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First Cut Is The Deepest: Thelma Schoonmaker Talks Scorsese And Silence
Ian Schultz , January 21st, 2017 12:26

With Scorsese's Silence out in cinema's now, Ian Schultz interviews Thelma Schoonmaker, the great director's long-term editor and collaborator

Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker first met director Martin Scorsese when he was still a student. She studied with him when he became a lecturer, they became fast friends, and she ended up helping him with a short and then with his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). However, her first job as an editor was cutting classic European films to fit time slots on US TV.

Even though Scorsese wanted her to work on every film in between the first and Raging Bull (1980), she was blocked due to union rules. In the meantime, she and Scorsese worked together to edit Woodstock (1970) and she contributed uncredited work on Taxi Driver (1976) as well. Her first of three Oscars came for her work on Raging Bull.

Scorsese also introduced her to director Michel Powell for the last six years of his life, and she is now actively involved in trying to save Powell’s film legacy. Her latest collaboration with Scorsese is Silence, a project the director has been wanting to do since The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a story he first heard of from Rev. Paul Moore, a liberal Episcopal priest, which concerns the persecution of Portuguese Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the leads, who have been sent to Japan to find missing priest Liam Neeson, who may have been taken by the Japanese and is rumoured to have committed apostasy. A huge departure from the frenetic Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a fascinating film and a showpiece for Schoonmaker's editing talent.

It’s so rare that any editor works almost exclusively with one director throughout their career. What keeps you going back to work with Marty, and what makes it fresh every time?

Well, you know, every project is a different challenge. He sets himself something to jump over, and I get to jump over it with him. So, it’s just constantly fascinating and ever-changing—and he has such high standards for himself and for everybody who works with him. Once you are around that, it comes very addicting, I know people with him on the set, for example, go through what I call 'Marty withdrawal' after they finish shooting, because they really miss him and his high standards, and the excitement of making a movie with him. Whereas I always know I get to go on to another one with him, so I try to counsel them as well as I can.

He is just fascinating, and always has been. He is always learning, eager to open his mind to new things, to new films from around the world. You ask him “Who is the best director in Kazakhstan?,” and he’ll tell you, because he’s seen his movies. It’s also like being in the best film history course in the whole world, being in the room with him. He always has on the side of the wall Turner Classic Movies, which here runs classic movies all the time. He has it on silent, but every once and a while he’ll say to me “look over here: this great thing is gonna happen, this director is gonna do this or this great piece of acting.” So it’s just constantly fascinating.

What was the biggest challenge on Silence and how does it compare to working to the other films you’ve done with Marty?

Well, there couldn’t be anything more different from Hugo than Wolf of Wall Street, and there couldn’t be anything more different than Silence from Wolf of Wall Street. Of course, we have to immediately understand we are creating another country and also another century, so we’re dealing with the 17th century. And Marty wanted the film to meditative, so the pace of it had to reflect that. And it was difficult to find the right rhythm between what is meditative and what might be boring. So we struggled very hard to retain that sense of meditation. A lot of people who are really going with the movie say it’s mesmerising, and I’m very happy to hear that.

And then instead of classic build-up to a climatic ending, there is beautiful way this movie ends which is: quietly. It’s so shocking. I just loved the courage Marty had to be very quiet in the ending.

It was throughout a tremendous challenge because of the Japanese actors speaking English, which is not their native language. They were coached very wonderfully by our dialect coach, Tim Monich, who had a bootcamp actually in Japan before we started shooting, where he took all the actors who were going to be speaking English to rehearse their lines over and over, and always there on the set to make sure. They were getting the nuances beautifully. And also, they were portraying Christians being persecuted in such a moving way and it’s not their religion! I just couldn’t get over how wonderful they all are.

And even the extras! I would say to Marty, “now look at this line of extras as the Samurai come in and you see the villagers’ reaction as they enter the village: every single one of them has the right look on his face, the right body language.” In our movies we usually need to cut around extras because that person isn’t doing it right so let’s cut away there but here never. They were so devoted and just dead-on all the time.

Have you noticed any differences in in the way he shoots over the years?

Well, he shoots differently depending on the subject, so this was a much more classical approach to the camera work. There is hardly any swishy or dramatic camera moves, which certainly there are tons of in Wolf Of Wall Street. He wanted a more classical view that would be more appropriate to the 17th century. So he changes how he shoots depending on the subject matter of the film. He really designs all the camera work and is heavily involved in it.

Did he use any natural lighting? Because some of the shots of the candles reminded me of Barry Lyndon, which I know is one of his favourite films

Yes, well, we were able to shoot on film except for any of the night or dark sequences where Rodrigo Prieto used the Alexa digital camera so that he could just light the scene with one candle. Which, of course, it’s easier for us to do it now than it was for Kubrick when he did Barry Lyndon, he didn’t have digital. So yes, there was definitely an attempt to give a real feeling of what it’s like to live in a hut where they were so poor they didn’t even have tatami mats. They only had these little fat candles, which were just a dish with fat in it and a wick. It was very important to do that, and I thought he did a beautiful job, but you do need digital to do that. You can’t do that on film, unfortunately.

