Brow Beat

An Interview With The Big Short’s Film Editor About All Those Crazy Montages and Breakneck Cuts

The editing is one of the best parts of The Big Short.

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk - © 2015 Paramount Pictures.

The Big Short is “a stylistic Chex Mix of storytelling, satire, advocacy, and clip art,” Dana Stevens writes in her review of Adam McKay’s dark comedy about the events leading up to the 2008 housing crisis. Indeed, the film’s distinctive aesthetic includes tons of stock footage, unconventional cutting, and jarring imagery that all conspires to create an atmosphere of orchestrated chaos. To help create this rhythm, McKay turned to editor Hank Corwin, who has previously worked on The Tree of Life, The New World, and Natural Born Killers.

Corwin—who scored a win at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Awards earlier this week—spoke with me about editing around actors’ improvisation, crafting the film’s voice via time-lapse montages, and what it was like working with McKay.  

Adam McKay has mentioned that, as with most of his movies, there was a certain amount of improvisation done by the actors on the set. Once you got into the editing room, how did you cut all of that footage down and use it to your advantage?

You know, it was actually a lovely thing. Because the actors occasionally did stray … but for me, just as an editor, I’m always looking to really be involved with them, to almost be in a first-person situation. I want it to be experiential for someone watching it. So I’ll look for moments where the actors aren’t necessarily “acting,” just to bring in that reality. Because these guys were improvising, and they’d be reaching and searching, many times I found the moments when they were searching.

I remember there being a lot of moments when the camera would just pause on one of them,  but no one was saying anything, there was no kind of movement.

Absolutely. It could be a moment where they think the camera’s on someone else, or someone else is acting, and they’re waiting, just being themselves. And for just a brief moment you get to see real reality. I find, so many times, actors—even the most skilled actors—they subtly slip into the roles. And I think it helps if you can mix their real personas, in with their characters, because I just think it makes a much more realistic, accessible performance.

Was there any actor in particular you had fun with bringing to life onscreen?

Honestly, all of them. I’ll tell you the one who was so perfect was Christian Bale. He totally slipped into the character—it was actually a little hard to find the other moments because he became the Michael Burry character. Although there were moments [to be found]. One of our actors, Jeremy Strong [who plays Vinny Daniel, a member of Mark Baum’s team], has such a great face—he wasn’t one of the principals, so he’d be waiting, and there’d be this real intensity as he was just really trying to assimilate what the other people were saying, and I just found him to be a spectacular foil. You know, Steve Carell, his process is different—he comes from an improv world, so he’s always searching, always looking. He was just a lot of fun to cut because he gave me so many opportunities as an editor.

How did you decide on the specific images to use for the montages? There was the Ludacris music video, “Money Maker”, and I also spotted clips of Britney Spears, a burger commercial—I think I spotted LL Cool J’s album cover for Mama Said Knock You Out

Yeah, very good. You know, the times are very chaotic, and I wanted it to be really eclectic. And honestly, I’m a big fan of Ludacris, what can I say? That was right on the money. They weren’t meant to be pretty images, they were meant to be provocative and a little jarring … With the business world, I just love the absurdity of it; it’s surreal that you have this going on and then you have the banking crap going on. I don’t want to say it’s evil, but I just found I needed a foil to what was going on, and I needed chaos because what was going on was so hard to understand. And the culture—Ludacris is like life. It’s the life that we live, and so is Britney and so are the burgers …

So for you, those images were kind of outside the realm of the bankers—what the rest of the culture was consuming, oblivious to the bankers’ actions?

Absolutely … One thing Adam and I were really conscientious about—we tried to make it not political, like Democrat, Republican or any of that crap. People can read into it however they want …

In a way I wanted to show it’s not just the bankers. In our society—and god help us, we’re still there today—it’s like people aren’t sensitive to their surroundings or how toxic they can be. Honestly, Ludacris and “shake your money maker”: the concept is horrible and the glorification is horrible. It’s like the bankers aren’t the only ones, they just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Was the idea of breaking up these scenes with these montages McKay’s or yours?

I don’t want it to sound like I’m taking a lot of credit, but he brought me in to do these things. He and I had some long talks, and I suggested using stock footage and he said “go for it.”

How difficult was it to get all of the stock footage? Was there anything you really wanted to use that you weren’t able to get permission for?

You know, we were pretty blessed on this one. It’s like everything that I found, pretty much we got. The studio had a couple of people that they used, and I have a company called Stalkr that I met in Berlin and they’re just spectacular, and I got all kinds of stuff, and they cleared stuff for me.*

In addition to the montages, there are also a few scenes where they cut off a half-second before the viewer would expect it to, like in the middle of someone’s line. The one that stands out most is the scene in which one of Mark Baum’s [Steve Carell] colleagues interviews a tenant whose landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage.

Yeah, and also the scene with Carell’s boss … toward the end. For this kind of a film—this goes along again with what I was saying about wanting this film to be really experiential. It’s like so many times, say, if you’re walking in the street, you’ll turn your head and there’ll be a sound you hear, you walk away and it cuts out … In film, people shoot these long shots, and they think that’s the truth, but that isn’t truth. It’s what’s recorded onto a piece of film or digital art. I try, when I cut, even the shot selection, as opposed to having it be third person where you’re watching people doing something, I want it to be like you’re in there with them. So by cutting things off, it’s jarring, and deliberately so. I’m trying to slam people in, and I don’t need to hear—we know what he’s going to say. And I found that it made it actually a more powerful statement, because everybody finished his line, or his boss’s line in their heads.

There are elements of other films you’ve worked on in here, The Tree of Life, Natural Born Killers. What is it like for you working with directors as different as McKay, Terrence Malick, or Oliver Stone? You have a very distinct editing style.

You know, I hate the fact that people think that I cut one way—I’d love to have people not know that I cut something, you know what I’m saying? Even with the Terry Malick things, I love holding on a shot, and not having a cut, if it’s appropriate. What can you say—Oliver Stone was a lunatic. And I loved him dearly, but the films that I worked with him on were maniacal. Terrence Malick—if you look at The New World, it’s like a dance.

McKay—when I got the call, I’d joked with him later, I’d never seen any of his films. (I don’t know if I should be telling you this!) And I knew very well what he had done, and I said, “Look, I don’t do comedy.” Nobody’s ever asked me to do comedy. I read the script, and it’s like holy cow, it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read … And he said, “Look, just do what you do. I got the comedy stuff covered.”

Initially, even though I loved the script and obviously the actors were unbelievable, I didn’t know whether I was capable of doing it, because I don’t understand financial things, or I didn’t. And he referred me to 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom (I think Robby Müller shot it, who I love). And I saw it, and it didn’t inform me how to cut [The Big Short], but it just showed me that Adam was just really open. I felt like, I’m home, I can do anything. And the worst he can do is tell me to stop or change it. So I try to be very choosy in what I pick, and the people I work with. And it was a weird thing—in my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be cutting an Adam McKay film. But I had one of the best times of my life.

Correction, Dec. 12, 2015: This piece originally misidentified the stock footage company Corwin used as Stocker.