very rewarding time.

HULLFISH: How does he communicate with you? Is it more like an actor where he gives you notes of, “I want this flatter,” or, “Here’s your motivation”?

CORWIN: He’s sitting behind me. He grunts and throws a Nicorette at me. Honestly, it’s actually very Socratic. We ask each other questions. Again, he’s sucking on his Nicorettes because he’s trying to quit smoking always. We just get into it.

He’s sitting behind me. He grunts and throws a Nicorette at me.

Sometimes, say, if I’m looking for a piece of music, we’ll just jump onto his iPhone and find some music. More often than you’d expect, he’s right. I’ve seen him grow as a filmmaker. He’s really something.

Before, he was using comedy that was very narrative, and I’ve been trying to work with him to make it much more metaphorical and he’s just become such a great filmmaker. I noticed that he’s truly one of the greatest filmmakers I’ve ever worked with.

HULLFISH: That’s a wonderful compliment. Let’s talk about this scene where Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, and a couple of other people are waiting around for the president to grant them an audience. That’s pretty obvious to any editor to ask, “Why would you be in that scene and drag it out?” You’re trying to make a point and increase the tension. How do you decide when enough is enough?

CORWIN: Adam told me initially—it’s one of the few times he became prescriptive—he said, “I want the scene to be really long.” I said, “Adam, it’s going to be boring,” and he told me, “Well, I want people to feel boredom.” I tried to explain to him that’s not the right kind of boredom. So, we started out by cutting the scene very long and it was boring. Ultimately, he saw the error of his ways.

At least with the way I cut, there’s no one way. So we experimented. We had much more material. Everyone’s improvising. You’ve got all of these characters who are some of the great living actors, so I have plenty of material. It just became an exercise in letting go of great moments. Each time I got rid of something, it was like a little death.

This evolves into a longer conversation about how we shot this film and how the actors improvised. Adam gives them great freedom. Obviously, they cover a script, but they’re all fantastic. They don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of each other.

Say, the first Oval Office scene. You had these great actors in a room for two days, and they’re running between four and six cameras. You just have to ascertain what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. Ultimately, I didn’t know until my cut would be an hour down the line. Either, we started feeling fatigue or things felt a little bit too light or slapstick even. Then, if we made the film too dark, it would really resonate throughout and then the film would become really operatic.

At one time, I wanted to make an opera out of this thing because I’m not a funny guy, I don’t come from the funny world, and I and Nicholas Britell wanted to make it into an opera because it’s a great tragedy.

HULLFISH: Same script, same performances, but just different choices of tone, right?

CORWIN: Absolutely. The pursuit of tone was perhaps the most difficult part of cutting this film along with knowing that you wouldn’t know how the tone was really working until you were at the end of the film. It became a laborious process. There were times when it became a little bit overwhelming for me as an editor.

HULLFISH: I’m sure. Especially when talking about the amount of cameras and footage, and like you said, the choices that you have to make in tone because you can take the film in a totally different direction, but then how do you get it back?

CORWIN: Well, I think one of Adam’s comedies, he cut a completely alternate version of the picture. I think it was Talladega Nights, but I’m not sure. So, he shoots that much material. He engenders such wonderful feelings with his actors and such loving trust that they feel very comfortable giving performances that perhaps they might not to other directors.

HULLFISH: What are the challenges of working with improvised material?

CORWIN: Well, with these actors, there’s such a plethora and gamut of performances. You may choose a piece of improv and you’re not going to know that it’s not working until you’re into the film for another 35 minutes. So, you’re constantly refining and fine tuning the tone and the emotional colors of the film. Again, in that first Oval Office scene, I initially cut a hilarious scene that was 16 minutes long. It was fantastic, but it was so funny that it lost its credibility.

One of the fine lines that we had to walk was just making these performances real enough so that conceivably these things could be happening. People could be saying these things. Because if performances became too broad, I think we’d lose the movie, especially with Jonah [Hill]. The guy just breeds comedy. Also, he affected Meryl [Streep]. She had a hard time keeping a straight face sometimes.

HULLFISH: Then she probably wants to improvise and be funny too.

With great regularity a director rips out the heart of their editor, and he was no exception.

CORWIN: Absolutely. I’m sure for her it was like this whole existential plight of, “This is what it’s come down to. I’m playing the president of the United States, Jonah Hill is my son, and I’ve got to make this thing seem somewhat real.” McKay comes in, who truly is the king of comedy, and he was like Attila the Hun having me strip out funny moments. With great regularity a director rips out the heart of their editor, and he was no exception.

