Legendary film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE discusses editing Killers of the Flower Moon with equally legendary director, Martin Scorsese.
Today on Art of the Cut, it’s my pleasure to speak with legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE, about working with her legendary director, Martin Scorsese, about their latest film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Thelma’s filmography includes editing eight Oscar Best Picture nominated films. She was nominated for her first Oscar for Best editing for “Woodstock” in 1971. Her co-editor on that film was Martin Scorsese, actually.
She won an ACE Eddie, a BAFTA and an Oscar for editing Raging Bull.
She won a BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar and an ACE Eddie for “Goodfellas.”
Nominated for an ACE Eddie for “Casino.” Won an ACE Eddie and was nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar for “Gangs of New York.” Nominated for a BAFTA and won an ACE Eddie and an Oscar for “The Aviator.”
Nominated for a BAFTA and won an ACE Eddie and the Oscar for “The Departed.” Nominated for an ACE Eddie, a BAFTA and an Oscar for “Hugo.” Nominated for an ACE Eddie and a BAFTA for “Wolf of Wall Street.” Nominated for an ACE Eddie a BAFTA and an Oscar for “The Irishman.” And was awarded a career achievement award by the American Cinema Editors.
When I was first ordered to switch to digital was on Casino and the studios and everybody were all very hot on digital. I was resistant because I loved working on film.
And then Scott Brock, my wonderful fellow editor, was sent to train me in Las Vegas, where we were shooting Casino, and I was a very, very bad student. I was grumpy and he was incredibly patient, an excellent teacher. I kept saying things like, “Oh, I could do this much easier on film!”
And he would put a quarter into a little glass bottle every time I said that.
Thelma Schoonmaker at the Killers of the Flower Moon premiere in NYC
Right. After about two weeks of this grumpiness, I suddenly clicked over and he was training me on Lightworks, not avid, because Lightworks was still trying to be a competitor then.
And so I loved all kinds of things about Lightworks. I really began learning to use it. And of course now there’s just unfortunately no going back, right? We can now do dissolves. We can slow the film down.
We can change the color of it. We can turn it upside down. We can make it black and white. We can do visual effects. We can mix with 24 soundtracks where we used to be able to only mix with two and have to go to a sound studio to do it, which was expensive because we screen a lot of times and everything was expensive and lengthy.
Getting a simple dissolve made, you could have to wait a week for that.
There are several things that Lightworks has that I really love. The main one is being able to undo what you’ve done and go back to exactly where you were with just a click, and to correct the sync, you could open up your tracks and throw yourself out of sync to try something, and then just click on something and it’ll put you right back in sync, which is really wonderful.
And I just have stuck with it thankfully, because Scott’s been around to help support me.
The controller is fine. I love it. Scott doesn’t use it himself. I mean he’s using Lightworks, but he doesn’t use the controller. He doesn’t need to. But I like it. Maybe it’s the old thing of swishing that thing to the right or left the way we used to do. I’ve just always found particularly the sync thing, really, really wonderful.
Oh, yes, I definitely did. I think the book is very important. And I know so many people have heard about this project, either from the book or had heard that the movie was being made and therefore went to read the book, that it became number one on the bestseller list six years after it was written, once people started hearing about Cannes — the reception at Cannes — and things like that.
So the writer — who loves the movie, by the way — had number one and number two on the bestseller list. Number two, the new book that he’s just written called The Wager.
Right. The one thing that’s really important about the book is you learn all the facts. We can’t get all the facts into the movie. We’re not making a documentary, we’re making a fiction film. I read the script once and then put it away because I really don’t need it anymore.
What I’m looking for is how Marty is creating the movie from that script, because sometimes a lot of what he does is not in the script. It’s what he has in his mind about how he’s going to do the camera work or his concept for the editing.
So for me, that’s what’s really important: what he’s doing and how I want to honor that.
Oh no no no. The script notes are very, very important because Marty gives a lot of very important information to the script supervisor.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
All the technical work that goes into the skill of the stunt people and the design of the shot, and then how it’s edited is really what makes one feel the violence.
And so that is part of my job: to make it believable. For example, in Raging Bull, particularly where you have all of these fights in the ring and people slugging away at each other, and that has to be believable.
I think it became believable partly because De Niro was so incredibly expert at portraying a fighter. He could have fought in the ring.
