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Scorsese & Schoonmaker: Symbiotic Filmmaking

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The critic Walter Kerr has argued that a film is made in the cutting room. Editing is often thought to be the invisible thread that sews a film together. At its best we don’t see it, but that also means most of us don’t really understand it either. What happens inside the editing room remains a bit of a mystery.

The collaboration between a film director and editor is akin to a good marriage. It’s a relationship based on trust, respect, and loyalty. One of the longest ‘marriages’ in cinema history is between Martin Scorsese and his editor of 40-plus years, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker on the set of Woodstock (1970)

If Scorsese’s films have a particular style, they owe as much to Schoonmaker’s so-called invisible hand as they do to his vision. Schoonmaker first worked with Scorsese on his feature film debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). Issues with the Guild kept them apart throughout much of the ‘70s, but they reunited for Raging Bull (1980). Schoonmaker has cut every one of Scorsese’s films since, garnering seven Oscar nominations and three wins (Raging BullThe AviatorThe Departed) along the way.

Editing does more than simply piece together fragments. It gives a film its energy and flow. An editor identifies and exploits a film’s internal rhythm and pace, cutting to the beats of dialogue, music, and movement. Editing is fundamental to our understanding of a film’s language (the use of different shots, camera angles and movements), and each film has its own unique way of speaking to us.

We shouldn’t notice a film’s editing. But we watch a Scorsese film expecting to be dazzled by certain cuts. There will be slow motion shots that heighten tension. Long tracking shots – like the one in Goodfellas, where we follow Henry and Karen from the back door of the Copacabana night club all the way to a table near the front of the stage – that move the action forward and orient us with the texture of a place. Explosions of popular music – like The Rolling Stones’ "Gimme Shelter", woven seamlessly into scenes in GoodfellasCasino, and The Departed – to add emotional charge. And dissolves like those in The Age of Innocence, which add a painterly effect to the movement of time.

But these are not simply audacious flourishes. Editors are technicians, but they are also storytellers. An edit can tell us something quite specific about a character’s motivation. It shows us how we should think; reveals something that we might otherwise not notice if a different technique were employed.

The Schoonmaker editing process is an intensive one, usually lasting nine months in a room in the Directors Guild of America building. From all accounts, Scorsese is a constant presence. “He has very strong ideas,” Schoonmaker told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. It’s impossible, then, to ascertain which cuts reflect whose sensibilities, which is why it is best to approach the Scorsese-Schoonmaker relationship as a symbiotic one. Neither can exist without the other. What is in little doubt, however, is that through collaboration with Scorsese, Schoonmaker is responsible for crafting some of his most iconic moments.

One of these is the opening credit sequence of Raging Bull where we watch De Niro’s Jake La Motta shadowboxing. The movement is slowed down in perfect motion with the soundtrack of the ‘Intermezzo’ from the opera Cavalleria rusticana. It’s a rare moment of grace in a violent film. Later, when we see him in the ring with an opponent, the editing is muscular. Schoonmaker cuts together shots taken from a variety of angles – on Jake’s face, at the level of his fist, where the punch lands – with short, sharp transitions. The sequences have a kinetic ferocity that places us directly in the ring.

Schoonmaker’s feel for movement is also impeccable in Goodfellas brilliant denouement. As Henry Hill runs around, cooking pasta sauce, collecting his brother for lunch, overseeing a drug transport, his paranoia that a helicopter is following him reaches a hysterical pitch. The editing in this sequence flows with the edgy, rapid-fire delivery of Henry’s coke-fuelled voiceover.

Schoonmaker knows that if Scorsese’s direction captures the emotion in a scene, her edits must act like a highlighter, illuminating it. Towards the end of The Age of Innocence, May informs Newland that she is pregnant. We learn something new about May from the editing of three separate close-ups that are cut together to give her the appearance of growing in stature as she stands. Through this edit we recognise that she has the upper hand. We see her as Newland does and our emotional response is his: an understanding that he is irreversibly done for.

There is a tension between flashy and subtle cuts in Scorsese’s film. Schoonmaker believes she won an Oscar for The Aviator for her work during the spectacular plane crash scene, but as she told Film Comment she is interested in the less dramatic moments, where “the more interesting editing is not so visible.” But an argument can certainly be made that even in such stunning moments, there is subtlety.

Casino pictures Las Vegas as a place of excess; the filmmaking reinforces this. And yet, amidst the showy, enveloping tracking shots inside the casino, exist a series of snappy dissolves onto Sharon Stone’s Ginger, which quietly and intelligently fuse character and content. When she is first introduced to Joe Pesci’s Nicky, he takes her in with three looks, filmed at varying distances, layered over each other. The overall effect is of a deck of cards being shuffled. With this flashy visual cue, Ginger is elusively linked to both risk and reward.

In interviews, Schoonmaker is constantly self-effacing, explaining that she doesn’t really add anything to Scorsese’s films that he hasn’t already carefully thought out. She feels she owes him a lot, but he certainly owes her too. Schoonmaker’s hand isn’t invisible in any of the films they have made together in the editing room. And neither is she.

Joanna Di Mattia