A Talk with Legendary Film Editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Our friend David Konow is subbing in for me today to mark the birthday on January 3 of legendary Hollywood editor Thelma Schoonmaker.  David’s talk with Thelma was published originally in the defunct trade magazine ScreenTalk in 2003.

One of the ironies of great editing is you often don’t notice it. It can blend seamlessly into a film, doing its job efficiently without calling attention to itself.  When the editing in a film stands out as being exceptionally good, it can really knock you out, and it was the work of Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s long time editor, that opened my eyes to the importance of the craft.  Many directors work with the same people they’re compatible with film after film and Scorsese is one of the best examples having worked with many of the same actors (Robert DeNiro), cinematographers (Michael Ballhaus, Michael Chapman), and screenwriters (Nicholas Pileggi, Paul Schrader) throughout his career. Marty and Thelma have also been working together in the cutting room exclusively since RAGING BULL (1980) and they won’t work with any other director or editor respectively (in Hollywood, the creative marriages usually last the longest).  Before I spoke to Thelma, I unconsciously spoke only to male editors for this magazine, but it’s important to note that many of the best editors in cinema history are women. Margret Booth, who lived to the age of 104, was one of the negative cutters on THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). After cementing her reputation as a top notch editor for her work on JAWS (1975), the late Verna Fields became Vice President in Charge of Production at Universal, the only time in history a film editor ever became a studio executive. Anne Coates edited LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) for David Lean and recently cut UNFAITHFUL (2002) for Adrian Lyne. Dede Allen is the legendary editor of THE HUSTLER (1961), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), and SERPICO (1973) among others and, like Coates and Schoonmaker, is still active in the business.  Talking to a number of editors, I discovered most of them fell into the craft by accident, and Schoonmaker is no exception.

“I was supposed to become a diplomat because I had grown up outside of the country,” she recalls. “My father worked for the Standard Oil Company, I was born in North Africa and grew up on the island of Aruba in the Caribbean. Because of my experiences abroad, I thought I would try and become a diplomat and I studied that at Cornell University. I took the state department exams and they said I would be very unhappy because I was too idealistic. I’d been very politically active against the Vietnam war and was supporting Martin Luther King in the South.”  Schoonmaker then went to Columbia University for a year of graduate work. One day she was looking through The New York Times and saw an ad: “Willing to train assistant film editor.” “It was very, very rare for that to be in the Times,” Schoonmaker continues. “Most people get their jobs by word of mouth. And it turned out to be an old hack who was butchering the films of Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni for late night television. He would take out a reel of ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) to make it fit in with the time slot! I said, ‘You can’t do that!,’ and he said, ‘No one looks at this stuff anyways…’”  Yet through her training, Schoonmaker would get to watch Truffault’s SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960) backwards and forwards over and over again, and began understanding how films were made. She then read about New York University, which had a six week summer course. Martin Scorsese was already in attendance, making student films.  “Marty wouldn’t have been there the next year because he was graduating, so I wouldn’t have met him and my whole life would have been different (laughs),” Thelma says. “Then Marty introduced me to my husband of many years (Michael Powell, the director of THE RED SHOES and PEEPING TOM), which was another wonderful stroke of fate.”

Thelma and Marty first worked together at NYU when Scorsese was shooting his first full-length feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? (1967). Schoonmaker, along with a number of other NYU students, pitched in to help out. “He had no money, his parents had given him all of their life’s saving for WHO’S THAT KNOCKING…, which was extremely daring of them, a real act of courage and belief,” she says.  As for her first impressions of Marty, “He’s always been a night person,” Schoonmaker continues. “He would tend to want to come in late and work very late into the night, which was not my biorhythm (laughs)! I was the sort of person who liked to go to bed around eleven! So I had to adjust that, but it was very clear, right from the first second you met Marty that he was destined to be a director. I mean, he was just dying to make movies, he could not wait almost. He had such a great vision and so many ideas bursting out of him, it was very clear he was going to really make a mark. He was very intense at that time and very driven. Now I know him in a different way. He’s got a fantastic sense of humor, he’s a great teacher and socially can be fascinating, but at the time I remember him being very serious, very intense and just determined (laughs) to make the films that were burning inside of him.”  Marty and Thelma have been different personalities from the word go, and it’s part of what makes their working relationship conductive for creativity. “I think when you often look at a lot of collaborations, you’ll often find that when people are different personalities, when you rub those two things together good things come out of it,” she says. “Marty’s impulsive and highly emotional, and I am more calm and I think someone who’s a director with his kind of vision needs someone to help them carry it out. And it’s a good thing if that person is not like them because they probably couldn’t be in the same room together!  Marty really likes someone who has a perspective different than his. He’s been living with the movie so much longer than me. He’s conceived it, researched it, co-wrote it, he was in pre-production, he shot it, so he’s been in it for a long, long time. So he needs a fresh eye to say, ‘I don’t understand that,’ or ‘Maybe that’s not working as well as it could.’”

