Interview | Thelma Schoonmaker, ‘Silence’ and New Challenges

The legendary editor discusses her long relationship with Martin Scorsese and the unique task of making 'Silence.'

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

It’s been said that editors are the true filmmakers. A director shoots all they want, but a film isn’t made until an editor puts it all together. If they do their job right, you don’t notice a thing.

Thelma Schoonmaker may be the world’s most famous editor. She started her career editing down French New Wave films for television broadcast (a practice she reportedly hated), moved on to edit Woodstock, perhaps the most famous music documentary of all time, and eventually teamed up with a young upstart named Martin Scorsese. She has edited all of Scorsese’s films since 1980’s Raging Bull, and she has won three Oscars for them (Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed).

Her most recent collaboration with Scorsese – the excellent meditation on religion and persecution Silence, now available on Blu-ray – revealed a distinct challenge for her in terms of tone, pacing, and exploring something new that Scorsese felt he needed to look at. And if there’s one thing a long-term relationship with an ambitious filmmaker teaches you, it’s how to rise to a challenge.

In a recent conversation, Schoonmaker tells us all about the uniqueness of Silence, one of the film’s best shots, and how much she and Scorsese talk (hint: it’s a lot).

Paramount

Paramount

Crave: I wanted to ask you about my favorite shot in Silence. It’s a very subtle thing, but there is a shot of three empty stools out in a courtyard. A wind blows and one of the stools rocks ever so slightly…

Thelma Schoonmaker: Yeah. It’s a great shot. And actually it was not intended. But when we saw it, at the beginning of the take, before the officials enter, Marty said right away”Yup, I wanna use that.” And then, course, trying to find exactly the right sound for that little stool moving was hard. Because it has to be really subtle. There were all kinds of different sounds. But I’m so glad you liked that! That’s great.

It may be a weird thing, but I picked up on it.

No! Marty loves that shot. So he’ll be very happy to hear you reacted to it. A lot of people wouldn’t even notice it.

Silence is astonishing. Its pace is long and languid. When it comes to the pace of a film like this, how much is dictated by the director, and how much is dictated by the editor?

Well the movie dictates the two of us. We knew the movie was going to be the real problem. How do you do it without becoming boring, right? We wanted it to be very different from the crash-bang films being made today. He wanted the film to be meditative. He wanted people to engage with it, and slow down, and think and feel. And so we were both very of a single mind about how to approach it. But we had to keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and see how far we could go with slowness or pace. And that was our big dilemma in the whole movie.

And also he wanted a score that was hardly audible. He was determined not to have a score tell people what to think. He was adamant about that from day one. And, fortunately we worked with some musicians who understood that. So the music is coming out of cicadas, or the wind, or waves. And it’s very low. There are a few times when you hear something loud, but mainly very low. Because he wanted people to feel the movie, not be told what to think. Which is often what a score does, of course. Sometimes you want it to do that. But not here. And I thought that was so brave. So we weren’t relaying on a score. We normally do have a very big score. And that was a whole new way to approach things. So it was fascinating to be given yet another challenge by him. Each movie is a different challenge, and this was a big one!

But it was so great. And I loved living in that world. A world of spirituality. Which is something you don’t see much of. And I miss it. I wish I was still working on it, frankly.

Paramount

Paramount

Movies about spirituality are uncommon. They seem like they’re a tough sell. Did you have to look to other Buddhist or Christian films as reference?

Marty knows all the films [laugh]. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about all the films of the world right now. He loves them, and prefers them to Hollywood, mainly. So I’m not sure. I think he had a pretty strong idea about how to go with this. I don’t think he needed any other references. But it’s daring and it’s difficult to make a movie like this because maybe people don’t understand, and don’t go see it because of that. They worry. “Oh dear, what is this? Am I going to be lectured?” They don’t understand that [Silence] is not like that. It was a real serious challenge. I wish it had done better. I think the movie will last and be very important to people. Which is all one can ask. So many fantastic movies, so many fantastic reactions from people. But if you’re going out with your family on Saturday night, you’re not going to go to this movie [laugh].

I know a lot of critics responded well to it. [Ed. It has an 85% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes] So many responded to the fine filmmaking, even if it’s not “crash-bang” entertainment.

Yeah, yeah. The reviews were… I’ve never read reviews like this. They’re just ecstatic sometimes, which is fantastic. All kinds of people, which is all you can hope for with this. And he wants to make more films like this, that are spiritual, basically, but not set in 17th century Japan [laugh]. In the modern time. So hopefully we’ll be able to make that. Not the next one, the next one is The Irishman, which is De Niro and Joe Pesci and elderly gangsters. So that’ll be very different from Silence. But maybe the one after that!

You said earlier that you and Mr. Scorsese were “of a mind.” After working together for so many years, how much do you still need to openly communicate? Can you intuit his requests by now?

When we edit, I do the first cut, but then after he’s through shooting, we cut everything else together. I mean every single thing. So we talk to each other constantly in the editing room. It’s just a give-and-take that goes on every second we’re in this room. We also talk about all kinds of other things, but it is a constant communication that goes on about the editing. I wish more people could see it, because it’s fascinating, how his mind works. A very high level. He has very high standards. And he’s very tough on himself. And it’s just incredible to be in this room. I wish everybody could see it [laugh].

Paramount

Paramount

I’ve heard stories about how certain films are “found in editing;” that editors are the ones who dictate a lot of what a final film is. If I may invite you to be immodest, how much of a say do you have in a film?

Oh well, I’m constantly making decisions with [Scorsese] as we go. I mean, I have a huge hand in it. He says I bring the humanity out in his movies. But he puts it in there! Sometimes I’ve had to doctor a few movies, where it was clear that the original editor had gone the wrong way. And if I had started all over again, I could make it better. But you can’t make a great movie unless you have great footage. You have to have a great director to make a great movie.

So there are movies that we struggled with which, now, everyone loves. I think everyone loves The Departed. That was a movie that had a lot of problems structurally. And we had to battle with it. Fight. Experiment. Try different things. And I think finally we hit it. But some films have those problems. Unlike some films. Like Raging Bull was just there. The first edit that we saw, Marty and I looked at each other and said “Who the Hell made that movie?” I mean it was burned into the screen already. I mean, we then made a few big changes in it, but it was so there. It was incredible. Not all movies are. But every one is different.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

You know, it’s interesting, I don’t think I ever have bought a record. I’ve lived with people who have bought records and I listen to their stuff. And of course Marty and I listen to tons of music when he’s choosing how to score a movie with prerecorded music. But I don’t think I have ever bought a record. I bought books. Other things. But not records. Because other people I was with were providing all of that. It’s a little weird, I know.

Top Photo: Paramount

Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, NerdistBlumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.