DATE May 31, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Thelma Schoonmaker discusses her life and career as
film editor for Martin Scorsese
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "The Aviator")
Mr. LEONARDO DiCAPRIO: (As Howard Hughes) Yeah, run reel 10 again. I think
we're duplicating a shot here. And tell Jimmy I want 10 chocolate chip
cookies, all right? Medium chips, none too close to the outside. Got it?
GROSS: That's Leonard DiCaprio portraying the obsessive-compulsive aviation
and film mogul Howard Hughes in a scene from Martin Scorsese film "The
Aviator." My guest Thelma Schoonmaker won her second Oscar for editing the
film. Her first Oscar was for editing Scorsese's "Raging Bull." She's edited
each of his movies since then and is now working with him on a new one.
Scorsese films "The Aviator" and "Casino" have just been released on DVD, and
there's a new 25th anniversary DVD edition of "Raging Bull."
This year also marks the centennial of the birth of Thelma Schoonmaker's late
husband, the British film director Michael Powell, who made "The Red Shoes,"
"Black Narcissus," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Peeping Tom" and
many other films. She's been attending centennial retrospectives of his work,
including one earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival. I spoke with
Thelma Schoonmaker about her life and work.
Thelma Schoonmaker, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now you worked with Martin Scorsese
on his very first film. I think he was still a student when he made "Who's
That Knocking on My Door?" But then you didn't team up with him again until
"Raging Bull." "Raging Bull's" out on DVD. It's one of, like, the landmark
films in American filmmaking. How did you end up working with him on "Raging
Bull," reuniting with him after a period of--What?--10 years in between?
Ms. THELMA SCHOONMAKER (Film Editor): Right. I wasn't in the union in New
York or LA, and--the editors union, so I couldn't work for Marty when he
went to bust into Hollywood. He kept calling me and asking me to work with
him, but I--the union wouldn't let me. So they had very restrictive policies
then. You had to serve long apprenticeships, and then you had to serve
another long stretch of time as an assistant before you were allowed to be an
editor. And by that time, we had made "Woodstock." I was the supervising
editor of "Woodstock." I had been nominated for an Oscar. And I just didn't
feel I had to go back and become an apprentice to be able to work for Marty
and spend seven years before I could work for him anyway. So I couldn't do
it, and he started working with Marcia Lucas, who was also the wife of George
Lucas. And he kept calling me, but every time I couldn't do it.
So I worked on documentaries about the American Revolution for WQED in
Pittsburgh. I did a little short film for Paul McCartney on his world tour.
And, finally, on "Raging Bull," Marty called me, and I said, `You know I can't
work for you.' And he said, `Well, we got you in the union.' And I never
asked how, but shortly after that the union did open up their--the doors to a
more liberal policy.
GROSS: So to this day you don't know how he got you in the union?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I don't ask.
GROSS: So did you have any idea what you were in for with "Raging Bull," how
interesting and complex the editing was going to be?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I had no idea. I had always worked in a rather small,
independent film environment or on documentaries, which were very critical, by
the way, for the editing of "Raging Bull" because documentaries teach you how
to take unshaped footage and create a story out of it, which I had to do with
some of the wonderful improvisations between De Niro and Joe Pesci. So I had
no idea what a big, major studio film was like. And when I went out to
Hollywood, there were assistants and things that I had never experienced
before. I had always put my own trims away, and suddenly there was this big
sort of studio system, and I--post-production system, and I said to Marty,
`You know, I've never done this kind of thing before.' And he said, `Don't
worry, I'll be there with you. I've been through it.' So he--that was good
But I had no idea the raw power of the footage that was going to land into my
hands. In my Oscar speech, I said it was like having pure gold to work on.
And it really was. That film is burned into the screen. The crew, on the
other hand, was a bit baffled by the film. They couldn't understand why so
much time was being spent on a man who seemed to be so unpleasant. And so
when I would meet the crew on their way back from shooting, they would say,
`Oh, wait till you see what we shot today. We don't get this at all.' But I
was seeing, in the editing room, already how amazing it was. And often
Scorsese does not put into his scripts what he has in his head, so when they
saw the film put together, they were--they saw it then. They were stunned.
But I was seeing it already just so alive in my hands. It was astounding.
GROSS: Now you mentioned that you had to do a lot of shaping in the editing
room of the improvisatory scenes between De Niro and Joe Pesci. Can you talk
a little bit about what the raw footage was like and how you shaped those
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, the--Joe Pesci had not done much work before in films.
He had been in one film, I think, which De Niro saw and brought to show Marty,
and that's why they decided to cast him. And--but De Niro, of course, had
done quite a few films by then, and he was wonderfully helpful to Joe Pesci in
the improvisations because he would look over at Marty, and Marty would give
him a little look saying, `Do it again.' And Bob would start the
improvisation over again and again and again, until Marty got exactly what he
felt he needed out of Joe Pesci's performance. And Pesci is such a fertile
improviser, and he and De Niro would just kick each other off.
