Schoonmaker at the 2010 Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Thelma Colbert Schoonmaker
January 3, 1940
|Alma mater||Cornell University|
|Spouse(s)||Michael Powell (1984–1990; his death)|
Thelma Colbert Schoonmaker (born January 3, 1940) is an Algerian-born American film editor who has worked with director Martin Scorsese for over fifty years. She started working with Scorsese on his debut feature film Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), and edited all of Scorsese's films since Raging Bull (1980). Schoonmaker has received seven Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing, and has won three times—for Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006).
Schoonmaker was born in Algiers, Algeria, the daughter of American parents, Thelma and Bertram Schoonmaker. Bertram, descended from the New York Schoonmaker family, was employed as an agent of the Standard Oil Company and worked extensively abroad. She was raised in various countries, including on the Dutch-Caribbean island of Aruba.
Schoonmaker did not live in the United States until she was an adolescent in 1955, and was initially alienated and dumbfounded by American culture. Schoonmaker was interested in a career in international diplomacy and began attending Cornell University in 1957, where she studied political science and the Russian language. When she graduated from Cornell in 1961, she began taking State Department tests in order to apply for positions in the U.S. government.
Politically inclined and opinionated, she expressed distaste for the South African policy of apartheid, a stance which did not sit well with those administering the State Department tests. In reaction to this experience, she began taking a course in primitive art.
"While doing graduate work at Columbia University, Thelma Schoonmaker answered an advertisement that offered on-the-job training as an assistant film editor." She responded to the employment advertisement in The New York Times and got the job. The job entailed assisting an "editor" who was randomly cutting frames from classic European films, (such as those by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini), so that their length would conform to the running times of U.S. television broadcasts.
She signed up for a brief six-week course in film-making at New York University, where she came into contact with young film-maker Martin Scorsese, who was struggling to complete his film What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? A negative cutter had butchered his film, not leaving enough negative frames to allow for hot splicing, so a film professor asked her to help Scorsese. Schoonmaker edited Scorsese's first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967).
At NYU., Schoonmaker also met film-maker Michael Wadleigh and later edited his influential music festival documentary, Woodstock on which Scorsese also worked. Her first major film editing work on Woodstock gained Schoonmaker an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing. Her use of superimpositions and freeze frames brought the performances in the film to life, and added to the movie's wide appeal, thus helping to raise the artistry and visibility of documentary film-making to a new level.
The early period of Schoonmaker's career was difficult; joining the Motion Picture Editors Guild has always been challenging, with entry requirements included spending five years as an apprentice and three as an assistant. Said Schoonmaker, "And I just couldn't see why I, who had been a full editor and had been nominated for an Academy Award, should suddenly have to become an apprentice. ...And of course, they couldn't see the sense of why I, who had never been in the union all those years and had never paid dues all those years and had never served my time in their sense, should be allowed as a full editor. So it was quite understandable on both sides. It was just insane."
Consequently, there was a twelve-year gap between her work on Scorsese's student films and her Oscar-winning work on Raging Bull. "I would have loved to work with Marty, but I wasn't in the union….And then, finally, Marty called me about Raging Bull and the lawyers got me in the union."
While Schoonmaker didn't officially work with Scorsese until Raging Bull, she did make an uncredited contribution to Taxi Driver. Scorsese had decided not to edit the picture Taxi Driver during principal photography, but to save all the editing until shooting had wrapped. Unfortunately, this left him very little time to cut the picture, as Columbia's contract stipulated that a finished cut had to be supplied by the middle of February...among others, Scorsese brought in Schoonmaker to help. At one point, Steven Spielberg visited Scorsese and chipped in with some contributions towards the final edit.
She was introduced to Michael Powell by Scorsese and London-based film producer Frixos Constantine. The couple were married from May 19, 1984 until his death in 1990. The couple had no children.
With seven Academy Award nominations, Schoonmaker is the second most-nominated editor in Academy Awards history, after Michael Kahn who has eight nominations. Tied with Kahn, Daniel Mandell, and Ralph Dawson, she also holds the record for the most wins in the category of Best Editing, with three.
In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild published a list of the 75 best-edited films of all time based on a survey of its membership. Three films edited by Schoonmaker with Scorsese are on this list: Raging Bull (1980), listed first, Goodfellas (1990), listed fifteenth, and Hugo (2011), listed sixty-ninth. Only George Tomasini, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's films in the 1950s, has more appearances on this list.
Other awards and nominations