It must have been fate that brought Thelma Schoonmaker
to the editor’s bench. It was while taking a six-week course at
NYU in the 60s that she met a very young Martin Scorsese, who needed
a little help cutting negative on one of his student projects. Since
then, their friendship has blossomed into one of the film industry’s
most lasting and prolific collaborations. Currently in theaters, Gangs of New York marks their 16th film partnership, which
includes such Scorsese classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Here, the three-time Oscar nominee (and winner
for Raging Bull) gives us the lowdown on life in the trenches
with America’s reigning master.
Phillip Williams (MM): Were there any particular
editing challenges for you with Gangs of New York?
Thelma Schoonmaker (TS): Oh, yes. First of
all, it’s epic in size and sweep, which is quite different from
a lot of the films we’ve done, which usually deal with a smaller
community of people. We were dealing with these battle scenes and
how to fit the personal stories into the historical sweep of the
film. That was the big dilemma.
It was very different in so many ways: I had to learn
a lot about the language [of the era], because we looped a lot of
the extras’ voices-and of course they weren’t allowed to speak during
the crowd scenes because we didn’t want them sounding like a group
of Italians. [laughs] I had to go and loop a lot of Irish
and American actors in England to replace their voices, so I had
to learn a lot about the language that was proper to use; of course
we had a dialogue coach guiding it all. I had to learn enough to
get what we needed.
MM: In terms of your attempt to integrate
the personal stories within the overall historical context of the
picture, what issues came up?
TS: Some of that work had already been done
by Marty with the writers when they cut the original script down.
I think in the original script Boss Tweed, who’s played wonderfully
by Jim Broadbent, was a much larger character; Monk, played by Brendan
Gleeson (who is also fantastic) was a much bigger character. But
we still had to do some writing and restructuring; figuring out
where to put the weight in the film.
We decided to put a narration in to clarify certain
nuggets of information that helped a lot if you had them. For example,
the [dead] bodies with candles [on their chests] at the very end
of the movie was a beautiful shot, but I didn’t realize the full
ramifications of it until Marty told me that the [light from the]
candles helped the families of the dead find their loved ones. Once
he told us that we decided to ask the writer to write a line of
narration about it. It just strengthened the scene so much.
MM: Are there specific demands attached
to cutting different genres? How, specifically, is this film different
from editing something like Raging Bull or Kundun?
TS: That’s a hard one to answer. We were evoking
a sense of place a bit more, I think. In Raging Bull, it
was so much more focused on the character of Jake (Robert De Niro);
it was in a way more biographical. Whereas here, a sense of the
place and a sense of how history was impacting the story [were important].
The kinds of shots that Marty created sometimes were about revealing
that-to show the neighborhood and things in a different way than
we would normally do it. But the major artistic thing was Marty’s
desire to try and cut the battle scenes and the rioters being shot
down at the end in an “Eisensteinian” way. We deliberately tried
to give that sort of fractured feeling to some of the more active
scenes in the film.
MM: So the montage was to some degree inspired
by scenes in something like The Battleship Potemkin?
TS: Exactly, yes. And a film called The
Deserter, where Marty actually had a very specific shot that
he was interested in and showed it to me a number of times so that
I would absorb the approach he was going for. Of course the footage,
when you get it, always drives how you cut something. Sometimes,
after he conceives it, he gets on the set and can’t shoot it exactly
the way he wants-or shoots it a different way because the set gives
him a different opportunity. Things change. [Other films] are always
an inspiration; we never mimic anything.
MM: It seems almost like he tunes into a
certain kind of energy more than mimicking a given set of shots.
TS: Exactly. And sometimes it’s almost baffling
what the influence is. I remember I think it was one of the smoking
shots in Raging Bull; he told me that the influence for it
was a shot from Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmut, where a helmet
rolls and dust rises from it, or something to that effect. When
I looked at the shot, in no way did our shot look like that, but
I could understand the genesis of the idea. It’s just one of the
great joys of working with Marty: it’s like being in the best film
school in the world! [laughs] You’re always sharing wonderful
films. On New Year’s Eve at his house, he always runs a film-usually
a quirky one. He threads it up on a little 16mm projector; it’s
a lot of fun. Looking at films is a very important part of his life.
MM: In the beginning battle scene of Gangs
of New York, when Priest Vallon is killed, I would think that
was a scene where you were drawing on the influence of Eisenstein.?
TS: Definitely-that’s the one. What Marty liked
was in Battleship Potemkin, there is a scene with a sailor
who is washing dishes and they haven’t had enough to eat, and the
food they are given is filled with worms; the pressure is building
toward a rebellion. The sailor is washing a dish that says ‘Thanks
to God for giving us what we eat every day,’ and it triggers something
in him and he smashes the dish. What Marty loved was that Eisenstein
was completely unconventional when he cut it: He didn’t cut it at
all the way you would expect someone to do it, he fractured it.
Instead of the soldier’s arm going down, it’s going up at one point
in the middle of a bunch of very quick cuts. That was the one very
important influence he wanted on the battle.
There was a lot of footage that came out of the shooting
of those battle scenes. You get footage that sometimes you don’t
think you are going to use-the struggling feet in the snow, or blood
splattering on the snow-and Marty said, “That’s what we want to
use. We want to use those things, as well as our main characters
slashing their way through.” We wanted to use these elements
that most people would throw away. [laughing]
MM: I read something where Scorsese described
this film as a “western on Mars.” Did you screen any westerns with
him in preparation for this picture?
TS: No. Marty of course, over the years, has
shown me many westerns and they have been a major influence on him.
But not for this; we just watched the Russian films and The Bowery, a film that Wallace Beery was in about this period, but done
in a much more Hollywood way. Marty did have everybody look at that,
even though it wasn’t exactly a reference. There were also many
wonderful books that we read, including a lexicon of the period
written down by a police officer in 1855. Of course, the writers
just pounced on that!
MM: I enjoy the way they used the local
language; you lose something when a period film is overly contemporary.
TS: I thought it was so brave. They went out
on a limb sometimes with lines that at first you don’t understand,
but you come to understand.
MM: I prefer not to get everything at once.
I want to get it eventually, but it’s nice when you feel like you
are in a world that’s different from your own.
TS: And that takes great courage and confidence-and
an assumption that your audience has brains. My husband, Michael
Powell (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom) used to say to Marty
and me, “Never underestimate your audience. They are always 100
miles ahead of you. You try and be ahead of them-don’t ever talk
down to them.” Obviously there are times when you have to give the
audience information, but don’t baby them. Marty, in his movies,
hates telling people what to think.
Filmography for Thelma Schoonmaker
Gangs of New York (2002)
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Mio Viaggio in Italia (1999)
Grace of My Heart (1996)
The Age of Innocence (1993)
Cape Fear (1991)
Made in Milan (1990)
New York Stories (1989)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Color of Money (1986)
After Hours (1985)
The King of Comedy (1983)
Raging Bull (1980)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Street Scenes (1970)
The Virgin President (1968)
Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968)