What you want to do in a situation like that, when you have two actors who are
going you don't know where--it's not scripted--is to have two cameras shooting
at all times because--so you can capture the actors' responses to this new
sort of tangent they're going off on. But sometimes in the locations Marty
was shooting in, in the Bronx, in real houses, like the ones that Jake LaMotta
would have lived in, he couldn't get two cameras in the room. So that was the
time when--for me, it was--I had to try and figure out a way to take two
different sessions of great improvisations, one camera and one off, and try
and make it work together dramatically.
The most obvious example of that is the kitchen scene, where De Niro is
hassling this wife about bringing him a cup of coffee. The babies are crying,
and Joe Pesci's trying to get him to agree to fight a fighter that he doesn't
want to fight. And Marty based that whole scene on the way his agent used to
explain his deals to him in Hollywood because he could never understand the
percentage this, the that, the--he could never--and he always used to say,
`Tell me again. Tell me again.' And so that was what he said to De Niro, and
De Niro then kept, you know, not understanding what his brother is telling him
and making him repeat it over and over again.
It was a wonderful improvisation, but it was very hard to make hang together
dramatically. I had a hell of a lot of fun working on it because, again, my
documentary background, having been handed large amounts of footage that
needed to be shaped into a story, helped me immensely.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that scene? And this is from the new DVD release,
the 25th anniversary release, of "Raging Bull."
(Soundbite of "Raging Bull")
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Don't ever do that Janiro (censored)
again. No more deals like that. You hear what I'm saying?
Mr. JOE PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) What are you talking about?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) What am I talking about? Look at that, 168
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Stop eating.
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) What's this little smart-ass? I told you I
didn't want to do it in the first place. Didn't I tell you that?
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) No, you didn't say that. You're the one that
told me you could get down to 155 pounds. Where'd I get it? What? Did I
pull it out of the (censored) air?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) I don't know if I'm going to make it down to
155. I'm lucky I make it to 160. And on top of that, you sign me for a fight
at 155, and if I don't make the 155, I lose $15,000.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) That's right.
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Oh! You're supposed to be a manager. You're
supposed to know what you're doing.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) I did just what I wanted to do.
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) That's what I'm worried about. You did it...
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) You want a paddy shack?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) What are you talking about?
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Do you want a paddy shack?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) What is--what am I? What am I? In the circus
over here? I asked him. He's got more sense about this. What are you doing?
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) You've been killing yourself for three years
now, right? There's nobody left for you to fight. Everybody's afraid to
fight you. OK, along comes this kid, Janiro. He don't know any better. He's
a young kid, up and coming. He'd fight anybody. Good. You fight him. Bust
his hole. Tear him apart, right? What are you worried about? What's the
biggest thing you got to worry about? The weight?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) I'm worried about the weight.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) You're worried about the weight?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) What are we arguing about it for? I just said
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) OK, let's say you lose because of your weight.
Are they going to think you're not as tough as you are, you're not the same
fighter? Good. They'll match you with all those guys they were afraid to
match you with before. What happens? You'll kill them. And they gotta give
you a title shot.
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Bring me coffee please.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Why? There's nobody else. Nobody's left. Who
they going to give it to?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Coffee.
Unidentified Woman: In a minute.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Are you listening to me?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Please, honey, bring me coffee, huh?
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) All right?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Hey, how long I gotta wait?
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Are you listening?
Unidentified Woman: I don't know.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Now let's say you win, you beat Janiro...
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Yeah.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) ...which you definitely should beat him--Right?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Yeah.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) Right?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Yeah.
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) They still gotta give you a shot at the title.
You know why?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Why?
Mr. PESCI: (As Joey LaMotta) 'Cause the same thing as before; there's nobody
left. There ain't nobody around. They gotta give you the shot. You
understand? If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win. There's no way
you can lose. And you'll do it on your own, just the way you wanted to do,
without any help from anybody. You understand? Just get down to 155 pounds,
you fat bastard. You stop eating.
GROSS: A scene from "Raging Bull" with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. My
guest, Thelma Schoonmaker, was the editor of "Raging Bull." She won an Oscar
for her editing on that. And she's worked with Martin Scorsese on every
subsequent film that he's made. And, by the way, "Casino" and "The Aviator"
have just come out on DVD.
