Thelma Schoonmaker interview: editing Silence, Scorsese, Michael Powell

Editor Thelma Schoonmaker talks to us about Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, taking risks in filmmaking and lots more...

Name a great Scorsese movie, and it’ll almost certainly have been edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. From 1980 onwards, the pair have been inseparable, with Schoonmaker cutting such classics as Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, After Hours, Goodfellas, Casino and Gangs Of New York. Scorsese’s latest film is Silence, a powerful, heartfelt period piece about the limits of faith. Starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as a pair of Jesuit priests who witness the torture and execution of Christians in 17th century Japan, the movie is a stark tonal contrast to The Wolf Of Wall Street, Scorsese’s wilfully gaudy, giddy account of drug-addled millionaire corporate crook Jordan Belfort.

Yet a common thread runs through Wolf and Silence – and indeed just about all of Scorsese’s films: a keen sense of morality. Whether he’s following gangsters, dodgy stockbrokers or Japanese inquisitors, Scorsese repeatedly explores how ordinary people justify their destructive, immoral or cruel actions. His camera doesn’t judge, but rather bears witness, just as Andrew Garfield’s priest witnesses the horrors that unfold around him.

As a result, Scorsese’s films aren’t always appreciated on release, with such movies as King Of Comedy and Raging Bull taking years to build up a following. As well as her editing work on Silence, the topic of critical reactions and under-appreciated movies was also a prominent topic in our recent conversation with Thelma Schoonmaker. Indeed, she knows more about misunderstood movie-makers than most; for several years, she was married to the late, eminent director Michael Powell, whose extraordinary career ground to a halt in 1960 after his thriller Peeping Tom generated a hysterical response from critics. It was Scorsese, always a champion of great and under-appreciated filmmakers, who successfully argued the case for Peeping Tom’s reappraisal, and Powell himself is now rightly hailed as one of the UK’s greatest directors.

Here, then, is what the effervescent Thelma Schoonmaker has to say about everything from cutting Silence in Taiwan, to the common themes in Scorsese’s work, to Powell’s peerless classic, A Matter Of Life And Death.

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Congratulations on Silence, which I thought was a wonderful film. As I’m sure a lot of people have said, it’s amazing just how different it is from Wolf Of Wall Street in every way. I wondered how it was for you, getting into the rhythm of editing a movie with such a different pace.

Well, Marty had very strong feelings about it right from the beginning, when we look at dailies together. That’s one of the best times for me, because he’s constantly talking to me about what he feels about what he’s shot. We were always discussing the pace of the film, which would be very different from Wolf Of Wall Street. But he said, it’s not just to be contrary, it just fits the material better. And of course, you’re dealing with the 17th century, which was very different from ours.

So it was very important to achieve a different pace; it’s something I had to get used to – I got used to it before on Age Of Innocence, but the wonderful film about working for Marty is that every film is so different. I mean, Hugo couldn’t be more different than Wolf Of Wall Street also. I love these challenges, and he had very strong feelings about the sound in the movie, that he didn’t want strong, loud sounds much, and that he wanted the music score to be almost unheard, that it should be very subtle and merged in with the sounds of nature throughout the film.

That was very important in the book that Endo wrote, where he was constantly saying, “A fly buzzed here,” or, “I heard a cicada there,” or “A bird sings here.” So it was important, when mixing the film for the screenings, to learn to keep the sound down, particularly the music – we had a number of pieces, but most people wouldn’t even know there is a score there. It comes out as cicadas or waves or wind. We were working with [composer] Kim Allen Kluge who had a very strong understanding of what Scorsese wanted. So all of that together is what gives the film its unique style, I think.

Plus we had very strong bird sound – a Taiwan bird – that was wailing all over our dialogue tracks in a particular scene where Rodrigues has been captured and he meets the other Christian prisoners. The sound man wanted to kill the bird if he could find it! Marty was saying, “No, no, no! That’s part of it. Leave it.” So we have that, and the sound of an eagle, because raptors were migrating across from the north part of Taiwan at that time. There was an eagle flying around outside my editing room, so we tried to create a score that was very rich and natural sounding. 

So you were editing it in Taiwan as it was being shot? Did being there help you soak up the atmosphere of the place? Did that help you fall into that meditative editing rhythm?

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Well, I didn’t visit those beautiful locations because they were very difficult to get to. Long slogs through mud and typhoons and fog and heat and cobras, you know? [Laughs]

Oh God!

