It’s no surprise that Thelma Schoonmaker was the Tribeca Film Festival’s choice for a panel about editing in film. Few editors have had more fruitful collaborations than the one between Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, which began in 1967 on “Who’s That Knocking on My Door” and resumed in 1980 with “Raging Bull.” Schoonmaker has edited all of Scorsese’s features since that LANdmark, but for “The Cutting Room: An Insight to the Edit Suite” masterclass that took place over the weekend in New York, she chose to focus entirely on key sequences in “Raging Bull” and the stories behind them. Here are a few highlights from the talk.
On Scorsese and Michael Powell. Schoonmaker touched upon the friendship her late husband forged with Scorsese before the making of “Raging Bull.” “Michael described Scorsese finding Powell living in obscurity and pummeling him with fast-talking questions about the Powell and Pressburger films, and Michael says in his autobiography, ‘After all those years of oblivion, the blood started started to run in my veins again.'”
On Powell’s influence on “Raging Bull.” One particular Powell and Pressburger film, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” greatly influenced “Raging Bull.” “De Niro was fascinated by the film and how convincing the weight gain was, and pummeled Michael Powell with questions of how he did it.” Powell used make-up and doubles with actor Roger Livesay, but “this was not the kind of thing that De Niro would ever agree to,” no matter how much Powell objected to De Niro gaining weight.
On the serendipitous use of flashbulbs. Scorsese and company spent $90,000 on flashbulbs during the making of “Raging Bull,” and the encouragement of the actors playing photographers to constantly take pictures gave the production great moments. “We got lucky with the flashbulbs on De Niro’s face and on the shot of Reeves falling. You put those two shots together, you get a nice edit. This isn’t planned, but you take advantage of these kinds of things.”
On the work of sound editor Frank Warner. Warner was a “congenial Midwesterner” with a habit of saying things like “okey dokey,” but Schoonmaker described his “mind of a genius.” “Frank would create a different sound for each punch in this movie, and there are a lot of them, and audition various ones…we never got him to tell us how he made those punches, but they were perfect.”
On Warner’s perfectionism. Warner would burn all of his sound effects when he finished a movie. “Not because he was afraid that someone else would use them, but because he didn’t want to use them himself. He wanted to approach each film with a completely open mind.”
On Scorsese’s use of slow motion. Schoonmaker spoke of Scorsese’s use of slow motion to show LaMotta’s obsessive, hateful attitude towards the mafia. “We put normal sync sound in the mouth of Frank Vincent. Even if it doesn’t fit, we liked the effect of it being slightly off.”
On the LaMotta home movies. “We degraded the image optically and desaturated the color as if it was fading with time passing. Marty personally went into the negative cutting room with a hanger and scratched the negative. I thought the negative cutter was going to have a heart attack.”
On a projectionist’s screw-up. Aside from the red opening titles, the only color in “Raging Bull” comes from the LaMottas’ home movies. One projectionist didn’t take note of Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s careful work. “Once, when I was checking out theaters during the first run of ‘Raging Bull,’ I came across a projectionist spooling footage from the movie onto the floor of his booth. Horrified, I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Someone made a mistake at the lab and spliced color footage into this movie. It’s supposed to black-and-white, and I’m taking it out.’ That’s why we call the projectionist ‘the final editor.'”
On one of the toughest scenes Schoonmaker ever worked on. Scorsese usually uses two cameras for improv scenes between actors, but a scene involving Jake and Joey arguing about losing weight in the kitchen made this impossible due to the small space. “It took almost a month for me to wrangle the footage into shape…and it was extremely hot and the babies kept crying.” Schoonmaker also showed a funny outtake in which Pesci and De Niro try to keep their concentration and keep the babies from fidgeting or crying, with great difficulty.
On the brutal images in the film’s final fight. Images of the bloodstained sponge and rope in the final fight were taken from a real match De Niro took Scorsese to. “I’ll apologize to you for the brutality of this scene, but it was part of the point of making the movie.” Then, an aside: “Boxing is insane, and in my opinion should be banned.”
On a disagreement with Scorsese. Scorsese and De Niro did a number of terrific takes on the final speech in the film, but Schoonmaker and Scorsese disagreed on which was the best. “Scorsese and I rarely disagree, but I preferred a warmer take from De Niro. But Scorsese said he thought Jake had to be very cold when he confronts himself. So we screened it two ways, and Marty was right.”