Thelma Schoonmaker, in an improvisatory scene like that, would you ever
consult the actors--you know, De Niro and Pesci in this case--and ask them
what was going through their minds when they did certain things? Would that
be a helpful thing to know?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I didn't--no, I didn't need that, but it was quite clear in
the footage what I should try and get to work. There's one wonderful moment
I'll just tell you about in the improvisations where the wife, played by
Theresa Saldana, of Joe Pesci says--tries to defend her sister-in-law and
says, `She didn't mean nothing.' And Joe Pesci just turns to her and says,
`Who asked you?' It's just one of the great laugh scenes in the film because
it's so outrageous, and that was completely an improv. She spoke up
unscripted, and Joe's reaction--the timing of the head turn is so wonderful,
the pause before the line is so perfect.
Of course, comic lines are built out of beats. You know, waiting just a
moment or two can make the line funnier. My husband always used to say that
about silent films. They had almost mathematical counts that the comedians
used to do with each other. Gracie Allen, I understand, also used to do that.
You wait two beats before you answer, and that makes it funnier.
GROSS: Of course, you could ruin that in the editing (laughs). I mean, you
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...take out those two beats if you wanted to.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, you can make an actor sometimes look not as good or
make them look even better, depending on how you edit their footage. That's
why it's such a wonderful job. You get to shape things and build drama, build
rhythm, build pacing.
GROSS: Let's talk about the climactic fight scene in "Raging Bull." Martin
Scorsese had that pretty thoroughly storyboarded before he shot it?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: He did, and we did start out with exactly the way he had
storyboarded all these amazing shots. But then we began fooling around with
it and, during the process of editing, discovering that, for example, when
Vickie puts her head down into her hands--his wife's sitting in the audience
watching this massacre. When she puts her head down in her hands and then
when she picks her head up were key moments to hang the whole construction of
the montage around. So things like that that you don't expect occur when you
get footage that's been shot, and so you sometimes have to change things a
little bit. We did violate the initial structure of the storyboard. We
worked on it for a very long time. And some--we even put one shot in upside
GROSS: What shot was that, and why did you do that?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: It's a shot of the legs--De Niro's legs buckling. It just
worked better that way. I don't know (laughs). And so it was a wonderful
montage to work on.
GROSS: And is that...
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: And Scorsese...
GROSS: Wait. Is that almost subliminal, that shot? I mean, does it go by so
quickly that you don't notice it?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yeah. Yes, it does. It goes by very quickly, yeah. He had
actually his trainer on his shoulder when he was doing those shots of the
knees, so that he would actually have that great weight on his shoulders. And
it helped him when he was, you know, buckling from the pounding he's taking
from Sugar Ray. But Marty had wonderful ideas in that film. For example,
when we--the fighter who is beating De Niro to a pulp, Sugar Ray--playing the
character Sugar Ray Robinson--can't understand why he won't go down. Of
course, Jake LaMotta was famous for never going down. He could take any
amount of punishment and never go down.
The--Sugar Ray backs away and tries to figure out what the hell is going on,
and Marty had this wonderful shot where the lights dim and a complete silence
occurs on the track. Our sound editor suggested that to us. He said, `Taking
sound away often is much more powerful than bringing it in.' So we took the
sound away, the lights darkened down and Sugar Ray just stands there breathing
like an animal. You hear animal sounds of breathing, which our wonderful
sound editor, Frank Warner, put in. And then he decides to come back in for
another attack, and as he does that, the camera ramps back up to normal speed
again. And we cut to a smashing shot of the glove hitting De Niro's head.
Beautiful directing, beautiful conception.
GROSS: What's an example of something that you had never tried before, never
really thought of before, until editing "Raging Bull"?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, I think the...
GROSS: Probably everything you've just told us, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yeah, it's...
GROSS: Come to think of it.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, it's such a rich film. You know, when I talk to
students, I just put the film on and I start talking about it. There's so
much I can--I could talk for seven years about it, I think. Anyway, I would
say that the--Scorsese had designed the fight so beautifully. Each fight is
different. The size of the ring is different in each fight, depending on the
emotional state of Jake's mind. For example, the first time he knocks down
Sugar Ray, which was a great triumph, the ring is large and sweeping and
brightly lit. And when he loses a fight on a technical decision, which he
can't understand, the ring is filled with smoke and dark and murky. And
Scorsese shot it with flames below the lens, so that there's a miragelike
feeling, a kind of queasy, nauseous feeling throughout. When De Niro goes and
sits down in a corner, there's a rope in front of his eyes, so you can't see
his face. All these things contribute to this incredible evocation of his
befuddlement about why he lost this fight.
So Scorsese had such a strong conception for all of these fights, and the
footage was so brilliantly shot. You have no idea how hard it is to do
extremely difficult camera moves in a ring when you have two fighters and a
referee moving around constantly in the ring and try and be in the ring with
them shooting--extremely difficult. That was Scorsese's commitment from day
one. He had looked at every boxing film ever made, and the thing he noticed
about most of them is that the camera was outside of the ring, of course,
because it's so hard to shoot in. But he wanted to be in the ring, and he
almost always is. I don't know how they did these shots. It took six weeks
to shoot the fights in a studio in California.
