Friday, February 7, 2020

Editor Thelma Schoonmaker on Making THE IRISHMAN With Martin Scorsese: "My Tastes Are His Tastes" -- by Juith Resell

Joi McMillon and Thelma Schoonmaker at the Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Lee Christian
“It was very devoted of them to struggle that long,” editor Thelma Schoonmaker said of the seven years Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro spent looking for the right material and getting financing for THE IRISHMAN (2019). Three-time Oscar winner Schoonmaker was interviewed by Joi McMillon, editor of the Oscar-winning film MOONLIGHT (2016), at the Egyptian Theatre on January 28, 2020. A screening of THE IRISHMAN followed their conversation.

“I can’t imagine three young actors who could play the young Pacino and the young De Niro and the young Pesci,” Schoonmaker explained regarding the choice of using de-aging technology in the film. The technology required three cameras and three people pulling focus for each actor. When all three were in the same scene, that meant nine cameras and nine focus-pullers. But the results were extraordinary.

“I’ve never seen acting like this,” Schoonmaker said of De Niro’s performance. “I’m disappointed that he wasn’t nominated.” She recalled editing the opening sequence with the song “The Still of the Night” as the camera moves through a nursing home setting and ends on De Niro’s face and his exceptional voiceover narration begins. Both Al Pacino and Joe Pesci received multiple nominations for their performances in supporting roles, including competing against each other for the 2020 Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.

The de-aging element of production necessitated bringing a body coach to the set to make sure body movements were age-appropriate. When the body coach saw movements by one of the actors that were "too old" for the de-aged character, he went to Scorsese and said “You better tell him. I’m not going to.”

“Scorsese has an incredible genius. There is no one else like him. Editing for him is a great joy,” Schoonmaker continued. They have collaborated for more than 50 years on more than 20 films. Schoonmaker added that Scorsese trusts her because he knows she will do what is right for the film.

When McMillon asked her what prepared her for editing, Schoonmaker stressed the importance of music. She played a number of instruments, including flute and piano.

Schoonmaker became a film editor by accident. Raised abroad, she planned a career as a diplomat in the foreign service. A newspaper ad to edit classic European films (Truffaut, Godard, Fellini) caught her eye and she took the job. When fellow NYU student Martin Scorsese’s class project was butchered by a negative cutter, a professor suggested to Scorsese that Schoonmaker could repair what seemed like irreparable damage. She did so, and went on to edit his first film.

Some of Schoonmaker’s best editing experiences were on RAGING BULL (1981). As an example, she cited the superlative, emotional fight scene where Jake takes a brutal beating. “The light goes down, all we can see is the beating,” Schoonmaker continued.

McMillon wanted to know how editing comedy differed from editing crime or drama genres. “Comic timing is different,” Schoonmaker replied. When they were making THE KING OF COMEDY (1982), Jerry Lewis said, “Before you answer me, count to three.” Editing THE KING OF COMEDY is a fond memory for Schoonmaker. “I just laughed so hard when I was making it,” she recalled.

“Marty taught me everything I know about editing,” Schoonmaker concluded. “Because he trained me, my tastes are his tastes. It’s very fascinating, very stimulating being in the room with him. We talk about religion, art and music while we’re editing. He was the best film course in the world. I’m very lucky.”