Interview: Thelma Schoonmaker On 'Silence' And Her Decades Spent As Scorsese's Secret Weapon

Interview: Thelma Schoonmaker On 'Silence' And Her Decades Spent As Scorsese's Secret Weapon

Mar 29, 2017


Filmmaking teams evolve over time. Directors don't always use the same composer, the same cinematographer, the same screenwriters and so on. They may make their best films with certain creative partners, but it's surprisingly rare for those partnerships to be constant over the course of an entire career. That's why the working relationship between director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker has been one of the greatest cinematic collaborations of all time.

Scorsese and Schoonmaker have been working together for over fifty years now. She has edited every single one of his narrative feature films since Raging Bull. She's his secret weapon and has received six Oscar nominations for her work on his films, including three wins (Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Departed). 

I recently spoke to Schoonmaker on the phone about her latest movie with Scorsese, the long simmering drama Silence (out now on Blu-ray and Digital HD), and it must be said that she's simply one of the most enthusiastic, happiest and energetic filmmakers I've ever talked to. I've chatted to people who have been in this business a fraction as long as Schoonmaker who already sound creatively burned out, but at 77 years old, Schoonmaker's passion for her work is positively infectious. Whether it's for Scorsese or celebrating the works of her late husband, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus director Michael Powell, Schoonmaker simply still loves her job. I recently saw a 35mm print of Bringing Out The Dead and it was--

Thelma Schoonmaker: That's a movie that has not gotten its due! But I will say that these days, everywhere I go, people like you will bring up that movie. I think it's finally, maybe going to get its due. It's all about compassion. That's actually the reason I bring it up. Both Bringing Out the Dead and Silence are deeply compassionate films. They are about people in deep misery, but who continue to be compassionate for others regardless.

Schoonmaker: That's the most important thing in life, really. It's also in Kundun. The Dalai Lama... almost in every sentence, is the word compassion. It's so important in that religion as well. Silence was obviously such a long held passion project for Martin Scorsese. Do you recall the first time you two ever talked about it?

Schoonmaker: No, not particularly about it, but I've known ever since I first met him that he had a deep interest in religion.It's not in a conventional way. He doesn't go to church. He has always been, however, deeply fascinated by religion and studied it extensively. He would love to make a movie about the collision of Christianity and Rome.

We've always known he was deeply religious in his own way, but most people didn't. When we were in the wild '60s, which was a great time to come out of university. You could come out and work in a gallery or be a painter or be a poet, not like today. It wasn't possible for him to really make films completely about religion. There's always something in his films about religion, but this is the first of his films over all these years, because it wasn't cool to be Catholic, right? You could be Buddhist, but it wasn't cool to be Catholic. So I think now, suddenly and finally, he's been able to put it all out there and let people make up their own minds about it. And it was so wonderful to share that with him, it was so exhilarating and profoundly moving to share that with him. Is your working relationship with him a presumed, de facto one or does he still come to and pitch you each movie?

Schoonmaker: I'm his editor on features. He does work with other editors on documentaries, but I just know that every feature film he makes that I am hopefully the editor. That is an incredibly wonderful thing. So many editor friends of mine spend months or years waiting for a project, and I always know I have one coming. And I can't tell you what a blessing that is. And that's to say nothing of the fact that they're all wonderful! So many of my friends are disappointed or bitter because they get terrible footage or this that or the other, and that's not my situation at all! It's a real blessing. You two have one of the most extraordinary and fruitful collaborations in the history of cinema.

Schoonmaker: And it was just such a happy accident. Somehow he felt I would do what was right for the movie. It wouldn't be an ego battle between the director and the editor. There's no 'this was my idea' or 'no, that was my idea.' That never happens with us. It's a true collaboration with us. He taught me everything. I knew nothing about editing. But it's a true collaboration now, and I can't begin to tell you how much of a joy it is to be in the room with him. Because we talk about everything, not just the movie. And he's so rich, he's such an extraordinary genius, and to watch the suffering he goes through while making a movie is something quite special to share. After all these years, you two must have an incredible shorthand. Is there anything he can say that will make perfect sense to you but no sense to anyone else?

Schoonmaker: I don't think it's necessarily that. I deeply know what he likes, but he is open to other ideas. So that means I can immediately eliminate things. He also tells me in dailies exactly where he's at. I so know what he likes that I can make certain decisions for him so it doesn't waste time.

My favorite thing is when he'll sometimes say to me 'Burn that, don't ever show that to me again,' because he was disappointed with something. The best is when, sometimes, we'll do something and he'll just go '' And that means that was awful, just awful. But we don't have a particular shorthand that would be unknown to other people. When it comes to testing a new cut, who do you show it to? Is it the same group he shows it to?

Schoonmaker: We try to screen 12 times on our movies and we cut, each time, entirely the whole movie. What the audience is telling us is so important, and we also see the movie differently. You can screen for just one person and you can feel the way they're reacting, if they're fidgeting, if they're getting the humor – not in Silence, of course, but in Wolf of Wall Street. You feel it all of a sudden in a different way than you do just watching it in the editing room. 

We start with a very small group of people, about 12, that we know and whose opinions we know how to judge and whether to rely on them or not. Then I debrief people very thoroughly, and we recut and screen for another group of people. Then it's friends of friends, and so on, until finally the studio makes us screen for 400 people pulled off the street. That's always terrifying. But that's how we figure out if the movie is working or not. It's very important to have all of those re-cuts, and some editors are not given the time to do all of that. What's your day to day like when you're not actively working on a Scorsese movie?

Schoonmaker: [Laughs] Which is hardly ever! I pretty much work seven days a week until midnight when we're editing. When I'm not working on Scorsese's films, I work on the films of my husband Michael Powell, the great British film director. I'm trying to get his diaries published now, which are extraordinary. Right now I have four months between now and when The Irishman, which is our next movie, is starting, where I will go to England and sit in his cottage and read his diaries and hear his voice in my head.

So any time I'm not working on a Scorsese movie I do whatever I can for my husband's films, and particularly his diaries. I'm in control of his whole archive, and so I go all over the place to introduce his films. And Marty has been wonderful about restoring three of them. Three wonderful Technicolor films. I do have friends, but they're very patient to wait for me in between or whenever I have a brief moment to go out to dinner. But I love my work. I'm addicted to it, shall we say.



Silence is out now on Blu-ray and Digital HD.


blog comments powered by Disqus

Facebook on