By Iain Blair
Editor Thelma Schoonmaker is a three-time Academy Award winner who has worked alongside filmmaker Martin Scorsese for almost 50 years. Simply put, Schoonmaker has been Scorsese’s go-to editor and key collaborator over the course of some 25 films, winning Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. The 79-year-old also received a career achievement award from the American Cinema Editors (ACE).
Schoonmaker cut Scorsese’s first feature, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and since 1980’s Raging Bull has worked on all of his features, receiving a number of Oscar nominations along the way. There are too many to name, but some highlights include The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Casino and Hugo.
Now Scorsese and Schoonmaker have once again turned their attention to the mob with The Irishman, which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including one for Shoonmaker’s editing work. Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, it’s an epic saga that runs 3.5 hours and focuses on organized crime in post-war America. It’s told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (De Niro). He’s a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa. It also offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime — its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.
But there’s a twist to this latest mob drama that Scorsese directed for Netflix from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian. Gone are the flashy wise guys and the glamour of Goodfellas and Casino. Instead, the film examines the mundane nature of mob killings and the sad price any survivors pay in the end.
Here, Schoonmaker — who in addition to her film editing works to promote the films and writings of her late husband, famed British director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) — talks about cutting The Irishman, working with Scorsese and their long and storied collaboration.
The Irishman must have been very challenging to cut, just in terms of its 3.5-hour length?
Actually, it wasn’t very challenging to cut. It came together much more quickly than some of our other films because Scorsese and Steve Zaillian had created a very strong structure. I think some critics think I came up with this structure, but it was already there in the script. We didn’t have to restructure, which we do sometimes, and only dropped a few minor scenes.
Did you stay in New York cutting while he shot on location, or did you visit the set?
Almost everything in the The Irishman was shot in or around New York. The production was moving all over the place, so I never got to the set. I couldn’t afford the time.
When I last interviewed Marty, he told me that editing and post are his favorite parts of filmmaking. When the two of you sit down to edit, is it like having two editors in the room rather than a director and his editor?
Marty’s favorite part of filmmaking is editing, and he directs the editing after he finishes shooting. I do an assembly based on what he tells me in dailies and what I feel, and then we do all the rest of the editing together.
Could you give us some sense of how that collaboration works?
We’ve worked together for almost 50 years, and it’s a wonderful collaboration. He taught me how to edit at first, but then gradually it has become more of a collaboration. The best thing is that we both work for what is best for the film — it never becomes an ego battle.
How long did it take to edit the film, and what were the main challenges?
We edited for a year and the footage was so incredibly rich: the only challenge was to make sure we chose the best of it and took advantage of the wonderful improvisations the actors gave us. It was a complete joy for Scorsese and me to edit this film. After we locked the film, we turned over to ILM so they could do the “youthifying” of the actors. That took about seven months.
Could you talk about finding the overall structure and considerable use of flashbacks to tell the story?
Scorsese had such a strong concept for this film — and one of his most important ideas was to not explain too much. He respects the audience’s ability to figure things out themselves without pummeling them with facts. It was a bold choice and I was worried about it, frankly, at first. But he was absolutely right. He didn’t want the film to feel like a documentary. He wanted to use brushstrokes of history just to show how they affected the characters. The way the characters were developed in the film, particularly Frank Sheeran, the De Niro character, was what was most important.
Could you talk about the pacing, and how you and Marty kept its momentum going?
Scorsese was determined that The Irishman would have a slower pace than many films today. He gave the film a deceptive simplicity. Interestingly, our first audiences had no problem with this — they became gripped by the characters and kept saying they didn’t mind the length and loved the pace. Many of them said they wanted to see the film again right away.
There are several slo-mo sequences. Could you talk about why you used them and to what effect?
The Phantom camera slo-motion wedding sequence (250fps) near the end of the film was done to give the feeling of a funeral, instead of a wedding, because the DeNiro character has just been forced to do the worst thing he will ever do in his life. Scorsese wanted to hold on De Niro’s face and evoke what he is feeling and to study the Italian-American faces of the mobsters surrounding him. Instead of the joy a wedding is supposed to bring, there is a deep feeling of grief.
What was the most difficult sequence to cut and why?
The montage where De Niro repeatedly throws guns into the river after he has killed someone took some time to get right. It was very normal at first — and then we started violating the structure and jump cutting and shortening until we got the right feeling. It was fun.
There’s been a lot of talk about the digital de-aging process. How did it impact the edit?
Pablo Helman at ILM came up with the new de-aging process, and it works incredibly well. He would send shots and we would evaluate them and sometimes ask for changes — usually to be sure that we kept the amazing performances of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci intact. Sometimes we would put back in a few wrinkles if it meant we could keep the subtlety of De Niro’s acting, for example. Scorsese was adamant that he didn’t want to have younger actors play the three main parts in the beginning of the film. So he really wanted this “youthifying” process to work — and it does!
There’s a lot of graphic violence. How do you feel about that in the film?
Scorsese made the violence very quick in The Irishman and shot it in a deceptively simple way. There aren’t any complicated camera moves and flashy editing. Sometimes the violence takes place after a simple pan, when you least expect it because of the blandness of the setting. He wanted to show the banality of violence in the mob — that it is a job, and if you do it well, you get rewarded. There’s no morality involved.
Last time we talked, you were using the Lightworks editing system. Do you still use Lightworks, and if so, can you talk about the system’s advantages for you?
I use Lightworks because the editing surface is still the fastest and most efficient and most intuitive to use. Maintaining sync is different from all other NLE systems. You don’t correct sync by sync lock — if you go out of sync, Lightworks gives you a red icon with a number of frames that you are out of sync. You get to choose where you want to correct sync. Since editors place sound and picture on the timeline, adjusting sync where you want to adjust the sync is much more efficient.
You’ve been Marty’s editor since his very first film — a 50-year collaboration. What’s the secret?
I think Scorsese felt when he first met me that I would do what was right for his films — that there wouldn’t be ego battles. We work together extremely well. That’s all there is to it. There couldn’t be a better job.
Do you ever have strong disagreements about the editing?
If we do have disagreements, which is very rare, they are never strong. He is very open to experimentation. Sometimes we will screen two ways and see what the audience says. But that is very rare.
A movie about the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, based on the book “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann.
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.