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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Oscar nominee Thelma Schoonmaker on De Niro’s wrinkles and 50 years of editing Scorsese

Oscar nominee Thelma Schoonmaker on De Niro’s wrinkles and 50 years of editing Scorsese

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images), Netflix, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Editing is, by and large, a thankless profession. Film editors work behind the scenes, sculpting massive piles of footage into feature films with pacing and tone and foreshadowing and callbacks. If they’re good at their jobs, you barely notice their work at all, keeping them in the shadows. Not so with Thelma Schoonmaker, a much-imitated legend in her field who’s also one of a small handful of film editors whose name is recognizable to your average filmgoer.

Schoonmaker is famous for her work with Martin Scorsese, who she met in 1963 while she was working for a company that edited European art films for American television. Their first collaboration came in 1967 on Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking On My Door?; her first Oscar came in 1980, when she won Best Film Editing for her work on Raging Bull. She modestly says Scorsese taught her everything she knows, but the two have developed a close collaborative creative partnership in their more than 50 years of working together.

This year, she received her eighth Academy Award nomination for her work on The Irishman, a process she says was “a big adjustment,” not only because of the de-aging technology used in the film, but also because of the “deceptive simplicity” of its craft. We spoke with Schoonmaker on the phone about her work on The Irishman, her thoughts on digital vs. analog film, cutting to music, and how Robert De Niro’s performance—which, notably, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar—is actually the key to the film’s effectiveness.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said many times that a film’s narrative is shaped in the editing room, in subtle ways that may not be immediately obvious to the viewer. What are some ways that The Irishman was shaped in editing?

Thelma Schoonmaker: The biggest thing that shaped [this film] is De Niro’s acting, which is so incredibly magnificent. Because he’s playing second in command to Pacino, where he’s usually the boss, I think people maybe are not quite realizing how brilliant what he’s doing really is. He’s doing it with such incredible body language, and the tone of his voice. There’s so much going on in his face, which is very, very subtle.

[We had] to be very careful with this movie not to be overly sentimental. Of course, Scorsese is never clichéd. But it would have been easy in the last half hour, where Frank [Sheeran] is dealing with what his life means and the priest is trying to get him to confess, to get sentimental there and have some commonplace ending. But Scorsese kept saying over and over, “He can never say he’s sorry. He just can’t do it. He may want to do it, but he just can’t do it.”

I wouldn’t say that there was subtlety in the rest of the editing, but simplicity. Deceptive simplicity. The violence needed to be very stripped down, with no flashy editing, no flashy camera moves. It’s very quick, and shot in a very ordinary way. No wide shots, not a thousand different cuts and crane shots and things that Marty’s done in the past with violence. Here he wanted to show the banality of it. He wanted to show that it’s just a job for Frank. And so the utter simplicity of his movie was something new for me to adjust to—and the sound editors as well, because [Scorsese] kept saying he didn’t even want amplified sound effects. For example, when people walk across a room, the sound editors usually create effects for that, and we add them in. Marty didn’t even want those. So that was a big adjustment for all of us. But a great one.

AVC: Is that of a piece with avoiding sentimentality, avoiding overdoing it in terms of editing?

TS: Absolutely. And I think the simplicity of the movie helps draw people into the characters. When I go to a theater and see people watching this movie, you don’t hear anything. It’s dead quiet, because they are so riveted to the screen. That’s what we experienced in smaller screenings as we began [the editing process]. And then when we made the screenings bigger and bigger, but we experienced the same amazing thing.

AVC: I was reading an interview with you from 2014 about The Wolf Of Wall Street and how you had to cut that one down to make it releasable. Obviously, The Irishman is even longer. Did you have those same kinds of discussions about this film?

TS: We had no idea [the film] was going to be this long. When we put it together, we actually only dropped 20 minutes from this movie, which is quite unusual for us. Usually we drop 40 or an hour. But the stuff we had was so rich, and people who saw it were saying, “It doesn’t feel long to me at all. What would you drop, anyway? Don’t drop anything, and show it to me again, right away.” So many people have told me they’ve seen this film three, four, seven times, which is quite amazing. I never hear people saying to me it’s too long. I think there are people saying that, but mainly I am just constantly hearing from everybody how much they love the movie.

We never intended it to be this long, but when we screened it, Scorsese and I together—we always screen it just the two of us at first—we could see that the movie was long, but that it worked at that length. There’s a very long, slow build to the end of the movie, and if we had broken it with an intermission, I don’t think that would’ve worked. We considered it, but then we decided not to do that. So that’s why we ended up with the length we have.

AVC: You said you only cut 20 minutes from the first cut?

TS: That’s right.

AVC: That’s amazing. Usually it’s hours!

