Oscar-winning editor arrives with 'Departed'

People intuitively understand what directors, actors and cinematographers do, but not so much the job of an editor, says Thelma Schoonmaker. That’s one of the reasons the three-time Oscar winner (her latest being for “The Departed”), who met careerlong collaborator Martin Scorsese at NYU’s film school, has been trying to get out of the editing room and spend as much time in classrooms as possible.

“A lot of what I talk about is what Marty does, how he directs,” says Schoonmaker, who also works to preserve the legacy of her late husband, director Michael Powell (a restored version of “A Matter of Life and Death” is due on DVD within the year).

“Believe me, I know the reason I get these awards is because I’m working for a great director. I contribute a lot to the film, but if you don’t have good material, you cannot make a great movie,” she says. “I tell students over and over, it’s the respect with which (Scorsese) treats actors that makes them perform so beautifully for him.”

Schoonmaker often shows students improvised scenes “where I barely got something to work.” Part of an editor’s role is to choose the shots that best capture an actor’s performance, and such scenes were particularly challenging in her first major film, “Raging Bull,” because Scorsese wasn’t shooting with multiple cameras.

“That meant if De Niro goes off on a fantastic improvisation and I don’t have Joe Pesci’s answers, then we have to try and get that in another take,” she says. “And I had to make it seem like it was all scripted. “… Editing is a lot about patience and discipline and just banging away at something, turning off the machine and going home at night because you’re frustrated and depressed, and then coming back in the morning to try again.”

Vocation: “Marty says that I bring humanity to the editing of the acting,” she says. “What he means is that maybe I will sense some vulnerability in an actor’s performance that will help the film.”

Recent breakthrough: “Learning about special effects and the use of digital intermediates on ‘The Aviator’ and ‘The Departed.’”

Role models: “Scorsese and I refer to my (late) husband (Michael Powell’s) films all the time. The editing, the acting, the lighting, the camerawork, the style, the brilliant directing — they were a deep influence.”

Career mantra: Find the truth, however painful. “Our documentary background helps because we came out of cinema verite. … We tried to portray our subjects without manipulating anything.”

What’s next: “Marty’s still making up his mind about the next feature.” In the meantime, the pair is working on a doc about Scorsese’s view of British cinema.

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