Legendary Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Breaks Down 'Raging Bull' at the Tribeca Film Festival
On Friday, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, Martin Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, sat down to discuss what was advertised as a look at her career. What we in the audience got was a granular breakdown of the editing and film techniques, as well as other production information, about the painstaking work that went into making Raging Bull, consistently voted one of the Best Films of the 1980s. Click through for a breakdown as well as some other inside tips from the artist who helped bring this masterful vision to the big screen.
When I arrived at the SVA Theater on 23rd Street in New York, there was a long line outside. No doubt, I thought, they are here for the panel with Scorsese's long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker. But, it turns out, I was wrong. The line was for a festival screening, ironically enough of a new boxing documentary, Champs. As I made my way to my seat, though, I wondered if anyone in the other line knew that just a few feet away, one of the best boxing movies ever made was being broken down by one of its architects.
Powell and Pressburger, Color & Black and White
Schoonmaker, sitting on a couch on an otherwise bare stage, had a floor to ceiling screen behind her (and the ceilings were very high). She began by discussing how much De Niro's physical appearance in Raging Bull, the story of the life of tragic prizefighter Jake LaMotta, was influenced by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp featured veteran actor Roger Livesay going through a tremendous physical appearance in the film, from young man to the older Colonel Blimp.
It was a favorite film of Scorsese's, and an inspiration for the physical transformation Scorsese needed from De Niro when he had to go from the trim figure of a prize-fighter to progressively higher weights. Livesay has been quoted as saying that he achieved his effects through "acting," and the use of doubles and makeup, which Schoonmaker illustrated with several clips, but De Niro, of course, would hear nothing of this. He insisted on gaining the weight necessary to pull off his performance, halting production twice to gain weight while Schoonmaker and Scorsese edited what they had shot so far.
When we think of Raging Bull, the iconic black and white images that appear in our heads are evidence of the amazing cinematography of Michael Chapman. But according to Schoonmaker, the film was supposed to be in color! In preparation for the film, Scorsese had screened every fight film ever made! Now, with some filmmakers this would seem like an exaggerated anecdote, but when it comes to Scorsese, I tend to believe her. When Powell visited Scorsese and watched some 8mm footage of De Niro boxing in preparation, he mentioned the redness of the gloves. This got Scorsese thinking about every boxing match he had watched on TV as a child was in black and white, and so, while not "real," black and white felt real.
The only color segments are brief moments of LaMotta's home movies -- according to Scorsese, these were "better than Raging Bull." He felt that they unwittingly told the tragedy of LaMotta's life, and he faithfully recreated many of them, with Schoonmaker describing how she and the other editors employed jump cuts and helter skelter editing to achieve the effects they were after. (Scorsese, to the horror of many of the cutters, personally used a coat hanger to scratch the negative of these home movies.) For Jake's wedding celebration, Scorsese took inspiration from his own parents' wedding; they couldn't afford a reception, so a party was thrown on a tenement roof. Scorsese recreated this celebration, and De Niro's daughters are seen in some of the footage (the party is circa 1:40 in the video below).
In those days, the only way to mix color and black and white in a film was to splice it in. Schoonmaker recalls visiting a theater early in the film's release, only to find the projectionist (known, as she wryly explained, as "the final editor" of a movie) removing the color from the print. When she demanded to know what he was doing, the man explained that he had a black and white movie to screen, but someone had goofed up and put color footage in there!
In The Ring
It has been reported elsewhere that in the film, there wasn't just one boxing ring, but several, from regular sized to enormous, all built to reflect the various psychological states of LaMotta. What Schoonmaker added to this was that in addition to the ring size, Scorsese, Schoonmaker, Chapman, and legendary Sound Designer and Sound Effects Editor Frank Warner employed numerous other psychological devices to influence the viewer's experience:
- Warner used various animal sounds (including elephants and horses) in some of the fight scenes to give an otherworldly effect to give the subconscious impression of animatistic energy and chaos. These granular details, hardly noticed by the casual viewer, nevertheless contribute enormously to the effect of the film.
- Scorsese used the original radio play-by-play of the fights, insisting he couldn't find actors who could reproduce the "poetry" of the boxing commentators of the 1950s. In another nod to reality, LaMotta's actual cornerman is the one talking to De Niro in many of the scenes between shots.
- Warner also used a bass drum, detuned, recorded, and run through various effects, to add layers of texture to the soundscape.
- The production spent upwards of $90,000 on flashbulbs, since Scorsese wanted to have cameras always going off around LaMotta, and Warner painstakingly created the sound of an old 1940/50s flashbulb, a sound imitated ever since by other sound editors. They also underlined the theme of LaMotta's media presence and came in handy for transitions between shots that wouldn't ordinarily fit together.
- In some boxing shots the filmmakers used flames, under the camera,to add a shimmering effect to the shots, as though we are really in a sort of hell.
(note: during the presentation, Schoonmaker of course had access to beautiful clips from the film, but your humble correspondent is limited to what exists on the internet by way of example.)
Here is a montage from the 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson fight sequence, along with footage from the actual fight, known as the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" for the drubbing LaMotta took. The brilliance of Scorsese, Schoonmaker, Chapman's and Warner (to name just a few) is evidenced by the way they took a sporting event and turned it into a crucible inside one man's skull. Many of the techniques referenced above can be seen:
Schoonmaker herself said that when it came time to edit this sequence, Scorsese wanted to get through the fight as quickly as possible, in terms of running time and editing speed, both because it was a famous fight with a widely known outcome, and in order to highlight the brutality (both physical and psychological) of the loss on LaMotta. When he is winning, the editing can be expansive and he moves around the ring with ease. When he is losing, the cutting is staccato and LaMotta's familiar working environment becomes claustrophobic, nightmarish and unfamiliar.
