Monday, November 27, 2023

"Marty and I share Michael and his movies, we share that legacy, and both of us want to do everything we can to sustain it." - An Interview with Thelma Schoonmaker

Tim Whitby/BFI

For more than fifty years, Thelma Schoonmaker's name has been associated with two of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. As Martin Scorsese's editor, she has played an integral role in an extraordinary body of work. She first edited Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door in 1967, before union rules enforced a long separation. They reunited for Raging Bull in 1980 and she has subsequently cut every one of his films, including this year's magnificent Killers of the Flower Moon. Her work has earned her three Academy Awards to date, and her style has encompassed everything from the the drug-fuelled intensity of Goodfellas, to the elegant yearning of The Age of Innocence, the nightmarish mania of Bringing Out the Dead, the wild tonal swings of The Departed, and the overwhelming guilt and sadness of The Irishman.

The other director she has shared her life with is Michael Powell. They were introduced by Scorsese when he brought Powell to America in the late 1970s and they married in 1984, living together until his death in 1990 at the age of 85. During their time together, Schoonmaker helped Powell write and publish his wonderful autobiographies A Life in Movies and Million Dollar Movie, and since his passing, she and Scorsese have dedicated themselves to restoring and promoting his films – both the films he made with his partner Emeric Pressburger, under their banner The Archers, and the films he made alone. The fruits of that three-decade effort can be seen in the BFI's ambitious retrospective Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, which involves nationwide screenings, screenings of new and archive prints, an exhibition and a number of book publications.

Thelma Schoonmaker was in London recently to promote the BFI season and present a number of events, and it was my great pleasure and privilege to spend time with her at the BFI Southbank to discuss her late husband's life and career.

There was a letter from Ian Christie in The Guardian the other day and he was talking about the Powell and Pressburger retrospective that the BFI held in the 1970s, which began the revival of their reputations.

Yes, it was very important. Marty came over and found Michael, I think in '75, and Ian was working with Marty too, showing him Powell and Pressburger films that he had never seen. That was an amazing retrospective, the first one. It was 38 films, I think. Then the Museum of Modern Art did a really big one in New York, after Marty started bringing Michael to America.

It's really shocking when you look back and contemplate just how forgotten they were before they started being rediscovered through these retrospectives. How do you account for that?

The more I'm here and talking to people, I've begun to see that when there was a big political change after the war, and the Labour government came in with the NHS and all these things, people thought that the films were old-fashioned and colonial, and they just threw the baby out with the bath water. It was terrible. I think the kitchen sink school is what most people knew, they just didn't know about these films. Somebody said to me it was considered almost a betrayal to look at them because they were 'colonial,' which they are not. They're about human beings around the world. Michael always said we should be making films for the world, not for Britain. I was once with him when he was on the stage answering questions, and somebody asked him, "What do you think about the terrible condition of the British film industry?" and Michael said, "Why should there be a British film industry? We should be making films for the world."

Of course, Emeric being European, and Michael having spent a great deal of time in France because of his father's hotel, he was interested in the world, he wasn't just interested in specific things, like the kitchen sink school was about. It was the end of the war, and maybe people had had enough of the war, and the films were made during the war, so maybe they just said, "I don't want to see any more of that, I've seen enough of that, let's move on." It was a terrible, terrible mistake and they suffered so badly, but Michael never became bitter and he kept on dreaming. He dreamed and wrote scripts for a hundred different ideas in the last thirty years of his life, which is astounding. He never gave up but it was a terrible blow and he was so financially strapped towards the end, when Marty came and found him.

I have to say, it's one of my favourite stories in film history, how Scorsese went and found this forgotten great director, brought him back to America, and then he met you and fell in love. It seems he got a whole new lease of life in this last decade and got the happy ending that he deserved.

Yes, and there's a wonderful picture of him in Seattle, where we had just screened I Know Where I'm Going! The audience went nuts, they were a very young audience, and Michael is standing like this [Thelma covers her face with her hands] because he's just so overwhelmed by this reaction! It's lucky that he did get to see it all come back. You know, he was an optimist and he had me put on his grave, 'Michael Powell: Film Director and Optimist,' and that's how he managed to survive these terrible years. Some people would have become bitter, I think.

Oh, most definitely, especially after the Peeping Tom reaction, which was so violent.

And I think that's because the critics couldn't handle feeling sympathy for him, it just flipped them out. Wait a minute, this man is a serial killer and I'm feeling sympathy for him? Michael described him as "attractive, gentle, sweet and completely mad," and that is such a powerful thing about the movie. He never made movies with heroes and villains, it was always something else in between, and that's the way Scorsese is. That's why these movies appeal to him, they are investigating things the way he does. It was a tragic thing but thank God we're living to see it come back, and he saw a lot of it come back.

It's interesting to look back at the reviews from even the celebrated Powell and Pressburger films from earlier. It seems like critics often struggled with these films and didn't quite know what to do with them.

