May 17, 2014

Iconic Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Shares What She's Learned from 50 Years of Filmmaking

Legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker has collaborated with Martin Scorsese for essentially the entire length of both of their careers, starting with Scorsese's feature Who's That Knocking at My Door?. Needless to say, this 3-time Oscar winner, with nearly a half a century of filmmaking experience, has insight into the craft that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, and fortunately for us, Schoonmaker has shared 8 Golden Rules of filmmaking with MovieMaker Magazine, and we've selected a few to share with you.

Here are a few tips from Schoonmaker's post on MovieMaker Magazine.

Live life & study the classics

Filmmaking is visual storytelling, and one of the greatest tools you'll ever have is experience. Traveling, meeting new people, and experiencing new things will give you a greater chance at understanding the world a little more, as well as setting the stage for your story. However, if you're not a big traveler or prefer a routine that doesn't include meeting new people or trying new things, simply paying attention to the world around you will pay dividends to your storytelling ability and your creativity in the end. Studying classic cinema has a similar effect -- it introduces you to cinematic practices, styles, and techniques right at the ground floor where they were being invented by filmmakers like you. Schoonmaker says:

To live life before you become a filmmaker -- really live it -- is the most essential experience you should have before becoming a filmmaker. Experience all kinds of people and behaviors. In terms of special training to become a filmmaker, one should study classic films and learn from them. That is how Scorsese became the filmmaker he is.

Again -- when you make a film, have something to say

I've heard this piece of advice time and time again, from director Paul Greengrass, cinematographer Lol Crawley, and so many others. So, if Schoonmaker is reiterating it, it must mean something. From my own personal experience, the projects that I did solely for a client and a paycheck never had the bite that the projects I did for my own artistic satisfaction did. I can't imagine Schoonmaker's perspective -- especially considering that she's speaking from almost 50 years of experience -- but I can imagine that a career spent telling stories you're passionate about, that you can't keep inside you, is much more satisfying than anything else. She says:

Don’t make a movie unless you have something burning inside of you to say -- like Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which is so personal and powerful and ground breaking.

schoonmaker_a

Know this: Your audience gets it

Perhaps you yourself are a moviegoer that feels a little pandered to. If you are, I sympathize with you. Assuming that your audience just "won't get it" unless each motif, symbol, or plot point is spelled out for them is just silliness. Every one of us, artists and non-artists alike, are raised on stories -- it's one of the primary ways we relate ourselves to the world around us. So, excessive exposition, over-cranked dialog, and narrative and visual clichés may be met with a quiet groan and eye-roll from your audience. The way I see it, either be prepared for that, or learn how to give your viewers a surprisingly fresh piece of filmmaking.

 I learned from Michael Powell to never talk down to our audiences -- to never “dumb down” a movie. He said that audiences are actually way ahead of us and as filmmakers, we must try to be ahead of them -- to surprise them and make them feel our movies, not tell them what to think.

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Of course, each one of our individual filmmaking journeys are going to be unique. Schoonmaker's tips may not apply to you, or you might have just had an experience that was altogether different. However, check out the rest of Thelma Schoonmaker's invaluable advice on MovieMaker Magazine's original post, and find out what tips could apply to your projects and your career overall. With such a sterling career, she certainly is an authority on what may help your films and what may not.

Did any of Thelma Schoonmaker's tips stick out to you? Let us know in the comments below!

Link: Wisdom Wednesday: Things I’ve Learned by Thelma Schoonmaker -- MovieMaker Magazine

Your Comment

14 Comments

I disagree with the "your audience gets it" point – I've personally found that in our film, where we didn't spoon feed everything to viewers, a lot of people didn't get it.

Is it possible to make a film that's just too obtuse? Of course, but I don't think we did that. We've found that about 30% of your average sci-fi or art film fest audience gets pretty much everything in our film Senn, another 30% gets most of it, and 40% or so can't put the pieces together and just doesn't get the film. Now maybe some of those people were bored and didn't try to follow the story and the subtleties (we didn't make a film for everyone, and we're the first to admit that we didn't make a perfect film), but I think a lot of movie goers out there really do need everything to be spoon fed to them - that's why everything is explained so clearly and dumbed down in hollywood films.

I've run into quite a few people who to this day don't "get" the Matrix or Inception - I'm not even talking about Memento or Primer...

