'Wolf of Wall Street's Thelma Schoonmaker on her historic partnership with Martin Scorsese

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Image Credit: Lester Cohen/WireImage

For years, Martin Scorsese’s most famous collaborator was Robert De Niro, who starred in the director’s most iconic movies, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. In recent years, the director has formed a similar relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, making five celebrated films. The Departed, their third movie together, finally won Scorsese his elusive Oscar for Best Director, and last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street is currently up for five Oscars, including two each for both men, who also produced the movie.

This Thursday and Friday at New York’s hallowed Ziegfeld Theater, all five Scorsese/DiCaprio films will be screened during a two-day retrospective, anchored by a special panel discussion on Thursday night with DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street screenwriter Terence Winter, and the film’s editor, three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker.

De Niro and DiCaprio may be the director’s favorite stars, but his greatest collaborator over the years has been behind the scenes. Schoonmaker has cut 18 of Scorsese’s feature films, including every one since Raging Bull, for which she won her first of three Oscars. The pair met at NYU in the early 1960s, where Schoonmaker had signed up for a six-week filmmaking course, and Scorsese desperately needed help to salvage his student film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? It was a fortuitous encounter that has led to some of cinema’s most revered films.

Below, Schoonmaker discusses her work with Scorsese and describes the unique bond between the director and DiCaprio.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I feel like a big part of being an editor is finding the right rhythm of a film. Sometimes maybe that’s in the script but sometimes what works on paper doesn’t work on the screen in that sense. Is there a process for developing that proper rhythm?
THELMA SCHOONMAKER: First of all, it’s just really cutting it down until it sort of finds its rhythm. Basically, we always start out with a very long cut, and then we trim down and trim down, and you feel the film beginning to wiggle and get its movement and rhythm. It’s really interesting. Then, you just keep focusing in on the scenes that are not getting their rhythm and why. We screen a lot. We screen 12 times, which is much more than most people do or are allowed to do. That helps us a great deal by seeing how the audience is — you know, Where are they moving restlessly? Why did we miss a laugh there? Let’s see if we can go back and cut to get the laugh. Things like that. So over a period of time, the film begins to take over its own movement. You have to recognize that and encourage it, or push it even harder if it needs it.

Then it seems like The Wolf of Wall Street was unique, at least in the sense that the original cut — which was about four hours long — seems to have been a version that really worked for a lot of people that saw it.
Sure, a lot of people loved the four-hour cut, but I just don’t think that was feasible. It was a first cut, and it worked in a different way, in that there were more subtleties that we had to drop in order to get the film to move. But that again is just very normal. But we didn’t lose a lot, like we normally do. Sometimes when we have to cut a film down, we lose my favorite scene or Martin’s favorite scene. We didn’t have to do that here. It was more a matter of just shaving and shaving and shaving, and trying to make sure we were taping the original nature of the film, which I think is quite unique in places.

At one point when you’re putting that long cut together, is there a moment where you and Martin look at each other and say, “I’m not sure how this happened, but we have a four-hour movie here”?
As we were going along, we knew that it was going to be long because of the way the improvisations expanded most every scene. So we knew it was going to be long, but it was a bit of a shock.

Was the improvisation always part of the plan for Wolf?
I don’t know, frankly. I know that Marty felt that there would be a tremendous amount of humor in the film, which nobody else expected. I think they all thought it was going to be sort of Wall Street 2 or something and Marty told our casting director right from the beginning that it had to have a lot of humor. So he knew that right off the bat, but I don’t think everybody else did.

In some ways, your decision to shave instead of chop is the harder way to slice an hour out of a movie.
Well, yes, it’s time consuming. But it’s better than cutting off your leg, which is what happens when you have to drop a whole scene. That’s really awful. Every script is different and certain scripts are overwritten, and so therefore you have to drop entire scenes, and that can cause problems for other scenes. But that wasn’t the case here. It was just that the improvisation had ballooned it up, so that’s why shaving was important. And it’s delicate. It’s very delicate, because there was something magical going on on that set, and we had to be very careful we didn’t lose it.

I know so many people have remarked on the released film’s length, but to me, those three hours flew by. It’s such a delightfully full movie.
How wonderful. It’s got a lot of crazy energy, which means that it could zig-zag this way and that, and that you could have those beautifully designed sequences that Marty created. For example, in the very beginning, from the opening on, he had designed every shot, how it was going to cut — from the still of the young boy, to the Ferrari on the highway, to the house — exactly how all of that was going to go. And then, of course, all of the way through him going to work and explaining to you how he uses drugs and everything. Then, when you hit something like Matthew McConaughey, suddenly the film has to screech to a halt — and rightfully so — to enjoy and savor that beautiful performance. So it was a crazy kind of structure to this film. Normally, you don’t have that kind of enormous difference in pace within a film.