After helping Marty out on WHO’S THAT KNOCKING…, Scorsese and Schoonmaker then worked together as assistant directors and editors on WOODSTOCK (1970). As Schoonmaker recalls, “Word started circulating that this big festival would be coming up, but the producers of the festival were really not interested in a film so there was no way to get them to help raise money. (Director) Michael Wadleigh raised enough money from Warner Brothers to get us a helicopter and buy the film stock. So we all went up on just pure good faith, and no one expected to get paid, although we eventually all got paid a very small amount of money. It was all out of excitement, ‘Oh gosh, let’s go do this!,’ and we just took everybody we knew up there with us.”  Woodstock may have been three days of peace and love for the hippies in attendance, but it was was three days of anxiety and terror for those trying to document the event. “Michael had no sleep for three days and I doubt if he ate anything during that time,” Schoonmaker says. “He was just shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting. It was insane, but in retrospect, wonderful!”  A small platform was set up below the stage so Wadleigh could get good angles shooting the bands, while Thelma was frantically loading magazines underneath the stage. There were six cinematographers shooting almost continuously, but cameras were constantly breaking down from the heat. Backstage, people were trying to negotiate with managers what songs they could and couldn’t film (The Who actually kicked the film crew off stage when they first came out), and everyone worried whether there was enough light on stage to even get an exposure.  Concert lighting was much more primitive in the sixties than it is today.

Much of the editing style in WOODSTOCK grew out of the limitations of the footage. The film often uses innovative split-screens or interviews with hippies inter-cut with concert footage. “There were times when we had very poor footage, so it was trying to find ways not to let on about that,” Schoonmaker says. “Sometimes we had magnificent footage. On The Who and Sly and the Family Stone we had great stuff.”  The final three hour film was put together from 600,000 feet of footage, and took over a year to edit. “We had people synching dailies twenty-four hours a day in three shifts in every moviola we could rent in New York,” continues Thelma. “Almost all of it had to be synched by eye, and it was really hard because a magazine in the camera would jam in the middle of a song, it would maybe pick up on the last verse, and you had to figure out where that was. We never synched up The Grateful Dead. Marty tried for days and day and Brian DePalma finally came in and told him, ‘Marty, forget it. You can’t even see it anyways!’”

During the seventies, Marty mostly lived in Los Angeles while Thelma stayed in New York. New York editors usually didn’t have to join unions, but Thelma would have to belong to one if she wanted to work with Marty in L.A. “They told me I would have to spend seven years as an assistant, then maybe after seven years I’d be allowed to edit.” Marcia Lucas edited ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974) for Marty, and was the supervising editor on TAXI DRIVER (1976). When her husband at the time, George Lucas, hit it big with STAR WARS (1977), she wanted to spend more time with him up North, and Marty called Thelma again.  Scorsese and Irwin Winkler, the producer of RAGING BULL (1980), were able to get Thelma into the union, and now she was ready to edit her first feature solo. “Oh I was terrified!,” she says. “I’d never worked on a big union crew, I didn’t know how to organize a feature editing room, it was all a whole foreign world to me. But fortunately Marty said, ‘Just don’t worry. I’ll be there with you, and we’ll make it work.’ It was an incredible learning experience for me, particularly with such rich footage, I mean my God, it was almost exploding in your hands it was so powerful.

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For the fight scenes in RAGING BULL, “Marty was shooting these incredibly detailed shots that cut together had quite an impact,” Schoonmaker continues. “Some of the shorter fights actually went together exactly the way he thought them out in his head when he storyboarded them. They went together exactly as he planned it. You basically had to pick whichever take you wanted, cut the head and tail off it, and there it was. Some of the bigger fights we fooled around with the editing, but we still had the great moments in each fight that were laid down so beautifully by his incredible vision.”  In 1981, Schoonmaker won the Academy Award for Best Editing on RAGING BULL. She told Scorsese biographer Mary Pat Kelly, “When I won the Academy Ward, I felt it was Marty’s. I felt that my award was his because I know that I won it for the fight sequences, and the fight sequences are as brilliant as they are because of the way Marty thought them out.”

Thelma has said one of the reasons why Scorsese is a brilliant director is he really understands editing. “I think an understanding of editing is very important during the shooting, conceiving and writing of the film because I think all truly great directors have understood a lot about editing. When you’re shooting, you can be like a surgeon. You can be much more incisive, you don’t have to cover everything with a master shot, a two-shot, a three-shot and close-ups. Marty’s so skilled that he knows exactly what he’s going to need and what he doesn’t, so he can cut away a lot of dross. For example, he hardly does a master shot anymore, he does sometimes use it to warm the actors up and work out other things like lighting. He has an unbelievably good sense of how to cover himself, which angle and how tight, and that all comes from years of editing and understanding deeply what is going to make a performance come across or not.”  While Scorsese is a master at setting up great, complicated shots, not every great scene needs storyboarding and fancy camera moves. In GOODFELLAS (1990), the suspenseful “What’s so funny about me?” scene had no camera movement and was all done in medium shots with close-ups at the end.The biggest challenge in the editing room was how long to go before Ray Liotta breaks the suspense and we realize Joe Pesci was kidding.