GROSS: Were you on the set during the shooting of "Raging Bull"? As a rule,
do you like to be on the set when Scorsese's shooting?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I tend not to like--I love to go to the set to watch Marty
and the actors and the crew, many of whom are old friends. We've worked
together on so many films together. But I do find it prejudices my eye. My
job, I think, is to sit in dailies with Scorsese every night, and he wants to
know my reaction. Do I believe something? Is there something wrong? Is
there something I don't understand? And if I go on the set and people say to
me, `Oh, gosh, wait till you see this shot. We just laid 20 feet of track,
and we're going to crane up here and'--then I don't get the same feeling about
it if I see it being made as I do when I see it on the screen.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about "The Aviator." Can you talk about the
scene that you most found most challenging or most interesting to work on in
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I loved all the ensemble acting scenes in the nightclubs and
the rapid-fire patter that Scorsese wanted to have, which was very much like
the way scenes were shot those days in Hollywood, a lot of very clever
dialogue. The overlapping dialogue was--normally it would be considered a
problem, but he shot it that way. He wanted everybody to be talking on top of
each other as part of the style of the film, and that can be alarming for an
editor. Usually actors are not allowed to overlap each other because the
editor cannot get in with--and make cuts in between the dialogue then. But
this was all--this worked out amazingly. We only had to loop a couple of
So the biggest challenge was the scenes of Howard going mad in his screening
room, and that took a long time of living with it, living with different edits
and, finally, towards the end, going with a very kinetic, emotional approach
to it and just slashing into the footage and picking out of it just what made
me feel something for Howard and putting it together not in a linear way, but
just an emotional way. So when that suddenly happened, it was great.
Something just clicked, and we knew we were finished with it. But it took a
while to arrive at that approach because there was a lot of footage in there
of him going mad. And we found we had to condense it to make it work within
the body of the film.
GROSS: Yeah. Hughes was obsessive-compulsive, and in this mad scene at the
end, I mean, you know, he has to figure out what angle to hold the milk bottle
so he doesn't contaminate it. And there's just, like, a spotlight on these
milk bottles because he's--you're just kind of seeing it from his point of
view, I guess. And it's--I mean, he's become so compulsive about germs and
everything that he--there's no longer anything that he can touch or eat. And
so did you have, like, a whole array of different examples of this
obsessive-compulsive disorder and have to choose between those examples?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yes. Marty had originally thought he would do a lot of his
memos--Hughes' insane memos to his employees. For example, when he was
receiving reports from detectives who were following his girlfriends, the
detective had to stand at the bottom of the office building, and his reports
were winched up on a rope, so that he--his physical presence would not be
anywhere near anyone in the building. I mean, he--it was insane, the kind of
things that he would write to his employees. And we had a lot more of those
in originally, but we found that within the entire length of the film, we had
to cut them down to something very short. But they are amazing. I mean, you
could read them forever.
They're--at the same time he was able to make quite sane business decisions.
He was running huge companies, and he was able to do both at the same time.
You see in the film that he pulls himself out of his madness in order to
defend himself in front of the Senate. That's all very true. There's actual
video footage of him there triumphing and turning the tables on the corrupt
senator who's opposing him.
GROSS: What's the give-and-take like between you and Scorsese when you're in
the editing room?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, you know, we're almost of one mind at this point.
Scorsese taught me everything I ever knew about editing when I worked on his
first film and in the years after that. I never thought I would become an
editor. He was born a director; I'm sure he came out of the womb a director.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I've never met anyone more completely a director than him.
And I--so he's taught me everything I know; our taste is the same, therefore.
I know what he likes and what he doesn't like. And if we have a severe
disagreement, we screen it one way and ask our friends how they feel about it
and then screen it the other way. But that rarely happens. It happened at
the age of "Raging Bull" because when De Niro is confronting himself in the
mirror, Scorsese felt very strongly that it had to be a cold performance. And
he and De Niro had laid down 15 takes, each one of them completely valid, each
one of them different in warmth or coldness. And Scorsese kept sort of
striving to get it colder and colder. And he thought that take 15 was the
best take and De Niro and I felt maybe a slightly warmer one. And so we
screened it both ways, and, of course, Marty was absolutely right (laughs).
We ended up with the one that he wanted. But, frankly, that hardly ever
We work very compatibly. We're very different. I'm very optimistic and calm
and patient, and Marty is emotional and dramatic. We balance each other. And
so we have a lot of fun in the editing room. We joke and talk and share all
kinds of things, our love of Michael Powell's films, for example. And he
always has on, in the corner of the room, Turner Classic Movies with the
latest classic movie running silent and--so it doesn't interfere. And every
once in a while we'll look over, and he'll say, `Oh, look at this great shot.
