How 'Irishman' Editor Honored the "Richness of Acting" of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino

The Irishman - Publicity Still - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

Thelma Schoonmaker has been one of Martin Scorsese's most trusted collaborators for half a century, and with her eighth Academy Award nomination, for Netflix's The Irishman, she ties a record held by Michael Kahn (1994's Schindler's List) as the most nominated editor in Oscar history.

She also holds three Oscar statuettes — for 1980's Raging Bull, 2004's The Aviator and 2006's The Departed — a record she shares with Steven Spielberg's longtime collaborator Kahn, as well as the late Daniel Mandell and Ralph Dawson.

She may have all those projects and accolades under her belt, but Schoonmaker, 80, says her latest project with Scorsese, The Irishman, was "as important to me as I think Raging Bull was so many years ago. It's wonderful that Scorsese is making great movies at his age and my age. I'm so lucky to work for him."

The boxing drama Raging Bull was also the first time that Schoonmaker worked with Robert De Niro (when he was just 35). She says that it was a highlight to reunite with him for The Irishman and watch him, at the age of 76, play Frank Sheeran, the hitman at the center of Scorsese's epic. "He was just so in this part," she says. "Bob's acting is mysterious and brilliant in a way I've never seen before."

Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman follows Sheeran and his entanglements in the matters of crime boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino. Structurally, the film — which has a three-hour-and-30-minute run time — moves between older and younger versions of the characters, "intercut with a long drive to Detroit, which nobody realizes in the beginning is actually a doomed drive," says Schoonmaker. "The De Niro character doesn't know [the real purpose of the trip]. He's just driving to Detroit. Intercutting that, I was worried whether the audience would get lost, but Marty was quite adamant. He said, 'No, it'll work.' "

One of her favorite scenes, setting the stage for the movie's climax, is what she calls the "salad" scene. "You see Joe Pesci making salad and hinting to De Niro that Jimmy Hoffa is going to be killed, which is absolutely devastating for De Niro because Hoffa is his best friend, along with the Joe Pesci character," Schoonmaker explains. "It's very simple, and the language is oblique. They never say, 'You're going to kill somebody.' "

The tension continues to rise in a scene that takes place the following morning — which Schoonmaker calls the "breakfast scene" — in which Sheeran and Bufalino seem to be simply having breakfast together. "It starts out with such a banal line, 'Cornflakes or Total?' " says Schoonmaker. "Then, gradually, De Niro begins to realize from what Joe Pesci, in an oblique way, is telling him, that he's the person who's going to have to kill his best friend. … He doesn't move, but you can feel on his face everything he's going through. Only at the end of the scene, he sits back and there are tears in his eyes."

Schoonmaker says the powerful scenes were "very simply edited." When Sheeran later heads to the plane that's going to fly him to the place where he'll kill Hoffa, "we held on the shot of him in the plane far longer than we should in the ordinary pacing of a movie, because it was so powerful. We just couldn't cut it."

Schoonmaker says the edit "came together incredibly quickly. We didn't have to struggle, rewrite. We did rewrite the voiceover a little, but not a lot."

She says that her focus was on what De Niro, Pesci and Pacino were bringing to the table. "The job really was, aside from the very interesting style that Scorsese conceptually had for this movie, the richness of the acting," she says. "It was our job to make sure that we honored that and that we got the absolute best out of it."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.