A Cut Above

Thelma Schoonmaker and Oscar
Thelma Schoonmaker accepts her second Oscar for Best Editing for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Photo: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

It is February, 2005 and I’m seated in the kind of bright orange, fringe-covered swivel chair you might find in the apartment of Teri Garr’s ’60s-obsessed weirdo from After Hours. A fitting description, considering that After Hours editor and longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker is reclining directly across from me, in a piece of equally garish furniture. We’re surrounded by the 72,000 videos, laserdiscs and DVDs that make up the inventory of Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, arguably the world’s most comprehensive and complete video mecca.

In town to promote a Scarecrow-sponsored workshop highlighting her influential body of work, Schoonmaker treats a film-savvy group to handshakes, signatures and encouragement. For in-the-know fans eager to leave the store with an autographed token, store manager Norman Hill has made sure that copies of the recently-released, 25th Anniversary DVD edition of Raging Bull (for which Schoonmaker won an editing Oscar in 1980) are on hand.

Schoonmaker is juggling a tight schedule. The previous night, she hosted a rundown of her work at the nearby Museum of History and Industry. In a few hours, the silver-haired editing legend will introduce 1946’s Stairway to Heaven (a.k.a. A Matter of Life and Death), directed by her late husband Michael Powell, at the Seattle Art Museum.

For someone having spent countless hours whittling footage of ornery onscreen souls like Jake La Motta, Max Cady, Henry Hill and Bill the Butcher, Schoonmaker is a surprisingly personable presence. Little does she know that just a few weeks later, she will take home her second Oscar, this time for Scorsese’s The Aviator.

KJ Doughton (MM): During signings like this one, are there any films you’re surprised to see people handing you to autograph?

Thelma Schoonmaker (TS): Yes, After Hours. I don’t think that one ever received the notice it deserved. It’s really got some great stuff in it. It’s funny, because when we screened that, one of the sound editors brought in an entire ‘group therapy’ group. I saw him right after the screening, and asked him, ‘So, what do they think?’ He said, “They all wanted to kill themselves.” (laughs) You know, it’s the life story of a lot of people, what Griffin Dunne goes through in that.

MM: The Aviator features a big Senate showdown between Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda. This type of courtroom confrontation isn’t something we usually associate with a Scorsese movie.

TS: That’s right. It’s more like a classic courtroom scene, isn’t it? I think Marty was very aware that it was a traditional Hollywood kind of scene, but I think the intensity with which DiCaprio performed it, and the fantastic improvisation by Alan Alda, made it more than just a conventional scene. The intercutting of it with the Hercules flight scene was a revolutionary change.

Originally, the Hercules was going to take off in one chunk. We had some problems with the Hercules, because I think Marty was resisting the heroic nature of it. It was not very “Scorsesean.” We started experimenting with various ways of intercutting the Senate. Eventually we ended up with only one. It’s kind of a bizarre intercut; it’s very weird. But when you go back and see Hughes talk about the Hercules, you now know what he’s talking about more than before we intercut it. It’s stronger.

MM: In terms of the plane crash late in the film, that seemed like a very “un-Scorsesean” moment as well….

TS: But the crash is Scorsesean—it’s not heroic.

MM: But as far as the spectacle of a big action scene, did you and he talk about how to approach that and make it unusual?

TS: It was more discussion between he and the visual effects people, and planning it very carefully way before they even shot the film. They had a little model of the plane and a lipstick camera. The visual effects guy would say to Marty, “What I want to do is this kind of a move on the plane.” He would move the plane so that Marty could see it in the monitor and move the lipstick camera and Marty would give instructions on what he wanted. It was very carefully planned out. We did manipulate the editing a little bit, but the real glory of that sequence is in its visual effects. There were miniatures, remote-controlled models being flown, traditional CGI and some very old fashioned ideas from back in the days when my husband made films.