That’s how hard he trained and all of his combatants were all excellent fighters, and they were able to be trained by stuntmen to react to a punch or throw a punch in a way that I could then — well, the camera people first and Marty would make it look believable — and then my job is to make it MORE believable. But that was an astounding thing to work on.
Raging Bull was such an incredible filmmaking example. Just brilliant, what Marty came up with, particularly on the fights in the ring that he had conceived of so beautifully.
And each one is different and the camerawork is different on each one. And it was a lesson. It was an incredible way for me to learn about editing, because I didn’t know that much when I first worked on the film, and Marty was teaching me all along. He’s a great editor.
It’s his favorite part of filmmaking, and he taught me everything that I know, particularly on that film, because it was like an encyclopedia of how to make a movie.
The constant change of speed in the shots: sometimes down to 48fps, then back up to 24fps. It was so beautifully done so that you don’t know those facts, but you’re feeling it.
For example, when Sugar Ray Robinson at the last fight cannot get Jake LaMotta to go down, and he backs off for a moment to try and figure out what the hell to do with this man who is just saying — as he’s on the ropes — “Come on! Come on!”
And so what Marty did was have a rheostat on the camera, and Sugar Ray steps back and the camera slows down and the lights go down, and then he’s breathing in slow motion, and our wonderful sound editor put in the sound of of an animal breathing.
I don’t know which animal it was. And then as he comes back in for the final onslaught, the rheostat causes the camera to come back up to speed and the lights come back up again.
Things like that are just stunning! So great to edit so that people are feeling it without understanding the mechanics of it.
Marty and I look at the dailies together, hopefully when we’re in the same room. But of course, on Killers we were separated. But that was fine because with all these modern techniques of Zooming and everything, it was perfectly fine for us to be separated and discuss each shot as it comes along.
That’s where the notes from the script supervisor are very important, because Marty’s already put down much of what he’s going to say to me, and then we exchange our thoughts. I tell him what I think, he tells me what he thinks, what he likes the best.
And then from that, I start to assemble the movie. Then together, when he comes back from shooting, we start to edit it all together, and I get way too much credit for the editing on his movies. I keep trying to make people understand that, but they all say, “Oh yeah! Sure! Right!”
But we edit it all together in the same room. It’s a wonderful experience to share this with Marty, and we talk about all kinds of things as we’re working every day: music, history, politics — all kinds of things we talk about as we’re editing.
So it’s an incredibly rich environment to be in with him. A really sacred place that nobody dares to open the door unless we turn the light off saying, you could come in.
Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Yes, he will often talk about other things, and sometimes he’ll have TCM on on a small little screen near him that I can’t see, so that he could be watching a classic film that he loves or he’s never seen — which is unlikely, since he’s probably seen everything — and he’ll sometimes say, Wait! Stop! Just a minute.
Look at this. Look at this shot that this guy, this director had such a wonderful idea for this shot. And so I’ll get a lovely little history lesson in the midst of things.
Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Well, that rarely happens, but what had happened when Scorsese he was first busting into Hollywood was his new style of filmmaking. For example, using rock and roll music in Mean Streets was shocking to people.
And he was finding that some of the editors he was working with were not accepting his brilliant new ideas about not only music, but editing and improvization. So it was very hard for him.
And I think what he found with me when we accidentally met is that he could trust me to do what was right for the movie, that we weren’t going to have ego battles in the editing room about who’s right and who’s wrong. So when there ever is a really major disagreement, which is rare, I am always more than happy to show him what he has asked for.
And then if I want to show him options, then I show him options and he’s very happy to look at those and then we’ll decide which one is best. But it’s never a battle.
So we did have one really interesting disagreement on Raging Bull, where the last sequence in the film, Jake LaMotta, is confronting himself in a mirror doing the speech from On the Waterfront.
They did 15 takes. Now, Marty doesn’t usually do that many takes, but he and De Niro knew that this was a critical moment in the film, and they wanted to experiment with going this way, that way, warmer, colder as he confronts himself.
How they work on set is that they whisper to each other and hardly anybody ever hears what they’re saying. They were going further one way or the other in terms of warmth or coldness, and I preferred the warmer take at the end.
And Marty said, “No. He has to be very cold when he’s confronting himself.” And so we screened it two ways with friends of ours — people that we trust — and Marty was right.
