Thelma Schoonmaker talks cutting 'Wolf of Wall Street' improv and learning from Martin Scorsese
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker has been with Martin Scorsese since the beginning. Their collaboration, which extends over 19 feature films, a handful of shorts and even a Michael Jackson music video, has made for some of the richest, purest, most alive American cinema in history, and "The Wolf of Wall Street," opening next week, is just another notch on that belt.
I recently sat down with Schoonmaker to discuss all of that and more, and I don't mind saying, I couldn't help but gush. Anyone with a passion for cinema, I imagine, will fight the urge to bow at the feet of a woman like this, who has been such a consistent force behind some of the most indelible film imagery of our time.
Schoonmaker has been nominated for six Oscars for her collaborations with Scorsese, having won for "Raging Bull," "The Aviator" and "The Departed." Meeting him changed her life, as meeting her surely changed his. And that certainly came across in our hour-long conversation, which you can read through below. It's another long one, so settle in, or bookmark it and enjoy it over the holiday.
(NOTE: There are mild "Wolf of Wall Street" SPOILERS indicated here and there in this interview.)
HitFix: First of all, it's just such an honor to sit down with you. I have to gush a bit, I'm sorry. Yours is simply one of the storied collaborations in all of cinema.
Thelma Schoonmaker: Well, thank you. Marty was quoted the other day as saying we've been working together for half a century, which is pretty staggering! I said, "My God." Actually there were 10 years when I couldn't work with him because I wasn't in the union out here. When he came out here we didn't have to be in the union back there [in New York]. And then finally on "Raging Bull" I got in. But yeah, I mean who knew when I first met him that this would happen? It changed my life. I would never, probably, have become a filmmaker. It was just a summer course and I had wanted to become a diplomat. The state department told me I was too liberal. I passed all the exams and they said I was too liberal, I would be very unhappy there. So I took a job with this horrible guy who was butchering the films of Fellini, Truffaut for late-night television slots. And it was so awful, that job, that I saw an ad for a six-week course and I thought, "Well, I can just barely afford that." And there was Marty. I could've just taken that six-week course and it would have been a lark and I would have gone on to something else, but because I met him my whole life changed.
Did he just awaken something in you with his passion?
Oh yeah. There were a lot of very talented people there that year. But Marty's student films were — right away I saw that he was someone exceptional at it. And so we all banded together, started making documentaries for PBS and 'The Merv Griffin Show' and things like that, and we're helping Marty finish his first feature film, which was 'Who's That Knocking.' And he taught me how to edit. I knew nothing about editing — nothing. He taught me everything I know. Because of that and his wonderful high standards, my values are his values, so we worked really wonderfully together in a collaboration. We don't fight.
I suppose it can be good to fight sometimes, no? You butt heads and get at something creative in the process?
It's not that we don't disagree, but we don't fight. A lot of the director/editor relationships are really acrimonious. That's not good for a film.
What did you learn early on from Marty that has been kind of a cornerstone for you in your work? What's something that stays with you every time you're in the editing suite?
Well, you know, going for the truth. Always to avoid sensationalism or anything like that for its own effect, but to really try and get down to the truth. We had learned that also on documentaries, which we were making because it was the great explosion of cinema vérité. It was a great period in American filmmaking. I would think that his philosophy is not to use gimmicks and not to tell the audience what you think, but to make them feel it. And you have to engage with his movies. If you don't, it's hopeless. He taught me that. The editing style is really, again, about simplicity and not gimmicks, you know? So it's a little hard for us right now with the modern style of blender editing, where everything is two frames long. He keeps saying, 'Where is the shot?' Whatever happened to the great shot like Kubrick used to do? And you could watch it for six minutes and never get bored because it was so beautifully framed. It had such beautiful music. And what was going on inside was so great. Now it's just, the image doesn't mean anything. It's just…
The music video after-effect on the industry, I suppose.
Commercials, everything. And they seem to be getting so short now that I wonder if they're going to come to the end of the road. I don't think they can make each cut any shorter! I wonder if there will be a big backlash and everything will go back to being slow again.