The Creators: Thelma Schoonmaker

  • The Oscar-winning editor on how an accident of fate introduced her to Martin Scorsese and the best job in the worldthelma_schoonmaker
    I got into movies by a series of wonderful accidents of fate. Having been raised overseas, I wanted to become a diplomat. But the State Department thought I was too “liberal” to be happy with that job. I read an advertisment in The New York Times for an assistant to a film editor, who I later discovered was butchering great European films for late-night TV slots on American television. He would just lift a reel out of a film – Visconti’s Roccoand His Brothers for example – and make it conform to a requested length. I learned enough on that horrible job to think maybe I should learn film editing. I saw an ad for a six-week summer course at New York University and there, again by accident of fate, I met Martin Scorsese. Someone had incorrectly cut the negative of his film and, because of the terrible job I had just left, I was the only one who knew how to help him recover the disaster.If I hadn’t met Scorsese, I would never have become a filmmaker. He has taught me everything I know about editing and has given me the best job in the world.

    So Scorsese first inspired me and then my late husband, the British film director, Michael Powell. The two of them have shown me that the way to make movies is to search for the truth, even if it is painful, to avoid clichés and sentimentality, to respect the intelligence of the audience by never talking down to them… and to never explain! Once I understood that editing is crucial to how a film is made, I was hooked. Imagine: placed in your hands is fantastic raw footage (if you work for Scorsese) that 250 people have created during shooting. You and the director are then allowed to sculpt this raw material into something that has structure, rhythm and pace, that builds characters, that creates dramatic peaks and lows and that hopefully has a good ending. Editing is an incredibly rewarding profession.

  • Nothing prepared me for the complexity of how many artists need to work together to make a film. The way egos and great talent get balanced out in the end is something quite miraculous. I have been lucky enough to work on 25 films with Scorsese. He never wants to repeat himself and sets up a new challenge with each film. I get to go over the hurdle with him as he attacks that new challenge. How many people can say they have worked on so many projects at such a high level? I am a very lucky woman.

    Keeping a fresh perspective as you go through the long process of editing a film is important. We do that by screening many times. Having even one person who doesn’t know the film in the room with you suddenly gives you a new way of seeing it and that refreshes your eyes. It takes time to learn what to listen to and what to reject. Dropping scenes you love in order make a film work is brutal. The worst is having to fight to keep your film from being ruined. But we are battle-scarred veterans when it comes to that and we haven’t lost a fight yet.If forced to choose my favourite film I would have to say Raging Bull, because it was the first feature film I worked on and it was like having pure gold in my hands. But my husband’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is equally a favourite because of its enormous emotional power.

    I hope films will be somehow preserved and seen by as many people as possible in the future. There are endless treasures for audiences to discover, if only we can keep them from disappearing.

    Interview Dan Crowe
    Photographed in
    New York by
    Graeme Mitchell

    Thelma has edited all of Martin Scorsese’s feature films from Raging Bull onwards and also all his documentaries on cinema history