When Thelma Schoonmaker won the first of her three Academy Awards for “Raging Bull,” she humbly told journalists that she believed she was being honored for work done by the director, Martin Scorsese.
“I won the Oscar for ‘Raging Bull’ for those fight sequences,” said Schoonmaker in a 1991 interview with Wide Angle/Closeup. “If you look at those fight sequences, those were so incredibly storyboarded and shot in an incredible way – that is the conception a good director has to bring.”
All below-the-line talent interprets a director’s vision through their crafts, but the editor’s work is most closely associated with the director’s. From 1981 to 2016, every Best Picture winner, except “Birdman,” was nominated for Editing. “Birdman” features long, unedited takes and elaborate camera movements; that might be the only way to separate the quality of a film from its editing.
One thing that makes the art of cinema distinct is its ability to show the viewer something, CUT, and connect it to something else that creates new meaning, understanding, and feelings. It’s almost impossible to separate editing from the film itself, which makes ithard to decipher how the editor aids, influences, alters and sometimes fixes the director’s original intention.
Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s four-decade partnership may be the most inextricably linked. No one in the filmmaking world, except for possibly Schoonmaker herself, underestimates her contributions. But to her larger point, quantifying that contribution is nearly impossible.
So how do Academy voters evaluate a film’s editing? How should they?
There’s no simple answers, though history presents definitive patterns. Just as a period film has a distinct advantage in the Best Costume category, the boldest (or most blatant) uses of editing are often more likely to be rewarded.
Last year, three of the five Best Editing nominees went to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Revenant,” and category winner “Mad Max: Fury Road.” All three films were superb examples of action, movement, and edge-of-your-seat excitement delivered by well-edited sequences that brought the viewer inside visceral scenes. Films that balance well-told stories with memorable, kinetic action are Best Editing catnip.
Films that match real-world violence with character psychology are also often rewarded. When guns are connected to protagonists’ emotional experiences and internal states, voters are quick to recognize the editor’s contribution. This is especially true for historical stories, or ones based on real events; recent examples include best editing nominees “American Sniper,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Captain Phillips,” “Inglorious Basterds,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
An interesting variation of this was the 2014 Best Editing winner “Whiplash.” (The producers liked to call it “‘Full Metal Jacket’ at Juilliard.”) Drums aren’t guns, but there’s violent physicality in the protagonist’s drumming that connects to the psychological torture and internal conflict that drives the drama. Like war films, there’s a jarring, emotional element to how we experience the character’s troubled internal state. That element also came into play in “Raging Bull,” and another editing nominee, “Black Swan.”
Action and/or psychological violence figures into many of this year’s editing favorites, including John Gilbert (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Julian Clarke (“Deadpool”), Mark Livolsi (“The Jungle Book”), Joan Sobel (“Nocturnal Animals”), Jabez Olssen (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), Blu Murray (“Sully”), and Jake Roberts (“Hell or High Water”). These editors help execute a directors’ plan with precise cutting and pacing.
Editors also play a critical role in shaping a film’s narrative and how a story is told. On her last two collaborations with Scorsese, “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Silence,” Schoomaker helped him shave nearly 45 minutes off of each film while maintaining their strong narrative flow and character arcs.
Successful editors require a strong sense of story, which isn’t a flashy skill and often goes unrecognized. On the Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast, “Arrival” screenwriter Eric Heisserer said editor Joe Walker did an extraordinary job working with director Denis Villeneuve to connect story elements that weren’t meant to be juxtaposed. The result was stronger and clearer story beats.
In editing “Jackie,” editor Sebastián Sepúlveda reinvented the inventive cross cutting in Noah Oppenheim’s script to place the audience inside the emotional haze created by director Pablo Larrain and actress Natalie Portman. Or take editor Jen Lame’s work in “Manchester By Sea,” where she tweaked the film’s flashback structure to strengthen the audience’s connection to the character arc — which will likely aid Casey Affleck to winning a Best Actor Oscar.
In these cases, the editor adapts and strengthens the screenwriter’s work. Editors are storytellers; when Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. recently honored the documentary “OJ Made in America” with its Best Editing Award, it was a reminder that the purest form of editing is creating narrative and meaning from unscripted material.