Yeah, because they were unusual and they weren't telling you what to think – Marty hates that, when a movie is telling you what to think. They're full of surprises, they want you to engage. You know, how many films were these critics watching every week? They wanted something they could just write down, but here's this thing that's odd and very, very different, and they couldn't quite handle it. So Peeping Tom needed to be destroyed – this is evil, it's making us feel sympathy towards this killer – and they got so violent about it. Ian Christie says that some of the trade reviews were actually not bad and there was an internal memo about the movie, that Anglo-Amalgamated had hired somebody and he was very positive about the movie, but the distributors pulled it. Michael said, "I know the reviews are bad but leave it in the theatres, let's see what people think," and they didn't, and they should have, because maybe it would have survived.

He writes about that in his book, that he had more faith in the audience being grown-up enough to handle it than anybody else did.

That's right. He said, "I think the critics lead very sheltered lives." Now it's considered a masterpiece, you know? There was one print in America, I think some collector had it, and somehow that group of directors – Coppola, Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Lucas – they all saw the movie and knew about it when it wasn't available anywhere. Then Marty got it entered in the New York Film Festival, where it was a huge hit, and got it distributed in America very briefly.

It's always been a big presence in my life because when I first moved to London my office was right next to Newman Passage so I would think about Peeping Tom every time I went on my lunch break.

You know, he took Marty and me to Newman Passage. We had a wonderful dinner in his favourite restaurant, which was on Charlotte Street, and then walked over to Newman Passage, and that was so great for Marty.

I love reading Michael's memoirs and I know you spent many years in the 1980s helping him put those books together. What was that experience like for you?

Oh, it was so rich. What happened was, his eyesight began to fail from macular degeneration, he could see but he couldn't read. He wrote the first beautiful chapter of his childhood by hand, and it's a beautiful manuscript that I gave to Marty, I think it's actually at the BFI now. From that point on, I gave him a little recorder, and while I was editing, he would spend all day recording. No notes, he had to keep this all in his brain, I don't know how he did the structure of the book that way. Anyway, it was a thrill for me. I would transcribe what he dictated, and then on Sundays, our favourite day, we would never get out of our bathrobes and I would read back to him what he had written that week. We would construct it, edit it a bit, and it was a thrill to be sharing that with him.

There were times when both of us would break down. His mother was a great influence on him, she loved art of any form, and she made an artist out of Michael. At one point, she had never been to Stonehenge, and she was on a bike with Michael behind her, I think he was around ten. They were pedalling towards Stonehenge and there was a terrible storm, and she looked back at her son and she decided that she would never get to Stonehenge and she turned around. Michael and I would just burst into tears! So it was a thrill to work with him on it, and he's such a good writer, he could have been a writer instead of a film director except his mother took him to a silent film, and that was it! [Laughs]

That was also a very prolific period for you and Scorsese, so it must have been hard to balance that work with helping Michael produce these two very dense books.

It was hard, but of course Marty would do anything for Michael Powell, anything. He was also terribly important in getting it published in America. It was published here first, but the first volume was published in America by Knopf with a very great editor Robert Gottlieb, who has just died, but the person who took over from him just refused to do the second volume. Marty and I found somebody who would possibly publish it, we had him for lunch and we talked up Michael Powell, and the second volume got published by another publishing house. So Marty was always there for Michael, and I must say working on the book was heaven, it was a great thing to share. Marty and I share Michael and his movies, we share that legacy, and both of us want to do everything we can to sustain it. To be working as an editor on Killers of the Flower Moon and often talking about Michael Powell, to see if we can do this or get that done, it's pretty wonderful.

Scorsese also used Powell as a consultant on a lot of his movies in that period. I love the letter Powell wrote to Scorsese with his notes on the Goodfellas script. It must have been a year or so before he died but you can sense his enthusiasm and how fired up he still was by the business of making movies.

Well, he is responsible for it getting made. What happened was, on a Sunday when we had been working on the book, I had been talking to him about how Marty couldn't sell Goodfellas because the studio said you have to take the drugs out. He said, “That's the whole story, I can't take the drugs out!” and he was very depressed because he had tried over and over again. So Michael said, read me the script, so I read him the script, and he said, "Get Marty on the phone." I did and he said, "Marty, you have to make this movie, it's the best script I have read in twenty years. You have to do it." Marty went in one more time and sold it, and then Michael didn't live to see it, which was very sad. You know, he thought Mean Streets was a masterpiece and he would say to me as we were walking down the streets of New York, "Why isn't Mean Streets playing somewhere every day of the year here? This is an outrage!" [Laughs]

Scorsese has often talked about how Powell and Pressburger films influenced his lighting and framing of shots. As an editor, how were you influenced by them? I am always particularly taken aback by the beauty and imagination of the transitions in their films.

Yes, very much so. Scorsese is a great editor, he taught me everything I know. He is always thinking about transitions and he loved the transitions in the Powell and Pressburger films. We often think about them just for the influence of mood when making our films. The one important thing that Michael Powell said to us was, "Never explain," and that's what has happened in Killers of the Flower Moon. Marty said, "I am not making a documentary about the Osage nation, it's got to be something different with them completely involved." Michael also said that you have to always stay ahead of your audience because they are ahead of you, so what we love is that there is no explanation, there are surprises all the time. He's pulling you ahead as an audience, he respects you, and therefore he is willing to give you challenges that might make a studio say, "Oh no, that's too much." I mean, we fight that battle on every movie! But I'll never forget that from Michael...never explain.

