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Scorsese’s editor discusses her craft

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 4, 2014 at 1:56 a.m.


The redoubtable Thelma Schoonmaker in her editing suite.

“The editor is the final author of the film.”

  • David Lean

The name “Thelma Schoonmaker” is one which even casual movie fans are likely to be vaguely aware, even if they aren’t quite sure why. Schoonmaker is the longtime editor for Martin Scorsese, whom she met during their college days in the late ’60s. She edited his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), and they worked together editing Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 music documentary Woodstock.

The legend is that Scorsese wanted to work with her through the ’70s but Schoonmaker couldn’t obtain a union card through the period. Finally, Al Pacino exerted some sort of influence and Schoonmaker was admitted into the Motion Pictures Editors Guild. She cut Raging Bull (1980) in Scorsese’s spare bedroom and has partnered with him on every film since, in the process winning three Academy Awards (for Raging Bull, 2004’s The Aviator and 2006’s The Departed).

To promote the DVD release of Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street (released to home video last month), Schoonmaker spoke to me from Seattle, where the Art Museum was presenting two films directed by her late husband, Michael Powell - whom, incidentally, Scorsese introduced her to while they were working on Raging Bull.

Q. I think most lay people have only the vaguest idea of what editing actually is - maybe they think it’s a purely functional, technical chore, like deleting scenes at the behest of the director. But it’s not really that, is it? It’s sort of like sculpting, revealing by subtraction the picture that’s locked inside all that footage. And is it supposed to be something that, if it’s done right, an invisible art we don’t notice at all?

A. If you take any one of the shots … and you just let it run for the length of the scene, it would be very boring. The central problem of editing is “How do we cut to create pace?” Rhythm is very important, so I’m very glad I had a good musical education as a child - I was taught the piano, I was in band, I played the flute, the viola; I sang in choruses in university - because musical sense is very important in editing.

In a sense you’re right, you’re given this block of clay, and you shape and push and mold it until it begins to have features … like a sculpture. But it’s difficult to describe to people, and for those of us who are doing it it is fascinating, though I imagine to others it could look very boring. Anyway, it is a mysterious craft. And there are some editors who don’t want anyone to notice what we’re doing, but Marty and I aren’t that way - a good deal of it is supposed to look smooth and seamless, but we sometimes like to shock people, to shake them up a bit with how we’re editing.

Q. One of the ways movies are like baseball is that it’s not really the length of games or the running times of movies that bothers people, it’s the way they can seem to drag if the pacing isn’t right. It seems to me that part of the strategy of The Wolf of Wall Street, which at three hours - “three hours and 32 seconds,” a projectionist told me - is your longest film, was to try to mirror the excess and appetite of the swindler Jordan Belfort in the structure of the film. So you’ve got a five-minute improvised scene with Matthew McConaughey, and that wonderful, practically wordless sequence when Leonardo DiCaprio tries to make his way home under the influence of a super-potent Quaalude, these scenes that might have been cut in a more conventional movie. I’ve heard there was a fourhour version of the film - not just assembled footage, but a four-hour edit - that was well received by those who saw it. Obviously that’s not practical, but how do you balance commercial and aesthetic concerns and determine what’s an appropriate length for a film like this?

A. The story of the four hour cut has been a little overblown - that was our first cut, and all our first cuts are very, very long. We screened the movie 12 times and we recut it between each one … Marty and I knew we could not distribute a film at that length and that it was a matter of shaving down while keeping the beautiful quality of the improvisations. That’s better than having to drop scenes - that’s like cutting off your leg when you have to drop your favorite scene out of a movie. Which we have done. In After Hours we had to cut four or five wonderful scenes because the movie simply couldn’t sustain them. So this was a happier thing. We lost some wonderful moments, but we didn’t lose the quality of the scene. And that’s our job.

Q. But nothing is ever really lost anymore in a digital environment. And I guess you’ve been editing digitally since, what, Casino in 1995? How has working with digital tools changed the way you go about your work?

A. Well, I was very reluctant to move into digital but I knew that was the future. And then I was a very bad student for a couple of weeks, whining and moaning about it, but it did allow me to move much more quickly. And the main benefit for me was that it allowed me to experiment. I could make four or five edits of a scene to present to Marty when he comes in after shooting.If I had to do that on film … well, you can imagine how long that would take with me putting the scenes together and taking them apart and remembering what I did.

However, that time was very important to Marty. Because, first of all, on the flatbed machine, I would run back and forth with the footage and he would keep reviewing it with me. Now, on digital, I jump down to the shot I’m trying to find and he gets one split second each place that I jump to. It drives him nuts. He used to love seeing the footage over and over again. He liked walking around the office while I was taking apart the film … and thinking about what he had just seen. So, for him, it’s been a loss.


MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/04/2014

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