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Thelma Schoonmaker: A Personal Journey with Scorsese and Powell
By Jonathan Marlow
October 6, 2006 - 5:35 AM PDT

"I'm afraid most people still don't know who Michael Powell is."

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Thelma Schoonmaker at a small coffee shop in San Rafael. She was in the neighborhood for a well-deserved tribute to her late husband, Michael Powell, at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Granted, Schoonmaker is also a remarkably talented editor, contributing to a number of landmark films since the late-1960s - Woodstock, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas among them. Roughly one year later, the next installment of MVFF is upon us with another Powell film in the program (the rarely screened The Boy Who Turned Yellow, his penultimate work) and, as chance would have it, the long-awaited The Departed arrives in theaters this Friday as well. The film, with a script adapted from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, is arguably Martin Scorsese's finest narrative feature in more than a decade.

Despite the distinct similarities between the two, the film is certainly not a remake. It shifts in several directions that makes it equal, if not in several ways superior, to the source material. Though much has already been made of this "first pairing of Marty and Jack," Nicholson is a more active presence than Eric Tsang in Infernal Affairs and, not surprisingly, considerably less stable as a crime boss. Perhaps the most critical departure is an expansion of the love interest, beautifully played by Vera Farmiga, allowing for another layer of deception between the two principle protagonists and those around them. Ultimately, The Departed not only gives Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio the best roles of their careers thus far, it also allows for exceptional performances from Mark Wahlberg, David Patrick O'Hara and Ray Winstone (and easily the best work out of Alec Baldwin since Glengarry GlenRoss).

Scorsese reportedly fought repeatedly with the studio to keep what is certain to be a controversial, yet entirely necessary, ending. In no small part, The Departed succeeds thanks to the stunning cinematography of Michael Ballhaus and the masterful cutting that keeps the 149-minute running time, slightly less than an hour longer than its HK counterpart, moving right along. Thelma Schoonmaker was in the midst of editing the film when this conversation took place.

I wished to start at the very, very beginning. You were born in Algeria and didn't come to the US until your teen years?

That's right. Both of my parents were American and we would come every two years to the States for vacation. But in 1955, when we finally came back to live here, I felt very estranged because I had grown up in an international community on the island of Aruba - which is now a tourist island, but wasn't then. People that were hired to work there by the Standard Oil Company came from everywhere and my parents had lived in Europe a long time. I was just stunned when I came to America. I didn't know anything about rock music or football, and I felt very out of it, until I went Cornell University two years later in 1957. That was great because there were a lot of New York City girls there. They were more like the people I knew and I was fine from that point on. America was like a foreign country to me at first.

At what point did you decide that editing would be your life's work?

I didn't. It was an accident. Because I loved living abroad, I thought that I'd try to go into the diplomatic service. At Cornell, I studied political science and the Russian language, which was just being taught for the first time in universities. Sputnik had just gone up and everybody was interested in learning about Russia. Vladimir Nabokov was teaching at Cornell at that time. I only audited his courses, which were wonderful. A group of Russian emigres had come with Nabokov to Cornell. One of them was my Russian language teacher. She was a fantastic woman, very eccentric. When I graduated I took the State Department exams and I went all the way up to the final stress test where they try and unsettle you, as if you're at a reception in South Africa or something, and I kept saying Apartheid was wrong and they kept saying, "You can't say that! You have to wait until the government tells you that you can say that! You're going to be very unhappy in the State Department. Why don't you go to the United States Information Agency - you'll be much happier there?" I didn't want to.

Instead, I took a graduate course at Colombia University in primitive art, which is a hobby of mine, and I saw an ad in the New York Times that said, "Willing to train assistant film editor," which you never see. We don't hire assistants that way. Editors recommend assistants to one another but never put ads in the paper. It had probably never happened before. I just happened to read that ad and answered it, and it was a terrible hack who was butchering the films of Antonioni and Godard and Truffaut for television spots at one o'clock in the morning. The films were sometimes too long for the time allotted, so my boss would just take an entire reel out of a film. A reel! I said, "You can't do that!"

