Legendary Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Reveals the Process of Cutting 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Thelma Schoonmaker is the only editor that cinephiles reliably know by name. That may not be a distinction that Ms. Schoonmaker necessarily appreciates, but it's true enough all the same. Having said that, perhaps it's appropriate that she stands out, as Ms. Schoonmaker has never defaulted to the common wisdom that an editor's work is to remain invisible. A political science major who spontaneously answered an ad for an editor's assistant in The New York Times and then went on to form a lifelong collaboration with Martin Scorsese (she's edited more than 20 of his films, including "Raging Bull" and every project since), Schoonmaker's work has played a vital role in shaping the last four decades of American cinema. As if that weren't enough, she's also become a warrior for film preservation and restoration, striving to ensure that the work of her late husband Michael Powell isn't a victim of the industry's tireless march "forward" – anyone who's had the chance to see the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of "The Red Shoes" surely appreciates Schoonmaker's efforts.

Now 73, Schoonmaker's collaboration with Scorsese is continuing to yield new rewards, the two of them refusing to allow the other to rest on their laurels. "The Wolf of Wall Street", their ribald and raucous new epic about the highs and slightly lower highs of white-collar con artist Jordan Belfort, is absolutely overstuffed with new ideas – not only a blisteringly funny indictment of capitalism gone wild, the film is also a giddy rejoinder to the idea that great filmmakers soften with age.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Schoonmaker on the phone about the rushed post-production of "The Wolf of Wall Street", the instability of digital storage, and to which previous Scorsese /Schoonmaker film their latest collaboration owes the most (hint: it's not "Goodfellas").

I love the film very much, I’ve seen it twice now. 

Oh, great!

And I’d see it a third time in a heartbeat.

Oh my God that’s wonderful. I hear that from so many people, and then there are those who think it’s too long, but I hear from so many people that they could watch it over and over again.

Well, I certainly don’t think it’s too long, and I could have watched several hours more despite how reprehensible these characters are, but of course balance and moderation are integral in making a film like this work. And that’s the first thing I wanted to ask you about, about balance. You do a remarkable job of balancing the  fact that this story is told from Jordan’s perspective, but at the same time the audience is also being seduced by him. And those sound as if they’d be oppositional ideas, but you make them work so well in tandem...

Ha, well, it’s in the writing and the directing and the acting, of course. But I think they made a decision early on to immerse you in that world, the way that Marty immersed you in the world of the mafia in “Goodfellas”, and to show you why it’s so attractive and why these people get sucked in and make terrible decisions. That was the way they wanted to go with the movie, and they didn’t feel like if they were going to do that to show the other side, the people whose lives they were ruining, so they made the deliberate decision to leave them out. In fact, you barely hear the people on the other end of the phone, because that would be another movie.

This is about understanding how this excess arose, and so it was definitely a commitment by them to make you sense that Jordan Belfort... I’ve never met the man but I’ve seen videos of him, and he just doesn’t let you off the phone. That was his big thing, he’s so powerful in the way he presents things that he sort of hooks you in and they definitely wanted Leo to give that same feeling. And Leo had been working on this project for seven years trying to get it funded, and he said that he worked on those speeches for a very, very long time. But it’s incredible, isn’t it, how it’s almost like Hitler. [Laughs] Actually, it’s much better than Hitler, Hitler must have seemed a bit ludicrous, but it’s like any mesmerizing dictator who... you stop thinking. That was the trick with selling to people, to get them to stop thinking and to start reacting emotionally, and to manipulate that emotion, and that’s what Leo was doing. Especially in that one speech where he says I want you to ram this... the way he builds up to that is really incredible.

And you know, he hit it on that one take. That’s what happens in great speeches like that. For example, Daniel Day-Lewis in that great speech from “Gangs of New York” there’s the scene where he’s sitting with the American flag wrapped around his shoulders and Leo wakes up to see him there and he gives this incredible speech, and that was take one. And it was IT. Take two was not as good, take one was it. Leo hit his speech on take four or five and you just knew. The whole room just held their breath.

Going back to the people on the other end of the phone, I noticed that Mr. Scorsese was one of the voices on the other end of the phone...

[Laughs] Yes!

And I’m curious if that was a decision that you made at the beginning, or if his vocal cameo came about later in the production?

No, no, I just felt that there was a point in that wonderful scene where you see how good Leo is as a salesman in that little investors’ center, and I felt that there was just a little too long of a pause while he was waiting for the guy on the phone to speak. Of course there was no one on the other end of the phone, I don’t think, but I said to Marty if we could hear that voice, and he was reluctant because we cut that part out of the movie originally. And he said alright I’ll do it temporarily and then we decided to keep it! [Laughs]

[Laughs] It’s a great touch.

It’s very low, you can barely hear it. But people do recognize that very distinctive voice! It’s like the eyebrows. [Laughs]

He and I have the same eyebrows, so I know what’s that like all too well. 

Oh good.

I remember reading about your initial disappointment in shooting “The Wolf of Wall Street” digitally, and I know that a compromise was eventually made where only the low-light scenes were shot on the Alexa –

– And the digital effects... stuff that needed digital effects. You know, like the boat in the storm or the helicopter, things like that, the visual effects people can do so much more if it’s digital. But we really intended to shoot digitally, but what happened was that Rodrigo Prieto our cameraman was giving us tests of various things, and he would shoot with several different digital cameras and then he would shoot with film, and every time Marty and I would say “Oh, we like that one”, and it was always film. So Rodrigo said let’s shoot it on film, because we probably won’t be able to do it anymore. You know, it’s so sad... The labs are all closing down and it’s just so sad.