HULLFISH: I thought you were going to say “rips out the heart of the film,” but no, rips out the heart of the editor.

CORWIN: I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it’s a pretty easy target. Again, I’ve got my subtext. In my subtext, this thing isn’t a comedy. Nobody will ever know that except the bunch of nerdy editors that listen to this podcast.

HULLFISH: There’s a liberal use of insert shots. A lot of times with maybe a less accomplished director, a cheaper budget, or a less accomplished editor, you’d see those insert shots because the thinking is, “I need to cover something that I can’t cover because of continuity or something.” But you’ve got six cameras running, great actors, and two days’ worth of performance so there’s no need to cut to those unless it’s a conscious decision to make a statement.

Continuity’s for sissies.

CORWIN: For sure. I’ve got continuity up the ass really. I’ve told you that continuity’s for sissies anyway. I hate continuity.

HULLFISH: You and Thelma [Schoonmaker] and about a hundred other editors that I know.

One of the other moments that I really loved was when Jennifer’s boyfriend understands what’s about to happen. He’s out on the street of New York, they’re walking, and you cut to the inside of a restaurant looking back out and the sound goes away.

CORWIN: I will take full credit for that. You go inside and you’re hearing muzak. It’s the way the world is. What I’m trying to do is show this film in a very experiential way. We’re observing them. It could be someone else observing them. It could be them observing each other or even themselves. I just thought it was a playful way to just show how he’s melting down on the street and inside it’s this insipid little moment. I just love that because that’s the way life is.

HULLFISH: You talked about collage as opposed to montage. There are a bunch of shots at various moments throughout the film where you cut to nature. Talk to me about the purpose of those and why you use them?

CORWIN: Truth is always like this tiny flow into this massive river of media. It’s Hades. It’s the river Styx. It’s a river of shit, if you were into Dante. The truth exists there somewhere. It goes out and we try to show all the social media.

I think we represented it pretty well, but ultimately for me, I started feeling really unclean. As someone who was putting this together, I thought that I had to go back to these little touchstones of truth. When you see single-celled organisms moving around, there’s no bullshit there. They just are. When an ocean wave is pounding a rock, it just is. There’s no interpretation. There’s no bullshit.

Then, ultimately, I tried to show living organisms. We’re all guided by our limbic brains where you have these subconscious motivations. You can have a human mother with a baby, and you can have a hippo with a baby; it’s the same drive. I think in order to articulate it, I just had to show different species. They become metaphors for us and for this overarching intelligence.

HULLFISH: I felt like it was showing evolution, the end of the world, and extinction.

CORWIN: Again, we have different layers of reality. That is absolutely what I was trying to show

HULLFISH: As far as pacing, were there other story moments where you felt like you needed to get to a certain point in the movie sooner? Were there sections of the movie that felt too long or too short?

CORWIN: We had a number of those sections, and you couldn’t really tell until the film was together. Going to the very first launch, you’re showing Leonardo’s character on the ascendancy. He’s becoming a man full of himself and he’s becoming an emperor. Then, at the same time, you’re showing Jennifer Lawrence who represents the truth, reality, and humaneness. She’s getting beaten up. I was playing with that arc.

Obviously, these guys are such fantastic actors. I had these moments go on much longer and they were much more poignant, but I found that by the time we get to the first launch, the little girl is saying the 23rd psalm, it flattened the new chapter. I didn’t know this for a couple months. I just knew that they should be propulsive and everything is feeling very slowed down, so there’s something wrong here. I had to go back and just keep pulling stuff out. Obviously, I worked very closely with Adam.

Everything is feeling very slowed down, so there’s something wrong here.

HULLFISH: There’s a really interesting moment in the hotel hallway with Leo and the score is just screaming along, or it might be a music drop. Then, when they talk, the music literally cuts out and cuts back in. I think she says, “Tell me we’re all gonna die.”

CORWIN: Right. “Tell me we’re all gonna die.” He’s a scientist from Lansing, Michigan. He’s in over his head, and so ultimately he says, “We’re all going to die.” Then she reacts and he says, “Oh my God.” I just wanted to clear that out just to show the comedy and the delicateness of their relationship.

