After cutting the subversive complexities of “The Big Short” with Adam McKay, editor Hank Corwin quickly realized that it was just a warm up for “Vice,” the Shakespearean dramedy about the unprecedented rise to power of political operative-turned VP Dick Cheney (Oscar nominee Christian Bale).
“This was very provocative and really hard,” said Corwin, who earned his second Oscar nomination for this wacky, non-linear, surreal farce. “But life isn’t linear, and films shouldn’t be either. There’s so much ambiguity in power and the pursuit of power, and we looked at ‘Patton’ as a model of ambiguity.
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“With ‘The Big Short,’ I tried to contextualize things with the culture. On this, we didn’t fall into it as much. Initially, when we started in Wyoming, we wanted it to feel like ‘Giant.’ We treated Dick Cheney as an Everyman in his pursuit of power, under the influence of Lynne [Amy Adams], his high school girlfriend and later his wife. And one of the areas that we worked on was creating this sense of emotional realism.”
Corwin described his collaboration with McKay as co-editors riffing like jazz musicians, and part of the fun was subverting the process to create something unpredictable, more larger-than-life, in overcoming Cheney’s tendency to internalize and shroud himself in mystery. As in “The Big Short,” they frequently broke the fourth wall, and even dropped in a false ending as a “what if” hypothetical to ponder.
“Christian’s performance was so strong, sometimes I’d deliberately interrupt the flow, I’d interrupt the sound, I’d cut to black, to the absence of an image. Or keep the sound going just to pull you along,” Corwin said. “It actually gave the film this crazy, emotional resonance.”
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The editor spent hours watching footage of the real Cheney, observing his body language, the way he clenched his jaw to exhibit power. “Fortunately, we had all these other moments with his wife and daughters [Alison Pill and Lily Rabe and Mary and Liz] to help with that emotional realism,” said Corwin.
Instead of focusing on scenes, however, Corwin got into certain rhythmic flows. “There’s so much history, but we were constantly playing with the balance,” he said. Putting things in, pulling things out of the Nixon and Ford White Houses.
“One of the hardest parts was struggling with this amazing musical number that we eventually cut out,” Corwin said. “It happens when Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld [Nixon’s economic advisor] schools Cheney on power. Nic Britell [the composer] wrote the song with Adam, and we had Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes singing, and they created the congressional cafeteria, and they got the choreographer from ‘Hamilton’ [Andy Blankenbuehler].”
But the musical number not only interrupted the flow, it was also redundant. The other big struggle for the editor was dealing with McKay’s hilarious “Macbeth” scene, with Dick and Lynne in bed discussing their great moment of destiny with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). All in iambic pentameter, of course. (Written by McKay..)
“We had a helluva time with the Shakespeare,” Corwin said. “It was in, it was out, and, at the very end, it started falling into place and finally Adam put it back in. We were restructuring and trying to find new ways of presenting it. And it worked because we took out the other areas.
“We also went into it in other areas, like right after 9/11 when Dick and Lynne were in a bunker and it became his superego. But, honestly, we got a little gun shy. I learned so much about the balance of a film. It’s like playing multi-dimensional chess.”
But then “Vice” ends on an ambiguous note right out of “Richard III,” with Cheney’s TV interview turning into a monologue about no regrets concerning the harm he’s done as a result of his quest for absolute power. “Sitting there alone, knowing it’s nothing. It means nothing,” Corwin said. “It has Shakespearean colors.” It’s a nod to “Patton,” too.