A Conversation With Thelma Schoonmaker

Thelma SchoonmakerFilm editor Thelma Schoonmaker spent an interesting hour in conversation with author Cari Beauchamp on Saturday in Club TCM.  Schoonmaker met Martin Scorsese in 1963 at a six-week NYU film class, and edited his student film. She went on to cut his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, a few more in the following years, and then Raging Bull and every Scorsese movie since. “He taught me everything I ever knew about film editing,” Schoonmaker said.

Schoonmaker is also the widow of the great English film director Michael Powell, who with Emeric Pressburger formed The Archers, the brilliant filmmaking duo responsible for many of the greatest films to come out of England in the 1940s and ’50s, including The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and I Know Where I’m Going!

Some highlights:

  • On making documentaries with Scorsese in the 1960s: “You go on a film set today and there are 250 people. There are some who only handle the plants. And they’re sleeping most of the time because they don’t need to move them. It’s very boring.  I wish that filmmaking could go back to the time where there were just seven of us. All of us did everything except direct and shoot.”
  • On Woodstock:   “Once we got up there, we were trapped and couldn’t get out. Marty had brought his cufflinks, thinking we were going out to dinner at night. That didn’t happen. We slept in the mud two hours a day because the performance schedule was very long. I will never ever forget the smell of that mud.”
  • On Scorsese’s editing instincts: “Marty thinks like an editor when he makes the movie. When he’s co-writing it, and shooting it, he’s thinking like an editor, all the time. He’s doing fifty percent of my work.”
  • On her favorite Scorsese collaboration: “Raging Bull. It’s still my baby. It’s so beautifully directed.”
  • On editing Raging Bull‘s final fight scene: “He had 90,000 feet of wonderful footage. As we were working on it, it became clear to us that there were things that were affecting how the rhythm of the fight should go.  One of them was the wife, played by Cathy Moriarty, watching her husband being pummeled, and putting her head in her hands and then later lifting her head up… Those emotional moments became what would hinge the entire scene… We didn’t expect that.”
  • On Michael Powell: “It was a wonderful thing to have accidentally been given the best job in the world, and then the best husband in the world. He never lost his love for filmmaking. He kept writing scripts and encouraging other people. He lived every second of every day and never wasted a moment. He taught me so much about life and love.”
  • On Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960):  “He was out on a limb with Peeping Tom. He knew that if you’re on the cutting edge of your art, there’s a good chance you’re going to get killed. And he was killed.  But he felt he’d rather be out on that limb and making those movies.”
  • On a particular editing challenge: “The improvisations in Raging Bull took a long time because both De Niro and Pesci are such fertile improvisers. It was hard for me to take that wonderful material and make it seem like it was a scripted scene, which is my job when cutting improvisation.”
  • On winning the Oscar for editing Raging Bull: “That was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life, because I won an award, and De Niro won, and Marty didn’t win. I don’t display it because I don’t think it’s mine. I think it’s Marty’s.”
  • On the most important editing quality Scorsese first saw in her: “I think it was trust. He had had some unpleasant experiences with other editors. He realized I would do what was right for the film and wouldn’t have a big ego about it.”
  • On her process with Scorsese:  “I read the script just once so I can see the film emerge. He wants me to maintain a cold eye to look at what he sends every day, to look at it fresh… We always have TCM on the right side of the room, on silent. The first thing Marty does whenever he comes in the room is turn on TCM. It’s a constant inspiration.”