The Cutter

She scoffs at the notion, offered facetiously but sincerely nonetheless, that she is the Paul McCartney to Martin Scorsese's John Lennon. "I am not the initiator of the concepts and the great simple ideas that make things work," she says, laughing off the compliment, once more, as she always does. But film editor Thelma Schoonmaker has been the great director's colleague and collaborator for decades, dating back to their days at New York University; they worked together first on Who's That Knocking on My Door?, released in 1967, and again on Woodstock before becoming permanent partners in 1980, on Raging Bull, which is being released as a double-disc special-edition DVD included in the Martin Scorsese Film Collection boxed set.

They have been inseparable, working together now on 14 films, for which she's been Oscar-nominated five times (just last week, in fact, for The Aviator). She won for Raging Bull--for, among other reasons, finding coherency in the improvised scenes between Robert De Niro as boxer Jake La Motta and Joe Pesci as his brother Joey and for connecting the punches of the movie's heroic fight sequences--but never believed she deserved the honor alone. It broke her heart when Robert Redford won for Ordinary People, but she has come to realize all these years later why Scorsese was passed over for the Academy Award--for the first time, but not for the last.

Just last night you had a screening of Raging Bull at the Ziegfeld in Manhattan, with De Niro and Scorsese in attendance. How many times have you seen Raging Bull at this point?

I haven't actually seen it on the big screen like that in 25 years. It was quite wonderful, and the audience was really with it and laughing more than I remember when we first put it out. I think people couldn't figure out what the hell we were trying to tell them. People were laughing at all those lines Marty and I laughed at in the editing room when we were cutting the movie that didn't necessarily get laughs when it first came out. Now people feel they have the permission to laugh or something, because they're so familiar with the Joe Pesci-De Niro relationship. It is amazing how it's morphed over the years from Raging Bull to those Saturday Night Live sketches.

Yeah, it's interesting. And I had to sit through it all by myself to check [the reels], and I was sitting in this enormous theater all by myself, and I said, "Wow, how did anyone think anyone would vote for this for the Oscar?" [She laughs.] I mean, it's so disturbing and painful. It's just too out there. It's just broken the mold and is in its own space. I was so depressed at the Oscar ceremony when I was backstage and I heard that Marty didn't win, but now, looking at it, I say to myself, "My God, are you mad?"

But you've always said you believed you won your award for editing...

Because of Marty, absolutely. There's no question. He had such great concepts for each fight, and so not only was he editing it with me, but it was the beauty of the conception that made the editing look so tremendous in the fight sequences.

In many of the interviews he's given over the years, he will often say about a particular movie, "Thelma didn't read the screenplay." To work like that takes tremendous trust, not merely talent.

We're like one mind. Let's face it: He trained me, he taught me everything I know, so therefore my taste is his taste. There are some times when we disagree--he may be nervous about a certain performance--but what he will allow on the screen is something I know profoundly. I know the kind of acting he doesn't like, the overly clichéd or sentimental kind of acting. It's my taste now as well. I've been in situations where editors and directors are fighting over a film, and it's just the worst. It's like a child in a divorce suit being ripped apart. [She laughs.]

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky