The Art of (Women and) Film Editing with Dede Allen and Thelma Schoonmaker

Dede AllenAs David Lean said, "The editor is the final author of the film." These days, with Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, Avid, et al., the most indie, low-budget indie filmmaker has NLE options never before available, but prior to the mid-90s, every feature film was edited by hand. And, surprisingly for the "old-boys" world of Hollywood, many of films' most prominent editors have been women. Of the old-school generation of female editors, perhaps no one exemplified the art better than Dede Allen, a trailblazer for editors like Martin Scorsese's career-long editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Continue on to hear some of your favorite filmmakers on the art of editing.

This kind of work is not for the faint of heart. If you're an editor, you know that what you do includes more than splicing pieces of film and video together. It includes being the director's best friend, a skilled storyteller, and oftentimes a life/career-saving magician.

One of the more interesting facets of film editing is that in a traditionally male-centric filmmaking world, there are so many examples of prominent female film editors (the late Sally Menke, who worked with Quentin Tarantino, and Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been cutting with Martin Scorsese since 1967, being just two of the most famous, along with Alisa Lepselter and Susan E. Morse, both of whom have cut for Woody Allen).

Perhaps the most influential trailblazer in this field, though, was Dede Allen, who passed away in 2010; her career as an editor spanned seven decades and saw her cut films as diverse as The Hustler (in a neat coincidence, that classic's sequel, The Color of Money, was cut by Schoonmaker), Bonnie and Clyde, Serpico, Reds (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), Dog Day Afternoon and The Breakfast Club. In an interview (available here in this Cinephilia and Beyond post) she discusses some of the wisdom she's accrued over the years:

I learned a lot about performance from Arthur Penn, with whom I did six pictures. I learned a lot about everything -- including psychology -- from Elia Kazan. From Paul Newman I learned a great deal about acting. From Warren Beatty you learn a lot about everything, including how to be smarter in life. Warren’s one of the best producers I’ve ever had. He was our producer on Bonnie and Clyde. He was 30 years old then. He’s a very, very brilliant guy. You learn, and he learns from you because he lets you teach. He works with people very well, much like Kazan does.

As this quote attests, film editing is a skill that isn't just one skill, but all of them. Watch these amazing interviews with Dede Allen, a playlist collected by Cinephilia and Beyond that is almost two hours long and, as they say, "ironically, as Dede started off as a sound editor, the audio quality isn’t great." Still, though, it's definitely worth a watch:

Thelma Schnoonmaker has been working with Martin Scorsese since his NYU days in 1967. Here's an amazing 13-minute clip of them together, working on Scorsese's piece, Life Lessons, from the 1990 anthology film, New York StoriesIf you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall while one of our greatest modern directors works with one of our greatest modern editors, here's your chance:

Video is no longer available:

And here's a clip from the finished product (one of the more obscure entries in his filmography, the whole short is worth seeking out, especially for any Scorsese buffs out there):

Video is no longer available:

Last but not least, here's Schoonmaker discussing what it was like to edit a scene from Scorsese's film, HugoIronically, she says, it was a little like cutting a famous scene from another Scorsese film, Goodfellas (clip exceptionally NSFW, obviously):

Which editors have inspired your editing craft? Why do you think so many prominent film editors are women? Let us know in the comments!

Link: What Makes a Great Edit? Scorsese's Legendary Editor Thelma Schoonmaker -- Fast Co. Create

[via Cinephilia and Beyond]

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Your Comment


Hugo is an animated film now? :P

Great article though!

December 29, 2013 at 3:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Haha. Good catch. Thanks! Brain is on vacation, apparently.

December 30, 2013 at 9:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Justin Morrow

Thank God for these magnificent women. More women have inspired me in film than any others.

December 30, 2013 at 8:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


The majority of my favorite film editors are women for some reason. On top of this list are Anne V. Coates, Verna Fields, and Marcia Lucas. It feels like these particular women are more concerned with the emotions and the performances of the scene than flashy cuts or perfect continuity editing. Quite a bit of Verna Fields' and Thelma Schoonmaker's work contains disjointed cuts that don't at all follow the proper rules of continuity editing, and the movies are better for it. More interesting, more emotionally resonant, and just better than if it had been edited in the "proper" way.

January 1, 2014 at 12:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

You voted '-1'.

I was just gonna say this article missed 5 time oscar nominee (& one time winner---for Lawrence of Arabia) Anne V Coates. She's 88 and as of a few years ago at least, still working.

January 3, 2014 at 12:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Daniel Mimura

Women how edit put emotional issue first this why it's good.

Hugo was the worst film Scorsese did as director he missing sense of observation

It's not because you take great actor and dress them like French they move and acting

like they are French how living in Parish. Sure they have French dress but they put it on like the British,

they walk like the British, and French get there bread early in the morning before breakfast and not at the end

of the day ( why getting a dry bread ) and all this in a London raining color plate. It's simply not work culturally.

January 2, 2014 at 3:44PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Pierre Samuel Rioux

You took the words right out of my mouth.

January 3, 2014 at 1:03AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM