“I Find that God is in the Mistakes, I’m Finding Moments Where the Actors Don’t Know the Camera’s on Them”: Hank Corwin on Editing Don’t Look Up
Not even an extinction level event can upset the ruling elite in Don’t Look Up, an apocalyptic sci-fi comedy drama from writer and director Adam McKay. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Meryl Streep, the movie examines how scientists, politicians, journalists, and the public at large react to news of a catastrophe about to strike.
This is the third collaboration between McKay and editor Hank Corwin, ACE, after The Big Short and Vice. A BAFTA Award-winner, Corwin has worked with Oliver Stone, Terrence Malick, Robert Redford, and other directors. He spoke with Filmmaker on Zoom.
Filmmaker: When did you start working on the project?
Corwin: I started getting dailies late in November of last year. They were shooting in Boston and I was cutting above my garage in California. It was the height of the pandemic, so I had no contact with humanity other than my lovely wife and my dog.
Filmmaker: But you had read the script?
Corwin: Yes, I had seen the script, but because the world kept getting more and more absurd, he was constantly updating it. Parts of it almost became blueprints.
This film truly is about the world and the universe, and he’s shooting people standing six feet apart. We’ve got gigantic space launches where he had 20 people standing on a freezing beach on Cape Cod, and I’ve got to make a scene out of it.
Filmmaker: Are you assembling all along?
Corwin: Yeah, that’s how I like to work. Since this is our third movie, Adam pretty much trusts me, so I was building my assembly while he was shooting.
Filmmaker: Did you always intend to incorporate stock footage, wildlife photography, into the movie?
Corwin: Right from the beginning. This was a film about communication, about truth and truthfulness. The thing is, it could spin off, become almost too cynical. I wanted to show what was for me the ultimate truth, the state of nature. If you have an ocean pounding on a rock, there’s no interpretation there, it just is. If you have a bee collecting pollen, it is just that. I needed that kind of imagery to work in counterpoint to the absurdity of what was going on in the film.
Filmmaker: We may not interpret wildlife footage, but once you put shots together we provide a narrative for them. You have one sequence that goes: asteroid, ocean waves, a reptile, a hummingbird, workers collecting garbage.
Corwin: The hummingbird to the garbage, this is an editorial statement [laughing]. That being said, the hummingbird, while it can be construed many different ways, is ultimately just a hummingbird collecting nectar.
Filmmaker: Did you have the freedom to select the footage yourself?
Corwin: Adam did have input, but I would assemble things on my own. I tried to ground the film with nature, I wasn’t making any statements. Okay, with the shot of the hippopotamuses — there’s this limbic behavior that mammals have, that insects have, that motivates a mother’s desire to care for its her child, her baby, or causes a bee to pollinate. The desire to propagate and the desire to congregate.
Filmmaker: I love how you would go in and out of a subjective point-of-view. Early in the movie we see the scientist Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) at her desk. We see her discovery on a computer monitor, a closeup of a teabag in her cup, then she’s singing a Wu-Tang Clan song.
Corwin: I try to cut in collage. Many times you’ll put a shot in that will have a weight, an emotional valence, that won’t be felt for another five minutes. With Jennifer, you might sense her delicacy, the delicacy of her feelings. That scene is the only scene in the movie where she’s joyful, you know? There are so many ways to express joy. It can be the motion of a hand. It can be the way somebody looks at something. It can be the muscles on somebody’s back. I just try to collage these shots. It’s not necessarily traditional film editing, but I find it to be very truthful. It allows me to create my version of what truthful behavior would be. It’s not like I’m necessarily cutting for a viewer. I’m cutting for myself.
Filmmaker: That reminds me of Malick’s films, where every shot is a separate thought. When you’re editing, putting those thoughts together, they may not be in a linear narrative.
Corwin: The trick with this film is that there is a narrative thrust. I have to take my shots where I can find them. Fortunately Adam shoots moments for me, these impressionistic moments. Originally I would be bringing more of those shots in, now he is cognizant of what I like to work with. Obviously he drives the car, you know, but he seems to appreciate the way we work together.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about how you staged the rocket launch. You have so many visual layers, do you worry about providing too much at once?
Corwin: It’s just the way it feels to me, I don’t make conscious decisions. First of all, I don’t know how I’m going to cut it. McKay gives me all kinds of footage, and I just try to put in what moves me. There are flows and rhythms. Sometimes I’ll take shots and just move them two or three shots down in the flow. I’m really tuned in to being overwhelmed by the emotional or the narrative thrust of something. I’ve been accused of being a very aggressive editor, but I love sitting on moments.
