The Greats: Thelma Schoonmaker

Movies Features

Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

“There’s a great deal of mystery in film editing, and that’s because you’re not supposed to see a lot of it. You’re supposed to feel that a film has pace and rhythm and drama, but you’re not necessarily supposed to be worried about how that was accomplished. And because there is so little understanding of what really great editing is, a film that’s flashy, has a lot of quick cuts and explosions, gets particular attention.”

Those words were spoken by Thelma Schoonmaker to Film Comment in the spring of 2014, and she ought to know what she’s talking about. For more than 30 years, she’s been the editor of Martin Scorsese’s movies. Because of that long-running partnership, she is perhaps the most famous film editor in the world. But just as likely, it’s because of the types of movies she works on with Scorsese, whose oeuvre is known for its dynamic, flashy energy. Schoonmaker has helped shape those visions, and nobody notices.

A winner of three Academy Awards—for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed—Schoonmaker didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an editor, or even pursuing a life in film. Born in Algiers in January 1940, she had American parents who had met and fallen in love in Paris. At 15, the family moved back to the States. “I was just stunned when I came to America,” she said in a 2006 interview. “I didn’t know anything about rock music or football, and I felt very out of it … America was like a foreign country to me at first.”

She studied political science, primitive art and Russian—Vladimir Nabokov was one of her teachers at Cornell—but she was intrigued by a New York Times help-wanted ad for an assistant film editor. The job involved re-cutting foreign films to play on American television. Though hardly a connoisseur, she was appalled by her boss’s willingness to remove a full reel from films that were too long for their assigned time slot. “I liked watching old films on television, that’s all I knew,” she recalled. “My boss said, ‘Oh, nobody watches any of these films at one in the morning.’ But he was wrong, because Martin Scorsese was watching them.”

She would meet Scorsese soon after at New York University. She took a filmmaking class and, because of her editing experience, was asked to assist a classmate who’d had a problem with his negative being cut improperly. The student was Scorsese, who was working on a nine-minute short, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? “The first time I saw Marty, he was flustered,” she said in an 2011 Elle interview. “He’d been up for three days trying to fix his film. He was sitting against a wall with his eyes open, but I think he was asleep. I recognized his drive and his intensity right away.” Although she didn’t end up getting a credit on the film, it began a friendship between the two.

Schoonmaker edited Scorsese’s feature debut, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and later served as one of the editors (along with Martin Scorsese and others) on Michael Wadleigh’s seminal concert film, Woodstock, which won the documentary Oscar. (She got nominated for editing.) “It was a wonderful time because we were cinéma vérité,” she reminisced to writer David Morgan about the Woodstock experience. “You know, very pure and, oh, we had so much fun. Everyone loaded magazines, everyone drove the cars, everyone ran sound. Not everyone shot—Michael was always cameraman. He’d jump onto tables, run across rooms, to elevators, down stairs, shooting all the time; he was very gifted.”

The critical buzz of Who’s That Knocking and the sensation of Woodstock should have propelled her career, but she ran into a roadblock from the industry’s editors union. “I’d never joined the union,” she said during an interview at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2002. “I hadn’t had to. Out in Hollywood, they were telling [Scorsese] that I had to start as an apprentice, and then an assistant, and seven years later I would be able to edit. So I couldn’t work for him for quite a few years. … He kept calling me and it was just impossible. The union wouldn’t let me.”

It wasn’t until 1980’s Raging Bull that Scorsese was able to figure a way around the problem so that she could start editing his movies. (“I don’t know even how they got me in the union. I don’t want to ask!” she responded with a laugh when asked how it worked out.) Raging Bull was a steep learning curve after spending a decade on documentaries and non-studio projects. “This is the first major feature film I ever worked on,” she recalled. “I went out to Hollywood, and I told Scorsese, ‘I don’t know how to do this. I know how to edit the movies you made before you went to Hollywood, but I don’t know how to do this.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you.’” She laughed at the memory. “I fortunately found an assistant who knew how to organize things the way feature films are supposed to be organized. But when the footage started coming in, I mean, it was just like pure gold. I’ve never, ever felt anything quite like it in my hands, I don’t think, and it was a great joy to work on it.”

