Things I’ve Learned: Thelma Schoonmaker

This Wisdom Wednesday, legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker shares the lessons she’s learned from over three decades in the cutting room.

If the naysayers who threw their hands up in moral outrage at The Wolf of Wall Street‘s drugged-out excesses had remembered that such dazzling heights of debauchery had been assembled for maximum provocation by a lovely, polite lady in her 70s, perhaps their minds would have short-circuited. But that divergence of expectation and output has been one of the major themes of Thelma Schoonmaker’s career, and cinematic history has indubitably been all the richer for it.

Raging Bull. The King of Comedy. Goodfellas. Casino. The Departed. One cannot talk about the power of these masterpieces outside the genius of Schoonmaker, whose steely hands have sewn together Martin Scorsese’s films for over 30 years. (When asked how she could have edited such violent films throughout her career, she has reportedly answered, “Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.”) In that time, she has been rewarded with three Academy Awards, sharing the record for most wins in the Best Editing category (with Michael Kahn, Ralph Dawson and Daniel Mendell).

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Picking up five nods at this year’s ceremony, The Wolf of Wall Street is newly released on DVD and Blu-ray this week.

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1. To live life before you become a filmmaker—really live it—is the most essential experience you should have before becoming a filmmaker. Experience all kinds of people and behaviors. In terms of special training to become a filmmaker, one should study classic films and learn from them. That is how Scorsese became the filmmaker he is.

2. Don’t make a movie unless you have something burning inside of you to say—like Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which is so personal and powerful and ground breaking.

3. When seeking out collaborators, talent is vital. But there are a lot of egos in filmmaking and everyone has to learn how to work together in spite of them.

4. As an editor, put the most focus on the screening process, and then debriefing people afterwards to find out how the film is affecting them. Then re-cutting and screening again and again until you get it right.

5. The attempts to ruin a film with bad ideas are a constant problem in today’s world—or maybe they were always there. I love the constant challenge Scorsese presents to me with each film. I have to grow and adapt to that challenge.

6. It is simply not true that recruited audience previews can necessarily give you an accurate picture of how well a film is working. The film isn’t ready yet, the audience has not been prepared for it, and if it is tough, they may not “like” it—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

7. Always express gratitude for the work that your peers are doing. Filmmakers often don’t feel they have the time to do that, but it is essential.

8. I learned from Michael Powell to never talk down to our audiences—to never “dumb down” a movie. He said that audiences are actually way ahead of us and as filmmakers, we must try to be ahead of them—to surprise them and make them feel our movies, not tell them what to think. MM

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Crispin Glover, Alexander Payne, Paul W.S. Anderson, McG, Ethan HawkeGavin HoodJohn SaylesMike NewellBarry SonnenfeldWilliam FrakerRobert RodriguezJoe EszterhasSeth MacFarlaneMarc Forster,  Billy Bob ThorntonErrol MorrisBrian De PalmaJulie TaymorKevin SmithChris WeitzDanny BoyleSteve BuscemiJim JarmuschZack Snyder, Gus Van SantNeil JordanJohn WatersEli RothNeal McDonoughRandall Emmett and Wim Wenders.

Photographs by Marc Ohrem Leclef.

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