3 January 1940 in North Africa.
Attended Cornell University, New York University.
Married Michael Powell (1984; died 1990).
Met Martin Scorsese while both were students at New York University; cut
Scorsese's debut feature,
Who's That Knocking at My Door?,
Best Film Editing Academy Award, Best Editing British Academy Award, Best
Edited Feature Film American Cinema Editors Eddie, for
, 1980; Best Editing British Academy Award, for
Pages From James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake
The Virgin President (co)
Who's That Knocking at My Door? (Scorsese)
Street Scenes (Scorsese) (co) Woodstock (Wadleigh) (chief ed) (+ asst d)
The Kids Are Alright (1979) (special consultant)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese) (+ production supervisor)
After Hours (Scorsese)
The Color of Money (Scorsese)
The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese)
"Life Lessons" ep. of New York Stories (Scorsese)
Cape Fear (Scorsese)
The Age of Innocence (Scorsese)
Grace of My Heart (Anders)
Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese)
Gangs of New York (Scorsese)
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (Scorsese—for TV) (doc) (supervising ed)
In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese (Wilson) (doc) editorial consultant)
"Scorsese's Klipp(a)," interview with J. Aghed, in Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 5, 1993.
"Accents and Umlauts," interview with Louise Tanner, in Films in Review (Denville), March-April 1995.
"Martin Scorsese," interview with Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Michael Henry, in Positif (Paris), March 1996.
"Why Thelma Loves Marty. . . and Michael," interview with J. Sherlock, in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia), December 1996.
"Martin Scorsese," interview with Hubert Niogret and Michael Henry, in Positif (Paris), May 1998.
Arkush, Allan, "I Want My KEM TV," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1985.
Talty, Stephan, "Invisible Woman," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), vol. 16, no. 9, September-October 1991.
Pizzello, Stephen, "Thelma Schoonmaker: assembling art with Marty," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1993.
Lally, Kevin, "The Art of Michael Powell Finds a New Audience," in Film Journal (New York), April 1995.
Jousse, Thierry, Nicolas Saada, and Serge Toubiana, "Casino," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1996.
"Inside Moves," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1996.
Anders, Allison, "Cut to the ' Grace'," in Premiere (New York), October 1996.
* * *
An axiom of Hollywood post-production holds that the best editing maintains a seamless invisibility; that the best editors don't draw attention to their work. Thelma Schoonmaker simultaneously embodies and shatters that axiom. On one hand, she is certainly one of Hollywood's most self-effacing editors, perhaps understandably so working as Martin Scorsese's editor. Editing all his films from Raging Bull on, she always claims the credit goes to Scorsese since he shoots for and edits with her. On the other hand, her contributions to Scorsese's films are far from insignificant; although her editing functions within classical Hollywood parameters, it draws attention to itself as a fully realized art form and provides a compendium of what contemporary editing can accomplish. As Jeffrey Ressner says, "Raging Bull, GoodFellas , and Casino have pushed the editing craft into a postmodern, almost hallucinogenic art. They are what films can be."
Schoonmaker's "postmodern" editing synthesizes a number of different influences, approaches, and devices: Nouvelle Vague, music videos, classical continuity editing (particularly shot/reverse shot dialogue editing), long takes and intrasequence cutting, montage, freeze frames, dissolves, jump cuts, temporal ellipses, extreme closeups, and irises. One might expect to see all these devices in a TV commercial or a music video, yet Schoonmaker's successfully employs them in narrative features. She established this "hallucinatory" battery of techniques in her first commercial narrative, Raging Bull , which according to Stephan Talty, "is one of the most obsessively crafted and exhaustively edited films in American cinema."
The techniques Schoonmaker initiated with Raging Bull won her an Oscar for best editing and she continued to use and expand them as her career progressed. Since 1980, her editing has become so innovative, complex, and continually evolving that addressing all aspects of it in a short essay is as unfair as it is impossible. Nonetheless, certain characteristics that help describe her editorial signature may be singled out.