The music and the absence of music became a device to accentuate that because Adam years ago told me that he hated fart jokes. He’s a consummate comic. Fart jokes are too easy. I thought he might feel the same way, but I got it past him.

HULLFISH: One of the things I thought was really interesting was that there are very few indications of how much time we have left.

CORWIN: We didn’t want to do that. You have her diet app and I think we go to it once or twice. When you go back to the natural world with the people crossing the street in Japan, the Shibuya district, and the insects, in a way that shows a passage of time without having to be too obvious.

I think everybody has their own separate rhythms. I don’t want to enforce it with something that’s artificial like that. It’s not truthful. I thought the story and the communication was so much bigger than that. That’s like literal continuity and I just didn’t want to go there.

HULLFISH: There’s an interesting scene in a TV studio and Leo is just losing it. He is freaking out and there’s reverb on his voice. It sounds like he’s in an echo-y room. Is that something that was applied? Did you feel like it was needed? Did they record it that way intentionally or was that something added?

CORWIN: Our mixer, Chris Scarabosio, put it in just to sharpen the moment. It’s very subtle. It was a great idea. I hadn’t thought of it, and it worked really well.

HULLFISH: That scene seemed like Sidney Lumet’s Network. It had that moment to it. Did you guys think about that or watch Network?

CORWIN: Obviously, the film is similar to Network and the film is similar to Dr. Strangelove, but not exactly the same as either of them. It’s a great compliment to be compared to those scenes as long as people think we did a good job because those two films are very high bars.

HULLFISH: In the movie there’s a point where the president says, “I have to tell the people something.” So they’re planning it out and you’re intercutting between the plan and the actual delivery, going back and forth. Was that as scripted or something you found in the edit?

CORWIN: Adam did most of that and I thought it worked really well. It became a comedic device. There would be this repetitive nature when the president or her son would be saying something and then we’d go onto the battleship and Ron Perlman would be repeating it. It was just a fantastic device. From there, it was that anxiety-inducing editorial that launches us into the news and social media montage and collages.

HULLFISH: You had choices to do time jumps. I remember when Leo’s on the set of The Rip with Dr. Mindy, he’s being asked a question and you cut to him getting made up for the interview and then cut back to him on set. Talk to me about the reason for doing that. Why would you cut backwards in time and then come back to where you were?

CORWIN: I found that if you look at his expression, it’s so wise, so tragic, and so world-weary. He’s contemplating what he’s got to do. I just thought it was a great way to keep reminding the viewer. As opposed to watching him when he goes into his rant, it becomes much more experiential when you’re just looking at this close-up where the guy’s just so full of tragedy and sadness.

HULLFISH: I want to talk about maintaining energy, especially between scenes and cutting from one scene to another. You do these hard cuts in the middle of a conversation or a song that you know is going on in the scene. Instead of waiting for someone to finish their sentence or finish a thought, you cut in the middle of the song or conversation to go to the next scene.

CORWIN: You traditionally have scenes that have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I find that many times you don’t need the beginning or the ending because that’s just the way life is.

You walk into a room and people are in the middle of a conversation, or you walk out of a room and you don’t hear the end of it, but you’re thinking about it. Sometimes you almost even want to go back into the room because you might’ve missed something. I think it’s a very muscular way to cut: to pull scenes forward.

What I’d love to do is have a really lyrical film and have moments like that. This isn’t exactly lyrical until the ending. There are some wonderful filmic devices that you can use that I’d love to try in new forms.

HULLFISH: The film ends beautifully. It’s a wonderful tonal moment, but very different from a lot of the rest of the film. How did you get to that point of switching to this tonal point in the film at the end?

CORWIN: It’s funny, Steve, because that’s the way I always saw the film. That was the film for me. I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I knew after all the bathos, the mirth, and the frivolity that’s where I wanted to go. It was the most natural thing for me. It became operatic and just so poignant. Again, it was the payoff for everything else.

HULLFISH: Did it require a change or some kind of a transition?

CORWIN: The transition actually came when they saw the comet in the night sky for the first time. The music becomes a mixing of George Strait and this track that Nicholas made that was almost liturgical, and I mixed them together. It became haunting and almost quasi-religious. That’s where the movie changed. By the time we got to the end of the film, it was as it should be.

HULLFISH: Hank, thank you so much for a brilliant discussion. I really love hearing your insights into editing.

CORWIN: Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure, Steve.

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.

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