Thelma Schoonmaker remembers how 'Goodfellas' almost didn't happen

Posted by · 10:51 am · December 26th, 2013

Talking with Thelma Schoonmaker recently, it became quickly apparent that I wasn’t even going to scratch the surface of her career’s work with Martin Scorsese in a single piece. I couldn’t help but play the retrospective game with her, and while I of course didn’t address all 19 feature collaborations, I was curious about six films in particular that I think represent a nice cross-section of their work together. Each of them – “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Goodfellas,” “Bringing Out the Dead” and “The Departed” – has received its own space in the last few days.

My favorite is “Goodfellas.” I say it without hesitation. Martin Scorsese has given us some of the most innervating imagery in the history of cinema, carefully assembled by his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker nearly every step of the way. But “Goodfellas” was a pop cultural landmark, a wildly colorful portrait, a strong thematic treatise on the impact of crime on the family and soul.

Perhaps for those reasons, Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has found itself compared to the 1990 mafia film quite a bit recently. Leonardo DiCaprio himself has noted that one particular outrageous scene from the new film reminded him of the “cocaine and helicopters” sequence from “Goodfellas,” that wonderful, Harry Nilsson and Rolling Stones-laced burst of paranoia that begins to draw the film to a close. “He’s somebody that’s able to sort of encapsulate the underworld with such authenticity and bring such humor to these characters,” DiCaprio said of the director recently, before noting that Scorsese told him “Goodfellas” was originally supposed to be a comedy (which “Wolf” unequivocally is). And indeed, there is just enough levity to balance out the wickedness to put a smile on your face throughout both films.

And it’s such a tight drum. Even at 148 minutes, it flies by (and some might say the same of “Wolf”). It’s incredibly assured and still constantly surprising. And the whole thing found itself with a quickness, Schoonmaker says.

“You just felt like you were working with pure gold,” she says. “‘Raging Bull’ didn’t come together quickly because Bob was gaining weight two times. We shot him first at his fighting weight, then later the middle weight, and in between we were cutting as he was eating his way through Italy. So that one took a long time. But ‘Goodfellas’ came together quite quickly.”

Nevertheless, getting to that place was very much a chore. As with a great many of Scorsese’s movies, he had a hard time selling the movie to the suits. They kept telling him to cut out the drug elements, but of course, he couldn’t possibly do that. That was the whole movie to him, the downward spiral into that world. Without it, it wouldn’t have been “Goodfellas.”

Schoonmaker told her husband, director Michael Powell, about these troubles. Scorsese was hugely influenced by Powell’s work. He resurrected the “Red Shoes” director’s career and brought his films back to the world, and he also introduced Powell to Schoonmaker. So theirs was a close connection.

“He was very upset to hear that Marty was not able to do something he cared deeply about,” Schoonmaker recalls. “So he said, ‘Read me the script.’ So I read it to him and he said, ‘Get Marty on the phone,’ and I did. And he said, ‘Marty, you have to make this movie. This is the best script I’ve read in 20 years.’ Marty went back in one more time and finally sold it.”

It was sweet victory. But unfortunately, Powell, who was suffering from cancer, would not live see the film. Scorsese shut down production as Schoonmaker took her husband home to die in England, but having given him the encouragement to see the film through, Powell ensured the immortality of a modern classic. After all, who can imagine a world without “Goodfellas?”

“It’s emotionally quite a powerful film for me, aside from the content,” Schoonmaker says. “I wish he’d seen it because he really just gave Marty the hope to try one more time. He had just been turned down so many times, and look at what’s happened.”

The truthfulness of the film, Schoonmaker says, is the power of it. “Marty hates doing things that are politically correct or expected,” she says. “He absolutely hates cliché. And because he wants the audience to decide about the film, he doesn’t want them being told what to think, which too many films, I think, are doing, frankly. They just throw things out there. They don’t make you believe it. That’s anathema to him.”

More importantly, Scorsese has never forgotten to be the audience when he observes his own work. He told Schoonmaker once that he learned a tremendous amount about filmmaking from sitting with his teenage friends, watching Hollywood movies and taking note of when they would laugh at things they simply didn’t believe, or that were done badly.

“So when he’s watching his dailies, he is watching them as the audience,” she says. “It’s so great to be working with someone with such high standards all the time. On the set, in the editing room, the choice of music, the way it’s mixed, all the way through to the end, he’s very tough on himself.”

And speaking of that “cocaine and helicopters” sequence that DiCaprio mentioned, it’s clearly one of the great scenes in modern cinema. At nearly seven minutes, it captures and conveys so much and is almost the identity of the film itself. But it’s interesting because Schoonmaker feels as though it may have had a hand in popularizing the breed of frantic editing she decried in our longer Q&A.

“We wanted it to be jagged and raw and driving, frenetic,” she says. “We kept saying we could make it faster, we could make it faster, faster, faster. And I think, in a way, it sort of started this whole jump cut idea of cutting now that’s taken over a little bit too much.”

Much like that scene, “Goodfellas” was a fast-moving, driving force one it finally got the green light. “It was like we were riding a horse, that film,” Schoonmaker says. “It knew where it was going. Nick Pileggi had written the book and when Marty wrote the script, we dropped one little tiny scene, the boy learning to drink espresso. That’s it. It was stunning. And everyone just loves that movie. People tell me in video stores – when there were video stores – that families would come in and when they couldn’t agree on something, they would all say, ‘Let’s watch ‘Goodfellas.” And often the mother would be the one!”

CONCLUSION: I wanted to add an addendum at the end of this series, which I hope you have enjoyed over the holiday. I didn’t know if I would actually get around to all of this with travel and family, etc., but every time I sat down to write each piece over the last few days, diving into the film-specific quotes and conveying a legend’s perspective on a master filmmaker’s work, it totally kept me going. It was hugely enlightening every step of the way, like the best kind of film school, and I hope you’ve found as much value in it as I have. In case you missed the series, check out the links to each below.

“Who’s That Knocking At My Door” (12/21)
“The Departed” (12/22)
“Raging Bull” (12/23)
“Bringing Out the Dead” (12/24)
“The Last Temptation of Christ” (12/25)

Don’t forget to read our longer interview with Schoonmaker about “The Wolf of Wall Street” and its place in the grander scheme of her career’s work with Scorsese.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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