Raging Bull appears documentary-like: shot in black and white, using subtitles to specify time and place, and telling the biography of Jake La Motta. Schoonmaker contributes to this appearance by utilizing long takes and intercutting "home movies" of La Motta and his friends and family. She also employs the naturalism associated with classical Hollywood editing by structuring much of the film around traditional shot/reverse shot dialogue sequences. But any sense of realism or naturalism these techniques may suggest shrinks behind the style she gives to the rest of the film. Most obviously, the eight fight sequences allow Schoonmaker to do anything she wants. She puts each sequence together in a different way with a different tempo, but all rely on montage and sound manipulation. Extreme close-ups are cut next to long shots; low angle shots are cut next to high angle shots; normal speed shots are cut next to slow and fast motion shots; long camera takes are cut next to split-second shots of camera flashes; the boxers and audience are cut next to objects (round cards, the bell, water buckets); freeze frames are cut next to Stedicam shots; sound intensifies, drops out, becomes subjective, becomes abstract. All of this makes each fight literally "explosive," especially when compared to the slower pacing of rest of the film. Schoonmaker explains that while working on "Round 13" of the third Sugar Ray Robinson fight, she first edited for narrative structure and then reworked the scene for movement, lighting, and effects—exactly the concerns which push her editing to the foreground.
Outside the fight sequences Schoonmaker employs subtler, but just as untraditional, editing techniques. Perhaps her most influential innovations occurred in this area: expanding the accepted boundary of the temporal ellipse and challenging the limitations of match action editing. All editors eliminate unimportant information that a viewer can infer. For example, an editor will not bother showing a character getting into a car, driving to a new location, and then getting out of the car. Typically, we would see the character get into the car, drive out of the frame, and then exit the car at the new location. The viewer understands that the car was driven between two points without needing to see it. Schoonmaker pushes this in a number of ways, but most interestingly by using this technique when we do not expect to see it. For example, while standing at a poolside soda stand, La Motta first sees Vicki. Then a cut shows us Vicki in close-up (from La Motta's point of view). When another cut returns us to La Motta he is sitting down at a table. We don't see him move from the soda stand to the table, but we know he did. Later, during La Motta's courtship of Vicki, she accompanies him to his apartment. As he closes the refrigerator door, a cut shows him sitting down at a table across the room. Again, unorthodox but fully comprehendible.
Traditional match action editing requires two things to make the cut "invisible": (1) cutting at the point of strongest action and (2) maintaining exact screen position and direction. Failure to follow these two conventions produces "bad editing" or "jump cuts." By traditional standards, Schoonmaker's editing borders on the "bad." But under contemporary editing aesthetics (heavily influenced by TV and music videos) her editing delivers an excitement impossible under the strict parameters of match action editing. Points of strongest action and exact screen position are replaced by jump cuts which produce a rhythmic pacing, an emphasis on character and dialogue (and actors' performances), and narrative intensification. In the many shot/reverse shot dialogue sequences, the street vernacular the characters speak, with its staccato tempo, perfectly complements and supports these editorial decisions and produces the edgy tension associated with Scorsese's films.
Schoonmaker also demonstrates a deft hand at intrasequence cutting. Brian Henderson defines intrasequence cutting as the linking of long takes to emphasize the rhythm and movement within a long duration shot. Each cut breaks that rhythm or movement but then replaces it with a different rhythm or movement of the next shot. Scorsese employs long takes usually with elaborate camera movements made possible by the Stedicam. In the Marcel Cerdan fight, the camera follows La Motta out of his dressing room, down a number of hallways, through the crowded arena, and into the ring as the camera (now on a crane) moves into a high angle shot. Schoonmaker uses such long takes in combination with her montage inspired editing to break and establish different editing tempos.
Immediately before or after a montage sequence, cutting together long takes provides a needed respite from a taxing emotional or intensely physical scene. Combining long takes with shot/reverse shot editing allows characters to develop more naturally. The bookending sequences of La Motta in his dressing room set up the narrative and structure of the film with an efficiency no other editing technique could accomplish.
In The King of Comedy , she pushed the temporal ellipse to include a spatial aspect. Straight cutting on dialogue in a typical shot/reverse shot pattern we move freely between Rupert's basement and his (fantasized) luncheon at Sardi's with Jerry Langford. Rupert's first conversation with Rita at a bar does the same thing: on a line of continuous dialogue over a shot/reverse shot cut we relocate to a restaurant. Schoonmaker and Scorsese indulge in a bit of Nouvelle Vague reflexivity here. In the long takes and intrasequence cutting which structures this scene, a patron behind Rupert gazes at the camera and mocks Rupert's gestures and facial expressions. In a film which questions the thin line between reality and fantasy, this scene in particular demonstrates the impossibility of film to ever be real.
