Thelma Schoonmaker Dissects 6 Scenes and the Brilliance of ‘The Irishman’

Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: Schoonmaker on De Niro's mastery, Pacino's improvisation, Scorsese's vision, and that fish in the back seat.
Thelma Schoonmaker
Thelma Schoonmaker

Thelma Schoonmaker has edited every one of Martin Scorsese’s feature script films, dating back to 1980 and “Raging Bull.” Recognized as one of the best, if not the best, editor of her generation, Schoonmaker could possibly be headed for her fourth Academy Award for “The Irishman.”

Schoonmaker was recently a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, where she talked effusively about the film, which she views as one of Scorsese’s boldest and most visionary, as well as showcasing Robert (“Bob”) De Niro’s greatest performance that she has edited.

Check out Schoonmaker’s dissection of six of her favorite scenes from “The Irishman.”

Angelo Chastises Frank: Pacing

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”screenshot

Marty spoke to me early on that he wanted it to be a leisurely pace, not quick cutting, and that long slow push into Bob [De Niro] at the beginning of the movie is in some ways slowing you down and letting you know this isn’t going to be a slam-bang explosions kind of movie.

That pace really pays off in things, like for example, when he’s chastised by Harvey Keitel [playing Angelo Bruno] because he was going to blow up this laundry. That’s deliberately cut very slow because the deadly pauses are indicating to De Niro that he’s in serious trouble, and every time we cut to Russell, played by Joe Pesci, he’s not helping him. So, he’s beginning to realize he’s in big trouble. And then when the De Niro character says, “I’d like to pay the money to the guy,” and Harvey Keitel says, “He won’t need it,”and then he says it again, that means Bob has to kill him. I don’t know how many people get that. They may get it in reverse. See that’s very beautiful, what Marty did, the opaqueness of the way the mafia talks, they never say “murder,” “kill,” “shoot,” it’s always opaque language.

And that’s a very good example of it, the character knows if he doesn’t kill him, he’s going to be killed, so he has no choice. And then, Marty wanted to show the blandness. What’s the first thing he starts talking about? The gun, you need a gun no one else has used, it’s not, “Oh God, should I do this? This is terrible.” No. It keeps happening, every time. He has to kill Joe Gallo: Ok, you see him choose the guns and Marty wanted to make some kind of comparison to the banality of the way people functioned in the holocaust, who were running the concentration camps, you know that banal, “It’s just a job.” So he wanted to make that kind of connection and so the pacing in the movie is not bum-bum-bum, and a lot of films are cut much quicker today, but it was so lovely to be able to do this, because you are drawn in, you’re drawn into Bob’s performance.

Frank Calls Jo: Jump Cuts and Preserving Performance

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”screenshot

There were some really big jump cuts that we were forced to do because we couldn’t figure another way around. I was noticing this morning working on the restoration of Marty’s “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” [Scorsese’s 1964 short] there’s tons of jump cuts. He’s always loved jump cuts, but in this film they’re often more necessary, than intended, actually.

The most important one being when Bob calls Hoffa’s wife. That was all take one, the actual phone call, but when he’s holding the phone, he’s obviously dialed and he’s obviously dreading, hoping she won’t be there, and he hears her voice and the way he picks up the phone and says, “Jo?” was absolutely brilliant and is not the same take as the first take.

So we have a man named Brian Battles, who can morph things, when we sometimes don’t want to show a cut, digitally he can, like they’re doing in “1917,” and he just couldn’t crack it. He tried and tried for months, and Marty said, “I’m not giving up on it, jump cut it.”

He’s adamant about that, we will never compromise on an actor’s performance. If it requires a jump cut, that’s what we’ll do. We’re not interested in smoothness and babying the audience, we want to challenge them and certainly we don’t want to tell them what to think. Marty is adamant about that.

Fish in the Car: Humor and Pacino’s Improvisation

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”screenshot

It’s based on real fact, Hoffa’s son did have a piece of fish in the car, and when they found that out, [screenwriter] Steve Zaillian and Marty just went with it. It’s a way of just showing the lack of connection in people who make their business killing people with what life is supposed to be about. He gets so obsessed with this stupid fish. When I cut that improvisation, I was roaring with laughter, but when Marty and I screened the film – we only screened it ourselves the first time – we didn’t laugh because of the sense of dread of what was going to happen.

