Thelma Schoonmaker talks cutting 'Wolf of Wall Street' improv and learning from Martin Scorsese
So how has this experience been in the grander scheme of working with Marty for so long? Does it ever get to a point where it's just another one? Of course each brings with it its own experience but at this volume…
Never. I mean this film couldn't be any more different from "Hugo" if you tried! And it couldn't be more different from our next film. So the great thing about this, it never feels like same old, like I'm in a rut, never — because they're always so different. I mean "Gangs of New York" is so different from "The Aviator," which was so different from "The Departed" or "Age of Innocence" or "Kundun." So every one is a great new challenge. This one was great because of the improvisation and I love cutting improvisation and I hadn't done it in a while. So it was really fun. I was just roaring with laughter in the editing room. I mean my assistants would come in and look to see what was going on because it's not normal with dailies to be laughing so much. Usually we have to create the humor, but because it was improv and long stretches of improv it was – I couldn't stop laughing, which was a new experience.
When was the last time you remember cutting improv on this level?
Well, we did a little bit — had to do a little bit — in "The Departed" with Jack Nicholson and Leo. But the biggest one before that would have been "Casino." And then, of course, "Goodfellas," "After Hours" and "Raging Bull." "King of Comedy," also, a tremendous amount.
Yeah I think maybe it was Leo who said something about watching a making-of video about "The King of Comedy" specifically because of the improvisation.
Yeah, a tremendous amount of improv. But it's funny that we haven't been doing it. And suddenly here it was again. Boy, I mean, just tons of it pouring in. They were having such a great time, the actors. I don't know if they'll ever have such a wonderful project again. They were just having one hell of a good time making it. I couldn't understand how they could not laugh during the scenes because they're sitting there talking about dwarfs, throwing dwarfs around, and one of them can be a bowling ball. I said to Leo, "How did you do it without cracking up?"
Do you ever make it down to the set at all? This certainly would have been a fun one to be on.
I love to go to watch Marty work but I don't have time, usually. Also, it influences my eye. I don't want to be told what I'm going to see the next day. I really like to see it evolve on the screen. And I don't read the script except once and then I put it away, because I want to see it evolve. And Marty doesn't put a lot of what is in his films in the script. A lot of it goes in as he's making it. I would love to go but – particularly this one, we were in New York and it was the first movie we made in New York in a long time, but they were so far away in Westchester that it's just too long a commute. I can't afford the time. I need to be cutting! But there have been other films I've been on the set more for.
You mentioned the period of time you couldn't work with Marty due to the union situation. I think most people just assume you cut all of his movies.
Right, it was 'Boxcar Bertha,' 'Mean Streets,' I didn't cut his wonderful documentary 'Italianamerican,' have you seen that?
Yes, it's wonderful.
"New York, "New York" and there's one other I'm missing. "Alice," did I say "Alice?" Usually he was working with a team of three editors in those days, one of them being Marcia Lucas, George Lucas' wife. And then when he hit it with "Star Wars" she wanted to go and work on his movie so she left and that's when he called me.
Oh, and "Taxi Driver."
Right, "Taxi" I didn't do. It was, again, the team of editors. One of them was Tom Rolf, a very well-known editor. He was not happy working on it but he did some great work. He did the 'are you talking to me?' and the great scene up in Harlem. But he was unhappy. I don't think he really liked Marty's movies. Marty suffered a lot in his early days in Hollywood with rejection, you know. A tremendous amount. People don't realize that. He really has had a very, very rough time here. For example, I mean "Taxi" was horrendous. It was really bad when it got to the distribution stage. And he just didn't feel welcome here. And that's why he moved back to New York. I think it was his redemption coming back to New York. And that's when he made "Raging Bull," so it was a real important shift. I mean his films before that are all very, very good. But he just felt he wasn't welcome here. It's sad. It's interesting.
How does he feel about it now?
You know, it's just part of the function of our lives, that's all. He would never want to live here. He doesn't feel comfortable here at all. But boy, recently he's been telling me some stories of his early days. It was rough. It's interesting that you have to have such a strong drive in you that you have something to say that you can survive that. I don't know if I could have survived the stories he's told me. But he had this burning desire to make films and it sustained him. Then when he sort of almost lost it, "Raging Bull" brought him back. And De Niro was a very big part of that. Marty was in the hospital and De Niro just kept saying to him, "Come on, don't you want to see what we're going to be like when we get old? We've got a lot to do ahead of us." And he helped pull Marty around. Marty didn't want to make it. Bob just gave him five minutes to make up his mind finally. He just said, "Either you make it or I'm going to go get somebody else," and then Marty said, "Okay." And look what happened.
Schoonmaker's 19th feature collaboration with Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street," opens everywhere on Christmas Day.