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


Schoonmaker estimated that about half her editing time is spent with Scorsese in the room.

"When he comes in after he's through shooting I have carved out the film for the first time, in a rough cut, and then we start working scene by scene, from the beginning, editing together. Then he'll go away and leave me alone for a while and then I'll work again and present another cut to him. We just keep going. On Departed, we had 15, which is a lot. We only had eight on The Aviator."

Schoonmaker has had the rare luxury among film editors of working with a single director — let alone one so gifted. "She seems to be totally in synch with Marty," Cocks said. "It's like musicians who've been playing together for 25 years. They can feel each other out and know where the piece is going before they get there."

Schoonmaker and Scorsese met during a summer film course at New York University in the mid-1960s. Born in Algeria, Schoonmaker grew up in Aruba (Schoonmaker's father worked for Standard Oil). She went to high school in suburban New Jersey. "If you weren't a cheerleader, you were nothing," Schoonmaker recalled.

Things were better at Cornell, where she studied Russian, in hopes of entering the Foreign Service. One of her professors was Vladimir Nabokov ("He had complete contempt for the students because he didn't think we knew enough Russian!"), and a fellow student was the novelist Thomas Pynchon.

Rejected by the US State Department, Schoonmaker moved to New York. "It was just the most wonderful time to be coming out of college: Pop Art, (Robert) Rauschenberg, (Jasper) Johns, (Jim) Dine," she recalled. "You'd go down to a Lower East Side storefront and Claes Oldenburg would be putting on a happening for 20 people."

Art didn't pay the bills, though, so Schoonmaker answered a classified ad to become an assistant film editor for a local television station. Her job was inserting commercials and truncating the running time of old movies. This led her to NYU, where she was able to show the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to Scorsese.

Schoonmaker began editing films. "It was such fun, the way we were sort of a band of apaches, making documentaries, then Marty's first feature, in New York City, without permits and not being in the union." She got her first Oscar nomination as one of the team of editors on Woodstock.

It took another decade for Schoonmaker to get into the film editors' union, just in time for Raging Bull. And it was then she met her future husband, Michael Powell, the director of such classic films as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Although he was 35 years older, their relationship was by all accounts a true love match. They were together for just a decade before his death in 1990. But Schoonmaker's speaks of him with such vividness and affection it's as if he were simply away on a film shoot.

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