TS: This movie fell into place very early because Marty and the writer, Steve Zaillian, had such a strong conception for it—which involved the simplicity, actually. We dropped a few little things, but nothing [big]. I was really surprised that we didn’t have to restructure it, or cut it way down. I mean, it was a delightful surprise—because when you cut films down, it’s like cutting off your leg when you have to off your favorite scene. And we’ve done that many, many times in our movies—my favorite scene, Marty’s favorite scene—because that’s your job. You have to do that to make it work. But here we didn’t feel that, which was quite amazing. It’s very unique, this movie.

AVC: The film’s effect is cumulative, and the cumulative effect is very melancholy. But within the film, there are smaller sequences that are a little jazzier, that are cut to music and have humor. As an editor, do you concentrate on those smaller bits and build out, or are you thinking more about the larger effect?

TS: No, no, it was the whole of the movie—because, again, of this strong concept that Marty and Steve had. It was the whole of the movie that we were always talking about. We were delighted to have the change of texture when you get humor in the scene, or the very touching scene where Pacino says, “Oh, I love you,” after Bob agrees to try and run for election for one of the unions. Those moments were so wonderful and different, the texture of the film from scene to scene was great.

But we always thought of the movie as a whole, particularly because we had that drive to Detroit, which starts out very innocently. And then as, as time goes on, things are beginning to go bad, and De Niro doesn’t even realize how bad it is. That’s what’s so incredible about the scenes of him watching Joe Pesci in a phone booth at a gas station. He’s not hearing what Pesci is saying, and that’s unusual for him because he probably would normally be included in the call. And the look on his face—he’s wondering what’s going on. In fact, the Mafia is deciding how to kill Hoffa, to have Bob in the back of the car, to have his son driving the car, so that Hoffa will get in the car. And that little nod that De Niro does toward Al Pacino before he gets in is the kiss of death. Because that little nod means it’s okay to get in. But it isn’t. [Laughs.]

AVC: One of the smaller moments in the film that I really liked was the scene where Mrs. Hoffa gets fired from her job at the union. She goes out to the car, and it’s all set to music, and then you drop out the soundtrack for that one moment and cut in an explosion. How did that come to be?

TS: Well, it’s interesting, because we were moving music around a bit in [that scene], and it just became clear that when she stops and she realizes that maybe she’s going to be blown up, it made no sense to have the music keep going. It was Marty’s idea to cut it off, and then to have it come on again, which is brilliant. So we played around. There wasn’t originally a cut to an explosion, but we decided, “Oh, it’ll be great if we just have that little flash of one of the explosions from elsewhere in the movie, to show what is going through her mind.”

That’s the kind of thing that happens in editing. When you’re editing, these wonderful ideas come up as you’re seeing the film evolve. It would not have been clear to us before to cut the music off, but once we laid it against it, it was clear it would be a great idea. These are the things that evolve every day as we’re living with the movie. [Late Bonnie And Clyde editor] Dede Allen said that we were the only editors left that have enough time to live with their movies.

AVC: It’s months, right?

TS: Oh yeah. This was about a year. That includes the the long visual effects process, getting the de-aging done, and cutting that in and manipulating it. We collaborated with Pablo Helman at ILM to make sure that we weren’t losing acting when they were de-aging. Because sometimes you do, especially with an actor like De Niro who is so subtle. Sometimes, if you take all the wrinkles out of his face, you lose some of his vulnerability, and his vulnerability was very important in this movie. So several times we would say, “No, no, no, we’ve lost it. Go back, put back in a few of the wrinkles—not all of them,” and then we would get his acting back. It wasn’t the case as much with Pacino and Pesci, but definitely with De Niro.

AVC: So would you be as specific as, “You need to put a wrinkle back in his forehead,” because it changed his expression?

TS: Absolutely. Or by the side of the nose. We would keep trying different notes: “Take this wrinkle out, and put another one in.” That was part of the whole collaboration with ILM on creating the de-aging. And they were wonderful about it. They never complained. They were always very willing to help us achieve what we both wanted. And it’s a great process, because otherwise the cast would be wearing a helmet with two cameras at their chins, and dots all over their face. And Marty said, “I won’t get what I need if they’re encumbered with this.” So Pablo Helman said, “I’ll invent something for you.” And they did.

AVC: Is it harder to stay in the movie like you were speaking about earlier when you’re going back and and forth like that? Or does it help you get deeper into it?

TS: I never get tired, particularly on this film. Sometimes when you have to look at a film at the very end, after it’s all done and you’re screening prints and making sure the color timing is all right, you can get tired of looking at it. But not this movie. My assistants and I never got tired of it, because it’s so rich. My job is never to get tired. My job is always to try and keep perspective.

Screening with just one person in the room, you start seeing the film through somebody else’s eyes. And that is why we screen films sometimes as many as 12 times, and we recut in between each one after talking to the audience, because it’s very important to get their [perspective]. How is it affecting an audience? Are they moving around? Are they bored? Are they laughing at the right places? But it was always—with this movie, people loved it. It was stunning, really, how much people love this movie right away, even before it was finished. And we screened a lot without them being de-aged, because we want to lock the picture first and then de-age so we didn’t waste money on shots we would be removing. It would be terrible to have all the costs of de-aging and then throw [the shot] out.

