The eye of Thelma Schoonmaker

The eye of Thelma Schoonmaker

To celebrate the forthcoming world premiere of a new Thelma Schoonmaker-edited picture in Cannes – Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon – Christina Newland looks back on what makes her work so singular.

Both personally unassuming and a blazing, phenomenal talent, Thelma Schoonmaker must be one of the most revered film editors in the past half-century of cinema. The veteran has worked on a grand total of 22 films with Martin Scorsese: Killers of the Flower Moon, premiering this month at the 76th Festival de Cannes, will be the 23rd. Their long and fruitful collaboration began when one day at NYU, a film professor asked Schoonmaker to give a fellow student a hand with his graduate project. The two clicked, and Schoonmaker would go on to edit Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967, Martin Scorsese’s first feature film. It would become one of the longest-running and seemingly most generative creative pairings of both of their careers.

Since 1980’s landmark film Raging Bull – in which the rapid-fire montage, kaleidoscopic range of shots, and startling imagery won Schoonmaker an Academy Award for Best Editing – she has worked on every one of Scorsese’s films, making for a hugely varied career including everything from  manic dark comedy (After Hours) to children’s films (Hugo) and period pieces (The Aviator).

Film editing is an often under appreciated art, perhaps because in its classical form it is meant to be invisible. But the business of stitching together celluloid – or today, as technology has long shifted to digital – is a painstaking art, requiring the ability to see the bigger picture while structuring the material to hand with great nuance.

The undervaluation of the role of editor is a chicken-egg scenario in some respects: in early motion picture work, editing was undervalued therefore mostly women were assigned to it; perhaps over time it became less valued because it was associated with women, too. Nonetheless, Schoonmaker is one of the most recognisable names in the business, helping to raise the entire discipline and the women in it: with eight nods under her belt, she remains the most nominated film editor in Academy Award history.

Although often modest to the point of self-deprecation in interviews, Schoonmaker may have said it best when she was once asked how such a nice lady made such violent movies. “They’re not violent until I’ve edited them,” she remarked with discernible satisfaction. In honour of that iron fist in a velvet glove, here are three of Schoonmaker’s finest moments, stitched together with her eye for tiny details and a dazzling magician’s box of cinematic tricks and verve.


You never got me down, Ray,” exhales De Niro’s Jake La Motta to his triumphant opponent, Sugar Ray Robinson: our embattled protagonist has lost his title, but he has taken an absurd amount of punishment rather than hit the canvas. The pummelling he takes is a masterpiece of movement, angle, and rhythmic cutting: Schoonmaker takes shots from opposing angles to mimic the overwhelm of punches, punctured by flying sweat and gloves slipping from the ropes that hold La Motta upright; ringside photographers’ flashbulbs pop and blood seeps; close-ups of Jake’s agonised face cut directly to his wife’s horror as she looks on. It’s an object lesson in motion picture editing, designed to evoke a feeling of brutality and stunned helplessness: you feel it way down in your guts.


A bravura period piece which showed Scorsese’s thematic interests in a very different light, The Age of Innocence depicts a cosseted 19th century society and a doomed love story. Schoonmaker, whose work for Scorsese has spanned all manner of genres and settings, adjusts her style accordingly: this is pure classicism at work, slow dissolves and long-held close-ups with traditional reverse shots, a gentle, elegiac pacing which matches the spirit of its Edith Wharton-based story. In a scene with a long, slow tracking shot through a gilded parlour gathering, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) realises everyone is whispering about his supposed affair with Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer): the first cut away from the room and to the face of Archer is subtle, unshowy, and his half-shrouding in darkness is the perfect choice. Sometimes the least bombastic moments are the most effective, and Schoonmaker is enough of a whiz to know it. 


One of Schoonmaker’s great talents is her ability to use editing as a tool to formally express the varying themes and moods of Scorsese’s work: she sculpts the raw film material into something which has not only structure, but feeling Her editing of the ‘May 11, 1980’ sequence – one that begins with Henry Hill’s busy coked-up day and ends with him getting busted by the cops – must be one of the most keyed-up, nervous evocations of paranoia and drug use in cinema. The juxtaposition of shots is jittery, lurching from detail to detail, especially when Henry nearly rear-ends someone in his car. Paired with the likes of Harry Nilsson on the soundtrack, the entire rhythm of the sequence matches Henry’s psyche: as though the film’s heart has also skipped a beat.

Killers of the Flower Moon will receive its world premiere at the Festival de Cannes in May.

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