Oh, look what this director did here,' or--we never have the sound up, by the
way. It's all visual. And so this constant infusion of inspiration from
other films is always going on in his mind. And I think I have the best job
in the world. And I'm sure there are a lot of editors who would like to shoot
me, so they could have him instead of me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now you mentioned that film--the scene in "Raging Bull" where De
Niro's in front of the movie and he's practicing a scene from "On the
Waterfront." He's doing the `I could have been a contender' scene. This is
what you're talking about, right?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yes.
GROSS: Yeah. And you know what? I--you said that Scorsese wanted to use,
like, the cold version. What I really like about that in a movie is that you
could tell that, OK, LaMotta is not exactly a good performer or a good actor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And--nor his like...
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: You didn't like his Shakespeare?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: `A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a...'
GROSS: And nor his empathy going to be his big thing. Like, he may have
lived it, but it doesn't mean that he can act it.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: That's right.
GROSS: And I think that's such an interesting thing, for a great actor to
play a scene, you know, playing a character who's lived it but can't act it.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: That's right. It's a--there are so many layers of De Niro
doing Marlon Brando doing--I mean, it's just...
GROSS: Exactly. Right.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: And, of course, now that was a direct suggestion by Michael
Powell, by the way.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: When he--when Marty had rediscovered Michael Powell and
brought him to America, Michael thought that "Mean Streets" was one of the
greatest movies he'd ever seen, and he demanded of De Niro and Scorsese that
they show him all the locations where it had been made. In fact, a good deal
of "Mean Streets" was shot in LA. But the scenes in the cemetery outside the
church, for example, and obviously the festival scenes, the San Gennaro
Festival, those were shot in New York. And he demanded to be shown where
they--those locations were.
So De Niro and Scorsese were driving him around downtown, and they stopped off
at the gym where De Niro was training. De Niro could have fought as a
middleweight. I mean, he trained for two years to be a boxer. He was
unbelievable. And so Scorsese and De Niro were looking at the latest
videotapes of some choreography that Marty was working out about the fights,
and Michael Powell was standing there watching with them. And he said, `You
know, there's something wrong about the red gloves.' And Marty said, `My God,
you're right. The movie should be in black and white.' And it was that
wonderful moment when one director kicks off an idea in another director's
He didn't say, `The movie should be black and white.' He said, `There's
something wrong with the red gloves,' and that just clicked with Marty. And
he remembered that he'd always seen all the fight films his father took him
to or on television, they were always in black and white. And so
if--something just coalesced in his mind. And then at the end of the
film--Michael had read the script, and he said, `Why are you doing Shakespeare
again at the end? You should do something American. You should do something
that comes from your own experience.' And so they decided to do the "On the
Waterfront" scenes. They were going to do Shakespeare.
GROSS: Wow. That's so great.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yeah.
GROSS: Here's the scene from "Raging Bull" that we were just talking about.
Jake LaMotta, played by Robert De Niro, is in his dressing room rehearsing in
front of a mirror before going on stage.
(Soundbite of "Raging Bull")
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Some people aren't that lucky, like the one
that Marlon Brando played in "On the Waterfront," an up-and-comer who's now a
down-and-outer. Do you remember that scene in the back of the car with his
brother Charlie, a small-time racket guy? And it went something like this.
It wasn't him, Charlie. It was you. You remember that night at the garden?
You came down to my dressing and you said, `Kid, this ain't your night; we're
going for the price on Wilson'? Remember that? `This ain't your night'?
My night. I could have taken Wilson apart that night. So what happens? He
gets a title shot outdoors in a ballpark, and what do I get? A one-way ticket
to Palookaville. I was never no good after that night, Charlie. It was
like a peak you reach, and then it's downhill. It was you, Charlie. You was
my brother. You should have looked out for me a little bit. You should've
looked out for me just a little bit. You should've taken care of me just a
little bit instead of making me take them dice for the short-end money. You
don't understand. I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I
could've been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it,
it was you, Charlie. It was you, Charlie.
Mr. MARTIN SCORSESE: (As Barbizon) How you doing, Jake?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Everything all right?
Mr. SCORSESE: (As Barbizon) Yeah.
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Ready?
Mr. SCORSESE: (As Barbizon) Give me about five minutes.
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) OK.
Mr. SCORSESE: (As Barbizon) You need anything?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) Nah.
Mr. SCORSESE: (As Barbizon) You sure?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) I'm sure.
GROSS: A scene from "Raging Bull." By the way, the guy who comes into the
dressing room at the end of that scene is played by Martin Scorsese.