At this point in your working relationship, you and Martin must be almost one brain, or at least be able to anticipate each other’s preferences in a way that cuts through a lot of frustration.
Absolutely. Because he trained me. I knew nothing when I took that incredibly important six-week course at NYU, where I had no idea what I was doing. I just thought, Well, I loved watching classic movies on television, so I’ll just see what this is about. I had no thought that I would become a filmmaker. But when I met him, it was such a stunning experience. And he taught me from that point on everything I know. So in effect, we are one mind. It doesn’t mean we don’t disagree and he doesn’t rely on me for certain things. But it’s an incredible collaboration and partnership.

When a creative difference does arise, is there a reoccurring root cause that reflects your individual sensibilities?
He says I bring out the humanity in his films. Well, he puts it in there! [Laughs] There are certain times when we’ll [argue]. For example in Wolf, I felt strongly that we needed the reaction of Jordan being sentenced to three years, because I really think he thought he was going to get away with even more than he got away with. He should’ve gone to jail for 20 years. But because he ratted on everybody and testified against them in their trials, he got a very reduced sentence. There’s this kind of smug look on his face when his lawyer says he’s contributed so much to these [other] convictions. Then the judge says three years and there’s his reaction and the handcuffs going on him and him looking at his mother. I felt we really, really needed that, and Marty didn’t think we did. He felt that just seeing him go to the prison on the bus was enough. So sometimes it’s just something like that.

You’ve studied some of the greatest actors of the last 40 years, including Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis, up-close. In recent years, you’ve spent a lot of time staring at Leonardo DiCaprio. What is it about him that you find so special?
Leo has an incredible vulnerability, which I saw right away in Gangs of New York. He allows people to feel for him in a very special way, and I think that that has been something I’ve always loved in his performances. In this film, of course, he cut loose and [that quality] wasn’t required. What was required was that you want to see what’s happening with this character — not that you maybe identify with him, but you feel some for him, you’re interested in him. But in some of the previous films, like Shutter [Island] and Departed and Gangs and Aviator, particularly, his vulnerability was quite marked. I really loved that about him. As time has gone on, he’s become more and more interested in experimenting and pushing the boundaries, and he certainly did in this one. [Laughs]. There’s nothing better than when a very handsome actor is willing to make fun of himself. For example, Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style. He is so amazing in that movie and I kept thinking about that with Leo here, that he was just completely unafraid.

I attended the National Board of Review banquet where Leonardo and Martin engaged in a funny back-and-forth banter on stage, and it’s clear they have a great rapport and truly enjoy each other’s company. Gangs of New York was their first film together, so what clicked on that set that maybe brought them together?
Well, I think it took awhile for them to really develop this intense relationship. But I think Marty respected his bravery and that he was willing to go as far as he was in Aviator, for example, with the insane way that Howard Hughes is behaving in that screening room and losing all the weight that he did. And again, being willing to just do anything that was right for the part. And I think over the years, a trust has built up between them. I know Leo admires Marty enormously and just respects him so and loves to experiment with him.

I’m so glad that Shutter Island is being screened as part of this retrospective, because relatively speaking, it might be slightly underappreciated. To me, though, it’s nearly a perfect picture.
I love that film and I think because it was pushed into the following year and never got an Oscar campaign, I think that’s one of the reasons it hasn’t been noticed as much as it should. It’s a beauty. It was so moving, the concept that they’re all desperately trying to help him and he thinks they’re evil. It was such a beautiful idea. I loved working on that film, and Marty’s ideas about how to use 20th-century classical music were brilliant. But a very painful film. Very painful for them to make. Again, Leo was absolutely devoted to it. That was a grueling part. Several times, I’ve seen Leo insist on working when he had 106 degree fever, and he actually passed out on camera, and I think it was on that film. He just wanted to make sure that they didn’t lose a day shooting. So he was incredibly devoted to that.

Do you feel as if Martin’s relationship with Leo has energized his creative juices in some way?
Well, I think he’s got a pretty powerful engine going on inside there, but I think he enjoyed the hell out of making Wolf because the craziness was fun to capture. When he saw how beautifully they would improvise, he really got into it. You can hear him laughing on the set, which normally a director never does. The sound man was really worried about it. I said, “Don’t worry. We’ll deal with it. It means so much to the actors when they hear [him laugh].” So they were all having a pretty great time being outrageous.

Are you ready to get back to work with Martin’s next film, Silence?
Oh, absolutely. We’re looking forward to it tremendously. The great thing about working for Marty is that nothing could be more different from Hugo than Wolf, and nothing could be more different from Wolf than Silence. It’s so great to work with a director who’s constantly giving himself enormous challenges, and I get to meet those challenges with him. It’s a wonderful job, believe me. It’s the best job in the world.

The Ziegfeld’s two-day, five-film retrospective begins on Thursday, Feb. 13. After screenings of The Aviator and The Departed, Kent Jones of the New York Film Society at Lincoln Center will moderate the conversation with DiCaprio, Schoonmaker, and Winter prior to the screening of The Wolf of Wall Street. On Friday, Shutter Island and Gangs of New York will play.

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