A version of this story about Thelma Schoonmaker and “The Irishman” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Let’s face it: It was only a matter of time before Thelma Schoonmaker would at least tie Michael Kahn as the most-nominated film editor in Oscar history — and when she got there, as she did this year, it was always going to be for another of her collaborations with director Martin Scorsese.
“The Irishman,” her record-tying eighth nomination, is the 21st feature Schoonmaker has made with Scorsese, the 22nd if you count Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary “Woodstock,” on which she and Scorsese were both editors. The two are one of the classic director/editor relationships in Hollywood history, which has led to those eight nominations and to wins for “Raging Bull,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed,” which also ties her for the most ever.
And while Schoonmaker said she and Scorsese she went into the editing room with a detailed plan for “The Irishman,” she insisted that they didn’t think the contemplative, decades-spanning film would end up being three-and-a-half hours long.
“No, no, we had no idea,” she said with a laugh. “It just happened. When we screened it for the first time for Marty’s general manager and producer, it was about 20 minutes longer than it is now, and I thought they’d say, ‘It’s great, but it’s too long.’ But they had no problem with the length, and we were astounded. As we showed it to more people, I always asked, ‘Is it too long?’ and they would say, ‘No, I want to see it again.'”
From the start, she said, Scorsese “wanted it to be very simple and stripped down — no flashy edits, no dramatic camera moves except for the opening shot. He was going for a quiet film, and he was quite severe about that. He didn’t even want foleys, boosted sound effects. We all had to adjust to that.”
But adjustments, she added, are par for the course when you work with Scorsese. “Almost all of his films are that way – each one is a new challenge, because he doesn’t want to repeat himself,” she said. “This one was more contemplative to show what Bob (De Niro’s character) is going through, and that was quite an adjustment for everybody. I was intrigued because it was so different from the kind of thing we usually do — but once we got into it, it became obvious how he was right to approach the film so simply.”
Schoonmaker said she worried about the film’s jumps in time and about how Scorsese didn’t want to overly explain anything. “He didn’t want tons of voiceover, because he was afraid it would look like a documentary then,” she said. “He was confident that the audience would stay with us and figure the thing out for themselves.”
In the end, she said, the film “came together very quickly, because Marty had conceived and thought it out so completely and so beautifully. We hardly changed the structure at all, which is unusual for us. Sometimes we completely revamp the chronology of our films, but this one came together really well.”
One big advantage, she added, was that she always knew exactly where the film was going to end — with a remarkable and somber closing stretch in which Robert De Niro’s weary hitman looks back at the wreckage he’s created in his life.
“When we were shooting, I saw the end of the film first,” she said. “I saw those amazing emotional scenes where Bob is told he’s going to have to kill his best friend, and the ramifications of that all the way through to the end. I was stunned, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve really got something special here. That’s great to know as you’re working on something.”
And did it change what they were doing to know that most people would see the film on Netflix, where a viewer can easily pause the film and go back to it later?
“It was a worry,” she said. “We love the theatrical experience, but I must say that many people have told me that they love the film on Netflix. It seems to be working — and nobody would give Marty and Bob the money except Netflix. Thankfully they did, and then they left Marty alone.”
Read more of the Down to the Wire issue here.