When Martin Scorsese finds a collaborator he likes to work with, he tends to make a habit of it.
Robert De Niro (star of eight Scorsese flicks) and Leonardo DiCaprio (star of five) may be Scorsese's most visible long-time collaborators, but film editor Thelma Schoonmaker is by far the most entrenched.
For over 50 years, Schoonmaker and Scorsese have been making movie magic together — from Scorsese's 1963 student short, "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?," to his 1967 first feature, "Who's That Knocking at My Door," to his latest Best Picture Nominee, 2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Because of this relationship, Schoonmaker, herself a three-time Oscar winner, has unique insight into Scorsese's masterworks. So we we're elated to speak with Schoonmaker when she phoned in recently to discuss "The Wolf of Wall Street," which drops on Blu-ray this week.
While we were certainly curious about the challenges of editing such a lengthy, anarchic film as "WOWS," we also seized the opportunity to discuss such modern classics as "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "Casino," "Gangs of New York," and "The Departed."
In the interview below, Schoonmaker recounts the toughest part about bringing each of these celebrated films to such frenetic life.
Gangs of New York:
Daniel Day Lewis’s beautiful improvisations when he is chastising the policeman and there's a rabbit’s pelt that’s part of the scene, that was one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen in my life, the way Daniel did that. And again, it was a matter of us deciding how much of it we could keep because it was so powerful. He was mesmerizing in that, and again, there, it was a matter of length again. You know, how much can we get away with and still keep the film moving.
There was a wonderful moment where there was a dead rabbit on the table, and at one point, Daniel actually put the rabbit pelt on his head, but we decided that was a little too much. So we didn’t use that, but it was pretty funny.
Well, that was hard because of Jack Nicholson… the scene with Jack Nicholson questioning whether DiCaprio is a rat or not, was extremely difficult scene to cut because nobody knew what the hell Jack was going to do. They didn’t know he was going to light the paper tablecloth with his cigarette lighter, and DiCaprio had no idea what the hell was going to happen, so the first take on that is really wonderful on DiCaprio’s side, because he’s absolutely trying to stay in the scene with Jack going all over the place deliberately, you know, and unsettling him and he was really reacting to things that he had no idea were going to be happening. Like him burning the tablecloth and things…and pulling a gun on him. And so that was wonderful to watch those dailies, because he had no idea what the hell was going to happen. And he was great about just hanging in there trying to stay in the scene.
There was one sequence in "Raging Bull" that took me forever to cut because Marty couldn’t have two cameras on the room, it was too small, it was a real location where Jake LaMotta had lived, and it’s a scene in the kitchen and I had a hell of a time cutting that because both actors, they were such great improvisers, especially De Niro. They went off on tangents and I had a very hard time getting that scene to hang together...
It’s in the kitchen and [LaMotta's] brother [Joe Pesci] is trying to encourage him to fight somebody, a young fighter named Genaro, and DeNiro is angry at his wife and he’s holding a baby in his lap…and by the way, the babies kept crying and dropping their toys and these two great actors were having to improvise and deal with the babies, and it was hot. There was no air conditioning. It was sort of the worst conditions and yet it’s a beautiful scene, but I can even see now…I can see where I was just barely getting it to hang together.
I don’t think anything was that tough in "Goodfellas," actually. The improvisations were shorter, you know. So, I don’t remember me struggling as much there as I did in "Raging Bull," and
"Casino." I think Casino was also a little more difficult. But you know, that’s just part of my job, and I love it. Because I was trained in documentaries originally and that’s what happens in a documentary. You're given the whole lump of wonderful footage and you have to figure out a way to make it into a story, into a structure and so, that prepared me beautifully for doing improvisational cutting. I love it.
"Goodfellas" went together really well. It just knew where it was going. You know, it just had an incredible feeling to it.
One of the scenes in the desert where Pesci and DeNiro are arguing, they go and meet way out in the desert, and that one was hard... It was a matter of getting the best of it, and all the weird things they went off on, you know, you can't have them all, so which is the best and which works best with an audience and isn't too long?
The Wolf of Wall Street:
The improvisations are so much a part of "Wall Street," and they're improvisation is very hard to cut because it’s not scripted and one actor may go off on some tangent and you may not have coverage on the actor responding to that. So it’s very difficult to edit the improvisations and Marty knew that from our experiences with "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" and "Casino"... It does take time because you have this massive amount of wonderful stuff and you’ve got to try and shape it down, strip it down, try and keep the beauty of it and the humor of it as you take it down, and so you have to try different things and that was the hardest stuff, absolutely to cut in "Wolf of Wall Street."
It took me a long time to figure out what was the best of it to keep. You know, when Donny, played by Jonah Hill, is arguing with Rob Reiner, playing Jordan’s father in the movie, we have so many ways we could have gone with that argument and so I had to just keep trying this version and that version, and then half of this version tacked on to half of that version, and then finally running them all by Marty and us deciding which way to go, which is very different from a scripted scene.