Did you and Marty watch the 1971 version while you were in preparation?

No, Marty did not want to watch it, so neither of us have seen it. There is also a Portuguese version, I understand.

Do you ever visit the set, and does it help you when you make the edit?

Well, I love to visit the set to watch Marty work with the actors, and the crews are all… we’ve made films together for so long that we are dear friends. It’s always fun to be on the set. But first of all, I don’t have time, because I’m cutting the movie as he’s shooting it, and also, I also don’t want to have my eye prejudiced by what I see, how they are making something. For example, on a movie like Wolf of Wall Street they may say “Oh, we just laid fifty feet of track and the camera is gonna swoosh down here and boom up” and they’re all very excited, but I don’t want to hear that, I don’t want know how it is made. Marty wants me to look at the footage cold on the screen the next day and react to it and tell him if anything’s wrong, which it hardly ever is. But I don’t want to know how it was made right away. I like to know how it is made after but I want to react to it.

So I do love going on set but I just don’t have time. And on this film it was so arduous with the locations up in the mountains, two hours long just to get up there, and mud, wind, typhoons, mosquitoes and cobras. It would’ve taken half the day for me to get there and back. I never saw the great beauty of Taiwan, I was in Taipei in my editing room, but they all saw the great beauty of it. It’s a wonderfully unspoiled island so far. I don’t think for long, but those beaches with volcanic black sand and the beautiful mountains, it gave so much of a sense of Japan to our movie.

You said you edit while he’s shooting, has that always been the case?

Oh no, not when we very first began, when he was teaching me everything I know about editing. I didn’t know anything about editing when I met him, nothing! So he was always with me during the first cut. Now I do first cut, and then he comes in and we edit together for the rest of the post-production process very intensely. Editing is his favourite part of filmmaking, and he is a great editor, so we have a wonderful collaboration in the editing room and talk about kinds of things. It’s just the most wonderful collaboration—I have the best job in the world I think! [laughs]

Do you use Avid or Final Cut Pro at this point, and is there any reason you prefer one to the other?

I actually use an English system called Lightworks, which I was trained on during the early days of digital editing. Our first digital film was Casino, and Lightworks sent a trainer to me, an American computer expert who has been with me every since as my associate editor. He trained me on Lightworks, as it just happened at that time that they were equally competitive with Avid, and I’ve loved it ever since. It has a controller that is like the old flatbed editing machines and I love that. So I’ve been editing on Lightworks ever since Casino.

Obviously you are deeply involved with film preservation. How does it feel to have started your career in chopping down foreign classics for TV? Did that experience help you in future to know exactly what you need and don’t when it comes to editing a scene?

Awful…no, that was butchery, it was just take 20 minutes out so it would fit in a timeslot between 1am and 3:30am for television. It was awful, that was butchery. No, it takes years and years to really understand editing. The main thing is we often have to take out our favourite scene or half of it, or drop a line we love in order to make it the film move and make the film the right length when it’s released. It’s very painful, but the other situation was just pure butchery. Over the years, our movies always start out much longer, so we screen, we preview, recut, screen again and so on. During that process you keep asking people “Does it feel too long? Was it slow anywhere?” and we can also can feel it ourselves where it feels slow or too long. But it’s a process over many months that you live with the film. Not enough editors are using that time anymore but fortunately we are. We sometimes recut and screen 12 times, and as we are living with the film, it becomes very clear where it’s too long or moving too slowly or people didn’t get the joke: “why aren’t they laughing?” But it’s sometimes really painful what we have to lose.

Do you think the notion that women tend to be better editors than men has any truth to it?

Well, I think women are better collaborators, or at least I am a good collaborator. I think sometimes what I’ve seen in director/editor relationships is an ego battle about who thinks they’re right. I don’t think that’s necessary: what’s important is to do what is right for the film. I think Marty always knew that about me when he first met me, that I would do what’s right for the film. I do think we are little more collaborative and perhaps sometimes a little more empathetic, possibly.

There are a lot of women editors. There weren’t when I first came in. There had been a lot in history, editors were winning Oscars back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Cecil B. DeMille’s editor was a woman. So they have been there, just not in large numbers, but they’ve been there since the beginning.

Is there a film or films that you’ve done with Marty that you have felt hasn't gotten its due yet? Same goes for Michael Powell as well.

Bringing Out the Dead! A wonderful film which has a big cult following now. People keep coming up to me talking about it, but it’s never been acknowledged, mainly because it’s about compassion—and it was advertised as a car chase movie!

For Michael, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the opera by Bartók, which we are restoring now at the BFI. That one that I hope will get more notice. And there were some films that were ruined by Hollywood, which I’m trying to get back to the original version, particularly one called The Elusive Pimpernel.

Silence is in cinemas now