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Thelma Schoonmaker on sculpting 'Silence' and editing Powell

Associated Press logo Associated Press 1/20/2017 By JAKE COYLE, AP Film Writer
FILE - This Jan. 3, 2017 file photo shows film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in New York. Schoonmaker has worked with director Martin Scorsese for decades and won three Academy Awards for editing films; "Raging Bull," "The Aviator," and "The Departed." (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File) © The Associated Press FILE - This Jan. 3, 2017 file photo shows film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in New York. Schoonmaker has worked with director Martin Scorsese for decades and won three Academy Awards for editing films; "Raging Bull," "The Aviator," and "The Departed." (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Thelma Schoonmaker would still be working on Martin Scorsese's "Silence" if she could.

The legendary editor is sitting in the Midtown Manhattan office where she cut Scorsese's latest, his deeply felt spiritual epic about Jesuit priests in feudal Japan. Schoonmaker sits in between her monitors and those for Scorsese, added about a year ago so he could sit even closer to Schoonmaker while they worked. It makes for a jumble of screens, especially when the one devoted to Turner Classic movies is factored in. "This used to be quite a beautiful room," Schoonmaker says with only mild regret.

The struggle to form and shape "Silence" is still fresh for the 77-year-old three-time Oscar winner, probably the most famous editor in film. (On Jan. 27, the American Cinema Editors will present her with a lifetime achievement honor.) Questions still linger over the thousands of decisions that led to the final cut, one — like most — reluctantly relinquished rather than absolutely completed.

"It's hard to let go of it," says Schoonmaker, whose gentle demeanor tends to mask the passion within. "It's always hard to let go."

"Silence," which opened nationwide Jan. 13, is her 20the Scorsese feature as editor. Since 1980's "Raging Bull," they've been inseparable: one of cinema's great duos. They first met as film students at New York University. Schoonmaker recut Scorsese's 1967's "Who's That Knocking at My Door," though a 12-year gap followed before Schoonmaker managed to get into the editors union. Scorsese taught the initially untrained Schoonmaker before they became mutual collaborators.

"He'd had some experiences where the editor did not want the director in the editing room. And he's a great editor, Marty. It's his favorite part of filmmaking. So that was very hard," says Schoonmaker. "I think he sensed with me that we could collaborate and it wouldn't be an ego fight all the time."

They've had their disagreements, notably including different takes of the final shot of "Raging Bull" in which Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta looks into the mirror. But, she says, "It's always about what's best for the film."

"If we disagree, we screen it two different ways and ask friends what they think," says Schoonmaker. "It's hard to describe. You'd have to be here for three months with us. It'd be very boring because we make a thousand decisions a day and then go back the next day and change them. It's a very mysterious craft, editing."

Schoonmaker speaks of editing like sculpture: countless massages that subtly shape a film and its actors' performances. Often it means cutting your favorite scene. "The struggle to do right by the film," she calls it.

"Silence" had its fair share of challenges. It's based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel, which is largely told through letters, so Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks had to invent most of the film's dialogue. Schoonmaker and Scorsese quickly decided to strike most of the original voiceover. "The images were so powerful that we could strip away a lot of it," she says.

"It's a very different film from anything I've ever worked on because it's so meditative. So we had to find the right pace without being boring," Schoonmaker says. "And to give the film the right shape and the right build toward the end was quite a challenge. Normally what we like to do is ramp up toward the end, whereas this was sort of the reverse."

Most naturally link Schoonmaker with Scorsese, but her life has been spliced between two filmmakers. Schoonmaker was married to the British director Michael Powell for six years before Powell's death in 1990 at 84.

They were first introduced through Scorsese, a passionate admirer of Powell's films with Emeric Pressburger ("The Red Shoes," ''Black Narcissus" among them). At the time, Powell's standing had badly dwindled following his controversial, now classic "Peeping Tom." Scorsese helped resuscitate his reputation. Powell, Schoonmaker says, gave them the ending to "After Hours" and encouraged Scorsese to give his once-languishing "Goodfellas" one more try.

"To have lived with one and worked for so long with another — two geniuses, so similar in so many ways but so different," says Schoonmaker. "Without knowing it, Michael taught Marty how to be a filmmaker and then Marty repaid that great gift by bringing him back to the world, which was a beautiful thing to watch. I can't tell you what it was like to watch the two of them together."

Her devotion to Powell remains. When Schoonmaker isn't at work on a Scorsese film, she's plumbing Powell's archives and helping restore his films, the latest of which was "The Tales of Hoffman." She hopes to soon tackle the extraordinary "I Know Where I'm Going!" Schoonmaker previously edited his two-volume memoir and is currently making her way through his journals.

She edits Powell and then she edits Scorsese, who's due to start "The Irishman" in June. It's a comfort, she says, to always have another Scorsese film on tap, unlike most who worked on "Silence."

"When they leave, they go into Marty withdrawal and I have to sort of help them through it like a shrink," she says, laughing. "I'm lucky. I know I always have another one coming."

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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