AVC: You often cut to music, and talk about editing as rhythmic and musical. I know it’s pretty common to use temp tracks [a placeholder song that stands in for the final soundtrack while editing —Ed.]. Do you and Scorsese use those? 

TS: Oh, no! That’s absolutely anathema. We would never do that. It’s quite common for movies to be edited to temp tracks, but not with us. Oh no, no, no. Marty has such an incredible ear for music, it would be anathema to both of us to use a piece of music that’s not going to be in the final film, because it affects the film so much.

Marty doesn’t want to tell the audience what to think. That’s one of his big no-nos. And if you use music to tell the audience what to think, it weakens it, we feel. So he’s often going against the grain with the music. It’s not what you would expect. So therefore, to use somebody else’s music would be terrible.

AVC: Was there ever a time where you couldn’t get the rights to a song and had to rethink the scene, or is it just whatever Scorsese wants, he gets?

TS: Sometimes we are encouraged to use another version of a pre-recorded song because it’s cheaper. For example, in Raging Bull, there’s that beautiful music, the theme for De Niro. They kept trying to get us to use cheaper versions of it, and Marty would listen to them all and Marty would say, “Nope, sorry, [we’re going to use] the one that I chose.” He can successfully fight for these things, where younger directors may not be able to.

AVC: Do you ever miss cutting celluloid, using the splicer and handling the actual physical object? Or do the benefits of digital outweigh that nostalgia?

TS: Well, I was a very grumpy student when I was forced to learn digital editing on Casino. I didn’t want to do it. But I had a wonderful trainer, who works with me now. He’s my associate editor, Scott Brock, and he was very patient with me. I was so grumpy. [Laughs.] But after about two weeks, it kicked in.

And [digital] does allow me to make a dissolve in one second. When we were cutting on film, we would have to send that to an optical house, and the optical house would make the dissolve, and a week later we would get it back. Now I can change the dissolve 15 different ways. I can turn shots upside down. I can speed shots up, slow shots down, I can tell my assistants, “Remove the lamp from that shot. Change the color.” It’s quite extraordinary. You can put titles on; it used to take forever to get titles put on our film.

But I love cutting on film, and I always will. And it’s been hard for Marty, because he’s never quite learned how to use the digital format, and it drives him crazy. He used to, every once in a while, just cut a scene himself—he’s a great editor—and now he can’t. That used to drive Robert Altman crazy, too.

But you can’t do it any other way anymore. Sadly, those days are over. But film is actually a much better and more stable preservation element, if it’s kept cool and in low humidity. Digital is very fragile, and sometimes just disappears. They’ve already lost films because of this. If you don’t have a backup—they back up our movies on film and magnetic tape, to have a safe backup. Isn’t that amazing?

AVC: That is amazing.

TS: We also transfer the digital to an upgraded format, just to have another drive with that data on it in case we lose one. It’s something people don’t quite understand about digital.

AVC: It’s like streaming services—movies just disappear into the ether off of those all the time. That’s just on the consumer end, but still.

TS: It’s scary, because there’s possibly a big black hole looming, with all kinds of digital information. I mean, we would all like to have our income taxes disappear. [Laughs.] But it’s a serious concern. And unfortunately in the beginning, where digital first came in, everybody said, “Let’s just throw away all the films.” That was a terrible mistake. Fortunately, we can still usually retrieve the original negative and restore the film from that.

AVC: Do you have any films that you own on celluloid? Do you collect film prints, or anything like that?

TS: I still shoot my stills on film. And there’s still a place in New York that will develop them. I really want her to have them on film. I’m worried about the digital failure issues, you know? So, I don’t shoot my own films, but I do shoot stills on film.

AVC: Traditionally, editing was one of a small number of behind-the-scenes positions that was open to women. For a long time, there’s been this dynamic of a female editor and a male director. Do you see that changing now, as more women are getting into directing?

TS: Yes, I do think it’s changing. As you know, there were—and the Academy is going to celebrate this by way of a special exhibition—the women who were editors in the ’20s and ’30s, one of whom won an Oscar, Anne Bauchens, the editor for Cecil B. DeMille. And I think gradually what happened was that [editing] began being noticed as something where people could get a good salary, and credit. Then they shoved women out, and after World War II they began to come back in again. So then you have the famous editors like Dede Allen and many others who were working when I was coming into the business.

Now there are a lot of women editors, and I don’t know whether women directors are choosing male editors or female editors. I suspect they’re probably choosing female editors, because I think women are very good collaborators. Perhaps there’s not quite such an ego battle, which sometimes goes on when a director and an editor have different opinions. But Marty’s and my relationship is a very collaborative one. We don’t fight over the movie, which is great. I think that’s what he felt about me very early on, that he could trust me to do what was right for the movie.