Did using two different formats complicate the edit at all?

No, because everything is given to me digitally. The film is immediately transferred to digital because it’s just so much easier to edit with it, so it made no difference to me it at all. Doing 3D on “Hugo” was a big learning curve for me, but fun! But not here, ever since “Casino”, our first digital movie, we were shooting still on film there but editing digitally, so I’ve gotten very used to it.

Well on that note, something I was thinking was almost too ridiculous to ask you but I’m going to go ahead and ask you anyway... do you think that the parallels between Jordan Belfort’s story and the reckless progression of film technology –


– that has lead us to the point where Sony couldn’t even give you a 35mm print of “The Age of Innocence”, do you think there’s any connection there?

Well... it’s an interesting idea. I do think that everyone is rushing headlong into this complicated technology now to the point where interfacing with somebody else, or some other system, become so complicated, sometimes you just wish you could go to your flat-bed editing machine and just flick a switch and it would come on. But now my assistants spend a great deal of time, they understand this computer stuff better than I do, I edit on a computer but I don’t understand half of what we go through, editing the film and screening it... you have no idea how complicated all these have become, and I worry because it makes us so vulnerable, doesn’t it? All you need is for all the cell towers to down in some disaster and –

– Poof, all the movies are gone.

It’s very true, there is something scary about this rush. And you know digital isn’t stable. It has to be migrated every five years or else it just vanishes.

Yeah, it’s not even as good an archival medium as film.

That’s right. Film, if properly cared for, will last almost 100 years, but digital will not. You’re right, it’s a little scary.

Going back to this particular film, I had the pleasure of talking to [screenwriter] Terence Winter the other day, and he told me that “The Wolf of Wall Street” was consciously designed as a companion piece to “Goodfellas”. And I’m curious if “Goodfellas” was an active reference in the editing room, and if it would sound crazy if I said that the film actually reminded me more of “After Hours” than anything else?

I think you’re right! I never thought of it as a companion piece to “Goodfellas”, and I don’t think that Mr. Scorsese did either. I think he wanted it to have the rush quality of “Goodfellas” at points, but I don’t think of it as “Goodfellas” at all, I think that’s a whole different thing. These people are doing much more damage than the guys from “Goodfellas” were doing, that was somewhat limited to a few murders here and there, but the damage these people did was enormous, and you’re quite right that it’s very similar to “After Hours”, which by the way was also heavily improvised, and a tremendous amount of fun to cut. It was pretty wild, and this was pretty wild. So I agree with you.

Speaking of the spirit of the editing, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the green bolt of lightning from William Dieterle’s “Portrait of Jennie” that makes an appearance just before the party scene in the Hamptons –

[Laughs] Yes! “Portrait of Jennie”! You know Marty, when I told him we were doing stock footage research for the lightning, he said “Oh no no I want to use that one from ‘Portrait of Jennie!’ because it’s so dramatic and that’s what we ended up doing. He knows his lightning bolts, every one that’s in every movie.

The inclusion of that really typifies the energy that binds the whole film together. 

Yes, I’m glad, it’s supposed to be the feeling of a cocaine hit, and I hope it works out that way.

The way that Mr. Scorsese uses individual songs feels like a score because the individual pieces are so woven into the tapestry of the film.

It is scored. It’s scored by him with pre-recorded music. And I’m glad you say that, because you have no idea how brilliant he is about putting music... he makes it work so well that you don’t think it, but who would put “Mrs. Robinson” by the Lemonheads instead of the original during a scene where the F.B.I. is raiding an office on Wall Street? Who would ever think of that?  Or who would put Purcell, 16th century or 17th century composer, against Donnie bombed out of his head on Quaaludes? Marty is a genius for putting music to film, and that’s why you’re saying it feels scored, because he weaves the music into the film in such an expert way. And sometimes it’s totally unexpected, but it works. For example, the piece at the end “Cast Your Fates to the Wind” is such a familiar piece to all of us, and he thought about it for three weeks and then he finally said to me “This is what I want to use.” And it’s a cleansing feeling, Jordan’s going on to a new life, but it’s a brilliant. And who would think of that? Nobody would think of that but him.

I only have time for one last question, and I’m afraid it’s one that many people have probably asked already, but... I’m not interested in what was cut from the film, I like to accept it as it is, but I am interested in how you and Mr. Scorsese solicited feedback for your various cuts in such a tight editing window. 

One of our big tools is screening. We screen usually 12 times, which is much more than most filmmakers do, and we recut in between each one, because we really need to feel how the audience is reacting to the movie. Marty has never forgotten how to react as an audience, it’s one of the great things about siting with him in dailies, because he’s very tough on himself. He’ll say “Burn that, I never want to see that again.” He’s very tough on himself. He looks at as an audience, and we were of course roaring with laughter as we watched the dailies on this one. But the screenings are very important, and we start with a group of people we know and whose reactions we know how to analyze because we’ve done it with them before. And we start with 12, and then we up to 50, and then we up it to 100, and there are friends of friends of friends, hopefully people we don’t know. But we need them to be trustworthy, not to blog about it.

[Laughs] Right.

That is an incredibly important moment for us, because just putting one new person into the room makes us see the movie in a whole different way. You start seeing it through their eyes, and you learn that this is too slow, you’re missing a laugh there, we need to restructure here, etc... so it’s very important.

So it sounds like you had time for all the usual processes with this film?

No, we only had time for six screenings instead of 12! But we knew we had to get it out, so we only had six even though I wish we would have had 12.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” opens on December 25th.