But that rarely happens. Usually these things are settled pretty quickly in the editing room with different versions, and that’s the way we work.
Behind the Scenes: Lily Gladstone and Director Martin Scorcese
No. There’s a great deal of conversation, but it’s just that I take the time to prepare versions for him to see. Then we discuss it at length and choose together what seems right for the movie.
Well, yeah. Marty’s got one of the greatest abilities to use music in films of anyone, ever, I think. He’s always been so daring. But it’s not just daring.
It’s unusual to use Bach, for example, over De Niro being blown up in Casino in the main titles, but he’s not always shocking like that. He also knows how sometimes to use music to reinforce something.
He’s just got an unbelievable ability to put music to film, and I think he was born that way. He remembers the first piece of music he ever heard when his mother was buying sausage in a store in Little Italy. He was three or something.
He used music, for example, in Raging Bull that was not being heard as distinctly as it is today, because nobody had stereos in those days, and so a lot of what he was hearing living in Little Italy, was music that was coming through people’s windows.
So the music is used extremely differently — brilliantly — but differently in Raging Bull than it is in Goodfellas, when everyone has stereos and wandering around with headsets on as they walk down the street, so there the music is much more up front, but that’s just the simple example.
He just studies and makes charts of music that he’s thinking of for each scene, particularly in Casino, we had walls covered with various options for each scene, and then we would play seven pieces, for example, against the cut — let’s say approaching a first rough cut — and usually one would click. It would just feel right. But that happens a lot. We try different options for scenes a lot of the time.
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Oh, I don’t know if I agree, but you stay objective with one person in the room who’s never seen the movie. When we screen — and we screen a lot — fortunately, we’re able to do a lot of versions.
The fact that somebody who doesn’t know the movie is in the room with you affects you deeply. You’re very, very conscious of people moving.
Or do they laugh or don’t they laugh at the right place… or the wrong place? How are they feeling afterwards? Of course, we do talk to people at length afterwards to find out how they’re reacting, and that’s how you stay objective.
It always makes us a little nervous to pick who we’re going to show the movie to the first time.
Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
It was about four hours. We quickly got it down. The running time of the film presently includes seven minutes of end titles.
Well, I think once the change was made that DiCaprio wasn’t going to play the FBI guy and instead it’s played by Jesse Plemons beautifully, then there were changes that they had made before they started shooting, but they were still working on it during the shoot, and particularly with Lily and Leo contributing a lot in terms of building the love story and making it feel very real. And so that was going on during the shooting even.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
I just have to say that the great muse for both Marty and me is Michael Powell. We love his movies and the movies he made with Emeric Pressburger which we are celebrating now in England, in the UK, which is why I’m here.
The reactions have been wonderful to the events we’re doing and to the films themselves, particularly among young people, which is really heartening. So the films of Powell and Pressburger are an enormous influence on the both of us.
Marty began teaching me about the films when I started working with him on Raging Bull, after a period when we couldn’t work together because I wasn’t in the union, and he would send me home with copies of the films so I could see them and we could discuss them.
So many of the things that are implicit in the films of Powell and Pressburger are things that Marty reacted to as a young person, watching them on television, sometimes even in the wrong version.
For example, a beautiful Technicolor film that the only print of that they were running on television was in black and white, like Black Narcissus.
So Marty was responding to these movies so strongly because whenever he saw the logo — which was an arrow plunging into a target — he said in his mind, “Oh, this is going to be a special movie.”
And I think that’s because his own gut instincts, which were probably already there even when he was very young, were responding to similar ideas that he was seeing in the Powell-Pressburger movies.
For example: there’s never really a hero or a villain. Both Powell and Pressburger and Scorsese, they are interested in the people in between — the gray area of human behavior — not the stultified villain or hero.
So that was a major influence on Marty, of course, living in a mafia-run neighborhood.
Marty went and found Michael Powell living in oblivion in England because the films were really ignored and forgotten, and Marty has a great deal to do — along with the British Film Institute — with bringing these films back to the world, which are getting more and more and more loving responses from people.
And Michael Powell, when he started being with us on Raging Bull, Marty had brought him over to attend film festivals, and also the Museum of Modern Art did a major retrospective in New York City.
Michael Powell always said to us, “Never explain and always try to be ahead of your audience. Respect them. They are probably ahead of you, so you try and be ahead of them.”
