The Visible Art of Editing with Thelma Schoonmaker
Thelma Schoonmaker Covr.jpg

Learn more from Martin Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and why you sometimes want your audience to notice your cuts.

Like many, I am sure that I experience a Scorsese binge from time to time. It's pretty simple, most of Martin Scorsese's latest films are on Netflix (with notable examples like The Irishman, one of the platform's biggest film investments). This last time, however, I really tried to go a little deeper and dig out some older, less famous films than Raging Bull or Goodfellas.

Films like "The Color of Money", "After Hours" and even "Who's Knocking on My Door" are phenomenal features that make extremely valuable screenings for anyone remotely interested in the art of filmmaking. However, what really impressed me on these recent visits was the processing – or more precisely, sometimes how noticeable it was.

I'm sure anyone who has ever been to film school or read a book about editing will tell you that the old axiom "good editing means people don't notice it happening" struck our brains has been. However, when we look at the work of one of the greatest and most accomplished film editors of all time – the great Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime creative editing partner herself – this is not always the case.

So let's dive into Schoonmaker's careers, works, and styles to see how this can be true. Plus, learn a little more about how this influential and famous filmmaker developed her craft over the years.

Make decisions and work together

I think the nicest thing about the editing is that you give all that raw material and it's your job, in this case with Scorsese, to make decisions about how to focus the scene. When are you more likely to cut close-ups of one actor than the other? When do you use wide angle photography?

-Thelma Schoonmaker

While studying at Columbia University in New York City, Schoonmaker started out as a film editor in one of the most unlikely ways – by responding to a newspaper ad. It was there that she learned the art of negative cutting, a skill she would quickly apply to another opportunity to work with Scorsese on reworking his student film. What does a nice girl like you do in a place like this ?. The duo would become quick friends and collaborators as Scorsese asked Schoonmaker to edit his first feature and forge a partnership that has now lasted over five decades.

Schoonmaker was also pretty open about how close their creative partnership was with Scorsese. Schoonmaker recognizes their ability to work together as an important factor in managing the hundreds of decisions an editor must make on a project.

"All of the decisions you make about creating these sequences are the most incredible creative act anyone can have," Schoonmaker continues in the interview above. I would also recommend checking out the rest of the clip as it goes on to explain this point using a wonderful example through one of Goodfellas' memorable sequences.

Editing is not always invisible

This is probably my favorite quote from the legendary film editor, but also one that is very indicative of their views on the editing and their own editing style. The idea that the edit should be invisible is only true if you try hard to get your audience deep into a story. As Schoonmaker points out in the interview above, sometimes the goal should be to "slap them in the face".

In reality, there are no hard rules or universal truths for film editing. A film or video project simply has to tell a story in the best possible way. For Schoonmaker, this means that she makes her cuts with the audience and their expectations in mind. Sometimes you want to cut every three seconds while others want you to hold on a little too long when you want your audience to be a little apprehensive and apprehensive.

Read a script once

As you watch more of Scorsese and Schoonmaker's recent films like The Irishman and The Wolf of Wall Street, it's always exciting to hear that the duo are about to embark on a new and compelling project. As Schoonmaker communicates in the interview above, a film doesn't just come together on the basis of an initial description and a script. Instead, it changes over time, especially in editing.

Schoonmaker is a perfect example of why an editor should be an integral part of filmmaking. While she only reads the script once, she is active in the display and discussion of the daily newspapers with Scorsese, makes extensive notes from the days of shooting and gives her own insights into the composition of the narrative in the process. For anyone who, as a writer, director or editor, wears several hats at the same time, it is important to think of these roles separately and to concentrate on the individual aspects.

Working with improvised scenes

Another hallmark of Scorsese's directorial style and Schoonmaker's editorial skills is the duo's ability to work with improvised performances and scenes. Schoonmaker talks about the turning and editing process behind The Wolf of Wall Street, and shares insights into how Scorsese would open up the set to improvised lines and deliveries.

As the editor, your job is to find the right balance in your assembly to work with these improvised elements while also combining them with the narrative backbone that you are responsible for all of the tracking. Of course, this worked out pretty well for the film overall, but as you can hear from Schoonmaker's experience of cutting so many classic Scorsese films together, the feeling of accepting new elements remains, the rock behind the whole story.

Hold on to the "bumps"

We sometimes like a certain roughness in the film editing style that Hollywood editors wouldn't like. Hollywood editors tend to like a nifty cut style that removes any bumps. But sometimes Marty and I like to stay in these bumps because they give the film a certain roughness, a certain reality.

– Thelma Schoonmaker

I find it fascinating that, after decades and dozen of award-winning films (including eight Oscar nominations and three victories), Schoonmaker, and to some extent Scorsese, still see themselves as outsiders of the mainstream Hollywood industry. Maybe it comes a little bit from living in New York instead of LA, but I think more like that is how they approach filmmaking in general.

In this rare interview clip above from Schoonmaker's career, you can see why she was so eager to challenge traditional Hollywood film and edit styles and conventions. Their cuts aim not only to "slide through the film" but from time to time to "shock an audience with a cut they are not expecting".

As the editor, keep your eyes sharp and open to what these movies look and feel like as you re-watch your favorite classics from Scorsese to The Departed to Shutter Island. The cuts are all there not to appease you, but to challenge you when you need to be shocked, surprised, or concerned. These cuts are one of the main reasons these films have aged so well and Schoonmaker's career has been so inspiring over the years.

Cover picture via IMDb.

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