Raging Bull won her the Oscar, the film’s pummeling, hypnotic fight scenes no doubt contributing to her victory. It can be hard to gauge an editor’s talent since we don’t see the raw materials or the initial rough cut. But a crucial element is a shared sensibility between editor and director: Schoonmaker executes Scorsese’s vision, agreeing with him about a particular way of working. And one of their practices is that she avoids going on set. “I don’t like [visiting the set] because it prejudices my eye,” she once said, “and one of the things Marty wants from me is to give him another perspective. He’s been dreaming of the film, co-writing it, directing it … and sometimes he can get too close to it and want another pair of eyes. … When you go onto the set and they say, ‘Wait till you see this shot. We just laid 40 feet of track and…,’ I don’t want to hear that. I want to see it later. I love being on the set just to be around him and the actors. They have so much fun. It’s a great thing to watch, but I have such an intense experience with him in the dailies every night, when he’s telling me what he feels about what he’s just shot, that it’s better for me to leave it that way.”

Most filmmakers will tell you that the editing process is where they really make sense of their movies. So a good editor needs to be a steady, sympathetic hand assisting the director. “I think from the very beginning—when we met each other—he realized he could trust me to do what was right for his movies,” Schoonmaker told the BBC in 2012. “[Rather than] making a name for myself, I would be hand in glove with him in terms of carrying through what he tries to lay down when he shoots. He says I bring out the humanity in his films. I don’t think that’s really true—he lays it down there—but I think as a woman, perhaps I’m more tuned in to emotional things in the films that maybe I pull out more.”

Part of their affinity extended to a love of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes. Those men’s risk-taking, powerfully emotional movies have had a great influence on Scorsese’s similarly expressive works, and the bond he shared with Powell extended to Schoonmaker. Scorsese introduced her to Powell, and they married in 1984, their courtship cut short by his death six years later. But that commitment to cinematic emotion has remained in her contributions to Scorsese’s films ever since. When it was mentioned that she doesn’t seem to be a stickler for continuity—one shot not necessarily lining up with the next one—Schoonmaker responded, “The priority is absolutely on the best take for performance, and frankly I don’t understand why people get so hung up on these [continuity] issues, because if you look at films throughout history, you will see enormous continuity errors everywhere … Even in The Red Shoes, a film that nobody ever has complaints about, there are enormous continuity bumps, and it doesn’t matter. You know why? Because you’re being carried along by the power of the film.”

In fact, this is one of the great weapons in her and Scorsese’s arsenal. In a film like The Departed or Goodfellas, the occasional mismatched shots—an actor looking a slightly different direction or someone not holding the same item—give the scenes an unsettling energy, as if there’s something more going on than we can see. (And in a psychological drama such as Shutter Island or Bringing Out the Dead, the mismatches suggest a mental dislocation that’s a perfect mirror of the central character’s fraying inner life.) And when Scorsese has encouraged improvisation from his actors, as was the case in After Hours, Raging Bull and The Wolf of Wall Street, it makes an editor’s job difficult to piece together the best moments within the ad-libs. As Schoonmaker recalled at a 2014 Tribeca Film Festival master class, the complications were only multiplied during an improvised Raging Bull kitchen scene between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci when there was only one camera because of the room’s tight dimensions. “It took almost a month for me to wrangle the footage into some sort of shape,” she said, “and even today I can see where I was having a little trouble.”

This is the bane of the editor’s existence: She sees all the agony that went into making a scene. And if she does her job well, we never bat an eye.

But even if we haven’t noticed her contribution, her longtime partner certainly has. “She wants to protect—good, bad or indifferent—the art,” Scorsese once told biographer Richard Schickel. “[W]hatever we’re doing she will defend to the death. … Sometimes you get tired, you start to waver … Thelma’s very good at steadying the course. A couple of times she’s actually told me, ‘Stay strong, we’re going to get through this one.’”

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.

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