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How Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker Restored the Luster of Michael Powell and ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’

How Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker Restored the Luster of Michael Powell and 'The Tales of Hoffmann'

Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has collected three Oscars (“The Aviator,” “Raging Bull” and “The Departed”) shares with Martin Scorsese, her collaborator on 22 movies over three decades, an infectious enthusiasm for the movies she loves. Last week I got on the phone with her in Taiwan, which Ang Lee suggested to Scorsese as a location for shooting “Silence,” which is set in 17th century Japan. They’ve been shooting for almost a month. 
I told her that when I was working for editor Richard Corliss at Film Comment Magazine in the early 80s, British director Michael Powell submitted via mail his typed Guilty Pleasures manuscript. “Marty probably put him up to that,” Schoonmaker said. 

I adore Powell and his writer-producer partner Emeric Pressburger’s output in the 40s and 50s, from the stunning color masterpieces “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” to the black-and-white mystical storm-tossed Scottish romance “I Know Where I’m Going,” starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey, which influenced many films, from Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” to James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Scorsese and Schoonmaker keep asking producer Scott Rudin why he’s been sitting on the remake rights for years. “We don’t know why he’s never done it, frankly,” said Schoonmaker.

She talked about how Scorsese helped to boost the reputations of Powell and Pressburger, how Powell was the great love of her life, and how the Film Foundation restored in 4K the duo’s hallucinogenic three-strip Technicolor 1951 operatic masterpiece “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which debuted at the London Film Festival last fall and played the Cameraimage and Lumiere festivals in Europe, and hits Film Forum in New York and Cinefamily in LA on March 13. 
This must-see film stars Robert Rounseville as Hoffmann, “The Red Shoes” dancer Moira Shearer as both a mechanical doll and Hoffmann’s love interest, Robert Helpmann as Hoffmann’s rival, and famed French ballet dancer Leonide Massine. Oddly, this gorgeous adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 opera, shot in only 17 days, is “Night of the Living Dead” director George Romero’s favorite: he calls it “the movie that made me want to make movies.” In fact, he and Scorsese tussled over borrowing the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” print. 
Anne Thompson: How did you come to meet your husband Michael Powell?
Thelma Schoonmaker: Scorsese found him and Emeric living in oblivion. After “Peeping Tom” they had stopped working together. Michael and Emeric were classified erroneously as part of the pre-war Colonial Era, very unfairly. They were thrown out with the bathwater when the Labor government came in after the War and kitchen sink movies were on the rise, but their films were chucked. Scorsese had been obsessed with their films since he was a child, on TV and in theaters, and Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas were also aware of some of them, like “Black Narcissus.”

How did Powell and Pressburger work together?

People ask, “How could two people direct?” Michael was on set, but valued Emeric’s brilliance, so Michael agreed to share the director title. Emmeric wrote and produced, but only Michael directed. Marty went to the Edinburgh Film Festival to get an award for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and when they asked him who should give him the award, he said, “Michael Powell.” They said, “Who’s that?” After he had made such a beautiful film in Scotland! [“I Know Where I’m Going”]

Marty went to London, asking: “Does anybody know where Powell and Pressburger are?” He was looking blindly. Michael Kaplan who did publicity on “2001: A Space Odyssey” said, “I know where he is.” Thanks to him the meeting occurred. Marty was rattling off questions at Michael at lunch. Michael couldn’t believe this young “California” director knew all his works, he later told me: “The blood started to flow in my veins.”

How old was he?

Seventy, maybe. I met him in 1978 when he was 74. He and Marty fell in love with each other. Marty showed him “Mean Streets,” which Michael thought was a masterpiece. Marty brought Michael to the U.S., he gave him an award at Telluride, entered “Peeping Tom” in the New York Film Festival. Everyone was overcome by it, Steven Spielberg and Francis Coppola were there, and were stunned by the movie. We started working on “Raging Bull” —I wasn’t in the union for a while—finally in 1978 we were cutting it. Marty started educating me on Powell and Pressburger, sent me home with videos. He does that with actors and friends all the time. 
Then Marty and Mary Lea Bandy did a MoMA Powell & Pressburger retrospective in America (the BFI had done one). I went to see “Colonel Blimp” at MoMA, and Michael was sad in the back of the room, remembering Deborah Kerr, one of his great loves. Pressburger was bustling around; I introduced myself as Marty’s editor, but Michael was distracted. Marty asked me, did I want to come for dinner with Michael? “Oh yes!”

At dinner I fell in love with him immediately. He was the most remarkable person I had ever met. He didn’t say much but when he said something it was startling. Such love of life suffused his face. I was stunned by him. This was in Marty’s apartment where we were editing “Raging Bull.” I went back to work and Michael came back into the room. Marty and Isabella Rossellini were married then. There were film racks in the bathroom, in the bathtub shower, which Michael thought was hysterical. He was then at Dartmouth, where David Thomson brought him as artist in residence. [Read Thomson’s entry on Powell in “The Biographical Dictionary of Film.”]
Michael would call Marty late at night, Marty was a night owl and would answer the phone. We went to Hollywood with “Raging Bull,” for the Oscars. [She won.] Francis Coppola had invited Michael to Zoetrope, and said to Marty, “Come to my experiment in indie filmmaking.” Michael and I were having lunch, and dinner, then we were together for ten blissful years. It was wonderful.

What was he like?

