His Girl Friday: Thelma Schoonmaker Cuts Things Down to Size

In 1982, Terrence Rafferty spoke to Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor about the art of the cutting room.


His Girl Friday: Thelma Schoonmaker Cuts Things Down to Size
November 30, 1982

Taped to the wall in the room where Thelma Schoonmaker and director Martin Scorsese are edit­ing The King of Comedy, is an enormous chart with entries like: “Talk Show Fantasy,” “Jerry Taped Up,” “Fantasy Wedding,” “Masha Undresses.” It’s the se­quence of scenes in the film, the abstract, Magic Marker version of the story Schoon­maker and Scorsese are bringing to life at the KEM flatbed editing machine directly be­neath it. 

Opposite the chart, right behind someone sitting at the KEM, is a huge poster of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un Cure de CampagneThe poster, with its stark, solitary figure of a priest, is only half visible, propped up casually behind a sofa; it probably isn’t supposed to mean anything in this room, but it does suggest something about what Thelma Schoonmaker does here. Editors are perhaps the most solitary workers among all the people who participate in the making of a film, and, like Bresson’ s country priest, they do their job best when they’re serving someone else’s vision. 

Organization and isolation are the facts of life for the editor of a feature film, as Schoon­maker well knows. She’s been a film editor for nearly 20 years, won an Oscar in 1981 for her work on Raging Bull, and is now among the most prominent of the many women who have made their marks in the editing room — ­almost the only room in Hollywood’s studios whose doors have been open for women since the silent era. In the ’20s, Margaret Booth and Dorothy Arzner were two of the most sought-after editors in Hollywood: Arzner was so good that she was given directing assignments in the ’30s, as no other woman was; and Booth became “Editor in Chief” at M-G-M, the final authority on every picture the studio made for 30 years. Schoonmaker has a theory about why Hollywood has always accepted women as editors, while deny­ing them opportunities in other technical areas. It has to do with organization and isolation: 

“Maybe it’s because the organizational aspects of a film are almost secretarial, espe­cially at the beginning. In my experience, men are sort of baffled by that. And, of course, editors weren’t considered that im­portant in the early days — it was the pro­ducer. I guess people thought of editors as hired hands and didn’t really understand what they were doing. I don’t think most people today understand what an editor does.”

Schoonmaker and Scorsese have been working on The King of Comedy for nearly a year now, meeting every night in this room in his Tribeca loft, running the reels of dailies and the soundtracks over and over again through the KEM, arguing, making decisions, trying it another way, looking up at the bright, clean chart to remind them­selves where they’re going. 

Director and editor have “an old working relationship that’s very comfortable,” Schoonmaker says. “I’ve worked a lot editing by myself, and it’s not as much fun.” And that kind of close relationship between a director and an editor isn’t so unusual any­more. “In the old days, a director never went into the editing room, but then they only printed two takes or maybe one, so there were fewer options. Here, you’ll sometimes have 20 takes of something, and you’re working with an actor like De Niro who gives you such a wide variety of interpretations, and all could be perfectly workable in the film. 

“Really, I could make the film go either way — either very sinister or very funny. So the director’s input is vital, especially with someone like Marty who has such a strong vision.

“It starts to get interesting,” she says, “when you’ve narrowed it down to maybe three takes on De Niro that you like, and then you go further and decide which one of De Niro. Then, when we have the scene blocked out so that we know when we want to be on a close-up of Bob, when to be on a two-shot, when to be on a wide shot — then we start concerning ourselves with the rhythm of the scene. Sometimes it should move slowly, sometimes it should move quickly, so there’s a certain flow, a shape to the scene…

“The choices are so fine,” she says, “that often we’ll take half a word from one take and half from another, and put them together on the soundtrack to make it look as if the word just came out of the actor’s mouth.” These subtle discriminations can be exhaust­ing over the course of a year, but for Schoon­maker the meticulousness of her work with Scorsese is “a joy.” It’s a long way from her first editing job, working for a man she calls only “The Butcher”: 

“I was doing graduate work in primitive art at Columbia and I saw an ad in The New York Times: ‘Willing to train assistant film editor.’ I went down and there was this guy who was butchering the great foreign films of Fellini, Antonioni and Truffaut for late-night television. It was before these things had really hit big, before they were really recognized. Rocco and His Brothers, you know, half an hour out. It was appalling. He was a strange old Hollywood bird, just hack­ing away. But I knew from the little, bitter amount that I learned there — and I did learn some technical things — that maybe I should pursue it.” 

