By Iain Blair
Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese go together like Lennon and McCartney, or Ben and Jerry. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Simply put, Schoonmaker has been Martin Scorsese’s go-to editor and key collaborator over the course of 23 films and half a century, winning Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. Now 77, she also recently received a career achievement award at the American Cinema Editors’ 67th Eddie Awards.
She cut Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s that Knocking at My Door, and since Raging Bull has worked on all of his feature films, including such classics as The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, New York Stories, GoodFellas (which earned her another Oscar nomination), Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New York (another Oscar nomination), Shutter Island, Hugo (another Oscar nomination) and The Wolf of Wall Street.
A 28-year passion project that reinforces Scorsese’s place in the pantheon of great directors, Silence tells the story of two Christian missionaries (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) at a time when Christianity was outlawed. When they are captured and imprisoned, both men are plunged into an odyssey that will test their faith, challenge their sanity and, perhaps, risk their very lives
I recently talked with Schoonmaker about cutting Silence, working with Scorsese, and their long and storied collaboration.
Silence must have been very challenging to cut as it’s very long and could easily have ended up being a bit slow and boring.
(Laughs) You’re right! It was one of the things we were most concerned about from the start, as it’s a very meditative film. It’s nothing like his last films, Hugo and Wolf of Wall Street, and it couldn’t be more different.
Wolf had all the crazy stuff and the wild humor and improvisation, but with Silence Marty wanted to make an entirely different movie from the way most movies are made today. So that was a very brave commitment, I think, and it was difficult to find the right balance and the right pace. We experimented a great deal with just how slow it could be, without losing the audience.
Even the film’s opening scene was a major challenge. It’s very slow and sets the tone before the film even starts, with just the cicadas on the soundtrack. It tells you, slow down from our crazy lives, just feel what’s going on and engage with it. The minimal score is all part of that. It’s not telling the audience what to think, as scores usually do. He wanted the audience to decide what they feel and think, and he was adamant about starting the film off like that, which was also brave.
It feels far closer to The Age of Innocence in terms of its pacing than his more recent films.
Yes, and that was definitely a big part of its appeal for him, as it’s set in another country and also another century, so Marty wanted the film to be very meditative, and the pace of it had to reflect all that. Along with that, he was able to examine his religious concerns and interests, which he couldn’t do so much in other films. They were always there, but here they’re up front.
Did you stay in New York cutting while he shot in Taiwan, or did you visit the set?
I was in Taipei while they shot, working on the dailies, but I didn’t go on set as the locations they used were very arduous — up these steep mountains — and it took two hours just to get up there. There was bad weather and mud, wind, mosquitoes and snakes. Really, I just didn’t have the time to go on set, so I never got to see the great beauty of Taiwan, since I was back in Taipei in my editing room.
I do go on sets sometimes, and I love to visit and watch Marty work with the actors, and it’s always fun to be on the set, but as an editor, I also want to be unbiased when I sit down and watch footage. I don’t want to have my eye prejudiced by what I see on set and how difficult it might be to get a particular shot. That has nothing at all to do with my job.
How long did it take to edit?
Almost a year, but we had a couple of interruptions. Marty had to finish up his show for HBO, Vinyl, and then there was a family illness. But I love having that much time. Most editors simply don’t get to live with a film that long, and you really have to in order to understand it and understand what it’s saying to you. You’re editing the work of 250 people, and you have to respect that. You shouldn’t have to rush it.
Last time we talked, you were using Lightworks to edit. Do you use Avid now?
No, I still use Lightworks, and I still prefer it. It’s what I was trained on during the early days of digital editing, and it’s used a lot in Europe. Our first digital film was Casino, and back then Lightworks sent a computer expert to train me, and I’ve loved it ever since because it has a controller that is like the old flatbed editing machines and I love that — you can customize it very easily. It also has this button that allows me to throw stuff out of sync and experiment more, and that’s not available on Avid. So I’ve been editing on Lightworks ever since Casino.
When I last interviewed Marty, he told me that editing and post are his favorite parts of filmmaking. When you both sit down to edit it must be like having two editors in the room rather than a director and his editor?
It’s exactly like that. I do the first cut, but then once he comes in after the shoot we make every decision together. He’s a brilliant editor, and he taught me everything I know about editing— I knew nothing when we started together. He also thinks like an editor, unlike many directors. When he’s writing and then shooting, he’s always thinking about how it’ll cut together. Some directors shoot a lot of stuff, but does it cut together? Marty knows all that and what coverage he needs. He’s a genius, and such a knowledgeable person to be around every day.
You’ve been Marty’s editor since his very first film, back in 1967 — a 50-year collaboration. What’s the secret?
I think it’s that we’re true collaborators. He’s such an editing director, and we know each other so well by now, but it’s always fresh and interesting. There are no ego battles. Every film’s different, with different challenges, and he’s always curious, always learning, always open to new experiences. I feel very fortunate.
Right now I’m working on the diaries of my husband, (famed British director) Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), and then Marty and I will start The Irishman later in the summer. It’s all about elderly gangsters, with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s exciting.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.