In conversation with Thelma Schoonmaker

In conversation with Thelma Schoonmaker

Christina Newland sits down with legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker to discuss Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell, and everything in between. 

Where to begin with the long and storied career of film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the most awarded editor in Academy history? Her collaborations with director Martin Scorsese, ongoing since Raging Bull in 1980, have earned her a place in cinema history, and her 23rd film with the director, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a heart-shattering epic which will no doubt be considered among the finest of their work together.

It was also Scorsese who introduced Schoonmaker to her late husband, Michael Powell – one half of Powell and Pressburger, the legendary British cinema duo responsible for the imaginative brio of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and many others. In time for BFI Southbank’s ongoing celebration and retrospective of Powell & Pressburger’s work, a nationwide re-release of The Red Shoes,I sat down for one-to-one with the icon to discuss her adoration for her husband’s work, her collaboration with ‘Marty’, and her ceaseless work to preserve – and contribute to – film history.  

Girls on Tops: Tell us about your introduction to Michael Powell – both to his films and personally? 

Thelma Schoonmaker: At a certain point, Marty [Scorsese] was invited to the Edinburgh Film Festival to receive an award. They asked him who he wanted to give him the award, and he said Michael Powell. They didn’t know who he was. They eventually got together for lunch, which was spectacular for both of them. Michael called him a California director, but as we know, he’s a New Yorker. But Michael said, ‘This young director knows every shot I've ever taken.’ For Marty, it was heaven to finally meet this man who had influenced him so much.

He began the whole restoration of Michael Powell along with Ian Christie and  Kevin Gough-Yates at the British Film Institute, who actually put together a retrospective in 1978. He was bringing Michael to New York a lot, taking him to awards ceremonies, helping to get Peeping Tom re-issued and entered into the New York Film Festival. He was doing all this wonderful stuff for Michael Powell. At one point, he said to me, ‘You love the movies so much, would you like to meet him?’ 

The second I saw him, I was stunned by him. It was the look on his face – it was so remarkable and unique. He hardly said anything during the dinner. But when he did, it was something really interesting. Of course, there was a big difference in our age. But gradually, things developed with ourselves, much to our surprise, and to the surprise of everyone around us. Marty gave me the best job in the world and the best husband in the world. 

A Matter of Life & Death is my favourite Powell and Pressburger film, and I put it on my ballot for Sight and Sound as one of the greatest films of all time. Can you talk to me a little bit about that one?

It was Michael Powell’s favourite, too. Michael always wanted to make films about magic. He worked with [silent film director] Rex Ingram in France, with a wonderful American crew, and Ingram loved magic. Here, Michael could do whatever he wanted – he could create heaven on Earth, he could stop time, change the colours of things, not worry about continuity. People worry too much about continuity these days. The Red Shoes is filled with continuity errors. Who cares? Because you’re completely involved in the momentum of it. In A Matter of Life and Death for example, when they’re operating on David Niven – they start operating and he’s wrapped in bandages, so he doesn’t have anything on his top. Suddenly he sits up and he’s in pyjamas. 

We also found out that they shot all the moving stairs in one day, because they didn’t have enough power to make it move beyond the one day. Because it was the end of the war, and there was rationing. As filmmakers, they were extremely efficient. Their budgets were very low, because Michael and Emmeric [Pressburger] didn’t take large salaries. They took a percentage of the return. I also think Michael wanted to make a film about love. Because Michael was very skilled at love. When Kim Hunter steps onto that staircase, I always cry. Because that’s what Michael would have done. 

You and Scorsese have been working on an upcoming documentary about Powell and Pressburger, presumably concurrently at times, with Killers of the Flower Moon. Did you find that the two projects ever were in dialogue with each other?

With the documentary, the director David Hinton collected all the things Marty had ever written or said about Powell and Pressburger’s films, and very skilfully created a script from that. Marty recorded that alone in a room with one sound man to express his love for these movies. He says that The Red Shoes is in his DNA. He thinks about it every day, that’s how much he loves that movie. But Marty is inspired to do things his own way. He never mimics, he takes the idea and puts it inside himself, and it comes out differently.

For example, in After Hours, when Griffin Dunne has the 20-dollar bill he loses and it blows out of his hand in the taxi, Marty shot the long shot of the dollar blowing away and landing. That was inspired by I Know Where I’m Going, when Wendy Hiller has the wedding dress hanging in the train compartment on her way to Scotland. 

There’s a certain emotional brutality to some of their work, too, isn’t there? 

The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom are about how art can be destructive. The wish to observe and record can affect your personal life, because you become so addicted. I work very long hours. My friends wait for me, but I’m lucky to have friends like that and it can be very hard on families. You’re away sometimes for three or four months of the year. It’s an addictive field, because editing in particular is so creative. You have such a wonderful experience editing a movie, to the point where you maybe don't pay attention to other things.

What is something you’d like people to know more about Powell and Pressburger and their work? 

Marty calls them the most subversive filmmakers ever in any major studio. They got away with murder, because during the war, everyone was concerned about the war. So J. Arthur Rank let them make movie after movie after movie until The Red Shoes, which he hated and tried to kill. But they had this remarkable period of no one messing around with them like Hollywood studios can. They kept making masterpiece after masterpiece, and nobody stopped them. They were also commercially successful, except for A Canterbury Tale. They were so lucky. Marty’s very jealous of that period.

You’ve received more attention for your work as of late. It seems like there’s been a bit of a shift in the way people speak about your work, or more appreciation for what you do and bring to the equation. Have you felt that? 

I want to make a very strong statement here: Marty and I edit the movies together and I’m getting way too much credit for it. Seriously. I knew nothing about editing when I met Marty.  He taught me everything. He’s a great, great editor. It’s his favourite part of filmmaking. You look at Mean Streets, he cut that movie himself. It’s a miracle. Michael Powell thought it was a masterpiece. But we do everything together in the edit. When he shoots, we look at the dailies together, he tells me what he feels, I tell him what I feel, and then I start assembling the film. As soon as he's finished shooting that, he comes in and works constantly with me. 

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger continues at venues UK-wide until 31 December. The free exhibition, The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror runs at BFI Southbank until 7 January.

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