It would have taken much too long for me to get to the location and back. There were natural hot springs in Taiwan, which we needed because the opening scene of the film takes place in a hot spring in Japan, and so there it was. It was just amazing – that island is volcanic, Taiwan, and there are lots of earthquakes. Minor ones. They had a very bad one this last year. It’s being pushed on both sides by tectonic plates, so that’s why it has that ravishingly beautifully mountain vistas and unspoiled beaches that were just heaven for us. The black sand on those beaches is volcanic. But I couldn’t get to all that unfortunately! I didn’t see the great beauty myself, but I saw it on film! [Laughs]

Our DP, Rodrigo Prieto, I kept going to him when he’d come home and say, “It’s so beautiful what you’re getting. So beautiful.” And he’d say, “Really? Because we’re all so exhausted!” Getting up there to capture those images – and the fog would come in at a moment’s notice. There’s the big scene in the movie where the samurai emerge from the fog – that wasn’t intended. Marty shot for two hours in the sun first, then he wanted to do the big shot where they enter the village, and within five minutes it was completely whited out. That’s what happens up in the mountains – the fog comes in really fast. And so everybody said, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” And he said, “Shoot it! Shoot it!” He had them emerge out of the fog, and then he had to reshoot all the closeups that he’d done in the fog. It’s beautiful in the film.

It’s very difficult to shoot in those locations, as you said, but then you have these moments of serendipity that you never would in a studio.

That’s right. And Marty’s always loved grasping onto accidents. “Are you talkin’ to me?” was an accident in Taxi Driver, and then Marty said, “Well, let’s develop that.” He loves it. 

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I often think of Scorsese as a documentary maker, even when he’s making fictional films, if you know what I mean? He has that very grounded style.

Oh, he loves documentaries. I started in documentaries, and that was a great help to me with improvisation, because with documentaries you’re handed a big lump of footage and you have to shape it and make it into a story – which I love doing. So when I’m given a massive amount of improvisation and it’s difficult to cut, I love it, because it’s like a puzzle you have to put together. Marty loves documentaries – he always likes to make a documentary in between each feature film because he says it clears his mind, and also gives him a lot of freedom, whereas there are restrictions in a theatrical piece with a script and a plot. In documentaries, he feels freer. We both have a strong documentary background – cinema verite was just flourishing when we first became filmmakers.

I feel that Silence continues the themes of Wolf Of Wall Street in a funny sort of way. This film’s obviously about having your faith challenged, but Scorsese’s films are deeply moral, even when people complain about the violence.

Quite right.

I’m rambling a bit, but in Wolf Of Wall Street, there’s a scene where the FBI agent’s just met Jordan Belfort, and then he’s on the subway home. You have this wonderful shot of him alone on the subway, and you can read so much moral outrage in that one shot.

Exactly, exactly! And it started very early with Marty. In his film, a great deal of it was shot in his mother and father’s apartment, and on the wall everywhere are crosses, statues of Mary, everywhere. They’re all over that movie. In Mean Streets, it becomes even more pronounced, because it begins with Harvey Keitel in a church saying, “You don’t make up for your sins in church, you do it in the streets.” Which means you try to help other people as well as yourself.

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It’s constant throughout his movies, and you’re quite right – in Wolf Of Wall Street, it’s there. You know, things aren’t black and white in life, and when people say Marty’s films are too violent, well violence exists in this world as we all know from the year we’ve just been through. But I don’t think he uses it gratuitously, and he certainly tries to show the dark side of the Mafia, and he says, “Anyone who thinks like the child at the beginning of Goodfellas, who says, ‘They could always get a parking spot whenever they wanted one'”, Marty said to me in the editing room, “If that’s your value in life, that you want to get a parking spot, then you’re in big trouble.” [Laughs] So it’s constant throughout his movies, but not in a simple way, it’s complicated. 

They’re about the grey area between good and evil.

Absolutely. As were my husband’s movies, Michael Powell’s films. I think Marty learned a lot from those movies – they’re never heroes or villains in those movies, it’s always somewhere in between, because most human beings are. And yet Marty always had a very deep understanding of people who lived in his block – Mafia people – who were often very nice a lot of the time, but they did horrible things. One of them used to take the kids to a lake out in New Jersey in the blazing hot summers here – in New York, living in the tenements, it was unbearable. He would take them out to the lake and things, yet he was one of the worst killers there was! So he’s aware that it’s not simple.

This might be a difficult question to answer, but how do you and Scorsese absorb the criticisms your films sometimes receive? It must be difficult to not edit yourself, as it were, based on what critics might say?

It’s very painful. It’s very painful for him. He doesn’t read [reviews] that much! I read them. I can take them better than he can. We’re used to it, you know? Our films were horribly received for years. Years!

Raging Bull was badly received at first. It took 10 years for it to be recognised. We’ve gotten used to that because Marty’s films are unusual, and they upset people – they don’t know what to make of them, or they don’t feel they’re relevant to them. He wants to make you think and feel – he doesn’t want to tell you what to think, which is what most films do these days. So we’re very used to it, but it’s extremely painful.

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There was one great moment where Woody Allen and Marty were sitting together and discussing how painful bad reviews are, and my husband came in the room and he said, “You read your reviews?” [Laughs] So I guess he never did! 

Yeah, I mean Michael Powell obviously directed Peeping Tom, and it seemed to take critics so, so long to understand what that film was really about.

It ruined his career, and Marty brought it back.