The first thing Thelma Schoon­maker wanted to be was a diplomat. She’d spent the first 15 years of her life in North Africa and Aruba (where her father worked for Standard Oil and her mother ran nursery schools), in what she described as “a colony of expatriates from over the world.” When they moved back to the States for good, to a New Jersey “stockbroker community” (“I mean, not all stockbrokers”), it was a bit of a shock. “I knew nothing about rock and roll, nothing about football.” She studied political science and Russian at Cornell University, graduating in 1961, but her diplomatic ambi­tions ended with her interview for the for­eign service: “They thought I was much too idealistic, which of course I was. That was a very political time and we were all involved in at least the beginning of the riots and the anti-Vietnam thing, and I was very active in supporting Martin Luther King’s movement in the South. The interviewer just said, ‘This is not for you.’ ” 

From there, it was Columbia and the job with the Butcher, and then a six-week sum­mer course at NYU’s film school. “I didn’t really learn anything there,” she says, but she did meet her future collaborators Scorsese and Michael Wadleigh there. Within a couple of years, she was editing Scorsese’s first feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and in 1971 she had her first Oscar nomination for her work on Wadleigh’s Woodstock

By the time she got to Woodstock, though, Thelma Schoonmaker had worked as an editor on a wide variety of films, starting with Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages From Fin­negans Wake, which she stepped into di­rectly from the NYU summer course. “I knew how to handle myself in the editing room, but l didn’t know anything, really, about editing in those days. I just knew the basic, minimal, crude things and here I was being the editor of this film. It was insane, I was in way over my head. I was working for $25 a week, maybe it [was] $45, and what she expected for those wages was amazing…” After leaving that film, she worked on com­mercials (“I learned that each individual flake of corn flakes is handpicked by a man who empties boxes and boxes…”), industrial films, documentaries on Vietnam and urban problems for NET, even short films for The Merv Griffin Show in which she and Wadleigh experimented with the multiple images they later used in Woodstock.

Thelma Schoonmaker is nostalgic about her documentary work in the ’60s. “We got a lot of very good experience just working as small teams in the streets, which is something we all miss now. We all drove the cars and loaded the magazines and ran the sound. We had a dolly with wheelchairs for the camer­aman. We did everything, and we edited. l was working with a group of people who were so committed to, not just the best in film work, but also to their own personal visions. I was very lucky.”

You can hear the ’60s in her voice when she says that, or when she says: “I loved being a maverick because it meant that I could work on things I cared about, and I was perfectly willing to take long periods of time off in between. I would be very happy typing, and I did sometimes work as a temporary rather than work on something I really didn’t care about. Money didn’t mean anything to me, but working with people who cared as deeply as someone like Marty did about their films is very seductive — you never want to work any other way.” 

After Woodstock, Schoonmaker found that being a maverick had a high price: she couldn’t work on feature films unless she joined the union, but she could only come into the union as an apprentice. “And I just couldn’t see why I, who had been a full editor and had been nominated for an Academy Award, should suddenly have to become an apprentice — I just couldn’t see the sense of it. And of course, they couldn’t see the sense of why I, who had never been in the union all those years and had never paid dues all those years and never served my time in their sense, should be allowed in as a full editor. So it was quite understandable on both sides — it was just insane.”

It remained a standoff for eight years: a long and frustrating battle. In the meantime, she wrote a script with Michael Wadleigh on Washington and the Revolution and spent a couple of years making Bicentennial films for WQED in Pittsburgh. The script is still unproduced, but Schoonmaker’s painstaking research gave her a passionate interest in history in general (“I think if I’d been born in another time I would have become a historian”) and the American Revolution in par­ticular. What fascinates her about the Revo­lution is how the colonies won the war with an army of people who “were fiercely inde­pendent, and therefore very difficult to get to do anything in groups — like fight.” Her vi­sion of the colonial army evokes images of her own beginnings as a filmmaker: the ragged documentary teams, the 80 people­ — “with dogs, children, pregnant women” — ­who went to Woodstock and somehow made a film.

In those eight years, too, her Woodstock reputation led to a job with Paul McCartney, working on a Wings concert film for television. And when Scorsese was making his rock documentary on the Band, The Last Waltz, he brought Schoonmaker in to work on it — but when the union objected, she had to leave the film. Finally, with Scorsese’s help, she was admitted to the union as a full editor, and started work on Raging Bull

After the Academy Award, “all of a sud­den,” she says, “I was considered to be in a different category. Frankly, one of the things that I wish hadn’t happened since the Acad­emy Award is that I’ve lost my anonymity.” 

So, Thelma Schoonmaker isn’t anonymous anymore, no longer working with “small teams in the street” and makeshift equipment. She works on a sophisticated, efficient editing machine, which she loves (“Come the revolution, I won’t be able to have one, l guess…”). She’s certainly learned something about rock and roll and, if not football, boxing. And instead of butchering film clas­sics for TV, she’s working with Scorsese on a campaign for the preservation of color films. But the appeal of editing remains con­stant. 

“I like the total creativity of it. You have tremendous control in editing. You’re not dealing with a big set and hundreds of actors and huge crews, and you’re not forced to make decisions under pressure and not get what you want and have to settle for some­thing else. You’re totally in control of the material as long as you have something there, and you can completely shape a film…” 

Not a diplomat, exactly, not really a coun­try priest, but an editor’s still a mediator­ — between the director’s vision and the audi­ence’s expectation, between the faces on the screen and the voices on the track: keepin’ it all in sync.