Don’t Look Up

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up delivers a scathing social commentary about a society that has become so engrossed in trivial matters like celebrity relationships, that people are simply incapable of comprehending, or even accepting, the fact that a planet-killing comet is on a collision course with Earth.

The film – whose ensemble cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman and Ariana Grande – is meant as an allegory for climate change, but it certainly strikes a broader chord in this day and age.

The film quickly rocketed to the top of Netflix’s streaming ratings and according to the streamer, had at press time become its second-biggest original film release of all time, just behind Red Notice. Editor Hank Corwin, ACE, whose work with McKay on Vice (2018) and The Big Short (2015) earned him best editing Oscar nominations, as well as an Eddie for The Big Short, explains that

Don’t Look Up was a natural progression from his previous work with the director. “Even when we were doing Vice, he was talking about some of the rudiments of this film.” McKay started shooting in Boston in November 2020. But for Corwin, “They might as well have been on the moon with all the COVID protocols. Before this all happened, I was planning ongoing out and working with them, but I had very little contact with Adam for the first three months or so when they were shooting.”

Corwin reports that the biggest challenge he faced was finding the tone of the film. “When it began, it was an abstraction, and that was really challenging, trying to make real something that’s very abstract,” he explains. “The most difficult part of this film was to just find what the tone was and how it would evolve, because we didn’t really know what it was. It starts as a comedy and it’s a comedy until it is not. … Initially we thought the movie was going to be much slower and more operatic, punctuated with these moments of black comedy, and that changed. It just took so much time just to figure out what this thing was going to feel like and look like, so I cut and recut scenes.”

“One of the big challenges in this movie was after I’d put together a structure, like 20, 25 minutes down the line, things weren’t working well, because of some of the performances that I had chosen early on. I’d have to go back and recut,” explains Corwin. “It’s interesting that way. I’ve never had that experience with a movie.”

Admitting it was “maybe the most challenging movie I’ve ever done,” Corwin describes in particular the tricky approach to getting from the film’s comedic opening to a much more somber end-of-the-world finale. “It was like playing a long chess game – sort of trying to figure out moves in advance to get you to a certain place and making a lot of mistakes until you finally figured it out.”

He explains that they started with the oval office scene, which “pretty much determined the flow of the whole first two thirds of the movie. I knew that I wanted to get to a place that was reallysomber and very moving for the last 20 minutes, and so figuring out the flow of the rest of the film was what was tricky. The good news is we had these actors who are arguably some of the greatest living actors around and we had this fantastic script and a director who was really versed, not only in comedy, but improvisation.”

With such a talented cast, much of the material was simply ad-libbed on set, giving Corwin a range of options as he selected the performances. “The script was always the guide. It was pretty much the Bible of this movie. But I would weave the script and improvisation, you know, so there were times when you couldn’t really tell where the script ended and where the improv began – and Adam works that way. He, he actually taught me how to work that way.”

As the film progresses, the characters develop, with Dr. Mindy (DiCaprio) swept up in the fame of his new-found celebrity status as “the handsome astronomer,” while Kate (Lawrence) finds herself kicked to the curb as “the yelling lady.”

The editor explains that the moment in the film where we see the comet in the sky for the first time was a pivot point. From there on, he tried to slow things down and move in closer to the characters. “When Leonardo has this big rant, I get almost claustrophobically close to him. As opposed to being third person, I tried to get much more first person,” he says.

On his use of music, Corwin says the film benefits from his unique rapport with composer Nicholas Britell (they first worked together on The Big Short), discussing things like scenes and the emotional value of a shot, and generally bouncing ideas off of each other. “Sometimes, Nick would play a couple of notes on a keyboard, and then he might disappear and then come back and just hand me a composition.”

Over the years, Corwin has developed a shorthand with McKay. Of their process, Corwin says, “When we start to work, he’s very hands off. It’s developed over time, but when I’m cutting, he’ll leave me alone, because I’m trying to find [the story]. He’d just say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ For an editor, it’s kind of paradise. I’m sort of the captain of the ship until I’m not, until Adam comes in.

“And then, it’s a blast. He’s sort of lurking behind me on a couch. And after a certain point, he’s pretty much there all the time and we’re bouncing things off of each other,” the editor continues. “And there would be scenes that I knew he loved, but that just weren’t working, and I would try like hell to make them work, and he would just say, ‘You know, let’s just get rid of it.’ That is one thing that’s really unique with Adam. He’s not precious about his scenes. … It’s all to serve the greater good of the entity that becomes the film.”

The filmmakers also used stock footage of nature, on occasion, to try to really drive home the film’s environmental message. “The film is ultimately about the truth and believing in the truth, believing in science, and there are so many interpretations now,” the editor says. “I just figured with that if you see a wave breaking on a rock, it isn’t really subject to interpretation. It’s down to its lowest common denominator there, and that’s true with some of the shots of animal behavior I showed in there. And it, it was all sort of going in the face of this more-and-more complex human that was running utterly amuck.”

Interspersed throughout the film are occasional moments with on-screen graphics, like the logo for the Planetary Defense Institute. “We had done something like that in The Big Short and I thought it was just kind of a cool device to sort of break the fourth wall without breaking the fourth wall, you know – bringing the hand of the editor, and the hand of the director, into the picture just momentarily.”

Corwin reports that additional editor Scott Morris was tremendously helpful putting together some of the social media montages. Sarah Russell was the first assistant editor. Andrew Loschin served as VFX editor and Michael Shusterman came on board as an apprentice editor.

“This was just a wonderful crew. We all got along very well and I’d work with any of these guys in a second,” Corwin enthuses. “Honestly, this film was so vast, I couldn’t have made this movie without them. We were like a fist, everyone was in sync with everyone else.

He explains that while he was cutting he might bring any of the assistants in just to get some different perspectives. “I’m an editor who relies a great deal on my assistants, not necessarily for the stuff you’d expect assistants to do, but also for their opinions and trying to see the scenes through their eyes. And I’ve been very lucky in my career to have pretty wonderful assistants.”

Overall, Corwin says that he hopes viewers will really “feel” this movie. “Obviously, there’s a message to this film, and as an editor, the politics were outside of my purview, but I was just trying to get people to feel how wonderful life is and how fragile it is and how fragile we all are,” he concludes.

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