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Talking film with Academy Award winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker

When the interview subject you are talking to gets to refer to her creative partner and long time collaborator as 'Marty', you know you are in rarified air. In advance of "The Wolf of Wall Street" release on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand this week I got the chance to talk to Martin Scorsese long time Academy Award winning editor, the one and only Thelma Schoonmaker.

An important player in film restoration

I got to talk to her about her involvement in the creative process, the evolution of her job over the years, her relationship with Martin Scorsese, her work in film restoration and what editors just don't get enough time to do these days.

Even for long time film fans, looking from the outside in historically the role of the editor in the movie making process has been so misunderstood even with the likes of the great Alfred Hitchcock not having some very nice things to say about your profession. Considering your unique relationship getting to work almost exclusively with Martin Scorsese over the years, I am wonder when you ultimately get involved with the actual creative process?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Well hardly at all to be honest, Marty usually doesn't need me at all when he is conceiving or co-writing a film and I really only tend to come in when the film starts shooting and I'll be around cutting but there are sometimes where he has asked me to do a few things on the film "Kundun" where he wanted me to learn how the monks make what are known as Sand Mandalas. They use these little funnels to create this beautifully intricate work and then simply wash it all away into the river afterword which I know sounds a little wild but it truly is such a beautiful idea. But like I said, I'm usually not around until shooting starts and I'm with him watching dailies every day and our relationship there is really so important because he is constantly talking to me about how he feels about what he has shot and I tell him how I feel and from our collective notes I just start to make cuts. And after multiple rounds we'll make second cuts and he truly is a wonderful editor, he has taught me everything I know about editing and it truly is a great collaboration. We are constantly talking to one another all day long, making a thousand decisions, so it is very much a give and take, a genuine partnership.

Now when the film was released theatrically the word spread about how it was initially a 4 hr cut of the film. I guess I'm just curious if a.) That was actually true and b.) If it was how hard was it to trim an entire hour out of the thing?

TS: Well the four cut thing was a little overblown and over emphasized because all of our first cuts are usually pretty long. What happened was that the agent saw it and they just flipped for it and they were really pushing to release the film in a 4 hr version, but Marty & I knew that was just really not that practical to distribute a movie that was actually that long...and it really was just our first cut, you know? (Laughs)

So we started to begin to shave it down right away, hoping to truly not lose the beautiful quality of the film, especially the improvisational quality of it all. But it was so much better to do that and maybe lose a couple of lines in each scene rather then cut whole scenes, which can be really painful, almost like cutting off your own leg. Sometimes Marty and I have had to cut our favorite scenes, some particular ones in "After Hours" come to mind and it was so much better here to be able to shave it all down rather than having to cut out huge chunks of it.

Does being involved in the dailies process help that? I can imagine that helps when you have a real sense of the context of it all.

TS: Well you know, this film really was quite different then a lot other films because of all the improvisation and it is very hard to cut because there just is no structure to it. The actors are given a lot of freedom and the genuine beauty of humor is the surprise in some of the choices that they make. Sometimes that just doesn't cut together very well (laughs). I have to struggle with it quite a bit sometimes to make something look like a dramatic scene even though it wasn't necessarily scripted that way or vice versa. Marty had to understand that it would take me a while to struggle with it and genuinely understand it and shape it into something that would work for the film and he was very good about that. That was very different on this film from some of our other heavily improvised films like "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas" which is also very hard, but it was truly a joy, just one that takes quite a bit of time. Much more time then a scripted scene would take.

You've always been so heavily involved with film restoration and preservation and now with some other films that you have worked like 'King of Comedy' now available on Blu-Ray, how involved do you get to be with these releases?

TS: Yeah, I was very involved with "King of Comedy" and we've put a ton of extra footage on their that wasn't in the film so I worked very hard in retrieving all of that and I worked very hard on the colour timing for that and coming up I'm going to be working on the colour timing of one of the movies my late husband Michael Powell did with his long time partner Emeric Pressburger "The Tales of Hoffman" and I'll be supervising the colour timing on that, so yeah I make it a point to get involved on this projects as much as I can. You know it's a little scary these days with digital, which just isn't stable when you have to keep migrating everything every so many years to a new hard drive or a different format and who is going to be around to make sure that the color of it is right? I mean there are quite a number of terrible things that can go on and when Marty and I have passed on, I worry who might be there to do it? Colour timing is just so critical and complicated and thankfully Marty has been able to raise the money for some of these beautiful restorations and I have been so thrilled to work on some of them.

Did you ever see "The Red Shoes" or "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp"? Those were some incredibly difficult restorations because the negatives were just in such terrible shape. Marty was just devoted to making sure that those films were done right and just loved working on both those projects. It really is such an important part of our relationship because we both share such a passion for it and it is a lot of fun.

How has your day to day job changed over the years as we have transitioned from film to video?

TS: It really is just that digital allows me to experiment a lot more, because it only takes me a second to back up and save my original edit. I can be extremely free and try anything that I want, whereas on film it was just a laborious process where I would have to take apart the original edit, remember how I did it, then re-cut it and then if it didn't work put it back the way I originally had it...and that took A LOT of time. Now instead, I will always have my original edit but I can experiment like crazy and it isn't uncommon for me to give Marty 3 or 4 different cuts of anyone scene to look at. While that has obviously been a great boon, it's still just a tool, it doesn't mean that you don't have to live with the film and screen it a lot and talk about it all the time, these days I just don't think that an editor is given enough time to do that these days. Fortunately we are given that time because we fight for it, but it's just a tool. I don't think that "Raging Bull" would look any different if it was cut digitally but you really do need to be able to truly live with a film and discover what it needs because these days I just don't think most editors are given that time.

Now I'm curious you were an assistant director on "Woodstock" years ago, having spent all these years working on set with someone like Marty has the desire or the temptation ever been there for you to direct your own project one day?

TS: (Laughs) You know if I had something that was burning inside of me I would certainly consider it, but to be honest I never have. The richness of what I get to work with is just so incredible and rewarding when you get feedback on something that is released around the world is just so amazing and it's a great experience. I really do wish all films were made that way, that the director just has something that is burning inside of them that they have to say because I think that there are just too many films out there doing the exact opposite. So I would never direct something unless I had that passion, and honestly I doubt that it would ever come up.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is now available to rent or own on DVD, Blu-Ray or On Demand/Digital Download from all major providers.

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