Filmmaker: I want an aggressive editor, I want a point of view, something to think about. I’m asking more about the double exposures, the supers, layering information. You have four or five supers at one point.
Corwin: Look, I’m a sucker for old-time dissolves, optical dissolves. I come from the film world, I cut film before I was cutting video or digital. You can take a frame of film and make it so much stronger. It’s like such pure film editing to be able to juxtapose shots on top of other shots. Not always, I mean it can get really messy very quickly. You have to know when to pull back.
I love that we have the President at a rally, and she’s on top of herself twice. Or with Ariana Grande when she’s singing. Honestly, the movie had gotten so aggressive and so ugly emotionally, I just wanted that one scene with Ariana to be beautiful. I thought the double exposures and triple exposures were gorgeous.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the first scene in the Oval Office, where you have a half-dozen or so characters talking.
Corwin: That was a bloody scene to put together. That scene, that scene was just so tough to cut. There’s always a scene for me where the editorial lasts for the duration of the film, and the Oval Office was it here. You have arguably some of the greatest actors living today, you have between four and six cameras running, and you have Adam’s script, a script from such a gifted writer. Then you have all these people improvising, not just improvising, but pushing each other. They’re all competing with each other, everybody’s on their A-plus game. That scene was the linchpin for the entire movie.
I had such comedic moments. I never realized was how funny Meryl Streep is, she’s a brilliant comedic actress.
I have always been apprehensive working with big movie stars. When I started working with Terry Malick and Christian Bale, I learned what a great, great actor can bring. I’d never worked with DiCaprio, he’s arguably the biggest movie star on the planet. I just endeavored to make him as human and as real as possible. He became that character. Utterly. I mean, it was the most shocking thing to finally met him in real life and find out that he was nothing like Dr. Mindy.
Filmmaker: As the editor, are you picking the reaction shots? Are you trying to make the jokes land?
Corwin: It kept changing, and as I pulled back the comedy made it more like this crazy existential plight. The reaction shots would all change and who I would be on would change, you know? It became this crazy moving target.
Filmmaker: Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill complained lightheartedly after a screening that their funniest parts were cut.
Corwin: The cuts served the greater good, you could tell them that.
In some of my first cuts, that scene was 16 minutes long. It was beautiful, and there was resolution. I had to lobotomize it a little bit to make it work. You have to kill your babies.
Filmmaker: The “last supper” scene was very moving, and again your choice of shots, what character to be on at what moment, made it more emotional.
Corwin: I actually put my wedding video in there. When my wife, Nancy, and I were married, it was a terrible story. We were married by Elvis. She’s got such a beatific smile and she’s so happy. Now I’m so ashamed of myself. I should have given her the wedding she deserved. But the video was such a beautiful moment of a man and a woman who are in two different worlds. It was very human, and I didn’t have to pay for it.
Filmmaker: Wait, you were married by Elvis?
Corwin: No. Well, we were married by a fake Elvis.
Filmmaker: As someone who edited film, can you talk about the difference editing digitally? With film I feel like you had to make more permanent decisions than with digital. Digital’s not destructive, for example, so you can revert without trouble.
Corwin: What I used to do was make KEM rolls and go back and forth, back and forth. I would examine every select piece from front to back multiple times, just over and over and over and over. When I started cutting on video and then digitally, I did it the same way. To this day I do it the same way.
Most editors I know who never worked on film don’t work that way. They look at one take, then another take, then another take. I find that God is in the mistakes. I’m finding moments where the actors don’t know the camera’s on them. I find the humanity in them, you know, and, and so much of that is lost.
In some crazy ways I think film editing is in these dark ages. I look at the way I cut, and I know it doesn’t look like films from the ’60s and ’70s and ’50s and ’40s, but at least the spirit behind it is very respectful. Very respectful and very traditional.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I find that I want things more sparse. I want to feel the bleakness. Even though I come from a world of television commercials and music videos a million years ago, I have a much more austere vision editorially.
Filmmaker: Sponsors take their cuts very seriously in commercials.
Corwin: Yeah, it’s expensive real estate.
Right now I’m reading a book about William Fox. It is just remarkable how films were made back then, how they were industrialized. I would’ve loved to have cut silent films.