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“That was almost like comic timing,” says Schoonmaker. “We had to figure out how long to wait before Ray Liotta said, ‘Come on Tommy!’ What was most important was to see the faces of the men around Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. You begin to get the feeling that something terrible could happen. They go from laughing to ‘My God, someone’s going to get killed here.’ That’s a great director, when you know not to use close-ups because you don’t need them, as intense and as powerful as that scene is.”

In the editing room, scenes can go through drafts the same way they can on paper before nailing the right one. “On that scene in GOODFELLAS, we’d draft one version, then we’d go away, cut other scenes and come back. In that kind of situation, you have to try and keep fresh and really get a feeling of whether it’s working or not. So we just keep banging away at it for a long time until we get it right. A lot of times it’s jumps out at you and you know that’s it. there’s other times that it doesn’t, then you find it, or you find that the scene needs something and by pouring over the footage again, you find some miraculous little piece of something that fixes whatever needed to be fixed, if it does. It’s always changing, which is the wonderful thing about working in films.”

GOODFELLAS begins with a violent prologue taken from the middle of the film where the main characters stab and shoot a mob boss they originally left for dead in the trunk of their car. It’s a bold idea structurally that serves as a warning of what’s to come later in the story. The first hour of GOODFELLAS highlights the good times its characters enjoy from being in the mob: The drinking, the gambling, the women, the nights on the town. But the bloody prologue leaves the audience with a sense of dread, that tragedy is just around the corner.

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It was also a very risky way to open the film, and many people walked out on that scene when GOODFELLAS was first test screened. But from the beginning, as Schoonmaker recalls, Marty said, “We have to open with that moment because that will lay it down. That will grip the audience and give them a very strong basis from which to observe the rest of the movie.”  Scorsese knew as soon as Ray Liotta slammed the trunk of the car shut, the music would immediately kick in, just as he knew exactly how he wanted to music to start when Robert DeNiro gets blown up in the beginning of CASINO (1995). The memorable segment of GOODFELLAS with “Layla” on the soundtrack was shot to the song. “He actually shot bar by bar,” Schoonmaker recalls. “He knew exactly what part of the piece he wanted for this shot, and what part for that shot.  “Music has been important to Marty all his life,” Schoonmaker continues. “He remembers where he was when he first heard a song. He’ll tell you, ‘Oh I heard that when I was with my mother buying sausage at the butcher shop when I was four!’ He carries these things around in his head for a long time, then suddenly he’ll say, ‘Ah! I know it will be great in the next one.’ Like ‘T.B. Sheets,’ the Van Morrison song at the beginning of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) is something he’s loved for years. When he decided to make the film, right away he said, ‘That’s going to be the opening music,’ and he designed all the shots and everything to that.”

Before he makes a picture, Scorsese always screens his favorite films, but as Thelma points out, “The great thing is he doesn’t mimic the influences, it’s inspiration for him. He will sometimes have me look at some sequences to be aware of. For example, for the opening battle scenes of GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), we studied a couple of scenes from Eisenstein and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965, directed by Orson Welles). The opening battle scene doesn’t look like any of those things, but the fractured nature of how he wanted the editing to be is very evident in the clips he showed me, and that’s what he’s saying to me: I want the style of this to be fractured, not linear, and not connected.”  When Scorsese went in to make RAGING BULL, he thought it would be the last film he’d ever be able to get made, and he gave it everything he had, creating a masterpiece in the process. Thankfully, many years and many films later, he’s still here and collaborating again with Thelma on THE AVIATOR (2004), his upcoming bio-pic of Howard Hughes. What drives the work now?  “There’s never the same reason why he’ll do a movie,” Schoonmaker says. “I think sometimes he knows a movie’s going to have a small audience. For example, I don’t think he really expected KUNDUN (1997) to be big box-office, he’s making it because he’s intrigued. Mean Streets was another film he never thought was going to be released, but he had it in him, he had to get it out, and look what happened: It was his big breakthrough. Every film he makes for a different reason, and every film he sets a new challenge for himself. That’s what so great for me is I get to go over the hurdle with him.”

(c) David Konow, 2003.

4 Responses A Talk with Legendary Film Editor Thelma Schoonmaker
Posted By Kingrat : January 7, 2011 5:10 pm

Thank you for a wonderful post. According to Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean, when Lean began his career as a cutter (editor), most of the cutters in Britain were women. This changed when the profession became unionized.

Posted By Kingrat : January 7, 2011 5:10 pm

Thank you for a wonderful post. According to Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean, when Lean began his career as a cutter (editor), most of the cutters in Britain were women. This changed when the profession became unionized.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : January 11, 2011 4:11 pm

Completely interesting — what a talent! Wonderful to read this interview and happy belated birthday to Thelma!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : January 11, 2011 4:11 pm

Completely interesting — what a talent! Wonderful to read this interview and happy belated birthday to Thelma!

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