Thelma Schoonmaker was at the Venice Film Festival today to accept the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. She was also on the Lido to present a restored version of her late husband Michael Powell’s The Tales Of Hoffman. I sat down with Martin Scorsese‘s longtime Oscar-winning editor for a chat this morning overlooking a raging Adriatic Sea. Our conversation ranged from two of the most important men in her life, to the controversy surrounding The Wolf Of Wall Street, the ways digital editing is changing the business, and getting ready for Scorsese’s passion project Silence.
Schoonmaker, who first edited a Scorsese film with Who’s That Knocking At My Door in 1967, and has cut each of his movies since Raging Bull, also works with the director to see Powell’s films restored and the word spread about the helmer of such classics as The Red Shoes, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus.
The two men are of great importance to Schoonmaker — Scorsese even introduced her to Powell — they married shortly thereafter and remained together until his death in 1990. “It was the best 10 years of my life,” Schoonmaker told me today. Scorsese had been “deeply influenced by him” from watching his movies on TV “nine times a week” as a kid, the editor said. Scorsese ultimately raised “a huge amount of money” to restore Powell’s films and Schoonmaker supervised the process. “I love sharing his passion for my husband’s films… Marty says they’re in his DNA, that’s how important they are to him.”
Schoonmaker met Scorsese at NYU when he needed help after his negative was badly damaged on What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This? From there, a 40-year-plus bond was born. “I have had the most amazing luck; that I happened to go to NYU that summer… that someone ruined his negative,” Schoonmaker said today. “It was a matter of absolute luck and I think that he recognized quickly that I was someone that would work with him for the best of his film. That there wouldn’t be ego clashes.”
Next up for the duo is Silence, a passion project adapted from the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan. The helmer has been trying to get it off the ground for a decade. Schoonmaker is “so excited” for what she says is going to be “a little art film” and very low budget. “We’re all taking a big cut to work on it,” she told me. Later, speaking to the Venice press corps, she added, it’s “so different from Wolf Of Wall Street, you can’t imagine.” On every movie, Scorsese “sets himself a new challenge and wants to change. He doesn’t want to repeat himself” even though “everybody would like us to make Goodfellas over and over and over again.”
Silence will shoot in Taiwan rather than Japan where the story is set. Schoonmaker says that decision came based on conversations Scorsese had with Ang Lee when they were making the rounds of various 3D panels during promotion for Hugo and Life Of Pi. “Ang said, ‘You should go to Taiwan, they’re very efficient and they’ll welcome you.’ So that’s where we’re going,” Schoonmaker explained.
She will “start cutting as soon as they start shooting. When Marty is finished he comes in and works very intensely with me,” she told me. She also told reporters, “Everyone always wants to know who has the upper hand. But it’s not that simple. We collaborate so beautifully together because we’ve worked together for so long. We’re like one mind.” The director remains very open to suggestions, however. “With digital editing, I now can make many, many versions of a scene. So when he comes in, I always show him the way I think he would have wanted it. He deserves that, he’s been thinking of and dreaming of the film for much longer than I have. And then if I feel he needs a different approach, I show him three or four different versions of the scene and he will always be open to a better idea, and that’s wonderful.”
One thing they certainly agreed upon was what not to show in last year’s Oscar-nominated Bacchanalia The Wolf Of Wall Street. “It was much worse… We didn’t even show half of what went on,” Schoonmaker told me. There was controversy over the film for its over-the-top depictions of drug use, sex and excess. “It was troublesome when it started, but then it seemed not to hurt the movie,” Schoonmaker said. “You know, it happened with Goodfellas. Everybody said the same thing, ‘You’re glorifying it’. We’re not… and I think with time people will understand that that’s not the case. I think we had experienced it with Raging Bull, too, so it was good that we had that experience and then we knew how to take it and it didn’t hurt us at all.” She believes that Scorsese “really wanted to immerse the audience and make you really feel that greed and excess. Not to stand back and judge it, but make you feel it and make you decide, ‘is it right?’ ”
Schoonmaker is bullish on digital editing. It “has meant we can access the film very quickly, instead of taking it down from my flatbed and sending an assistant to go to another room, get another reel, come back and thread it up. I can access another take in a second. I can also make copies of my edit and not worry about sync… I can feel free to explore. I can have 40 tracks,” she said. But, she added, “We made great movies with just two tracks and we miss the flatbed.”
Scorsese perhaps more than his editor. Schoonmaker said, “Marty loved it because he could watch me running back and forth looking for shots, or the cut, and he could review the footage then. He liked walking around the office and thinking about the edit… He liked that time to think and loved watching the footage. So he’s always had a little difficulty with digital editing.” But, “I don’t think you can edit on film anymore. Hopefully, we’ll still be able to shoot on film” for at least a while yet.
Although she is one of the most recognizable film editors in the business — and shares the record for most Best Editing Oscar wins — Schoonmaker told me the profession has been “a sort of mysterious craft and sort of invisible.” Digital is helping to change that as well. “In the last couple of years, editing has suddenly risen up into people’s consciousness. I’m not sure, but maybe it’s because everybody’s editing their own movies now. Maybe they’re understanding now what it takes and how important it is to filmmaking.” She stressed the complexity and essential value of editing in the process, telling me, “You can ruin or save a movie, make an actor’s performance terrible, or make it good.”
Still, she has concerns that the métier could suffer if people take the easy route. “It takes a long, long time to learn how to do it right, and I worry sometimes that the accessibility of it, because of digital, while it’s been great, sometimes maybe has brought about things that I’m a little concerned about. You know, just fast cutting for the sake of fast cutting? Well, what is this thing and is your brain registering it? They’re not learning editing anymore and that’s really worrying because it’s a difficult craft to learn because it takes years of experience and I don’t think people are getting that anymore.”
Before she starts getting down to editing Silence, Schoonmaker will take restorations of Powell’s to the New York Film Festival, Thierry Frémaux’s Lumière Festival in Lyon, and to the London Film Festival. She’ll also hop to Toronto in support of Isabel Coixet’s Learning To Drive, which she edited during a lull between Scorsese projects while he was raising money for Silence. But she plans to continue with Scorsese for a good long time.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best, and I just don’t want to work for anybody else. And I hope I won’t have to, but you never know in this business, do you?” she posited. “I just hope we can go on until we drop.”