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One on 1 Profile: Oscar-Winning Film Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Continues Her Longtime Success With Martin Scorsese

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If film editor Thelma Schoonmaker gets an Academy Award nomination on Thursday, it will be her eighth, and she's won three times. Schoonmaker may not be a household name for the general public, but in the movie industry, she is well known and respected as Martin Scorsese's editor, starting with "Raging Bull" all the way up to their current film, "The Wolf of Wall Street." NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

Her work is seen by millions of moviegoers. And then there's the added pressure for Academy Award-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, making decisions directly affecting her film colleagues.

"You have a big responsibility to make sure you don't screw up what 250 people have just spent six months doing, and I do feel that responsibility deeply," Schoonmaker says.

Schoonmaker has edited every Martin Scorsese film since 1980. It's quite a list, including three films that earned her Oscars - "Raging Bull," "The Aviator" and "The Departed" - plus "Casino," "The Color of Money" and "Goodfellas."

"'Goodfellas' was a rush. And particularly the last 20 minutes, where he's on coke," she says. "Everything is crazed, and we were able to do all kinds of jump cuts and just keep pushing it forward, whereas in 'Age of Innocence,' everything had to slow down to be like the 19th century in America."

The latest film is "The Wolf of Wall Street."

"He's always setting himself new challenges," Schoonmaker says. "He doesn't want to repeat himself, and so every film is actually a whole new ballgame."

Some elements of the process remain the same. Schoonmaker rarely visits the set.

"I'm not there on the set being sort of seduced by how they made it," she says. "I'm seeing it on the screen every day with a cold eye, and he wants my reaction to that."

As seen in the documentary "Martin Scorsese Directs," Scorsese frequently joins Schoonmaker for the editing process.

Schoonmaker has edited her share of violent scenes, including Robert de Niro getting pummeled in "Raging Bull."

"You do realize that we create that in the editing room. I mean, de Niro couldn't take 50 punches or he would be dead," she says. "What's more disturbing is something as powerful as de Niro hitting his head against the wall in jail in 'Raging Bull.' That take was really gut-wrenching and brilliant."

Schoonmaker doesn't just have a strong professional connection to Scorsese.
He introduced her to her late husband, British movie director Michael Powell.

Schoonmaker now spends time promoting Powell's films, like "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," and, in this instance, "The Red Shoes."

"The brilliant filmmaking, the passionate commitment in it, the gorgeous use of color, the being out on a limb, just out on a dare," she says.

Scorsese was instrumental in making "The Red Shoes" and other Powell films relevant again. Powell was instrumental in helping Scorsese make "Goodfellas," encouraging him when the studios turned it down. Before Powell got a chance to see the finished product, he died.

Schoonmaker: Marty shut down the film for two months while I took him home, and waited for me to come back to finish it. It's quite a circle there.
Mishkin: To come back to finish "Goodfellas."
Schoonmaker: Yeah. And it saved me because I didn't want to live after my husband died, and I had to. Michael would have wanted me to help Marty to finish that film, so it pulled me through a very bad time, and it was a great film to finish. (laughs)."

Thelma Schoonmaker was born in Algiers in northern Africa. Her father worked for Standard Oil Company. She grew up in Aruba with people from all over the world.

When the family moved to Ridgewood, N.J. when she was 15, she initially struggled.

"If you weren't a cheerleader or a football player, you were nobody in that kind of school, and I was, I felt like a nerd," she says. "And so it was very painful for me at first."

Things improved. She joined the chorus and orchestra. Then, at Cornell, Schoonmaker flourished. She took a class with the great Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. She served on the Cornell Committee Against Segregation, raising money for, and eventually meeting, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Schoonmaker dreamed of becoming a diplomat, but when she applied with the State Department, her activist streak got her into trouble.

"They said to me, 'If you were at an embassy in South Africa and someone talked to you about apartheid, what would you say?' I would say, 'Well, it was terrible,' and they said, 'You can't say that as a diplomat until the ambassador tells you you can,'" she says. "So they said, 'You're going to be very unhappy here.'"

She got a job working for a man who, in her words, was "butchering" great European films for late night television.

"He would just take a reel out of a movie to make it shorter. A reel. And I would say to him, even i knew that was, I said, 'You can't do that,'" she says.

She then took a six-week film class at New York University, where she met an aspiring young filmmaker.

"I wasn't on his team, but someone had cut his film incorrectly in the negative and he needed help, and I had been cutting negative taking reels out of movies in this horrible job," she says. "And the professor said, 'Does anybody here know how to help him?' And I said 'I'll try.' And I met him, and it changed my life forever."

Schoonmaker edited Scorsese's student film in 1963 and his first feature-length film, "Who's That Knocking at My Door," in 1967. They worked together on the film "Woodstock," earning Schoonmaker an Oscar nomination.

But for the next decade, she wasn't allowed to edit Scorsese's early films, like "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," because she wasn't in the editors' union.

"In those days, they had a very archaic system in the union that you had to serve five years as apprentice and three as an assistant, and then you could edit," she says. "I had already been nominated for 'Woodstock,' and I wasn't about to do that."

She worked primarily on documentaries until 1980, when she got into the union and got the call to edit "Raging Bull."

"I was very nervous and scared. I really was," she says. "But then, when I started seeing this footage, my God. I mean, it was like pure gold."

Schoonmaker has been approached by other directors, but she only works on Scorsese films, enough to keep her busy seven days a week, morning, noon and night.

"I don't know, frankly, how women editors who have children do it. I just don't understand. I never had children, and my life has always been incredibly involved with my work. I love it. It's everything to me," she says.

"It's like being in the greatest film school in the world, as well as having the best job in the world. And he's fascinating. It's like an old marriage, actually. (laughs)"

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