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How They Found the Right Rhythm for Oscar Contender ‘The Big Short’

How They Found the Right Rhythm for Oscar Contender 'The Big Short'

Hank Corwin, awarded best editing by the L.A. film critics and an ACE Eddie nominee, had two great challenges with Adam McKay’s dense black comedy, “The Big Short”: how to make sense of the complicated economics surrounding the 2008 housing collapse, and how to humanize the competing groups of brokers that profited from it. (Watch the “Below the Line” featurette on the film above.) 

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Fortunately, Corwin had a lot of great footage from a talented ensemble that’s been nominated for Best Ensemble by the Screen Actors Guild, including brilliant on-set improv from Christian Bale and Steve Carell. “I initially started cutting each grouping differently,” he explained. “Christian Bale’s Michael Burry character was very locked within himself and closed down. And I tried to make the editing there almost subliminal and very quiet. And then you had Steve Carell’s character, Mark Baum, who was very overt and bombastic, so I tried to make that editorial really over the top. It was aggressive and not very pretty—deliberately so.

“So much was a process of discovery. Everybody started from their own place but ultimately when they went down the shoot, their plight became the same. Adam Davidson, the financial advisor, told me that people who got shorted became physically ill, they fell apart, they broke down. I tried to bring that into the cutting toward the end when it folded into one style.”
Corwin credits McKay’s improv background and talent for comedy as the reason it all comes together so brilliantly. The unscripted moments helped humanize the brokers, particularly quiet moments when the actors didn’t realize they were on camera. For example, the scene with the epididymis exchange between Danny (Rafe Spall) and Porter (Hamish Linklater) allowed Corwin to get into the germ of a relationship.

“My biggest task, I thought, was to make these people not seem like cyborgs, repeating facts and figures.” For this, he had a secret weapon that McKay encouraged him to pursue: the use of time-lapse stock footage for navigating through the chaotic, absurd and surreal events that comprise the narrative.

“It’s not that long ago that this happened, and I thought it was really important to contextualize what was going on in the country and what the stakes were, because so much of what these people do is an abstraction,” Corwin suggested. “I used the Ludacris ‘Money Maker’ track to demonstrate that this was a culture of inveterate greed. These little things became like time-capsules. I also needed [celebrities breaking the fourth wall to explain what was going on] because I didn’t have a clue. Most guys on Wall Street don’t understand this shit and we just decided to make it fun and to make it a ride.”

WATCH: “‘The Big Short’ Writer-Director Adam McKay Broke Rules to Make a Crowd-Pleasing Awards Contender (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)” 

But even with an ensemble, you eventually have to focus on a single protagonist and create a character arc, and in this case it was Carell’s Baum, who must grapple with the biggest ethical/moral dilemma. Yet it didn’t start out that way for the editor.

“When I was cutting it, I didn’t realize I was going to get so many different kinds of performances from Steve, who also comes from an improv background. My touchstone was the Christian Bale character. I was able to relate to him more than any other character. Maybe it’s because as an editor. I’m in dark rooms all the time.

“But people have really gravitated toward Steve’s character and what he goes through. But there was so much more character development that was written and shot and discarded. There’s a whole saga to Burry, such as the discovery that both he and his son had Asperger’s, and that became a very liberating moment for him. But Steve’s character became almost like an X-ray of a plot line. The fact that he gave us so many performances, we were able to construct a performance where he just seems like a human character.”

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