It is a very canny move, and the fight is edited in a horrific fashion with impressionistic lighting that doesn't reflect the reality of the ring, but the torment in LaMotta's head. (Introducing the brutal fight, Schoonmaker said that she felt boxing "should be banned.") They also spent much time deciding how much and when to cut to Cathy Moriarty's horrified reaction shots in this carefully timed sequence.
Another interesting note is that around the film's production, in the late 70s, a key piece of film equipment was coming on the scene: the Steadicam. Released in 1976, and used that same year to very different effect in Kubrick's The Shining, here it is used for Jake's ironically (in light of what comes later) magisterial entrance into the ring:
Though shots like this are commonplace today, Schoonmaker broke down how the operator had to first lead, then follow, De Niro through the crowd, before stepping onto a crane that would lift him high in the air. In 1980, this was pretty heady stuff, since it freed the camera department from the spaces accessible by dolly track. It is also another in the long and proud lineage of Scorsese long takes and furthermore, like every shot in the work of a master director, it serves a psychological purpose:
In Raging Bull, when we are in the ring, the cutting, like the punching, is fast and furious. This calm before the storm, as it were, sets up a psychological expectation which, when brutally destroyed later by Robinson's punches, is that much more devastating.
On a lighter note, she also noted that the ringside announcer was supposed to start speaking into the mic as soon as the camera rose into the air, but was nervous and froze. Luckily, they were able to cut around the moment.
"He Ain't Pretty No More"
A key theme of Raging Bull is how LaMotta used the ring to take out his personal demons. This is reflected in a sequence where, to punish his wife, who has called an up and coming fighter, Gino, "good looking", LaMotta demolishes the fighter; this sequence made use, like several other shots, of "skip frames," an effect whereby frames are removed to give a stuttering aspect to the shots. It is commonly digitally reproduced today in NLE software, but in 1980, each of those frames was removed by hand. (Scorsese's father is seen at the end of the clip, uttering the famous line about the young fighter's now demolished face.)
Schoonmaker revealed the filmmakers had access to slow motion footage that was, respectively, 48, 72, 96, and 120 times slower than 24 fps. This helped her and Scorsese achieve the highly impressionistic and subjective footage of LaMotta in the ring. (Here's a great article about slow motion in Raging Bull.)
"Who Asked You?"
Schoomaker also went into depth about Scorsese's directing style when working with actors. In this famous scene, it is Moriarty's comments about the fighter Gino that leads to the above fight where LaMotta's destroys the fighter's face. In Raging Bull, while the boxing is highly stylized and cut with exceptional velocity, Scorsese's love of improvisation, especially when working with amazing actors like De Niro and Joe Pesci, led to some long takes. This adds to a great back and forth rhythm in the film as a whole.
The scene, like much of the film, was improvised, and when Scorsese improvised, he liked to use two cameras, for obvious reasons (the reasons being that it is hard to improvise a scene from one angle, then break, light a new setup, and have the actor reproduce the other side of an improvised conversation. Not impossible, just difficult, and if a production has the money for another camera, it's well worth it.)
In this scene, though, the filmmakers were shooting in LaMotta's actual kitchen, which was too small for two cameras, and, when filled with people and movie lights, unspeakably hot; it should come as no surprise then that it was very tiring work, both for the actors and crew onset, and in post, to achieve the seamless scene.
During her talk, Schoonmaker screened unused footage and between-take moments that show De Niro and Pesci having to make up an emotionally charged and complicated scene while De Niro holds a crying child who is probably not concerned with the rigorous schedule of filmmaking.
But the biggest surprise in the scene was that the most famous line in the scene was not only improvised, it wasn't even part of the script. Theresa Saldana's character, seeing that Moriarty has provoked her insanely jealous husband with an innocent remark attempts to help her sister-in-law out. Pesci's face when he delivers his shocked and sharp rebuke,"Who asked you," is an expression of what is just as much real world confusion as it is improvisational acting. The takeaway here is that when the camera is running (or, god forbid, not running), magic can happen at any time, even in Jake LaMotta's kitchen, when you can only fit in one camera and the babies are crying.
It was an honor to watch Schoonmaker discuss her craft, and we also learned a few interesting facts about her career. She revealed that in the 90s she switched to an early version of Lightworks, an NLE that mimicked the feel of a flatbed editing machine, with similar controls for moving the image around; she stills uses the system today.
As someone who has cut a few 16mm shorts on a rickety Steenbeck, I can firmly attest that the idea of cutting a feature film this way is mind-boggling. And yet, that's how all the classic films of the pre-NLE era were done.
She revealed that the idea of disassembling a sequence that didn't work by hand, then filming/finding what you needed by its physical location and edge number, was not an experience she would relish. And she was working with Scorsese and a team of assistant editors to handle the miles and miles of film that had to be cut and organized (to say nothing of the sound tape that comprised a film's dialogue and temp track, and which also had to be organized and cut by hand).
What do you think? Are you a fan of Raging Bull, and Schoonmaker's work? We all know an editor is only working with the raw material they have, but do you think a film can be made "in the editing room"? Can a film be saved? If so, have you ever performed the CPR yourself? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks to the Tribeca Film Festival for hosting this incredible event, and check back for more coverage and news from the festival!
Link: Tribeca Film Festival