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Originally published February 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 15, 2005 at 9:35 AM

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"Aviator" editor flying high

"Editing is really like plumbing, a good deal of the time," says Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. "You put two things together...

Seattle Times movie critic

"Editing is really like plumbing, a good deal of the time," says Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. "You put two things together, and a current runs through it."

Schoonmaker, who visited Seattle last week, is the longtime editor of director Martin Scorsese. Most recently, they worked together on "The Aviator," an elegant look at the life of billionaire Howard Hughes. The film is currently nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including one for editing.

Two anniversaries were the impetus for Schoonmaker's visit to Seattle (squeezed in just before she flew to London for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, (known as the BAFTAs — and at which "The Aviator" won best picture). Scorsese's "Raging Bull," which Schoonmaker edited, celebrates its 25th birthday with a new DVD, and Schoonmaker presided over a local screening last week. And she appeared at Seattle Art Museum's tribute to the films of her late husband, British director Michael Powell, whose centennial is this year.

Hers is a life spent in film, since answering a 1962 New York Times ad that offered to train beginning film editors. That job wasn't exactly her dream — her employer "butchered" classic foreign films for late-night TV — but it taught her the ropes. Around that time, in a New York University course, she met a young film student named Martin Scorsese — and, she says, "my life was forever changed."

She worked on Scorsese's early films "Who's That Knocking At My Door?" and "Street Scenes," as well as editing Michael Wadleigh's acclaimed 1970 documentary, "Woodstock." With "Raging Bull," she became Scorsese's regular editor, and since has edited more than a dozen of his films.

Over the years, she's watched the process of editing change from the physical cutting of strips of film to electronic manipulation, and has explored a variety of genres with Scorsese: period drama ("The Age of Innocence," "Gangs of New York"), thriller ("Cape Fear,"), black comedy ("After Hours"), documentary ("My Voyage to Italy").

An intensely collaborative art, editing is easily overlooked by audiences. But so much of a film's creation takes place in the editing room, as the editor's eye joins with the director's to wade through multiple takes, tracing that "current," finding the thread of the story.

Schoonmaker connections

"The Aviator" Currently playing at numerous theaters. See for showtimes.

"The Heart of England: A Centennial Celebration of Michael Powell" Thursday nights through March 10 at Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St., Seattle; limited individual tickets available for $6 at the door (information: 206-654-3121 or

Schoonmaker finds that her contribution is most valuable when she has what she describes as "a cold eye." Though she's on site during a film's production, viewing "dailies" (the day's unedited footage) and taking notes with Scorsese, she rarely goes on the set to watch shooting. "It influences my eye," she says, explaining how if she sees how much work goes into a particular shot, that might impact how she views it. "[Scorsese] needs my cold eye to tell him, 'I don't think that works,' 'I don't believe that.' He'll often say to me, 'Do you believe that?' "

Schoonmaker estimates that each Scorsese film represents about a year's work for her. Generally, she will make a first rough cut, and then the two will work on subsequent cuts together, showing it to test audiences as they go.

"One of my favorite stories about filmmaking," she says, "is that the UN once made a movie about spraying for malaria, in Africa somewhere. They then showed it to a tribe in Africa. There were crop planes spraying, all these details, and they said to the people, 'What did you understand from that movie?' And they said, 'A chicken crossed the road.' That was the only thing they related to. I always thought, that's the wonderful thing about filmmaking, people see things differently."

An example from "The Aviator" nicely illustrates the collaborative nature of her work with Scorsese.

"[Scorsese] was slightly uncomfortable with the heroic nature of the final scene where Howard Hughes finally flies the Hercules, because it was so unlike anything he had ever put in his movies. But it was essential to show that the gamble Hughes took with the gigantic plane made of wood paid off — that he actually got it off the ground. It didn't seem to work to be downplaying the heroic deed, and so we finally just went with it — music and all.

"It became clear too, that the scene might work better if we intercut it with something, to give it more punch. Scorsese said 'Intercut it with what?' Then we both said at the same time: 'The Senate.' " At this point in the film's story, Hughes was testifying before the United States Senate, defending his use of government money for aviation projects.

"At first I tried intercutting the Senate scene three times, but Scorsese pointed out that intercutting that many times weakened both scenes. So we finally got down to just one intercut. This meant that when we went back to Howard explaining to the senator why the Hercules meant so much to him, it now worked like crazy, because we'd seen him in the plane — saw its enormous size — and before you hadn't.

"That's a wonderful moment in editing, when something like that happens and you think, wow, we just got 50 percent more emotion from that scene, just because of the placement!"

Schoonmaker talks about hoping to find time soon to edit her late husband's diaries for publication, and to re-explore the tapes of the autobiography he dictated to her in the '80s before his death ("A Life in Movies"). But for now, she's happily busy with Scorsese's projects, and with a long-term professional partnership that's brought many rewards. Next up is the crime drama "The Departed," which begins shooting in April, and ongoing work on Scorsese's British cinema documentary (a sibling to his "My Voyage to Italy," a tribute to Italian cinema).

"I'm going to have the great joy of looking at all kinds of wonderful movies I don't know, looking at them with Marty," she says. "That's always a great treat."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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