Thelma Schoonmaker talks cutting 'Wolf of Wall Street' improv and learning from Martin Scorsese
This one appeared to present a lot of challenges as it came down the stretch. The financiers were eager to release it in 2013 and you had such a large cut to bring down. How did you navigate that as the deadline approached?
Well, it was hard. When we got the four-hour — you know, what happened was five lines in the script mushroomed into a five-minute, brilliantly improvised scene, so the whole thing just blew up. I was very worried and I said to Marty, "There's no way we can get an hour of this out of this movie," but we did by just shaving it down slowly. Instead of cutting out scenes, which would have been really devastating, we just shaved things down and did three or four screenings and kept going and kept going and finally we got there. And I would never have believed we would have done it. So it was fortunate because it would've been disastrous if we hadn't. I mean you can't distribute a four-hour movie.
I can't imagine anyone wanted to do that, either.
But people loved the four-hour cut.
I guess maybe you could have done something like "Kill Bill." Volume one and volume two.
Well, we thought about it. We did. But the film doesn't work split in half. It has to have a certain arc. We did think about it, believe me, because people loved the four-hour version.
I heard second-hand from people who had seen that version early on that they had no idea what you could cut.
That was a thing, too. People kept saying, "Oh, well, yeah it is too long but I couldn't tell you what to cut." So that kept happening over and over again, but fortunately, as I say — it would've been horrible if we had it cut out whole scenes.
Were you pleased with where it ended up or did you feel like there was more work that could have been done?
Oh yeah. There are improvs I would still like to have in it, but no, no. It's got to sustain itself. And I don't think it would have been good to be longer than this.
What about shorter?
Yeah, maybe if we had a little more time maybe we could have gotten a little more out. I don't know. But I have kept the long cuts for the actors because they did so many wonderful things. I want them to see them.
It's interesting because, at least for me personally, I walked out of the movie feeling like it was something that wanted to be longer.
Yeah, like it could have been a mini-series if it wanted to be. Getting it down to what you got it to was a tough chore, but it just felt like it had more to say. Not that it felt like it was withholding anything, it's just a robust portrait, you know?
It was actually a little more complicated and was making more statements, actually, in the longer version. But I don't know. It's impossible. There is some film — I think there is some film that Lars Von Trier has done that's a four-hour movie.
Yes, that's "Nymphomaniac." It was actually five-and-a-half hours originally! And it looks to be quite racy. Speaking of which, I had heard that Marty was keen on releasing "Wolf" with an NC-17 rating, kind of like "Midnight Cowboy."
You know, I think what happened is because he's been working on HBO, where you can get away with a lot more — he's an executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire" so he's been seeing a tremendous amount of stuff, and he got used to it. And I think he sort of almost forgot. So when I said to him, "What about censorship," he said, "Oh, no, we don't have to worry about that." But I must say they [the MPAA] were very good with us. They like Marty's films and they really like this one. So they worked with us. And if we agreed to do certain things then they let us have some things. Once he realized he had to do it he was angry about it but he did it.
I was still frankly surprised this version made an "R."
I know. I know.
[MILD "WOLF OF WALL STREET" SPOILERS]
There's one scene in particular toward the end that, how should I put this delicately, displays a lot of "motion."
The last one, you mean. Yeah. And it's very hard to watch [that scene]. And it's supposed to be. Marty wanted it to be painful. It's very painful to watch that. Yeah, that was the other thing they gave us was that scene. They were not happy about it.