Exclusive Interview: Thelma Schoonmaker on The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street Matthew McConaughey

If you love Martin Scorsese movies, then you know exactly who Thelma Schoonmaker is. She's edited every single one of Scorsese's films since Raging Bull in 1980, and she's won three Academy Awards over the course of their lifelong collaboration. Her latest film is The Wolf of Wall Street, the controversial film that also – coincidentally – is their longest. But critics and audiences rarely complained about the length due to the energy Thelma Schoonmaker infused into The Wolf of Wall Street.

In my interview with Thelma Schoonmaker we talked about the difficulties of setting the pace for a three-hour movie, the evolution of editing technology since Raging Bull, and why digital editing drives Martin Scorsese crazy.

The Wolf of Wall Street is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

CraveOnline: My knowledge of editing, at least hands on, was mostly limited to my classes at film school, and at UCLA they insisted that we work on flatbeds and splice our own film. So when I think of professional editors like yourself I get this image in my head of you rummaging through a plastic bag, looking for two missing frames of Raging Bull going, “Where IS it?!”

Thelma Schoonmaker: [Laughs.] Oh, I used to do that! For sure! Definitely.

When was the last time you worked on a film exclusively on a flatbed?

Right. I felt that I really had to transition on Casino. It was just becoming evident that digital was going to be the future. So I very reluctantly agreed to do it, and I was trained by an assistant of mine who is now my associate editor and was incredibly patient with me. I was a very bad student and grumbling all the time saying, “Oh, I could do this better on film!” He made me put a quarter in a jar every time I said that. [Laughs.] And finally after about two weeks it just clicked in and I was off and running.

The advantage of it is you can experiment and keep your original edit, and that means a great deal because in the days on film I used to have to remember how I cut something, and if I wanted to show Marty something different, or if he asked for it, I had to take apart the film, hang it in the bin, remember how I put it together, do another version, and then if he didn’t like that or I didn’t like it then I’d have to put it back the way I did originally. And as you can imagine that takes a lot of time, but it was time that Marty actually liked because he could think about the edit, and walk around the office and think about it. And he also loved the fact that I would run the flatbed back and forth looking for shots, and he was constantly reviewing the footage then, and thinking of ideas himself.

Now, with digital editing, I just jump down to the shot I’m going to and he gets one split second to see images and it drives him crazy because he’s not allowed to see the whole shot, you know? Which even if I was running high speed on the flatbed he could see and think of it as a possibility, so for him it’s been annoying. However, for me, the fact that I can experiment and make five or six different version of the scene and always still have my original version there, frees me up incredibly to experiment, and turn things upside down. I don’t have to worry about or think of the music or I have it already. I know what it used to be in that other edit. So it frees me up tremendously and I will often give him four or five different versions of a scene. But for him it was a big loss. [Laughs.]

That doesn’t mean by the way that you still don’t need a lot of time to edit a movie. You have to re-edit at least twelve cuts, hopefully, on a film. We debrief our audience afterwards and we learn how the film was impacting people, and I don’t think a lot of editors in Hollywood have that kind of time anyway, which is very bad. So even though you have a tool that’s making things faster for you, doesn’t necessarily make the overall editing time any faster if you know what I mean.

Does it make the artistry of editing any different? For example, if you were to make The Wolf of Wall Street 20, 30 years ago, do you think it would be a dramatically different film just based on what you could do?

It would be only, I think, in the sense that we can import visual effects immediately. We can do dissolves, we can freeze-frame. We can do a lot of things that we would wait [for], you know? We would say, “We’ll have to make an optical here if we want to dissolve,” or we would mark a streamer on the film that would indicate the dissolve. But now I would just make the dissolve, or I’d freeze the frame, or I’d change the speed of the shot, or I’d incorporate the visual effect, or I can have two or three different pieces of music that we could be choosing from running simultaneously.

So in that sense it’s a great addition, but I don’t think really that Raging Bull would have looked any different if we had cut it digitally. [Laughs.] The power of that film was what drove it, and I think it would have ended up the same way.

A film The Wolf of Wall Street has so many different moving parts that I feel like I wouldn’t even know where to begin the editing process. Do you pick the first scene you edit very carefully, to help establish a tone, or are you working with whatever dailies are coming through and figuring it out as you go?

Well, I have to work with what I’m given from the set, and sometimes they don’t shoot the first scene first. Marty prefers to work that way and I think it’s very important for the actors and for the director to work from the beginning of the film on, if they can, but they can’t always do that. If there are three scenes on a boat and you only get the boat for two days, you’ve got to shoot those two scenes when the boat’s available, you know, or when the weather’s right. So it’s not always possible to shoot in order, but I do feel that it is very important for the director and the actors to shoot in order. But I start cutting whatever they give me first, and usually it is pretty close to the beginning of the film, hopefully. [Laughs.] But I do prefer to work chronologically, very much so.

The Wolf of Wall Street is technically your longest movie, but it has a really frenetic pace. Was it a struggle to keep that energy up for three hours?

Yeah. Yeah, I mean to a certain extent it was because we had all these long, wonderful improvisatory scenes that are normal kind of speed. Matthew McConaughey and his long lunch scene, that’s five minutes long, and we’ve had a big rush going up to that because Marty had plotted it all out very carefully. And then suddenly there we are with a five-minute scene, and it’s so good! So I was worried at first that we would not be able to incorporate Marty’s beautifully thought out scenes with the longer improvised scenes, because they always turned out to be longer than the script. But as it’s turned out I guess it’s been okay. It’s an unconventional structure but it somehow has worked, thankfully. I was worried about it at first, thankfully.

Did you address this concern with Martin Scorsese?

Yes, well, you know, we knew we had to screen as soon as possible. We learn so much from our screenings, and it was clear that people were not feeling that the film was dragging anywhere, and that anything we could do though, to increase the speed would be helpful. Just for the nature of the thing, the crazed, jangled excess called for that. So we did everything we could to push it along, and it meant dropping favorite lines sometimes, paring things down, shaving things down to get better speed.

We did lose some things but it was not major. It’s not as if the four hour version was the Holy Grail, frankly. [Laughs.] It was just a longer version of what you see! So it is what it is. The footage was telling us what to do. Those wonderful improvisations, I mean, I was just roaring with laughter when I saw the dailies. That doesn’t usually happen. Usually you edit a comedy and then it becomes funny, but here the dailies were so funny. [Laughs.] I was just roaring with laughter.

I was at a Q&A with you for Gangs of New York and you were saying that Martin Scorsese wanted you to edit the opening battle sequence kind of like Battleship Potemkin. Was there ever a specific influence he wanted you to keep in mind for The Wolf of Wall Street?

Not really. I think he did screen several films for the crew but I’m not sure what those were. But no, it wasn’t as specific as it has been on other movies, where he told me specifically something that he wants to be an inspiration, but he doesn’t want it to mimic it or anything. It was just one shot in Potemkin, by the way. It was just the sailor breaking the dish, and how Eisenstein would not go by how the normal cuts would be. He jumbled things up and that’s what Marty meant, he wanted it to be more jumbled and not have continuity. But no, there wasn’t a particular thing here.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.