So the idea of not explaining everything always was very, very important to make people feel it and engage with it, but not tell them what to think. Marty hates it when he sees a movie that tells you what to think.
And so those pieces of advice were so important. They’re not the only filmmakers that influenced Scorsese. Scorsese’s been influenced by many, many great filmmakers like Rossellini, for example, Kurosawa — so many. But there’s something about the Powell-Pressburger films that are very special and that we could watch over and over and over again and never get tired of.
I think partly because they portray people in a loving way. Even if someone’s being a jerk, you might find it a bit amusing how jerky they are. It’s not as if someone’s pointing a finger saying this person is terrible.
So the trick is to try and make the audience engage with that person and see them in a different way.
Other filmmakers are our major muse, but also certainly art — painting — is very important to both of us and music is very important, but that’s more Marty’s field than mine.
Oh, yes. I mean, I love them all, so it’s very hard, but “Blimp” — “Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” is just an unbelievable masterpiece that is something that means so much to the both of us.
My husband’s favorite film (meaning Powell himself) was A Matter of Life and Death, because he could be a magician and create heaven and earth and stop time and not worry about continuity at all and just explode with magic. So that was his favorite.
And interestingly enough, when I went around the United Kingdom after he died, I had to go around and publicize the second volume of his autobiography that I’d helped him edit.
Most of the venues I went to asked for A Matter of Life and Death, and young men came up to me afterwards to tell me how much it meant to them, and I was really quite stunned by that. It is about the force of love. But I was thinking maybe more women would come up, but in fact it was young men.
No, no. In this case, it was all Robbie Robertson. except you’re right, there are very many pieces which are not by Robbie, which are period music from the time.
It wasn’t so hard for Marty to pick from those, because there wasn’t as much of a choice in front of him as there would be with rock and roll, right? And he was very, very careful to make sure that this music would have been heard in 1921 on the radio or somehow on a record player.
But the main music is, of course, by Robbie Robertson, who unfortunately is no longer with us. And Marty listened to a lot of pieces that Robbie sent and chose that piece of music, particularly for the opening when the oil explodes out of the ground, and also to be sort of a theme for the movie.
He wanted an indigenous composer. That was very, very important to him. And so we were lucky with Robbie being half Mohawk, he was the man for the job!
No. The structure came up in the editing room because the wonderful Osage, who is doing the speech in the Tribal Council as they try and figure out what to do about the murders, Everett Waller, who is a lawyer, and Marty was going to film the scripted version of the Tribal Council, and Marty said to Everett Waller, “I’m going to take a break.” — It was terribly hot. It was 110 degrees — “So could you talk? And we will then film reactions of the Osage Nation as they are listening to you.”
And as Everett started to talk so emotionally, Marty said, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to film this!” So it wasn’t scripted at all. Everett just did what he wanted to say, and it is so moving and so beautiful the way he uses the language and powerful.
And he’s speaking for all of the indigenous nations in our country, where we took away their land without even a second thought. The anger, and yet also the fierce pride is so stunning. It’s one of my favorite things in the movie. I always get chills when I hear him talk.
I think that we decided that it might work better if we made the speech into two parts. It would be more powerful, and it was Marty’s idea to think of using the autopsy and Molly’s incredible reaction to it as a way to make a break for a moment, and a very relevant break to what is going on and to whatever he’s saying.
The name of his character is Paul Red Eagle, by the way, and he’s the assistant chief to Yancey Red Corn, who is Chief Bonnicastle. And it worked. I mean, we tried it and it worked, so it stayed.
The flames are so beautiful. And Marty saw the flames when he was driving home from the set one day, and he went past a farm where they were burning the fields as they do, but made it into a very moving, visually entracing scene, and actually hired dancers to be part of the people who are hacking away at the ground, controlling the fire.
So if you look at it again, you’ll see that there are some very interesting body movements going on in the people in the distance, and they kept going more and more out of focus, more distorted as they were filming. And that’s how we edited it, too.
We start out crisp and then go deeper and deeper into a beautiful distortion of the image. And I think it’s sort of like the fires of hell that the part played by DiCaprio is becoming drunker and drunker. He’s even putting in some of the medicine that goes into his wife’s insulin into his own drink.
I think he’s getting sort of to the end of being able to carry on whatever he’s doing.
