The director’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker discusses his latest movie and the erotic power of Powell & Pressburger
In the past few months, you may have noticed cinephiles parading t-shirts with Thelma Schoonmaker’s name across them, even if they’re a quarter of her age. “I started seeing people wearing them at Cannes,” says Schoonmaker, a film editor who’s cut every Martin Scorsese film since Raging Bull. “Marty and I edit all the movies together. It’s embarrassing to have just my name, and not his as well. But it’s very sweet.”
At 83 years old, Schoonmaker is a triple Oscar-winner who’s been Hollywood royalty for decades. Through her masterful sense of rhythm, she’s shaped all-time classics like Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The King of Comedy. In 2023, though, her fanbase has expanded even further thanks to Killers of the Flower Moon, Letterboxd culture, and her role in the BFI’s Powell and Pressburger season. At a sold-out onstage interview at BFI Southbank, Schoonmaker received a raucous reception like a rock star. “Young people have been really responding,” she says. “Something’s changing.”
When I speak to Schoonmaker at the BFI’s offices, it’s early November, midway through “Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger”. So far, I’ve witnessed an ultra-rare nitrate print of Black Narcissus (it required a safety talk beforehand), a 35mm BFI National Archive print of The Red Shoes, and a 4K restoration of I Know Where I’m Going! introduced by Tilda Swinton – the actor, who has been spotted at different screenings, heralded it her favourite film of all time. They were, for me, first viewings, and I’m sure it was similar for many others in the audience who looked like they’re taking advantage of the BFI’s offer of £5 tickets for those under 25 – or just eager to snap a selfie with Swinton in the corridor afterwards.
Together, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a British duo also known as The Archers, wrote and directed some of your favourite filmmakers’ favourite films. Greta Gerwig cited A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes as instrumental to Barbie. Ari Aster modelled the colour scheme of Midsommar on The Tales of Hoffman and Black Narcissus. Although their best work was from before when your parents were born, Powell and Pressburger conjured up wildly distinct features that were far more daring and idiosyncratic than most movies released today. Scorsese called their streak in the 1940s, during which they had complete creative freedom, “the longest period of subversive filmmaking in a major studio, ever”.
After being introduced by Scorsese, Schoonmaker and Powell were married from 1984 until Powell’s death in 1990. Since then, Schoonmaker has been promoting and restoring Powell’s work as much as possible, including his controversial 1960 horror Peeping Tom. For Dazed readers, she picks out The Red Shoes and Gone to Earth as starting points. My suggestion would be Black Narcissus, a Technicolor fever dream about nuns who go crazy, and even murderous, from sexual frustration and isolation. “The Powell and Pressburger films offer a complicated look at the world,” Schoonmaker says. “My husband thought we should make movies for the whole world, not the United Kingdom.”
In 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, an Englishman befriends a German who despises the Nazis. Churchill tried to ban it. “It’s my favourite,” says Schoonmaker. “It expresses a wonderful idea about humanity.” The film takes on extra meaning when knowing that Pressburger, who referred to himself as an “enemy alien”, was a Hungarian Jew who escaped Nazi Germany. “He had to go to the police station sometimes once every day as an enemy alien. He wasn’t allowed to go to certain locations. That speech Anton Walbrook does about being a refugee is really Emeric.”
She adds, “In their movies, you often hear French and German being spoken, and it’s not subtitled because Michael wanted people to get a feeling of what it’s like in the world. That’s why it’s nice in Killers of the Flower Moon that sometimes you hear Osage and don’t see subtitles. You listen to the beautiful language. It’s important we stop being so nationalistic.”
Killers of the Flower Moon marks Schoonmaker’s 22nd film with Scorsese. The 206-minute epic, which stars Leonardo Di Caprio and Lily Gladstone, details how, in the 1920s, members of the Osage nation were murdered for oil money. “The Osage nation feels that it’s opened the door for them to Americans,” she says. “We know a lot more about slavery, which was a terrible sin, than we know about what we did to the Native Americans, which was also a terrible sin. We have to learn about it. They say that some people still say to them, ‘Do you live in tipis?’ That’s insulting… That entire continent was owned, or lived on communally, by Native Americans, and we took it all away. Terrible.”
The final shot is an extraordinary poetic sequence that involves Osage survivors, the camera capturing a growing number of people filling the frame. “Now, from what I can tell, a lot of films are about pizazz, moving fast, and dazzling people. I can’t stand it when I see cuts that are two frames long, two frames long, two frames long. There’s no rhythm.”
When Schoonmaker discovered that some American cinemas screened Killers of the Flower Moon with an intermission, her disgust made headlines. I let her know that, in the UK, Vue cinemas also did the same. Total horror on her face. “It’s not made that way,” she says with fury. “If you’re going to have an intermission, you have to cut it a certain way so that it ends gracefully before the intermission. This one doesn’t have it. They must just cut off the projector. That’s terrible!
When Schoonmaker wonders who to speak to, I clarify that Vue seems to have stopped now. Still, she’s far from pleased. “That’s horrible. That’s really horrible. There’s a build. It’s very important. There’s a long build that you have to feel. If you cut it, you’re not going to feel that!” As for watching at home, she has the same belief. “Don’t pause it!”
The SAG strike and their dialogue around AI is still ongoing at the time of our conversation. While most editors use Avid, Schoonmaker has stuck with Lightworks, a piece of software she first deployed on Casino in 1995. “The first time we used visual effects was on Kundun to insert the Dalai Lama’s palace,” she says. “Now, you can change a field into a road. But I don’t call that AI.” I theorise that AI could, for instance, make cuts depending on silences, or certain instructions. “I don’t know. That sounds horrible.”
On her profession, Schoonmaker says, “It’s not that women make better film editors. But I think that women might see certain things that men don’t see sometimes. That’s happened a couple of times on Marty’s films.” As an editor, then, does she ever feel an urge to recut the work she’s remastering? “Oh, no,” she laughs. “On my husband’s films, I wouldn’t touch anything! They’re brilliant. I love them the way they are.”
Right now, Schoonmaker is working on a documentary about Powell and Pressburger that she hopes will premiere at Berlin in 2024; it will have Scorsese as the on-camera host and narrator throughout. There will also be further events celebrating her husband’s films. “I’ve heard that people are looking at A Matter of Life and Death because of [Greta Gerwig],” Schoonmaker notes. “Which is a great way to get them started on Powell and Pressburger.” She adds, “Something’s happening. I can feel it – and see it. The audiences for the events I’ve been doing are so young. It’s wonderful!”
“Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger” season continues at BFI Southbank and UK-wide venues until 31 December. “The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror” exhibition at BFI Southbank is on until 7 January. The Red Shoes 75th anniversary cinema release is UK-wide on 8 December.