“In terms of special training to become a filmmaker, one should study classic films and learn from them. That is how Scorsese became the filmmaker he is”

Three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker has been working with Martin Scorsese for almost half a century now. From Who’s That Knocking On My Door to The Wolf of Wall Street, they enjoyed a fruitful and harmonious collaboration. In this fantastic 17-minute interview, Schoonmaker discusses why her relationship with Scorsese functions so well and what makes American style of editing different from European. Talking about Scorsese’s relentless passion for film history, his desire to be fully involved in the editing process and his constant need for self-improvement, she gives us brief but precious insight into the making of Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence. What strikes us most, perhaps, is the way she talks about a filmmaker she obviously deeply admires and respects.

“In May 2010, Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime film editor, received the Susan B. Anthony ‘Failure Is Impossible’ Award at the George Eastman House 360 | 365 Film Festival in Rochester, N.Y. (Past recipients of the award, which honors prominent female figures in the film industry, include Pam Grier, Angela Bassett, and Julie Taymor.) Programmed alongside a screening of The Red Shoes, a very personal film for Schoonmaker—she was married to director Michael Powell from 1984-1990, the year of his death, and she and Scorsese were instrumental in the recent restoration of the picture—the presentation of the award also included a 30-minute discussion with the Oscar-winning editor about the nature of her craft and her decades-spanning alliance with Scorsese.

A brief introduction from the moderator sketches the Algerian-born Schoonmaker’s general biography: her early interest in politics at Cornell, her first encounter with Scorsese at NYU, a starting-out editing job cutting down classic movies to conform with TV time-slot scheduling. The bulk of the video, however, is wonderfully interactive, with Schoonmaker walking the audience through a number of signature Scorsese sequences: the three stylistically distinct Sugar Ray Robinson fight scenes from Raging Bull; the Steadicam tracking shot that kicks off the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas; and a centerpiece crash sequence from The Aviator, which Schoonmaker playfully admits is probably the reason she won the Oscar.

Ever-modest, Schoonmaker analyzes these clips with significant generosity toward her collaborators. She attributes Raging Bull’s famous animal noises to sound editor Frank Warner (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), who retired from the industry in the late-‘80s. She also sings the praises of Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci’s improvisatory talents; her reading of the ‘You think I’m funny?’ back-and-forth from Goodfellas is a nice introduction to the art of editing improvised performances. Perhaps naturally, Schoonmaker also expresses a bit of disillusionment regarding what she calls the industry’s current standard of food-blender editing.” —Danny King

Legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker shares the lessons she’s learned from over three decades in the cutting room, courtesy of MovieMaker Magazine.

  • To live life before you become a filmmaker—really live it—is the most essential experience you should have before becoming a filmmaker. Experience all kinds of people and behaviors. In terms of special training to become a filmmaker, one should study classic films and learn from them. That is how Scorsese became the filmmaker he is.
  • Don’t make a movie unless you have something burning inside of you to say—like Scorsese’s Mean Streets which is so personal and powerful and ground breaking.

  • When seeking out collaborators, talent is vital. But there are a lot of egos in filmmaking and everyone has to learn how to work together in spite of them.
  • As an editor, put the most focus on the screening process, and then debriefing people afterwards to find out how the film is affecting them. Then re-cutting and screening again and again until you get it right.
  • The attempts to ruin a film with bad ideas are a constant problem in today’s world—or maybe they were always there. I love the constant challenge Scorsese presents to me with each film. I have to grow and adapt to that challenge.

  • It is simply not true that recruited audience previews can necessarily give you an accurate picture of how well a film is working. The film isn’t ready yet, the audience has not been prepared for it, and if it is tough, they may not “like” it—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working.
  • Always express gratitude for the work that your peers are doing. Filmmakers often don’t feel they have the time to do that, but it is essential.
  • I learned from Michael Powell to never talk down to our audiences—to never “dumb down” a movie. He said that audiences are actually way ahead of us and as filmmakers, we must try to be ahead of them—to surprise them and make them feel our movies, not tell them what to think.

The creation of Goodfellas, an outtakes from PBS American Masters documentary Martin Scorsese Directs (1990): Martin Scorsese & Thelma Schoonmaker prep for music editing; Scorsese discusses use of music; Scorsese & Schoonmaker screen cut in Mix Studio. [Pacific Street Films]

Thelma Schoonmaker on the craft of filmmaking via one of her unquestioned masterpieces, Raging Bull. None other than the great Thelma Schoonmaker was on hand at the SVA Theater, providing a packed Tribeca house with a masterclass in film editing (and, more broadly, filmmaking) by drawing upon lessons from Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s seminal masterpiece, Raging Bull. [WNYC, MP38 lessons Thelma Schoonmaker taught us at TFF 2014]


Fascinating stuff to watch: Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker in the editing room working on Life Lessons, Scorsese’s New York Stories segment.

Thelma Schoonmaker spoke at the Museum of the Moving Image just before the release of Gangs of New York (2002). Schoonmaker’s collaboration with Martin Scorsese is one of the most enduring and fruitful in the history of film. The two met at New York University in the  1960s, and Schoonmaker edited Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967). She won the first of three Academy Awards for editing the masterpiece Raging Bull (1980), and she has cut all of Scorsese’s films since, winning Oscars for her work on The Aviator (2005) and The Departed (2006).

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