But I think the texture of the movie is so rich, and one of the things that is great, is there’s this terrible sadness at the end, but there’s this tremendous humor throughout, and that’s a wonderful combination to be influencing the whole movie, giving it that texture. When Al picks on Sally Bugs [Louis Cancelmi], and starts attacking him, in the middle of this, they’re driving him to his death and he does this whole thing, and of course he embellished that tremendously.

Some of [the humor] came from improvisation, especially Pacino. [The scene where Pacino’s Hoffa chastises his staff] is so funny, and then the way he’ll suddenly drop his voice. He’s screaming at them, and then, [quietly] “I’m going to jail,” so all of that was just so funny. But Marty always goes for that unusual humor in his movies because he’s always working in the gray area of human beings, not the hero and the villain, it’s something else.

The Pajama Scene: The Unexpected

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”screenshot

It’s so surprising the movie, isn’t it? You never really know where you’re going and that’s very important. Aside from the humor is this unexpected expression of love from Al and Bob in the pajama scene, as we call it. Where it starts off [with Pacino] screaming about Tony Provenzano [Stephen Graham], and then he says to the De Niro character, “I want you to run for office and run this union to help me fight off the mafia,” and then, when Bob says, “Yes, I’ll do it,” and that wonderful moment where Al comes over, hugs him, and says, “I love you, I love you.” That was such a beautiful thing, I never expected in the movie and particularly when you’ve been seeing Hoffa as this strong dictator-like man, who is capable of terrible explosions of anger, and that wonderful intimate moment which again, combined with the humor, makes all these different segues. It probably is what helps [the movie] sustain longer than anyone believed could be possible.

Slow Motion Wedding: “In The Still of the Night”

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”screenshot

Marty hates it when music tells you what to think, that’s why his use of music is often so brilliantly different than what you expect. It is almost [counter] to what you expect. Marty knew right away, “In the Still of the Night” [would be] the opening piece and the end piece, and by the way it’s used over the wedding, which is to make it feel like a funeral, because for Bob it is a funeral and the look on his face there, oh my God.

Marty often goes to a hotel room, where no one can reach him, and just sits and listens to music – not music he’s not necessarily going to use, but to inspire him. And he starts thinking about the style of the movie, camera work, editing, acting, and he said that piece was just in his head from the beginning.

He explained it to me, and he explained it slightly differently in other interviews I’ve seen, that they kill in the night, and it’s the end of his life at the end of the movie, so “In the Still of the Night” is perfect, but who would do that? No one would do that but him.

The Breakfast Scene: De Niro’s Mastery

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”screenshot

So when you see Joe Pesci in a phone booth, by a road on that trip, and Bob can’t hear what he’s saying, and that’s unusual for Bob, because he usually does hear, he’s usually included, and that’s the beginning of some worry in his head, because those phone calls [that we don’t hear] are all about, “Ok, how are we going to do it? We’re going to make sure Frank is in the car because Jimmy won’t get in the car unless Frank’s in the car, we’ll have his son drive the car,” and that plotting was going on and that’s why Frank is not allowed to hear it until the absolutely incredible scenes where the salad is being made, and then the breakfast, which are my two favorite scenes in the movie.

Bob is able to show everything on his face without even moving. That’s what I mean about the subtlety, his body language. I’m just stunned by his ability to show tremendous feeling without moving. For example, the breakfast scene, which starts so blandly, “Do you want Corn Flakes or Total?” Then he’s told this devastating news that he’s going to have to kill his best friend. Bob doesn’t move, but you see everything he’s thinking on his face. Finally, at the end he moved back and there were tears in his eyes.

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Then when he gets on the plane we held that shot way too long, because we just couldn’t believe what we were reading on his face, and again, he’s just sitting there, but you have this incredible feeling of what he’s going through knowing he has to kill his best friend, and again, if he doesn’t kill him, he’ll be killed.

I’m just in awe of Bob. You know I hadn’t worked on one of his movies in 30 years, I had no idea – I never go to movies much because I work all the time – if he was just as good as when I cut “‘Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and “King of Comedy,” but he’s actually even better.

I have to say I’m very disappointed that he’s not being recognized for it [with an Oscar nomination], but he will be. The great thing about Marty’s movies is they last. They last. And what more can you ask for than that.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud, and Google Play MusicThe music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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