About this time, a fan approaches Schoonmaker and asks her if she has ever edited a section of film that she and Scorsese have had difficulty with—not knowing whether or not he would approve—and found that upon viewing it, he loves it.

TS: That’s happened a lot. Particularly on the more recent, “big” films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator, it required juggling the structure around a little bit. Also, I did a couple of radical approaches to a scene involving the girl auditioning in The Aviator. That scene wasn’t working, and one day I went in and slashed into it, moved things around and Marty loved it. So that does happen, but usually only with scenes we’re having trouble with.

MM: There’s an amazing scene in Goodfellas where Robert De Niro—playing Jimmy the Gent—is smoking a cigarette at a bar and flashing an incredibly sinister look, all to the tune of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” That single expression informs us that Jimmy will kill anybody who tries to get their hands on his heist money. Did you select that particular take?

TS: De Niro did several takes and he was pretty good in all of them. But that particular one featured a little lift of his eyebrow. We sunk the music to it and Marty knew right away that he wanted to use that piece of music when we saw the shot. The shot was actually stronger than what we’d originally visualized while shooting it. He wasn’t using a video monitor then. Now he is. So when he said, “Sink it to the eyelid,” it just worked out beautifully.

MM:  Is it true that “Layla” was played on the set of Goodfellas during the scenes of the aftermath of Jimmy’s killings?

TS: It was played while Marty was shooting it. He designed it like my husband had done for Black Narcissus. Have you see Black Narcissus?

MM: No. (accompanied by shameful, hangdog look)

TS: There’s a scene in which my husband made what he called a “composed film,” and he shot a very dramatic sequence in which one nun was trying to kill another one. He designed every shot to fit a certain bar of music. It’s very effective and Marty has always been interested in that and been influenced by it. So when he did Goodfellas, he took “Layla” and designed each shot to be a certain length to fit part of the song. He had the music being played on the set to be sure it worked.

MM: Do you ever research the subjects of your films? For example, did you read up on Howard Hughes prior to editing The Aviator?

TS: On Howard Hughes, I decided not to read anything, because I knew we were going to have to fictionalize some of it and combine characters. I didn’t want to be thinking in my mind, ‘Oh, I know this isn’t true.’ So I didn’t read any of the Howard Hughes books. But for certain films like Kundun, I had to learn a lot about Buddhism. That was one of the few where I really had to do a lot of research. Normally I don’t, because I don’t want it to prejudice my eye. I would rather see the film evolve on the screen, in dailies. That’s what Marty wants from me—a fresh eye.

MM: There was a period of time during the ’70s when you did not edit Scorsese’s films. Have you ever looked at that early work and gone, “If I had edited that, I would have done it differently?”

TS: In Taxi Driver, there are a couple of scenes in the diner [between De Niro and Jodie Foster] that I would have cut a little quicker. But ordinarily, no. I love looking at the films I haven’t worked on. I find Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to be a terrific and under-appreciated movie.

MM:  From the initial assembly to the final draft, how many editing phases does a scene typically go through?

TS: It depends on the scene. Sometimes, it can be 19 or 20. Or it just works the first time you do it. For example, the whole ‘home movies’ sequence in Raging Bull, we just hit it. In contrast, the madness scenes from The Aviator were being shot with tons of footage. We were experimenting with all kinds of things. I worked, and worked and worked on that and brought it way down. One day, I kinetically just slashed into it and moved things around, based on how I felt emotionally, and not the way they were intended. That’s what we ended up with.

MM:  People think of editing as a “cutting” process, but Scorsese’s films are also recognized for their long, unbroken scenes, like the Copacabana shot from Goodfellas.

TS: In those really long ones, I might work really intensely on the sound. But I’m not really needed at all there. I might help him decide which take to use.

MM:  Can you confirm the rumors of a Taxi Driver sequel being planned by Scorsese and De Niro?

TS: I haven’t heard Marty talk about it. That doesn’t mean they’re not doing it. I do know they’re discussing a future project, but it’s not that.

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