I didn't know that much about films at that time, really. I liked watching old films on television, that's all I knew. My boss said, "Oh, nobody watches any of these films at one in the morning." But he was wrong, because Martin Scorsese was watching them. Anyway, on that job I learned some technical skills - for example, I helped subtitle the films and did some negative cutting. I then decided to take a six-week summer course in filmmaking at NYU and it was there that I met Marty. That changed my life completely. I mean, if I hadn't met him there, I might not have gone on with filmmaking. But because I met Marty, a whole new world opened up for me. It was just fate. really, because I wasn't even on his team. The students in that course were broken up into six-member teams of people to make ten-minute films. Marty had edited [What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?] but someone on his team had miscut the negative. Since I knew about negative cutting from the terrible job that I'd had, the professor for the course asked me to help Marty fix his film.

These films are in the Janus library now.

Astor Films was the name of the company that was distributing the films being butchered for late-night television slots. Many of these films are now in the Janus library in the original uncut versions. I helped Marty fix the negative of his film by compensating for the lost frames of negative. That's how we met. If that hadn't happened, if someone hadn't cut the negative wrong, who knows what would've happened to me?

All of these things put into their proper place...

And then, years later, he introduced me to my husband. So I've had all of the luck in the world...

You mentioned earlier that the first Powell/Pressburger film you can remember seeing was The Red Shoes.

In Aruba, yes. I remember being quite emotionally effected by it. Later on, when I came to the States, I started watching old movies on television. Unbeknownst to me, Marty and I were both watching on TV The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in black-and-white and with the whole middle section dropped. Even so, it was still incredibly powerful. I wasn't supposed to be watching television in the afternoon after school. My mother worked and didn't come home until five, so I would rush home from school and turn on Million Dollar Movie, which was a program that ran an old movie many times in one week. My mother would come in and feel the top of the television set to see if it was warm. But I remember weeping during Blimp, so obviously these films were making their mark. But I had no idea how films were made.

You had heard a bit about Michael Powell from Martin Scorsese, because he, obviously, was a big fan of Powell's work...

Marty had gone and found Michael Powell living in some obscurity in Englad and brought him to the States and was educating everybody he knew about the films of Powell and Pressburger. He said, "Here, look at these movies. I found Michael Powell. Let's get his films seen again." It was remarkable what he did because young people responded to him. The British Film Institute had been trying to raise awareness of the films but they didn't have enough power to reach a lot of people, so it was a great gift that Marty gave to Michael and Emeric. Once Marty got people to looks at the films, interest in them spread around the world. But the films still don't have the recognition of Hitchcock's work. I'm afraid most people still don't know who Michael Powell is.

In large part, Hitchcock is better known here because he worked for such a long period of his career in the States, unlike Michael Powell...

That's right. Hollywood had big publicity machines, of course. David Lean was making a film like Lawrence of Arabia and Sam Spiegel was publicizing it. Everybody knows who David Lean and Hitchcock are, but they don't know who Michael Powell is, although it's getting better. The numerous centenary tributes all over the world have been very successful, particularly where he's not appreciated as much as he should be. All of the other important English filmmakers of his generation were knighted. He and Emeric were never knighted - I guess because of Blimp.

Did you attend the Telluride tribute?

No, I didn't. I hadn't even met Michael then. I didn't meet him until he was brought over to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire by David Thomson. There are two David Thom(p)son's, who are both English and both film critics, but this is the one without the "P" in his name. There's one with a "P" in England; they're both experts on Michael Powell. Anyway, this David Thomson brought Michael over to Dartmouth where he was a senior artist in residence, I believe, and it was during the residency that Michael started coming in to visit Marty in New York. That was after Telluride and after Marty had entered Peeping Tom in the New York Film Festival and halped finance the re-release of it. Michael would come into New York and have dinner with Marty. That's when I met him.

next >>>

"I'm afraid most people still don't know who Michael Powell is."
"Marty thought that was so brilliant and gutsy."
"Marty walked several times on The Departed."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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