‘In this film, I discovered God’: ‘DON’T LOOK UP’ editor cuts to the core of humanity’s folly, struggle

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Say what you will about Adam McKay’s latest satire, Don’t Look Up (read my review here), but there’s no denying how forceful its editing is. 

Hank Corwin (The Big Short and The Tree of Life) sliced, diced and stitched together Netflix’s all-star apocalyptic odyssey, and it rings out like Marty McFly jamming Johnny B. Goode: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”

As Corwin said in a recent interview with us, McKay’s work, here, is one of those rare films that project into the future, and it’s true. The previous two McKay-directed films – The Big Short and Vice – examined our past through a modern lens. Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of low-level astronomers trying to warn the world of an incoming comet set to reduce Earth to ash, analyzes the now in a hilarious but deeply haunting manner. Sometimes you genuinely laugh, and other times you laugh just to keep from crying. 

A lot has been discussed, and there’s so much more to discuss. To unearth some more of Don’t Look Up’s profound readings, thoughts and meanings, we spoke with Corwin about his editing style, navigating the film’s tricky tone and how working on it helped him discover his own interpretation of God.

DON’T LOOK UP (L to R) Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy with Director Adam McKay. Cr. Niko Tavernise / Netflix © 2021

Q&A:

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 6 in New York City. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Enjoy the conversation, and be sure to watch Don’t Look Up on Netflix today!

Preston Barta: I’d like to begin talking about the subtle art of transitions. I noticed some truly great parallel editing in this – between dramatic moments and funny ones and how they elevate each other.

Hank Corwin: Yes. When I started out in my early 20s, I was working in New York, working in the commercial editing house. Have you ever worked with film, film itself, as opposed to digital?

I have. I took a film class where I had to cut and splice film.

So, yeah, I had to reconstitute trims. What I discovered was that sometimes when you see the beginning of the shot, if it’s a cereal commercial, and someone’s bringing a spoon to their mouth, maybe the anticipation before they’re bringing it up, they’re thinking about something, they’re thinking about it, and at the end, after they’re pulling the spoon out of their mouth, both those moments, they might have more emotional resonance than just the simple act. I mean, it’s human behavior. When an actor doesn’t know that the camera’s running, when they’re thinking and you have their humanity coming through, you get real moments of truth. 

So, I found that in this film (and most of the films I’ve cut), I don’t like to simply cut. I like people to want more and want to be pulled along. I personally like to be pulled along in the film. There’s nothing worse for me than getting a scene and having it just go on and on. And granted, there are all kinds of nuances, there’s all kinds of behaviors that are important. But so many times, I find that people cut A to B, and you lose all of the richness. When I cut, it’s almost like I cut collage instead of montage. And sometimes you’ll see in the film, sitting with [Ariana Grande] singing with the President, I’ll do these–

Cross fades? 

Yeah. These triple exposures. Nobody does that anymore, and it’s beautiful. It’s very filmic, and you can pack so much more into a frame of film and get so much more emotional resonance. So, you’ll sometimes cut a shot off in mid-word because you know what people will say. And that forces the viewer to put themselves into the scene, and as opposed to being third person, it becomes very experiential, very first person. You’re a participant in what I’m trying to do.

Exactly.

DON’T LOOK UP (L to R) Cate Blanchett as Brie Evantee and Tyler Perry as Jack Bremmer, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky. Cr. Niko Tavernise / Netflix © 2021

And then you have these moments where you use still frames to illustrate the characters’ disorientation and the overall sense of doom. But what I really found quite moving is how you cut to shots of nature, to be this visual essay on what we’re losing.

Yes! Good. I’m so thrilled that you took notice of that. It was really important for me to get those shots in. I wanted the people watching this film to realize that there is real truthfulness, and it’s represented by nature. It’s like an ocean slamming upon a rock. 