May 17, 2014 at 11:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I think the key is to read it as "YOUR audience gets it." Many people go into art galleries and stare at paintings with their hands on their chin and get a headache trying their hardest to make a point out of what they're looking at, while others immediately have an emotional reaction with the first glance. That's why art galleries are typically smaller than multiplex movie theaters.

Unless you are purely interested in making money with your film then your focus should remain on following your voice and filmmaking instincts. If the story you tell is too obtuse for most like an abstract painting then yes you will have a smaller audience. That's why I personally don't like big Hollywood movies. They spread themselves too thin, because they are concerned with everybody getting it and making money. But that's just my taste. I use to work at a video store when I was a teenager and I've had people say they didn't get Pulp Fiction just because it wasn't linear.

No disrespect to my mother but I would never recommend "Upstream Color" to her. I know she's not part of that audience. Nor would I ever make a film concerned about whether or not the type of people that like to watch Transformers 2 will get it. Because I'm not that kind of storyteller and that's not my audience.

May 17, 2014 at 1:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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GPaul

It's always about maintaining a balance between commercial viability and art. Think of it in Economics as your equilibrium point. Unless, your goal is to make small indie art house flicks.

May 21, 2014 at 5:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ridingthedragon

I think you're missing the point. The point of editing to tell story right? What in the fuck is the point of reading a flipbook where you know in the end the character gets what he is supposed to? People still to this day don't get a lot of film. Personally I loved Mister Lonely. Many were just, "What?" about it. Film is a subjective art form. So who gives a shit. Just don't be that guy is all that dumbs his art down so a lower iq class get it. Pretty much why I refuse to blockbusters. They don't work anymore. Also Inception. Really? It's ABC. Go watch The Holy Mountain. Tell me then if you don't get it.

May 22, 2014 at 4:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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meep

brosky your looking at your films the entirely wrong way. If this is your art work, and not just a money project, some people will never get it, but your not making something for everyone now are you.

December 17, 2014 at 4:22PM

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chase C
81

Your Audience Gets It. I think a lot of us filmmakers early on struggle with this aspect. I actually struggled with this recently with my latest short film. We kept this fact in mind and trimmed some fat from the film so that we didn't pander to the audience and I feel like we have a stronger film for it. LOVE this stuff you guys share. Never stop.

May 17, 2014 at 3:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Isn't Scorsese's first feature "Boxcar Bertha"? You guys probably meant the first feature they worked together on. Not trying to troll just wanted to point out a minor error.

Great article. I loved the advice to not talk down to audiences. Probably the one thing that's most irksome in some films today. Thelma is the best.

May 17, 2014 at 10:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jean-Paul

His first feature was "Who's Knocking at My Door" was Scorsese's first movie. Thelma Schoonmaker worked on that feature.

May 18, 2014 at 2:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jerome

Scorsese's first feature was "Who's Knocking at My Door". Thelma Schoonmaker worked on that feature.

May 18, 2014 at 2:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jerome

That's what I meant. Thanks Jean-Paul. Sorry guys!

May 18, 2014 at 4:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

The most important statement she made was that you need to live life. If you haven't lived , what story do you have to tell? It is the interaction between people, their point of view and behavior that makes the story rich and multi layered. Having something to say was another key point. What we see is a barrage of characters destroying everything in their path (breaking walls, smashing cars and computer monitors because it's so cool) and cops,bad cops,robo/futurist warriors, women who within five seconds want to have mechanical sex with the protagonist,mindless female/prop or has an overwhelming need to nurture. What they all have in common is they have nothing to say. We see a predictable,shallow film with cliched characters and storyline. If filmmakers lived they would have experiences to draw from and have a story to tell.

May 21, 2014 at 3:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Marla

And, remember, it's not who you know. It's who knows you.

May 21, 2014 at 5:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ridingthedragon

When Thelma says that to make a film, one has to live life, I completely agree. But the part where she says the audience 'gets it', I don't. We made this short https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xvnh5oyeck and we tried simplifying it right from the writing stages and let go of some of our more complex aspirations. And still when we showed it to the general public, people couldn't 'get it'.

May 23, 2014 at 1:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Some good tips but I have to say Thelma's work on The Wolf of Wall Street has to me destroyed her credibility as an Editor.

It was far too long and is one of the worst examples of under editing that I have ever seen. Although to be fair some of the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy the drivel.

May 24, 2014 at 4:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brian

I totally agree, waaaay too long. I think it would be good for both Scorsese and Schoonmaker (and a few other tight teams) to consider different collaborations once in a while. Big risk of much-of-the-same..

July 18, 2014 at 12:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Magnus