Editor Thelma Schoonmaker on Cutting Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Jazz Tangcay

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When Thelma Schoonmaker heard about her Oscar nomination for “The Irishman,” she had just stepped off a plane from England. Martin Scorsese’s assistant had texted her about the news, one of the first people to do so.

The Irishman” received a total of ten nominations and was unlike anything Scorsese had done before. “He wanted it to be deceptively simple with no crazy editing,” Schoonmaker says.

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Scorsese is renowned for his extravagant shots, but this time around, he was adamant about the quiet approach to the film. There would be no amplified sound effects such as enhancing footsteps or putting glasses down. “That simplistic approach affected all of us,” Schoonmaker says. “Marty wouldn’t allow any of it.”

What Scorsese wanted to do was draw the audience in and go on a long journey with them. The story is told in flashbacks as Robert De Niro punctuates the narrative with voiceover. Schoonmaker’s husband, Michael Powell, once told Scorsese to never explain things. And Scorsese, who always has respect for his audience, did not want to explain too much. “It would be a Hoffa documentary,” Schoonmaker says.

The film opens with a long tracking shot, setting the tone — it’s drawn out and the intention was to draw the viewer in. “You think, ‘Oh, what? A nursing home?’ You register that’s what it is. You arrive at this old man in a wheelchair, but then we hear him in voiceover,” Schoonmaker says.

Scorsese deliberately chose “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins as the film’s opening song. “The reason he chose that was because they kill, in the still of the night. In the end, he’s moving into the night,” Schoonmaker says, adding that the song is also used at another important scene in the film, during the wedding. “That whole sequence should really play as a funeral because he’s just killed his best friend and the look on Bob’s face speaks volumes of his despair.”

Schoonmaker also points out the sequence is signature Scorsese, in slow motion. Both had experimented on how to present it, even looking at high-speed in silence. In the end, the sequence’s slow-motion added to the funeral feeling of the scene.

Another scene that posed a dilemma for Schoonmaker was the montage of showing how De Niro’s character had performed multiple killings. “I needed to show this guy is a killer, but I didn’t want to do a montage of people being splattered,” she notes. The montage, it turns out, was the perfect way to show how much he’d done. “We started off showing it traditionally, but then I did some jump cuts and messed around with it a lot. We violated the continuity of it to make it more powerful.”

Aside from having to adapt to the style that Scorsese wanted, she also had to adapt to the de-aging effects and collaborated with VFX supervisor Pablo Helman. The VFX proved to be a turning point in motion capture as Helman and the team at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) developed new infra-red cameras to capture the actors and their motions. She explains, “Pablo said, ‘I’ll come up with a system so you don’t have to do that.’ They had two infrared cameras with 3D lenses; they freed them up to do the kind of acting they’re so brilliant at doing.”

Despite the de-aging effects working out incredibly well, Schoonmaker reveals, “We edited the whole movie without de-aging and screened it for many people, and no one minded.”

Initially reluctant to make the switch from film to digital, Schoonmaker has found advantages that come with editing with digital, including the time-saving factor. Schoonmaker says, “Whether it’s speeding up a shot, slowing it down, putting subtitles on or changing colors, we’d spend a week waiting for it to come back from optical. Now, it takes hours.”

It’s no secret that Scorsese loves to be in the editing room and collaborating closely with his longtime editor. Together, they’ll work on scenes that might include some improvised moments between the actors. “The Irishman” didn’t have as much improv as earlier Scorsese films, but there were some moments. Schoonmaker calls Joe Pesci and De Niro “two of the greatest improvisers in the world.” It’s up to her to make a moment from the footage. “When Pesci says, ‘It’s what it is,’ Al (Pacino) did a double-take and took a long pause before saying, ‘They wouldn’t dare’ — Marty loved that,” Schoonmaker says.

Whether he’s providing feedback on dailies, experimenting with shots or even just being critical of his own work, “Listening to how his mind works is so fascinating. He taught me everything I know,” Schoonmaker says.

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