When you started working with Scorsese, are there certain touchstone films
for him that he wanted you to watch, films that kind of represented the
delirium that a film is capable of achieving or whatever?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Oh, yes. And, fortunately, I'm able sometimes to screen
with him when he and his wife and friends are looking at films he loves
dearly. For example, "8 1/2" is one of the benchmark films for him; "The Red
Shoes" is another. Recently he showed "Ashes and Diamonds," the great film by
Andrzej Wajda, Polish filmmaker, to DiCaprio as just sort of reference for the
role DiCaprio is playing in our new movie called "The Departed." So
this--these screenings with Marty are--they're almost religious events because
we're all--a small group of people are in a room sharing this magnificent film
and then spending an hour afterwards talking about it and reveling in it. And
it's a really precious experience.
For example, when we were cutting "Raging Bull," Scorsese was educating me
about the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, because he had just
discovered Michael Powell living in complete oblivion, and brought him to the
Telluride Film Festival. He had entered "Peeping Tom" into the New York Film
Festival, and it had been a big hit there. And he paid some money towards the
re-release of "Peeping Tom" in America, so he--there was also a retrospective
at the Museum of Modern Art, and he suggested that I go see certain films
And one night when I came to work--'cause we used to work late at night in
those days on "Raging Bull"; we now work during the day--he said to me, `I
have just seen another great Powell-Pressburger film, and I want you to go
into the living room instead of working right now and watch this on video.'
Unfortunately, I had to watch it on video the first time. And that was "I
Know Where I'm Going!" And so that's very typical of the way Marty is with
his friends. He's often educating people. You'll notice that his video
archivist is suddenly churning out copies of Powell and Pressburger when an
actor is cast in one our films, and they're given the Powell-Pressburger
GROSS: This year marks the centennial of the birth of your late husband, the
British film director Michael Powell. And some of his films include "The Red
Shoes," "Black Narcissus," "I Know Where I'm Going," "The Life and Death of
Colonel Blimp," "A Canterbury Tale," "Peeping Tom." There was a tribute to
him at the Cannes Film Festival this year. And you've been screening some of
his movies in other cities. Did you meet Michael Powell through Scorsese?
Scorsese was a huge Michael Powell fan. Michael Powell was--became a big fan
of Scorsese's movies. Is that how you met him?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yes. Marty not only gave me the best job in the world but
the best husband as well, so I've had all the luck anyone can ever want in
their life. When Marty was educating me about the films of Michael Powell and
Emeric Pressburger, he--Michael Powell was at Dartmouth College. He had been
brought there by David Thompson to be an artist in residence. And he would
call the editing room, particularly since he knew we worked late at night. If
he was lonely at 10:00 or something at night, he would call Marty, and often I
spoke to him then. And at one point Marty said, `Well, he's coming to dinner.
You should meet him.' And I fell in love with him immediately, even though
there was 30 years' difference in our age,
He was the most amazing man I had ever met in my life. His love of life was
stamped all over his face. He was so unusual in the way he dressed and the
way he spoke. He didn't speak much, but when he spoke, it was quite
remarkable what he said. And I--he came back into the editing room because we
were editing in a spare bedroom that Marty had at that point. "Raging Bull"
was being edited in a spare bedroom, and I had racks in the bathtub in the
adjoining bathroom. And, of course, Michael thought that was hilarious. He'd
never seen anything so insane in his life, and he loved it.
So he would come back and talk with me a little bit, and then we would talk
more on the phone. And when we were nominated for "Raging Bull" and went out
to LA for the Oscars, I went to see him at Zoetrope Studios, the ill-fated,
unfortunately, experiment; Francis Coppola was trying independent filmmaking
in Hollywood, and Michael was there as an artist in residence. And we started
having lunch and then dinner, and then things developed. And then we had to
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What was Scorsese's reaction?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, he was shocked and--but then he said, `That's
wonderful.' And he loved having Michael around. So for the rest of the time,
the 10 precious years I had with Michael, he was with us and advising and
reacting to the films, which meant so much to Marty and me. For example, he
gave us the ending for "After Hours." Many people had--we didn't really have
an ending. At the end of "After Hours," Griffin Dunne is encased in a plaster
of Paris sculpture, and he's stolen by Cheech and Chong and thrown into a van,
and they drive off towards Harlem. And we thought that was a fine ending, but
everybody else complained. So some people said, `Well, he should go off in a
balloon,' and he should do this, and he should do that. And Michael Powell
said, `Oh, no, no, no. He has to go back to hell, and he has to go back to
the office, which he hates so much.' So that's what Marty then shot.
He also was very instrumental in getting "GoodFellas" made, by the way.
