Fri, Apr 20, 2007 - Page 17 News List

Cut! The woman behind the throne and in the cutting room

Thelma Schoonmaker has edited every Scorsese movie since `Raging Bull' and has earned three Oscars in the process


Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's period drama about Howard Hughes.


"Oh, go ahead and heft it," Thelma Schoonmaker urged. "Everyone else has."

"It" was the Oscar statuette she had won earlier that week for best film editing, for The Departed. Schoonmaker, 67, was sitting in her editing room at Martin Scorsese's production company. She has edited every Scorsese feature since Raging Bull, in the process becoming one of the most respected figures in American film.

Jay Cocks, who collaborated on the screenplays for Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York, likens Schoonmaker to a giant of jurisprudence.

"Basically, editing is not only the great finishing room, it's the court of last appeal," he said in a telephone interview from New York. "And you've got Justice Brandeis when you've got Thelma."

"What she's really very good at is compressing enormous amounts of material into a very flowing narrative, which is hard," said Alan Heim in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. Heim, himself an editing Oscar winner for All That Jazz, is president of the American Cinema Editors.

"A lot of Marty's work is improvisation with the actors. I've worked with that kind of thing, and it's really tough. Every take changes. It's so time-consuming, it's almost lapidary. She's just a master of that."

The fact that this was Schoonmaker's third Oscar (the other two being for Raging Bull and The Aviator) might have contributed to her willingness to share her trophy. Or it could have been lingering shock — she had thought Babel would win. Mostly, it was Schoonmaker's characteristic warmth and generosity.

You can hear her personality in her laugh. Richly musical, it's two parts girlish to one part throaty. It's a laugh that could make Jake LaMotta give up his boxing gloves or the cast of Goodfellas hew the straight and narrow.

"A great person," Howard Shore called Schoonmaker in a telephone interview from New York.

Shore, who composed the score for The Departed, The Aviator, and Gangs of New York, added, "If anyone's in a position to complain about a film editor, it's me, the composer. I'm not complaining. One of the best film experiences you could ever have is watching Thelma work."

Watching Schoonmaker work may also be the only way to understand what it is she does. "It's a wonderful job, but it's a little hard to describe," she said.

"You would have to sit here for two months with me and see how a scene has been transformed from the way it was originally cut and then how it looks at the end. What happens is that there are thousands of decisions I make every day. ... It's incredibly creative, because you're dealing not only with image but with sound, with acting, with lighting, with the camera moves, the director's intention."

Watching Schoonmaker at her mixing board is like seeing a virtuoso pianist command her instrument. "It's a Lightworks editing machine," she explained, "which is PC-based. It's not what most people use, which is an Avid. I was trained on this and I love it."

Or maybe Schoonmaker's more like an organist — the instrument she's playing is that much more imposing. The Lightworks has an array of controls — a keyboard, a wheel, various slide switches, a mouse — and Schoonmaker works them with an almost-balletic grace and physicality.

Long before she sits down to edit, she reads. "What I do with the script is usually read it whenever Marty tells me to," Schoonmaker said, "then put it away and I don't look at it again because my job really is to be a cold, objective eye for him. We look at dailies together, every night, of what he shot the day before. Then he talks to me constantly during that process. He's telling me what he thinks, constantly. 'I don't like that. I do like this. This is a better reading of that line.' Then I take those notes — I write like the wind, fortunately — and I take my own feelings and start creating selects. So I carve out all that raw footage. I carve out what's the best."

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