He really loved Marty's films. He gave us the ending for After Hours and I'm sure you've read that he said to Marty that there was something wrong with the red gloves when he was watching the video of Raging Bull, and Marty said it had to be black-and-white. We had so much trouble with fundamentalists when we were making Last Temptation, we actually had bodyguards on Marty at that time. We screened our rough cuts quite a few times, and we'd recut and talk to people, and finally he allowed Michael to see it. Michael stood up at the end and there were tears running down his face. I looked at Marty sitting beside me, and I thought, Oh my God, what a gift! He was always there for Marty even in some troubled times.

Well, one of the key ideas in Michael's career is that art is worth fighting for.

Oh, absolutely.

It reminds me of a great bit in 49th Parallel where Leslie Howard is beating up a Nazi and as he punches him he's shouting, "That's for Picasso! That's for Matisse!" It's a funny scene but I think it represents something that he believed in.

That's right. When he made Peeping Tom he knew that it was daring. He always wanted to be ahead of his time and making something new and fresh and interesting, but he knew that if you were someone like that you were out on a limb and you could be easily sawed off, and that's what happened. He said, "I would rather be sawed off than be conventional," and that was very gutsy. He had seen great artists destroyed, you know, like Rex Ingram, Louis B. Mayer destroyed Rex Ingram. Michael adored Ingram and his brilliance. He was in LA when Black Narcissus got an Oscar for cinematography and he went to see Ingram, who hadn't made a movie in years. He was saddened to see him that way, but he knew because he was brave and daring, that's what happens.

Powell and Pressburger had their own battles in Hollywood with The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth. It must have been so hard for Michael to have his vision constrained in that way, because they had enjoyed such freedom in the 40s.

Exactly, and Marty says that during the war it was the most subversive period in filmmaking ever in a major studio, because nobody paid any attention to them. They were commercially viable except for A Canterbury Tale, so J. Arthur Rank just let them go until he saw The Red Shoes and that was it. He said it was terrible, he tried to kill it, and then it became one of the largest grossing movies ever. It was a very accidental thing that the war came at the same time so they were left alone, I mean, Marty is very jealous of that! We've had to fight so hard. We've fought on almost every movie, not the last couple, against some really stupid ideas, and we fight to the death.

One reason they were commercially viable was because they worked on quite modest budgets, and that's so hard to believe when you watch the movies. I mean, I don't think any film has ever evoked infinity like A Matter of Life and Death does. When I watch these films I often have no idea how they achieved what they did.

I know! Even the opening shot. We do visual effects all the time now, but how did they do that then without digital? Their budgets were terribly low, Michael only shot one take, and if you screwed up he could be rather nasty. But because they did only one take that meant they had less in the editing room than someone like Scorsese, who might do five or six and together we decide. They were very lucky, but boy, they paid so dearly later.

A lot of the conversation around The Archers tends to focus on a handful of great films. If there was one lesser known title you'd push people to see, what would it be?

I think Gone to Earth is one. Selznick was notorious for meddling and so he would send endless notes every day, which Michael would have his assistant put in a drawer, he never read them. But they knew from the experience with Goldwyn to put in the contract that if he didn't like the movie, they could have their own version. Now Kino Lorber has put out a blu-ray with The Wild Heart on the front cover and I'm so angry! That's not the authentic movie. Of course, we want to restore Gone to Earth but Selznick cut into the original negative and I don't know if we can ever get it back together, but that's one I would recommend to people.

I am looking forward to watching it this weekend on 35mm.

Not The Wild Heart!

No, I’m definitely watching Gone to Earth. There is actually a screening of The Wild Heart later in the season. I've never seen that cut, and I'm curious about it.

I've never seen it, I have to admit. In the documentary that we're making, we found a Canadian interview that nobody knew about with Michael and Emeric, and in it Michael says that when Selznick would come on the set, Jennifer Jones would throw things at him because she didn't want him telling her what she should do. She's terrific in the movie. I haven't seen much of her Hollywood stuff, but I'll bet you this is the best work she ever did, and she loved doing it.

I am so excited about Black Narcissus on nitrate as well. That's my personal favourite and I have been waiting for so many years to see it on a nitrate print.

Oh, it's incredible! I encouraged them to bring it because it really is stunning. There's nothing like nitrate, that silver. It's brilliant. Oh, it's so good that you have a ticket. I bet that has sold out.

Oh yeah, I had to be so quick to book it.

Isn't it wonderful, that the tickets are going so well? Sharing it with people too, Michael always said to me, "I didn't make my movies for someone to sit alone at home and watch them." When we did The Red Shoes restoration it was wonderful to be with people watching it, and I just think it's so great to have this celebration. Something has changed with the young people today, I've noticed. Ian Christie tells me they know the movies and they love them. Recently Scorsese interviewed Joanna Hogg for The Eternal Daughter and I went and there were these huge lines of young people, all under 25. I was one of the two grey heads in that audience! So something is happening, and it's so good to see.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger is running at the BFI and at cinemas nationwide until the end of the year.