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Martin Scorsese‘s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivered the Tribeca Film Festival’s first-ever masterclass Saturday.
But while she was expected to discuss the many films she and the legendary director worked on over the past 50 years, Schoonmaker cut her area of focus down to just Raging Bull, in honor of the film’s star and Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro. Schoonmaker also explained that she thought the film was worthy of being the sole subject of her talk.
“I’m doing this because it’s one of the most thrilling films I ever helped edit,” she explained. “The direction is brilliant, the camera work superb, the acting from De Niro and [Joe] Pesci is stunning. I mean what can you say about the work Robert De Niro did in this movie? To say nothing of the great music and sound effects and editing.”
During a roughly hour-long lecture, Schoonmaker showed clips from the film and detailed the stories behind them, including Scorsese’s approach to various scenes and how the camera work, score, sound effects and editing created the finished product.
Among the scenes discussed by Schoonmaker was a fully-improvised kitchen conversation between DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta and Pesci’s Joey, which she described as “one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my entire life.”
Although Scorsese typically uses two cameras to record such improvised scenes, in order to capture the behavior of each actor, Schoonmaker explained, the kitchen they were shooting in was so small they were only able to use one camera. Thus, they had to shoot each actor separately and make their improvisations work together as if it was a scripted scene.
“It took almost a month for me to wrangle the footage into some sort of shape, and even today I can see where I was having a little trouble,” she said.
The editor also revealed that Pesci’s reaction to Theresa Saldana, who played his character’s wife, unexpectedly joining their conversation was so funny, they kept it in the scene.
Schoonmaker also explained how she and Scorsese created the film’s faux home movies, after the director was so taken by LaMotta’s smiling footage that also seemed to show the disintegration of his marriage.
The editor detailed the various ways they tried to make the footage look amateurish.
“We spent a great deal of time making bad edits, jump cuts and cutting in flash frames from other color movies we had made: the footage that comes in between the takes as the camera slows down,” she explained. “We degraded the image optically and desaturated the color as if it was fading with time passing. And Marty personally went into the negative cutting room and took a hanger and scratched the negative. I thought the negative cutter was going to have a heart attack, as they pride themselves on never creating a scratch.”
Even after all of that attention to detail, there was still one aspect of those scenes that was too perfect.
“I told Marty that I thought his mother should have shot this footage because everybody’s head is still in the frame,” Schoonmaker pointed out. “But in home movies, they usually aren’t.”
Those scenes, Schoonmaker noted, are the only ones in color in the black-and-white film and to get that footage in there required a bit of manual effort.
“We had to hot splice the color into the release prints because in those days before digital there was no way to print black and white on color stock convincingly,” she explained. “They always had a tinge of color on it. So the black and white was always printed separately, and then the color sections were actually hot splashed into the release prints.”
Schoonmaker also recalled how, as she was checking out theaters during the first run of the film, she came across a projectionist spooling footage from the movie onto the floor, who was about to undo their hard work.
“Horrified, I asked him what he was doing and he replied, Someone made a mistake in the lab and spliced some color footage into this. It’s supposed to be black and white and I’m taking it out,'” she told the crowd to a chorus of laughs.
Schoonmaker also dissected a number of the fight scenes, revealing, among other details, how Scorsese used different sized rings depending on LaMotta’s frame of mind as he was approaching each fight.
And she explained how for the scene in which LaMotta loses a fight to Sugar Ray Robinson on a technicality, something his mind could never understand, Scorsese used various techniques to create a dream-like, unrealistic scene, including filling the arena with smoke and placing flames under the camera lens to create a wavy, queasy, mirage-like look. He also deliberately used shots from the beginning of the fight that didn’t include any punches, just two fighters fumbling around with each other, Schoonmaker said, to add to the confusing nature of the fight.
Schoonmaker shared that the production spent $90,000 on flashbulbs, which became a theme throughout the movie, “representing how Jake’s progress is being noted throughout the world.”
All of those flashes, though, were created by actors playing reporters who were encouraged to use their flashbulbs, creating serendipitous images like those where the flashes illuminated LaMotta’s face as he won the fight and his opponent as he fell to the canvas.
“This isn’t planned but you take advantage of wonderful things like this as an editor always,” Schoonmaker said.
The editor also pointed out the clever, unexpected sound effects used by Frank Warner in fight scenes, including a horse shuttering and an elephant braying.
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