A Look at the Influential Editing Techniques of Martin Scorsese & Thelma Schoonmaker
Of all our modern directors, there is perhaps none with a more eidetic memory than Martin Scorsese; defined as an ability to recall precise images, sounds and objects, three of the main elements of motion pictures, Scorsese seems to remember every shot in every film he has ever seen, and probably some films he hasn't seen yet. It's what makes him such a complete filmmaker; he's a master of technique, able to conjure any cinematic effect he likes, and yet he never makes a film that feels less than his. Of course, this is to ignore the efforts of his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, with whom he has worked for nearly his whole career. Check out this (of course, incomplete) list of key editing moves in Scorsese films, as well as a look at the power of influence in film.
While many filmmakers strive for so-called "invisible editing," or the placement of cuts so that the audience doesn't even notice them, Scorsese takes full advantage of every technique in the cinematic palette. Of course, it's impossible to quantify just how much of Scorsese's cutting is his sensibility, and how much is Thelma Schoonmaker's, who has been his editor on nearly every film he's made. While she has made it clear that Scorsese is the final arbiter, the fact remains that she does the nuts and bolts of cutting the film, supervising the editing team, and has learned to channel Scorsese's sensibilities through her own eyes. Any discussion of his cutting style has to include her input.
Let's look at some examples, and then hear from the duo themselves.
Scorsese plays with the temporality of film, the continuous illusion, what John Gardner called, in the novel, "the fictive dream." Scorsese is forever manipulating this dream, and yet he does it so artfully that the audience, rather than being annoyed at this disjunction when his cuts call attention to themselves, and therefore to the fact that we are watching a movie, finds that the film is enhanced. For example, Scorsese has put the freeze frame to use many, many times. Just in Goodfellas alone, there are several great examples, from the opening scene (at the end of this clip, around 2:14) --
-- to young Henry's adventure blowing up the rival cab stand:
In a film like Goodfellas, where the story of Henry Hill's life is being narrated to us, these freeze frames serve a kinetic, as well as narrative, function. They deliver a visual punch and also signpost moments which Scorsese wishes to call our attention to. His freeze frames call to mind many movies, one being Truffaut's The 400 Blows, one of the earliest French New Wave films: the shot which ends the film is a powerful evocation of just how useful this technique can be when used for the right emotional or narrative reason.
When I saw Thelma Schoonmaker speak at the Tribeca Film Festival, she broke down the editing of Raging Bull, and noted that the film spent about $91,000 just on flashbulbs, because Scorsese wanted to drive home the aggressive public eye that Jake LaMotta lived in. Sound Designer Frank Warner came up with a crackle to match the popping camera flashbulb sound from the 40s and 50s, and she also noted how handy they were to cover up difficult editing transitions. And in the The Aviator, flashbulbs were used to disorienting effect in a sequence where Howard Hughes walks down the red carpet. In Scorsese's films, the flash of the camera is an intrusion, an explosion, and as cinematographer Robert Richardson explains in an American Cinematographer story on the film:
We created flash paddles for the scene that each might hold as many as 20 flashbulbs, and the operator ran a metal element similar to a needle, which, when touched, created contact so they could fire rapidly. In addition, we used strobes and Lightning Strikes units. But for the principal tracking shots where Howard walks into and out of the theater, the flashbulbs didn’t have enough duration for the effect Marty wanted...It created an excessive burnout beyond a level that the film could hold, approximately 11 stops overexposed. The image bleached to white, and for a moment you only see the character’s pupils, much akin to the red-eye effect from a flash on a still camera. The light hits the back of the retina and is reflected. We were taking these light flashes directly into the retinas of the character’s eyes. The result is haunting at times.
Combined with the cutting of the sequence (apologies for the quality, it was all I could find), it definitely makes a for a haunting, disorienting moment:
Scorsese has influenced countless filmmakers, among them an early P.T. Anderson, whose second feature, Boogie Nights, featured flashbulbs as well, though they had a distinctly different sound (it was the 70s, after all, not the 50s, and the emotional tenor of the scene is different, i.e., keep rockin' and rollin' and making better films, y'all!):
These are just a few examples from this video, which is only scratching the surface of the full array of editing techniques in Scorsese's films:
The nature of influence in film is fascinating, specifically how it extends from one generation to the next, i.e., a device that Scorsese uses is picked up by P.T. Anderson (several of the long takes in Boogie Nights seem to come from the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, just like the pool party sequence in the former seems to be a quote from I Am Cuba):
Just as fascinating is the nature of collaboration in film, specifically a close working relationship that extends for years and even decades. As this piece in the Los Angeles Times makes clear, Scorsese's relationship with Schoonmaker influences his work profoundly, driving home the point that no filmmaker is an island:
Schoonmaker never visits the set during production and often doesn't read the script to give her a more objective view of the film. "If something happened on the set, the person doesn't know that when they see the footage or the rushes," Scorsese said. "She'll respond to what works and what doesn't, which keeps me balanced." Scorsese sends her "strong notes" from the set about the various takes. "He is constantly giving the continuity person notes as he is shooting, so I already have the information when I am looking at the dailies myself. Then he gives me additional information when I am sitting with him. He is incredibly sharp and so tough on himself and has such high standards."
The two cut The Wolf of Wall Street at Scorsese's house, where, he says, "It's almost like making home movies. The odd aspect of it is they are films made for the commercial market, but they are like home movies."
Though Scorsese is what one might call an auteur, in the sense that all his films bear his trademark, his techniques arise from both his cinematic knowledge and his relationship with his collaborators. So while a Scorsese film is always a Scorsese film, it's partly so because he is good at communicating what he wants, and he works with excellent people. And the same is true, to one degree or another, for all successful filmmakers.
Quentin Tarantino said that Terry Gilliam once gave him the best advice on directing he ever received, which was:
"As a director -- your job is to hire talented people who can do that. You hire a cinematographer who can get the lighting you want -- you hire a production designer -- your job is explaining your vision.
Tarantino, like Scorsese, is a sponge of movies, with an epic recall of film. Here he is on Charlie Rose, expounding on the craft in his inimitable way:
The director/editor relationship, more than almost any other, save, perhaps, that of the director and DP, can be particularly close (Tarantino's long-time editor, Sally Menke, was with him until her untimely passing in 2010). Since filmmaking is an industrial process, even the most singular artist has to play well with others in order to get their vision to the screen. In the case of Scorsese and Schoonmaker, their relationship, and his relationship to and knowledge of film's history, is fascinating in that it shows how motion pictures, like literature or the visual arts, exist on a continuum, and we are all just standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. As Oscar Wilde put it so ironically, (just like everything else he said), "Talent borrows. Genius steals."
If there's nothing new under the sun, and every story has been told, then all we can do is be inspired by the films we love, in order to do the best work we can, with people we trust. I know, easy, right? But this is why watching films is so important! So go watch a movie! And if you're a director, you should also try to find an amazing editor (and DP and AD and, well, everyone else) to work with. Then you'll be all set! (Oh, and you're welcome.)