And when Molly says “you’re next,” and then he collapses back on the bed, and then the next scene is he’s arrested. That’s a very beautiful idea of Marty’s.
And to hold on the burning of the fields for a while, it just has exactly the right feeling at the right time in the movie.
Well, one of the things that’s so interesting about that scene is that you hear Osage being spoken without subtitles. When Marty made that decision, he said, “We know what’s going on.
We know she’s upset about the doctors.” And then DiCaprio’s character says, “Well, fellas, I’m sorry, could you leave?” So we know what she’s saying to him and the intensity of their argument, and particularly that both DeNiro and DiCaprio learned the Osage language incredibly well to be able to do these scenes where they talk Osage, for example, when De Niro does the prayer over Minnie at the wedding reception in Osage, and he wanted to do all of his lines in Osage, he loved learning the language, and Molly learned it so well that the woman training her, Janice Carpenter, said that Molly sounded like her mother or her grandmother. She was so good at it.
So the fact that Marty decided to just not have any subtitles was so interesting. And I was a bit shocked at first, but he was completely right to do that.
It really works. And you get a chance to hear the Osage purely. Actually, there are many times in the movie where you do hear the Osage purely, which is a very, very good decision, which I resisted at first.
Not hearing it by itself. You don’t need to know what he’s saying. In the wedding ceremony, for example, you know, he’s marrying them, right? But in that particular scene where they’re having a big argument, then that was a very brave and correct decision.
That was a choice we made. We could have put it any place in the sequence and we tried it various places, but the reason it ended up there is because they’re going to talk about her mother, and Leo is going to say, “You live in this house with your mother.”
And Molly says, “Yes, I take care for her.” So we figured that might be the right place, but it could have begun the sequence, it could have ended the sequence. But that’s where we finally felt it was right.
No, no, we decided to do that to make clear — to put closer together — the scene where you see Ernest, played by DiCaprio, take the money from the man. You don’t see him take the money the first time, but the second time you see him take the money.
And Molly says, Is there anyone that can help? We hired a private investigator, but he… then she stops and we show him being hit again. Then you see Leo take the money. And then in the dinner scene right after that, De Niro says, “He ran away, didn’t he?”
Which now we know, in fact, that he was terrified and left. And the look on Leo’s face when he realizes he has to agree with that is perfect, because De Niro is just lying, and Leo realizes he has to go along with the lie. It’s a great look on his face.
Also, when De Niro hears that Molly is pregnant again and he’s very upset about it, and you see the look he gives to Leo, and Leo gets very upset. The looks on his face for 2 or 3 cuts after that are terrific, because he says everything just in the look, with no dialog.
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
No no no no no. It’s all Marty and me. It’s Marty’s notes to the script supervisor. And then me looking at it and the two of us when we look together saying, “Oh, that’s incredible. We have to use that.”
When something’s that brilliant, there’s no argument about it. In fact, Leo’s performance on the witness stand at the very end of the movie is so brilliant that Marty called me from the set and he said, “I want to use take one only of this performance and cut away only when we absolutely have to. I want to just hold on Leo for the entire duration of the testimony, because he is so brilliant” and he is.
So we only cut away when the prosecutor points to De Niro and says, “He is now talking about this man.” And it swishpans over to De Niro because Leo has just incriminated him.
That’s right. But Marty was right. He felt to just hold on him in this magnificent performance was right. So we decided to cut to her at the end instead. And that was a powerful decision.
Well, there’s never a problem. When something’s that powerful, there’s never a question about it. You know that’s it. You know that that’s the shot. I make selects.
From my screenings with Marty, I make extensive selects with notes attached so that Marty and I can always go back and look at an option if we want, so that we’re not poring through the entire dailies were poring through what were our original selects? I find that really an excellent way to edit. I don’t think everybody does that, but for us, that’s really important.
I just think the decision to focus on the love story was the big decision that Marty made. That became what guided us through the whole editing process was to make sure that that love story, which is not the usual kind of love story that you see, but was extremely valid.
The actual Mollie was asked by a real FBI agent, “Why do you stay with him?” And she said, “I love him.” And that was proof to us that this love story really was genuine. And that should be the the core of the movie.
And then the whole Osage history and culture would be built all around that. So that was a very critical decision.
I really appreciate it, Steve. Thank you. Bye.