I had a mother hippopotamus with her baby, and that’s like limbic behavior. Most species have that emotion, and it’s a very truthful thing. So, you can juxtapose a shot like that up against social media, and instantly you know what’s real. It’s sort of editorializing about what I really feel about what’s going on with social media.

Right. And the shot of the lizard eating its own skin.

Yes!

This style is so fresh. So, what do you plug into to keep a finger on the pulse of the modern world?

Well, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not on any social media.

That’s actually a good thing, I would say.

Yeah. I have never been. I’m of an age where it came after me. But I’m always listening to music. I’m always in nature. I’m always reading, and those are my touchstones. I’m just living and seeing how exciting life is and people are. It keeps me grounded. 

DON’T LOOK UP (L to R) ROB MORGAN as DR. CLAYTON “TEDDY” OGLETHROPE, JENNIFER LAWRENCE as KATE DIBIASKY, JONAH HILL as JASON ORLEAN, PAUL GUILFOYLE as GENERAL THEMES, MERYL STREEP as PRESIDENT JANIE ORLEAN, LEONARDO DICAPRIO as DR. RANDALL MINDY, CATE BLANCHETT as BRIE EVANTEE Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2021

How does this experience compare to your work for Terrence Malick, which has a different speed and rhythm?

I love the languid nature of Terry’s films. Honestly, there were times where I just wanted to hold on [Jennifer Lawrence] so many times, because her performance was so nuanced and varied. It made a statement about everybody else. But the film wouldn’t sustain it, especially trying to build to the end that we do. We had to really be moving the lung, in the beginning, to be able to let it breathe at the end.

Ooh, I love that last line there. That’s good and accurate. So, how was it trying to keep control of the tone as you weaved in and out of comedy and drama?

That’s a very good question. I think I developed a sort of gallows humor about it all. 

DON’T LOOK UP (L to R) Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy with director Adam McKay. Courtesy of Niko Tavernise / Netflix © 2021.

For example, the scene with Jonah Hill in that control room toward the end. He’s saying all these super funny things, but then, you hear someone else say, “I need to get home to my 28-year-old daughter.” That’s an incredible shift that sends things into horror.

Wow. Yeah. When I started cutting the film, I worked really closely with our composer, Nicholas Britell. I would show him a shot, and we’d talk about the emotion we wanted to go for. He’d get on his keyboard, noodle around and then come up with these magnificent little moments. They were like musical phrases as opposed to complete sentences. 

We initially thought the film was not going to be a comedy. Nick and I weren’t making a comedy initially, and Adam was unbeknownst to us, or we were fighting him. [Laughs.] But Adam is just so smart. I mean, the hardest thing about cutting this movie was finding the right tone. It’s easy to be one thing or another, but not necessarily both. What we found was that we would start funny, and it would evolve to this point of horror and abject horror, you know, until you got to the last two reels in the film. There was something for me, almost like – How do I put it? I mean, I believe in God, I believe in some kind of force. And it’s easy to dismiss that or to be realistic about it all. I think the sense of horror you talk about, it’s this utter state of nature, it’s where there’s no civilization anymore. ​​And there’s no faith, no belief.

So, this film had a major spiritual effect then?

Yeah, for sure. For me, film has always been a journey. I always come out of a film having learned a great deal about myself and how I feel. And this thing with a belief in God, it’s more like I’m surprised that I found that I believe in God and I believe in something, in a higher intelligence or a higher level of things. And just working with the astronomy of this, the mathematics and chemical nature of things – I mean, there’s this divine order, and even after humanity’s gone, the universe exists. That’s what, to me, is so sad and so poignant: that humanity doesn’t have to disappear. If they would just open their eyes, you know, look up… So, in this film, I discovered God. I discovered my own interpretation.

So, it’s certainly not an introspective film. I mean, most films out there, people are making films about their experiences in the past, and they’re really good. But this is one of these rare movies that actually projects into the future.

Don’t Look Up is now streaming on Netflix.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.