the gentlewoman

The Calling

Thelma Schoonmaker has edited every single Martin Scorsese film since his 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull, for which she won the first of her three Academy Award prizes. Thelma’s great achievement isn’t just the staggering 27 films, each with an average running time of 2.5 hours, distilled from hundreds of hours of film per movie, hers is a peerless contribution to cinema, art and pop culture. In February 2019, Bafta recognised her with a fellowship, its highest honour, making the 79-year-old resident of New York City the second film editor to receive one in the institution’s 70-year history. In the midst of the action, Thelma Schoonmaker paused a moment to answer The Calling.

Thelma Schoonmaker

Richard: What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Thelma: I make my breakfast and then I go to work. I’m at the office most days by 9am. Sikelia Productions, that’s Scorsese’s production company, is a 15-minute walk away, through the Upper East Side. It’s wonderful because I don’t have to take the subway. I work almost 12 hours a day, seven days a week, when we are editing a movie. Particularly in the early part.

R: You have no social life at all?

T: I have very good friends who wait for me until such time we can have dinner. But it’s mainly just work, work, work. Because I’m a widow and I don’t have children, that’s my life.

R: Describe your office.

T: Incredible posters that Scorsese has bought over the years line the hallways – ones for films made in Italy at the end of the war, Roberto Rossellini being the prime, and those for many of my husband, Michael Powell’s films. Then there are all kinds of books about movie-making, a note my husband may have written Marty, encased in a lovely frame. And objects from when we made the 3-D film Hugo (2011). Visitors say it’s less like going into an entertainment company than attending a museum.

R: How many people are there in your team?

T: When we still worked on film, sometimes there would be an assistant in the room with Scorsese and me, to keep track of the trims. But once digital editing came along – for us with Casino (1995) – they were no longer needed. I have a fellow editor, Scott Brock, who helps mix the sound; for that we go to another facility where there are sound editors and music editors, all kinds of stuff.

R: Did you welcome the switch to digital?

T: No, I was very bad about it at first. But the whole business was shifting and they said digital was going to be cheaper and quicker – which it’s not. It’s only a tool, it doesn’t make movies better necessarily. We’re still dedicated to the camera negative, it’s going to last longer than digital, 100 years if it’s kept properly. But we transfer that negative to digital and I edit digitally, then go back to the film when we make the final visual.

R: What are you working on at the moment?

T: Right now, The Irishman. We have two visual effects editors, who are ‘youthifying’ the actors for the first half of the film.

R: I read about this: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci all appear as their younger selves in the first half and then as they are now in the second half.

T: Yes, Scorsese is trying something very new with The Irishman that he’s never done before. It’s wonderful to be working with De Niro and Joe Pesci again and Al Pacino is new to us; Al is such a great improviser. Watching him and Bob work together is just amazing. Viewing the dailies with Scorsese, I said to him, “You know what’s great about watching them? They listen to each other.” Sometimes actors are just waiting for their line. It’s a great movie.

R: So it’s just you and Martin Scorsese in the editing room?

T: We work very privately together. Every night, after he is through shooting, we look at the dailies. It’s my most important time with him. I write like the wind as he’s telling me, “I didn’t get what I wanted from the actor there, maybe in the next take. I’m trying to push the actor over this way and maybe I got it in the fifth take. I hate that shot, don’t ever show it to me again!” It’s important for him to be able to say anything he feels about a performance, or something he thinks he did wrong, without it being overheard, misinterpreted and passed on. And we need intense concentration to absorb the film, to live with it and make the right decisions.

R: Is there a regular timetable?

T: I work longer hours than him. In the morning I prepare two or three, maybe six edits, and then he comes in in the afternoon. We work into the evening, sometimes until midnight. The first thing he does when he comes in is turn on the monitor, which plays TCM on silent. It’s for him to look at as he’s waiting for me to make an edit. If it’s a film he’s interested in he’ll say, “Wait! Look, this director or this actor is going to do this great thing – watch this!” To have him share those moments with me is the best editing school in the world.

R: What was your first encounter with film editing?

T: Well, I originally trained to be a diplomat – I went to the state department, passed all the exams – but they said I was way too liberal, politically, to be happy there. We were protesting against the Vietnam War, supporting Martin Luther King, you know. So when I saw an ad in the New York Times saying, “willing to train assistant film editor”, I took a job working for a horrible man, who was butchering the great films of Visconti – taking a reel out of the film. I said, “You can’t do that!”

R: Not the best start.

T: I quit the job and saw that NYU had a six-week summer course in filmmaking. I wasn’t in Marty’s group but someone had butchered his negative and the professor knew I had been doing some cutting and could probably help restore it. It’s funny, I recently met the woman who nearly ruined Marty’s first film and she said, “I’m the person who did it. I’m so sorry!” I told her, “Don’t be, you gave me the greatest career I could ever have had!”

R: How would you describe your working dynamic, 52 years on?

T: It’s my job to help him bring his vision to the screen, but it truly is a collaboration. I’m always learning from him and he also says he learns from me, because I tell him what I think and sometimes I will see certain things that he doesn’t see. I think when we first met, Marty saw that I was someone he could trust to do what’s right for the film and that’s very important. When an editor and a director are fighting, which happens, it’s disastrous for the film.

R: Do you watch films for pleasure?

T: Rarely. Even between films, I don’t have time to see all the things Marty does. If you say to him, “Who is the best director in Kazakhstan?”, he’ll tell you. Sometimes he’ll say to me, “You really have to see this movie”, and I go look at it in a little screening room we have. But we are very big supporters of seeing films on a big screen. Even though The Irishman is for Netflix, we hope it will be shown in theatres, like Roma (2018) has been. Movies are for sharing with other people, not sitting at home watching them alone. Until we restored The Red Shoes (1948) in 2012, one of my husband’s greatest films, it was seen by most people on television or on their laptop. But once people saw it in the theatre, it was a whole new experience. I’m adamant about that!

R: The late, great literary editor Diana Athill said that the difficulty she eventually had with reading fiction was that she always knew what was going to happen next.

T: Sometimes it can be disappointing, but one of the things Michael Powell said to us was never underestimate the audience, they are always ahead of you. You just have to try to stay ahead and never explain. If I’m watching a movie that I don’t think is particularly well done, it doesn’t completely ruin the experience – I’m not obsessed with the edit. My husband was terrible, though, he would give a film 10 minutes!

R: Do you have a favourite film?

T: Because it was my first-born, I’d have to say Raging Bull (1980). It was such a powerful movie, it was like pure gold. The final fight sequence is an outstanding thing and took us a long time because Marty had so many shots. He had designed this incredible storyboard, which we eventually violated because we were working with the archive footage, and also film of Jake LaMotta’s wife and the audience – we found shots where she was putting her head in her hands, emotional things that we didn’t expect, which we built around. It was an extraordinary editing experience, a joy to work on. And then of my husband’s, my favourite is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). But I love all of my husband’s films and all of Marty’s films.

R: Congratulations on your Bafta lifetime achievement award last month – the only editor other than Anne Coates to receive a fellowship.

T: Anne was a friend of mine. You know it’s true that the editing in a Scorsese film is notable and I’ve received many lifetime achievements for that, but I want people to understand that it is as much him as it is me. If he didn’t think like an editor, the films wouldn’t look the way they do.

R: What’s the last thing you do before you leave the studio?

T: I just stop. I shut down my machine, I answer some emails. Nothing dramatic, just the end of the day. Sometimes you’re struggling and struggling and you just need another day. At that point, you should go home and have a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast. It’s amazing how fresh things look when you come back in.

March 2019. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Marc Ohrem-LeClef, courtesy of Freuds.