Thelma Schoonmaker was born in 1940 Algeria from American parents but was raised mainly in Aruba, where her father was transferred, working for an oil company. She moved to the United States when she was 15 and faced strong culture differences.
Going to school, her ambition was to be a Diplomat. She enrolled in the Political Science program from Cornell University and learnt Russian language as well.
After completing the Cornell program, she applied to work at the State Department in 1961 and passed most of the tests, but her strong opinions of the time such as stopping the Vietnam war or condemning the South African regime had been an obstacle to her hiring. In her own words, the State Department told her she was too liberal and will be miserable working there. Thelma acknowledges they were probably right.
While reading the New York Times, she found an ad asking readers who would be interested, to train as a film Editor in New York. You are unlikely to see such a classified again. Thelma answered the ad and went to New York to learn film editing.
Turns out, to fill-in off hour television slots of very early mornings, she was asked to cut classic films, many from Europe, but disgusted by the practice which she referred as "butchering the content" she left and was made aware of a film program from New York University for 6 weeks she could barely afford but enrolled.
While she was not in the same program than Martin Scorsese, Martin was working as a student on a film and someone had messed-up his negatives. A professor asked if someone with editing knowledge could help him with cutting his negatives accordingly and because of her little experience doing it from her first training job, she volunteered and salvaged Martin's work, that was the first time she met him and the beginning of a working relationship lasting to this day.
Thelma credits Martin for pretty much all she knows about movies. Martin has a way to share his passion which is contagious. And it is not all technical, the film industry history, classic European master pieces, etc.
Martin also introduced British Filmmaker Michael Powell to Thelma, the two were married in 1984.
Editing for Martin Scorsese is a creative process Thelma enjoys. Film after films, Martin relies on her for major editing decision, they are working "hand in hand" bouncing ideas on each other to eventually edit sequences for best outcome.
On a new project, Thelma is usually reading the script only once. Martin does not put a lot of details and extras in the script. As an Artist, his project evolves all along the production process and editing is a big part of that process. Thelma's role as an editor is far more important to Martin than most Editors working with high profile Directors. Martin asks Thelma to review the rough cuts of the prior day to find out any potential issues which is rarely taking place but this is also the reason why Thelma is not often on the set. She wants to see and discover the sequences on film first, giving Martin her honest opinion. The daily review of sequences shot the day before is the opportunity for Thelma to get context from Martin, and write all nuances Martin wants to emerge from the film, making editing a reflection of what the Director wants.
Thelma says that Martin is very tough on himself, he is a perfectionist but this specific process is unevaluable to her.
Her work is very much like solving a puzzle. Using her notes from exchanges with Martin during production and the sequences. She starts working on editing from the very first day of production by piecing sequences together and will do post-production and final edits with him as Martin loves the editing process. That puzzle solving is what Thelma enjoys. Finding what is right for the movie, figuring out what to cut and what to keep and how to put it in a compelling way, respecting the Director's wishes for the viewer's pleasure.
Beyond the passion animating the Editor's role, discipline is very important while editing. You may call for your artistic sense but it has to match the Director's vision. There is no place for ego in editing, the final result should be what the Director wants.
Thelma edits respecting the flow from the Director. It is not always necessary to cut every 3 or 5 seconds, you need to know when to give life to a shot.
Another important role in editing is to make unbelievable scenes, believable.
Sometimes, cutting scenes for length reason you know are very good, is like cutting your own leg. You do not want to do it but have to. Editors must make tough decisions.
Screening is the step taking place before the final edit. It is a difficult moment for Thelma because she knows the film is not the best version yet and the reaction of the screeners may and will influence her and the Director to bring modifications.
When screening, Thelma does not only pay attention to the laughs or screams, but also to the body language, are people moving? Why are they moving? I was expecting a laugh here and they did not, we shall recut the scene to obtain the audience laugh.
When it comes to music, Thelma says Martin has a great intuition on what music to use to enhance the emotions displayed on screen. He leaves no details to chance.
Many different Director have asked her to edit for them but she says she is too busy working for Martin.
She has edited the 23 features from Scorsese.
Thelma has been nominated 8 times for Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards. She won 3 times, her first was for Raging Bull in 1981 which trailer is here below, then The Aviator and The Departed.