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.
It's interesting because there are actually a number of movies this year that speak to that, with photography and editing of great patience. "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" let shots play out, for instance.
Good. Probably "Nebraska," too, right? And the Coen brothers'?
That's an amazing movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis." And interesting editorially because of the live singing and the lack of a click track. So they're cutting…
…multiple takes. Yeah, that's hard. That's like cutting improvisation in our movie. It is hard but it's tremendous fun and really worth it. But it is hard. I was brought up on it, you know? I mean, "Raging Bull," two of the greatest improvisers in the world, De Niro and Pesci. So I always loved it. And the documentary training was helpful because you're given a slew of footage of a documentary and you have to find the story. And so that was the case with some of the "Raging Bull" improvisations, that I had to find a dramatic structure in it. And similarly here [in "The Wolf of Wall Street"], I mean these guys were just – once Marty saw he had this formidable body of people, we could improvise, he just decided to be very brave and let them go, you know, within a framework. And they all say that he was laughing a lot of times because there was so much great stuff happening. The sound man said his laughter is on the track, but I never had a problem with it, and of course, the actors, when they hear Marty laugh, that's great. They were so wonderful the way they worked together as a team and kicked each other off. Jonah Hill is just brilliant at it.
[MILD "WOLF OF WALL STREET" SPOILERS]
Well, the sequence that everyone will be talking about, obviously — the quaaludes sequence — is just great. Everyone erupted into applause at my screening after that scene.
I was very surprised to hear that. That rarely happens. Yeah, I heard that. I think it was Jonah told me that people applauded after that. It must've been the same – was he there?
He was sitting right in front of me, actually.
Oh, he was? Was that the first time he saw it?
That's what I was told, yeah. But it's such an extended sequence. It's like a little movie in the movie.
That's right, that's right. And Marty was quite adamant about the long shot of him crawling towards the car. He took no close-ups, no frontal angles. He said, "No, I want to hold on that part," because that's the humor, his body language and opening it and his leg getting stuck up. And the great thing I love is when he finally does pull himself in and his wife is telling him that Donnie's on the phone with Switzerland and he's trying to talk to her. And then finally he pulls his two legs in. It's all just silent film comedy, really.
Does it feel like it's been this long working with Marty?
No, not at all.
Does it feel like yesterday for you?
It does seem like yesterday, because he's so – he's never boring. He never repeats himself. Every film is a new challenge and he's such a fascinating person to be around. I mean, very up and down, you know? He can be very moody, usually when someone's messing with his art. But he's so fascinating. And then it's like being in the greatest film school in the world because we have on the – we look this way when we're editing and on the right we have TCM on silent. So we're watching, constantly, classic movies. And every once in a while he'll turn over and say, "Wait a minute, look, there's a great shot coming up. This director did this great thing here." So, you know, it's like being in the greatest film school in the world as well.
Maybe there's some osmosis or something going on there!
Yeah. It's inspiration. So every once in a while we look over. It's so intense and fascinating. It's an extraordinary thing to be around him. Both of us don't feel our age, also, which is rather staggering when you think of it! We've had a very rich life, my God. Between him and then my husband, who he introduced me to — Michael Powell, the great British film director — I've had the best job in the world and the best husband in the world. So, I mean, what more can you ask for?
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.
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.
Stay tuned over the next few days leading up to the release of "The Wolf of Wall Street" for more with Schoonmaker about her collaborations on some of Martin Scorsese's greatest films.
Schoonmaker's 19th feature collaboration with Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street," opens everywhere on Christmas Day.