The opening title sequence of The King of Comedy superimposes credits over a freeze frame of Marsha's clawing hands. Schoonmaker develops the freeze frame until it becomes one of her signature devices. She uses the freeze frame extensively in GoodFellas. Whenever Henry Hill's voice over makes an important point, Schoonmaker freezes the image. In GoodFellas , she also employs long takes (especially in the famous track back/zoom in shot at the diner), intrasequence cutting (Karen and Henry and the Copacabana and the Saturday May 11 sequence), spatial and temporal ellipses (all of the violence and the gifts of money at the wedding reception), and jump cuts (Karen at the beauty parlor and at Janet Rossi's apartment).
In The Color of Money , Schoonmaker uses extreme close-ups of cue chalk, billiard balls, cigarettes, and money as a visual leitmotif to stress the theme of the film. She balances long takes with montage sequences; Vincent's "Werewolves of London" pool cue performance juxtaposed to the increased speed, overhead jump cuts, and extreme close-ups for a series of pool games. She plays much cutting on moving camera against a precise visual symmetry (the left/right balance of Vincent and Eddie's grudge match). In Vincent's game with Grady, Schoonmaker employs dissolves and superimpositions to convey the various deceits and facades of the two players.
Schoonmaker also develops the dissolve until it becomes another of her signature devices. She uses the dissolve extensively in The Age of Innocence and Casino. Whereas her earlier films used the dissolve traditionally (to indicate simultaneity or a passage of time), her later films use it to disorient. In The Age of Innocence , the opera sequence which opens the film immediately undercuts the period setting. Dissolves link shots which traditionally would be joined in one long take or through match action. Combining this unsettling technique with jump cuts (during the pan of the theatre) and abandoned eye-line matches (an audience member looks up across the theatre, yet the next shot is down to a performer on the stage) provides a commentary on the hidden meanings of exterior actions. Schoonmaker takes advantage of the period setting to employ irises. A silent film device before editing used close-ups, an iris focused the viewer's attention on a specific part of the screen. Here Schoonmaker uses translucent irises as another visual metaphor for disguised appearances.
In Casino , Schoonmaker uses both devices but for different reasons. The dissolves work as point of view commentary (especially since the film is narrated in voice over). For example, as Sam explains how he eliminated professional cheaters from the Tropicana we see him determine how two men have won $140,000 in blackjack. Schoonmaker presents this to us through dissolves that link Sam to the two tables involved in the scam. When Nicky and Jennifer first meet Ginger, we see her through Nicky's eyes in a three shot dissolve which augments her approach. In Casino , the iris functions to suggest blindness. Sam is so obsessed with Ginger he cannot see the destruction their relationship will cause; an iris leads us to his head and then an extreme close-up of a flash bulb exploding. Both films also make extensive use of intrasequence cutting, temporal ellipses, cutting on moving camera, and montage.
These techniques also work well in the context of a suspense film. In Cape Fear , Schoonmaker melded her editing techniques with the action cutting demanded of a genre film. The result was a film that frightened, and exhibited an innovative twist on an old format. She used negative imagery to comment on the lack of clear difference between guilt and innocence. Her jump cutting and temporal ellipses added a new edge of terror and excitement to the final houseboat sequence (involving miniatures and special effects) as well as Sam Bowden's first sighting of Max Cady in town (three jump cuts from long shot to medium shot to close up on passing cars). Cady's seduction of Danielle on the school stage expertly demonstrates intrasequence cutting. Scorsese shot the improvised scene in one continuous, nine minute take with two cameras. Schoonmaker seamlessly melded the two takes so it looks like a typical shot/reverse shot sequence even though she is linking long takes.
The approaches mentioned above outline the unique style of Schoonmaker's editing technique. Perhaps more than any other contemporary Hollywood editor, her distinct editorial signature positions her as an auteur. Working almost exclusively with Scorsese certainly supports this claim and demonstrates not only that editing must be viewed as an art but that film can function as a collaborative act of creativity.
And indeed, as each new Scorsese project is initiated, you can be sure that he again will be working with Schoonmaker. Such was the case with Kundun , the undertaking of which was a special challenge for the editor. Schoonmaker has described the film as "a visual poem" and, indeed, Kundun is a banquet of resplendent images; it also is unlike Scorsese's other works in that it features non-professional actors and less of a concern with character and dialogue. The film consists of episodes in the life of its subject, the Dalai Lama, which are dazzlingly photographed (by Roger Deakins) and fluidly and superlatively edited.
Schoonmaker's affiliation with Scorsese even extends beyond the films he directs. One of her rare non-Scorsese projects was Allison Anders's Grace of My Heart ; however, Scorsese was the film's executive producer.
—Greg S. Faller, updated by Rob Edelman