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Sometimes the job of a film editor is to help a director decide not what should go onto the screen, and how it should be ordered, but instead what should be eliminated. That was particularly true in the case of Vice, Adam McKay’s unconventional, and unflattering, portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney, for which veteran editor Hank Corwin received his second Oscar nomination.
“I was blessed with a really great script,” Corwin says of the film, which nonetheless posed lots of challenges because it “takes place over five decades. I just felt that if it was linear, I’d run the audience into a ditch. I figured, and Adam figured, that we’d have to occasionally come up with nonlinear emotional highlights just to re-engage emotionally” with Christian Bale’s portrayal of Cheney.
To keep the narrative moving along, one scene that got the ax was an elaborate song-and-dance number set in the congressional cafeteria, during which Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell, explains how Washington works to a young Cheney. “They were walking through the cafeteria, and the cafeteria explodes into this surreal interlude [resembling] a full-blown musical out of the ’40s,” Corwin reveals. “You have Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes singing, and you have scores of people dancing. It seemed like every dancer in L.A. was there. It was huge.”
Composer Nicholas Britell (who is Oscar-nominated for If Beale Street Could Talk) wrote the music for the number; and Andy Blankenbuehler, the three-time Tony-winning choreographer behind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, choreographed the scene.
“Adam directed the heck out of it; it was really entertaining,” says Corwin. “But what we found was, in the context of the film, it weighed the film down at the wrong time. The film wanted to move quickly in that area, and it would have slowed it down. It was very painful [to cut it].”
Another element that didn’t make the final cut consisted of scenes featuring a young Lynne and Dick Cheney during their early days in Wyoming. “It’s Adam’s thesis that Dick Cheney wouldn’t have become Dick Cheney without Lynne Cheney [played by Amy Adams, who, like Bale, is Oscar-nominated for the film], and we wanted to show how strong she is,” Corwin says. “Our DP, Greig Fraser, shot exquisite film, but it weighed down the opening of the film. Initially, I thought having that emotional component up front would make the film stronger, but I was wrong. It was eight to nine minutes long, and we cut most of it out.”
McKay’s script didn’t have a traditional three-act structure, with a typical character arc in which its hero goes through a series of adventures, finding redemption along the way. But as tricky as it was to find the right pacing for the project’s freewheeling approach, the biggest challenge Corwin faced was being faithful to the internal life of a man who is still living. “I was trying to be as truthful as I possibly could without having all the information,” says Corwin. “I really did grapple with it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I was just slamming Dick Cheney and his family. We went down many wrong paths, but fortunately, Adam has such great perspective, and we were able to step back and get back on track.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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