Scorsese was having a lot of trouble because the studio was concerned about
the drugs, which was the major theme of the movie, and they wanted to know if
it could be removed. And Scorsese said, `No, I can't remove it. That's the
whole point of the movie.' And so I told Michael about this, and he was very
concerned always about Scorsese's artistic integrity and his artistic freedom,
having had his own career savaged by the failure of "Peeping Tom" with the
critics. He was very, very anxious that Marty be allowed to do what he
So he said to me, `Read me the script.' And I did because his--he had macular
degeneration, and he couldn't--he could see, but he couldn't read very well.
And I read the script to him, and he said, `Get Marty on the phone.' And he
said, `Marty, this is the best script I've read in 20 years. You have to make
this movie.' So Marty went back in one more time, and he got it made. And,
unfortunately, Michael never saw it because he fell ill then and--which is too
bad because he really had a great deal to do with it getting made.
GROSS: Thelma Schoonmaker, has being a woman in the movie world ever had an
impact one way or another?--because when you started, I mean, you started
editing movies--What?--in the early '70s or late '60s. And so, you know,
there weren't as many women either editing or directing or producing as there
are today. So did that make it any more difficult for you to get started?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I was fortunate that I fell into a group of filmmakers,
Scorsese, of course, being the most important one, at New York University who
were very accepting of my role in the films we were making. I was very lucky.
I think it was a quite unique situation. And it just so happened that I think
certain feminine characteristics of patience and discipline and organization
were needed at that point, particularly in the editing field, which is why I
eventually fell into editing. In the early days when we were making, for
example, Marty's movie "Who's That Knocking," we all were doing everything.
We drove the cars with the cameraman on the hood. We pushed the wheelchairs.
We ran sound. We--I even learned how to tie into power sources in basements,
and the people who taught me said, `Always bend your knees 'cause if you get a
jolt, you'll fall down and it'll break the contact.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: We got the food. We did everything. We didn't shoot, and
we didn't direct. Michael Wadleigh was the cameraman, and Scorsese was very
much the director. But it was just a wonderful collaborative time, and I wish
filmmaking were more like that these days, big feature filmmaking. But--so
I--the editing fell to me, I think, mainly because the men were always
breaking the film and losing things, and things were completely disorganized.
So that's why it began to be my job. But then my collaboration with Scorsese
developed, and that--so it worked out so well that I was lucky to get the
break to work on all these magnificent films.
There are many, many women film editors today, of course, and there were women
editors way back in the early days. Cecil B. DeMille's editor was a woman,
for example. But I just never felt particularly slotted into a category that
way. I just thought of us all as filmmakers, I guess.
GROSS: So--now you didn't grow up in the United States. Where did you grow
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I grew up on the island of Aruba before it was a big tourist
spot. My father worked for the Standard Oil Company in the personnel
department, and he and my mother met--both Americans, both living in Paris.
They met there and married, and my brother was born there. And then we were
moved to Algeria just when World War II broke out, and I was born in Algeria
but evacuated from there immediately when the North African invasion took
place. So we landed on the island of Aruba, where there was an oil refinery.
And I grew up there in a blissful childhood of coming home from school,
throwing off my shoes and running down to the beach every day--very blissful
for us as children but not for the parents because it was a company town. So
it was a little--it was a part of the island that was owned or rented by the
Standard Oil Company, so it was a little hard for them. But it was wonderful.
And I grew up in a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. There were people from every
nationality working in that refinery: Danes, Australians, Dutch, French,
English. And so I grew up as a European, really. And when I came to America
when I was 15, it was quite a shock. I felt like I was on Mars. I didn't
know anything about rock 'n' roll or football, and I sort of just spent the
last two years of high school pretty privately. And when I went to Cornell
University, then I met a whole bunch of New York City girls, and I was fine
'cause they did the same things I did. But it was quite a shock coming back
to the States.
GROSS: What were your formative film experiences? Did you get to see movies
in Aruba? Were there a lot of movies you realized you'd missed out on when
you moved to the States?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Certain films did come there. Interestingly enough, I saw
"The Red Shoes" there and was deeply affected by it long before I ever knew
anything about Michael Powell. I remember seeing--I was probably about 12,
and it was quite an experience. And then, later, when I came to the States, I
saw another Powell-Pressburger film called "The Life and Death of Colonel
Blimp" on a wonderful show called "Million Dollar Movie," which Scorsese
was watching at the same time, where they showed the same movie seven times a
week. And so Scorsese would study the same movie over and over again, until
his mother would scream, `Turn that thing off! I can't'--and I saw "Life and
Death of Colonel Blimp" there and was terribly moved by it. I remember
And I wasn't allowed to watch television in the afternoon, which was when the
show was on. And my mother, when she would come home from work, would always
put her hand on top of the TV set to see if it had been on. And--but I
remember being deeply influenced by that film. But I didn't intend to become
a filmmaker. I had no idea I was going to become a filmmaker.