He had a ferocious reputation on set, they shot only one take in those days, and some actors were not up to it and he’d get furious about wasting money. As a director he was famous for being rather brutal. As a human being he was the most wonderful man, he had such a love of life, never wasted a second of the day. He was thinking about his book [“A Life in Movies”], he’d cook breakfast of tomatoes or bananas, whatever. He relished every moment. He was amazing to live with, he had a deep understanding of love. We had ten wonderful years.

Marty loved having him round. Michael helped to get “Goodfellas” made. The studios asked Marty, “Does he have to take drugs?” He said, “I can’t take that out, that’s the story of the movie, he’s not supposed to get involved in drugs and he does.” He tried two or three times. Michael got upset, because his career had been ruined, so he was concerned about Marty’s artistic purity. “Read me the script.” (He could see OK, but couldn’t read, due to macular degeneration.) I read him the script when I was usually editing his book. “Get Marty on the phone! You have to make this, this is the best script I’ve read in 30 years!” So Marty went back in one more time and it got sold. Michael died before he saw the film. It saved my life.

Were you ever married before?

I was never married. I’d been in long relationships, but my work always destroyed them, my terrible hours. I was 45, he was 74. It was just bliss. Marty shut down editing to let me take him home. I didn’t want to live. But I knew if I didn’t go back to “Goodfellas,” Michael would kill me. What a circle! It got made. It saved my life. So it’s an extraordinary story, between the two of them I have great stories to tell. 

How did you get this 4K “Tales of Hoffmann” restoration done? I saw one restoration at Cannes a few years ago, what’s the difference?

It wasn’t this restoration; that one was made from the interpositive because the BFI could not afford to go back to the negative. With Technicolor restorations it’s about getting the color right. You can see details due to the way we were able to rejuvenate the film from the original camera negative. Marty’s Film Foundation also financed the restorations of “The Red Shoes” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” which were very expensive. There are three color strips instead of one, so the technological work goes on and on.

How much do they cost? 

$250,000. It’s a lot of money. But Scorsese is the person who can raise that kind of money because it’s his passion.

Did you add anything new?

We found some original material we put in the restoration, six minutes in the third act. It makes it work in a way that it didn’t work before. The father is angry at the daughter, who is not supposed to sing because she has tuberculosis. She’ll die if she does. He is fearful she is going to, and gets angry. In the scene Massine makes the fatal mistake of allowing her lover to see her, and she dies. Losing the anger of the father undercuts the act. Michael was forced to cut it because Alexander Korda wanted to remove the entire third act—with the most beautiful music. He threatened him at Cannes: “If you don’t cut it, I will ruin you.” Korda contributed a great deal, when the chips were down on “Peeping Tom,” to Michael not being able to ever make another movie in England, except for a children’s film, because Michael refused to cut the third act.

We restored the six minutes. And when we were doing the restoration we came upon the wittiest title sequence, pulling the curtain back on the singers who voiced the actors, a charming introduction. But there was no soundtrack. I created one using music from the film with applause that sustain the delightful sequence.

How does the 4K restoration improve the film? Powell transports you into another realm far from reality.

It’s really a joy watching it over and over again and discovering new details in the rich design. Marty showed it to his 14-year-old daughter. She saw that Helpmann is wearing a scorpion pin at his neck, that’s how you know the rival of Hoffman is up to no good. Because Hoffman is telling the story of three loves he lost, you enter into his sad memories and feelings, why he loved these people. This gives you a chance to do anything, because it’s his memories. They took opera and really transformed it into film, using dancers for many of the parts. You hear voices over them dancing, Moira Shearer as the windup doll is mouthing the words, thus giving you strong visuals instead of a singer standing on the stage. The dancers are giving you this wonderful physical movement, they’re acting, they know how to come on stage dramatically, with extraordinary body movement. The movements of Massine and Helpmann, they bring the drama to it, they’re going all over the place. The camera is dancing.

They shot it like a silent film with the huge Technicolor cameras?

Yes. It gave them such freedom, to take away the size of what they called The Enchanted Cottage, it was so big, they took off the blimp, which was huge—6 feet by 4. Because they were shooting on a huge stage, which was not sound-proof, they were shooting to playback of the recorded Thomas Beecham score. They did not worry about sound at all. It freed up the camera completely so it could fly, which made a big difference. Michael could get back to the silent film era he loved, change speed five times within a shot. He could do all kinds of wonderful magic tricks.

How did this movie influence “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”?

The duel had an influence on “Taxi Driver,” the eyes of Helpmann and Massine had a direct influence on De Niro in the taxi cab in “Taxi Driver.” The duel scene is beautifully edited, done silent, just the Hoffmann “Baccarole” playing over it. Scorsese said, “there are no sound effects here, no swords clashing.” That’s power, just music and image. All the Powell and Pressburger films are in Marty’s DNA, he’s constantly being influenced and fed by them, their power is churning through his blood, like the dramatic camera movement in the flights in “Raging Bull.”

How was “The Tales of Hoffmann” received when it opened? 

It was a big huge lavish opening in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, it did well in certain parts of Europe and England, but it was not a huge raging success. That’s one reason the negative was undamaged: it was not used very much.  It didn’t do great. 
Who owned the negative?

StudioCanal own the negative originally owned by the Korda estate. After he died, his Hungarian family grabbed things and ran. We worked with them on the Blu-ray, which should come out about now.

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN – Trailer from Rialto Pictures on Vimeo.

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