Below the Line: Editing ‘The Big Short’


From left, Jeremy Strong, Steve Carell, Hamish Linklater and Rafe Spall in “The Big Short.”

Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

Energetic in its pacing and rule-breaking in its style, “The Big Short” keeps viewers on their toes. Characters break the fourth wall and stock footage is mixed with more traditional scenes to tell the story of the housing collapse, a drama both tragic and darkly funny. To assemble these ideas into a cohesive whole, the director Adam McKay brought in the editor Hank Corwin, who had worked with Oliver Stone and Terrence Malick.

“I was bewildered that he’d want me,” Mr. Corwin said, referring to Mr. McKay, in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “He came from an improv comedy background and I do everything but.”

That seeming mismatch excited Mr. Corwin and he was pleased by the level of freedom and openness Mr. McKay provided him. Now, after having worked with several Oscar-nominated directors, Mr. Corwin has received his first nomination. For a film with an unorthodox style, Mr. Corwin took an unorthodox approach.

“I don’t have a financial mind,” he said. “I had to start understanding each of the character groupings emotionally before I was comfortable with what they were doing financially.”

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Mr. Corwin based a lot of his edit on a character’s emotions and cut scenes in different ways depending on which character was at the center.

He said that the one he felt most comfortable with was the hedge fund manager Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale, often seen alone in the film analyzing figures and making decisions.

“I’m an editor,” Mr. Corwin said. “I sit in dark rooms looking at screens. You get lost in these amazing worlds, but when you come out into the sunlight, it’s not so easy. I was able to relate to him the most.”

He felt Michael was myopic, and edited scenes in a way that would reflect this.

“I was thinking in terms of synaptic connections, the way his brain worked,” he said. “The cutting on him was like a meditation, very quiet, very internal.”

For the hedge fund manager Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell, Mr. Corwin took his cues from the character’s deep anger.

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Clip: ‘The Big Short’

A scene from the film featuring Christian Bale.

By PARAMOUNT PICTURES on Publish Date November 17, 2015.

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures.

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“He was explosive, so I cut him explosively,” he said.

That could mean putting the audience in Mark’s emotional point of view in a street scene, though occasionally cutting to fire trucks and crowds as Mark moves through the city talking on his cellphone. He also added jump cuts of Mark from one position to another to show his jarring nature.

Mr. Corwin actually wanted to make the cuts imperfect. He said Mr. Carell improvised a good deal in his scenes, and the editor chose to use moments when the actor was searching, and perhaps sometimes failing, to find the right beat for his character.

“I did that just to show some humanity,” he said. “When you show the real Carell, and you mix that in with the character, it became synergistic and made it that much more emotional.”

Also crucial was working with the film’s composer, Nicholas Britell, whom Mr. McKay brought on early in the process.

“I would show him shots, and he would play me tones,” Mr. Corwin said. “I would cut something and he might add a tone or a percussive element. The cutting process with him was very musical. It was like we were playing jazz.”

While Mr. Corwin also maintained a positive working relationship with Mr. McKay, there was one piece of information he hid from the director during production.

“I’ve never seen any of his films,” he said. “And I waited until after I finished the cut to tell him.”

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