GROSS: How did you start making movies?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I was--because of my European sort of background, I thought
I would become a diplomat. I loved being in--abroad. And so I studied
Russian language and political science at Cornell University and then took all
the Foreign Service exams and passed them all and got to what they call the
stress test, where they try and unsettle you as though you're at a cocktail
reception in South Africa and they ask you difficult questions to see how you
would behave as a member of the embassy. And I gave all the wrong answers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: I said I thought apartheid was horrible, and they were very
upset by this. And they said, `You are going to be really unhappy on the
Foreign Service. You can't do that. You have to say what Washington tells
you you can say, until such time as they're ready to make a statement like
that.' They said, `Why don't you go to the USIA, the United States
Information Agency? You'll be happier there.' But I didn't want to do that,
and I went back to Columbia. I didn't go to Columbia, but I took a night
course at Columbia in primitive art, which is one of my interests.
And I read in The New York Times an ad saying, `Willing to train assistant
film editor,' which you never see. Today you would never see an ad like that.
People are hired by word of mouth. Editors recommend people to each other.
And so I thought, `Hmm, I don't know what this involves, but I'll check into
it.' And it was a horrible guy butchering the films of Antonioni and Truffaut
and Godard for late-night television slots. He would sometimes just take
a reel out of one of--"Rocco & His Brothers," for example, a film by Visconti.
And if it was too long to fit into the slot between 2 AM and 4 AM or
whatever--and I would say to him, `You can't do that.' And he said, `Oh,
nobody looks at these things.' But you know who was looking at them? Marty.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: And so that was so awful. He was a big lush also. I used
to have to bring him a quart of whiskey every day, which he drank. And--but I
learned enough about negative cutting and subtitling and a few things that I
thought, `Well, maybe I should look into this.' And I saw that NYU was doing
just a six-week summer course, and I thought, `Well, I can just barely afford
that. I'll take that.' And they split us up into little teams of 10 each
filmmakers. I was working on a horribly boring thing about harness racing,
and Scorsese was on another team, of course, doing one of his student films
called "What's A Nice Girl Like You." And it turned out that someone had
cut his negative wrong. They were all students; they didn't know how to do it
right. And I knew how to correct it because I had worked for this horrible
So the professor, Haig Manoogian, a wonderful professor, said, `Would you
help out Scorsese with this film?' And I went over, and he'd been up for
three days editing it. And he--I said, `I'll just run down and tell you you
have to lose six frames here and four frames there.' And we recut the film in
the negative, and that was the beginning of my whole new life. If I hadn't
gone that summer--he wouldn't have been there the next summer 'cause he was
graduating. It was just one of those incredible strokes of fate.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: And I'm so lucky.
GROSS: You started editing in the early '60s, and editing has changed a lot
since then. I imagine most of your work is digital editing, so I know
technically your editing has changed. But does the digital approach to
editing--has that fundamentally changed anything about how you go about
shaping a film?
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Yes, it does because I feel I can experiment wildly now with
digital editing. I can make a copy of my edit in one second by just pushing a
button that says `copy.' And I then slash into that edit not worrying about
the sync of the dialogue or the sync of the music. I turn the scene upside
down, put the beginning at the end and just try anything that kinetically
seems worth trying. Sometimes I'll make four or five different versions of
that edit, so that when Scorsese comes in, he can look at all these versions,
and we can discuss them together.
Now on film, I wouldn't have been able to do that. I would have waited till
he came in, shown him the edit. Then he would have had to walk around for a
while, while I re-edited, undid all the splices and tried--and made a record
of how I did the original edit. And so it would have, I think, dampened my
enthusiasm for wild experimentation. So that's a very good aspect of it.
There--the main thing to remember always is that it's just a tool; that the
main thing about editing is living with the film, hopefully being given enough
time to live with it, to figure out what it needs. Most editors these days do
not get that time. It's quite sad. And Scorsese and I fight like crazy to
still retain that time. It's so important to live with a film for two or
three months, and then suddenly you begin to see something, and you realize
what needs to be done to it. And digital editing is just a tool in that. The
actual aesthetic, emotional and rhythmical solutions for things are the same
as they were when people were working on upright Moviolas.
GROSS: Thelma Schoonmaker, thank you for your great movies, and thank you so
much for talking with us and for explaining a little bit of how you do what
you do. We really appreciate it a lot.
Ms. SCHOONMAKER: Well, it's been wonderful. Thank you.
GROSS: Thelma Schoonmaker won an Oscar for editing Martin Scorsese's "Raging
Bull" and has worked on each of his movies since then. She won her second
Oscar for "The Aviator," which is now out on DVD. There's also a new 25th
anniversary special edition DVD of "Raging Bull" and a 10th anniversary DVD of
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