Scorsese understands better than anyone that it can take years for a film to be fully appreciated.

Yes, and I think my husband always said, “I’d be out on that limb and get sawed off than be conventional.” My husband had seen great masters before him ruined because they were too far ahead of their time. There was an Irish-American director who trained him first, Rex Ingram, who made Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse – he was ruined because he went up against Louis B Mayer in Hollywood, and refused to put “Mayer” on the opening credits. He was destroyed by Mayer, and my husband saw that. He’d seen and read through history so many great artists being destroyed. So he knew – he knew what could happen, and he was better able to take it than most, I think. He never became bitter, which was astounding, considering how tragic it was that he couldn’t make more movies. And Marty has a deep understanding of that too, and he’s resurrected the work of so many artists who’ve been forgotten. He knows. He knows.

It’s a shame who aren’t more filmmakers who have the clout to do that – who are like Scorsese and can get people’s work noticed.

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Oh yes. And he doesn’t only help older directors. When he sees a movie he likes by a young director, he writes to them and tells them that, which is such a wonderful thing for them. He has relationships with directors all over the world, in the most remote countries. He keeps abreast of all that’s going on in world filmmaking – he loves world filmmaking, actually, more than most filmmaking today. So he’s got this wonderful ability to give back to those who’ve helped him become a director, and he helps young directors come along as well. Wes Anderson was one of them – he wrote to him immediately when he saw Bottle Rocket, and they’ve become dear friends.

I understand that one of the things Scorsese does before he starts production on a film is, he shows movies to his team to get across the mood of what he wants to make.

To the crew, that’s right.

Do you know what films he chose before Silence started filming?

Well, I wasn’t there when they did that, because they’d just started shooting, but I’m sure one of the ones he showed was Ugetsu, which is a film that made a deep impression on him. And there’s a lot of fog in that movie, so when the fog started coming down in Taiwan, he was very happy about that! But I really don’t know – I should get that list so I can answer that question better! But he shows me films.

On Gangs Of New York, he showed me a section from an Eisenstein film where a sailor breaks a dish in anger because their food has maggots in it, and the dish has “Give us this day our daily bread” and the sailor breaks it in anger. But he doesn’t break it in a way any editor would ever do that – it’s not a downward movement, it’s an upward movement after he’s smashed it. And Marty showed it to me and said, “I want to make the battle scene in Gangs Of New York like this.” So that happens a lot. You know, it’s not mimicking, it’s just an inspiration. I mean, some directors just mimic Hitchcock, don’t they? But not Marty. He takes the inspiration inside, and it comes out as his own. 

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One of the films I wanted to ask you about, just because I love it so much, is Bringing Out The Dead.

Oh yes [ruefully]. It waiting to be rediscovered!

Well, this is what I was going to ask you. Why isn’t it a more celebrated film of his, do you think?

I think there’s a cult following for it – it sounds like you’re one of them, which is great. But there’s a following building. But what happened was, that film was about compassion, and it was sold, I think, as a car chase movie. When I saw the trailer I said, “Wait a minute! That’s not what the movie’s about!” I think people were made nervous by the theme of it, which I think is beautiful. I think it’ll get its due.

Maybe if this film is digested by a lot of people, maybe that will allow it to come back – there are similar themes in it. We made [Bringing Out The Dead] after Kundun, and of course the Dalai Lama’s big thing is compassion – it’s a word he uses in almost every sentence. And so it’s a beautiful film, but it was hard for people to take, I think. Unexpected. But I think it’s great, and I’m so glad you’re interested in it.

It’s wonderful, and beautifully lit and shot as well.

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Oh yeah. They were out in the streets of New York, and it was impossible to shoot in. Yet that’s where they did it all. It’s just great. It’s the only one of his films, I think, that hasn’t gotten its due – it was a disaster at the box office, as was King Of Comedy, as was Raging Bull. A lot of our movies! [Laughs] 

But as you say, that’s what happens when you go out on a limb. It’s worth it to create these movies that are so different.

You have to wait and hope you’ll live to see it come back, and my husband – those films he made during the war were very successful, actually, when everybody left them [Powell and Pressburger] alone. But then after The Red Shoes, the Rank Organisation said, “This is terrible and you’re not going to be allowed…” They lost their ability to make those great masterpieces. But at least he saw it all come back at the end of his life thanks to Marty. I saw him stand in front of audiences of 18-year-olds, and they just loved the movies. That was great to see. It was a long time coming! [Laughs]

A Matter Of Life And Death is one of my favourite films. It’s such a beautiful film.

Oh, it’s so great. When I went around England with his autobiography – my husband died before [it was published] so I had to edit it with Scorsese and Ian Christie. When I went around to all the BFI venues to talk about the book, everybody asked for that movie. And young men kept coming up to me at the end of it to tell me how much they loved it. It was very surprising to me. And wonderful.

Thelma Schoonmaker, thanks ever so much for you time!

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Silence is out in UK cinemas on the 1st January.