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Exclusive: Behind the Scenes of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET with Editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street — which hits Blu-ray and DVD today — is a return to classic crime drama form for America’s greatest living filmmaker. Recalling past masterpieces like Goodfellas and Casino, the film tells a decidedly contemporary tale, burning with resonance for a post-Occupy America engaged in an ongoing discussion about the threat of unchecked greed. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, multi-Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, to chat about crafting this hilarious and horrifying critically acclaimed hit. Check out our conversation below.

NERDIST: The Wolf of Wall Street has a very different kinetic energy than your other recent collaborations with Scorsese, Hugo, Shutter Island, and The Aviator. Can you talk about how you fused that energy to the film’s story? Was there a philosophy that emerged from your early discussions about the film?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Yeah, Marty said he wanted the film to be “ferocious and devouring,” and he wanted to immerse the audience in this mad world and make them feel what it’s like and why it’s so attractive to these people, and why they make the wrong decision to devote themselves to this kind of life and excess. Similarly, I think, to the way he did in Goodfellas, where he wanted to immerse you in what life is like in the Mafia in order for you to make a judgment yourself about whether that is something that anyone should commit themselves to. He said to me very early on, on Goodfellas, the young boy’s voiceover says, as he’s watching the mafia, that they could park anywhere they wanted. Marty said, “If that’s your attitude about what you want out of life – a parking spot – then you’re in trouble.”

So he wanted to really sort of immerse you in this insane world and make it as crazy and jangled as he could. He was obviously shooting it that way and I was getting it that way. It was quite a lot of fun to put together, you can imagine. [Laughs.]

N: Did the film’s comparatively large number of cuts result in a greater amount of editing work than usual?

TS: Yes, well, editing improvisation is very hard. Because the actors are being given the freedom to not stick to a script, so they sometimes are doing things for which the other actor doesn’t have an answer. [Laughs.] So you have to find a way to keep the beautiful quality of the improvisation and still make it seem like a scene, a dramatic scene, if you know what I mean. That’s the real challenge of it. It takes a long time to digest all the improvisation, to try all kinds of different versions, so, therefore, it does take longer, much longer than an ordinary dramatic scene. But we knew that from long experience with it. And it was lovely, because we hadn’t done improvisation in a long time. It was fun to be getting it again. I always treasure the great moments of improvisation from De Niro and Joe Pesci in the films I’ve worked on. It’s been a long time since then. We also had it in After Hours and King of Comedy and some in The Departed. It was tremendous. But I had to keep reminding Marty, “This is gonna take longer than you think.” [Laughs.]

N: The film’s most memorable scene for many people is the quaalude sequence. Was that equally memorable from an editing perspective?

TS: Well, first of all, it’s very interesting for people to know that of course there are no quaaludes anymore. So these guys had to be taught by someone who remembered what it was like. I thought they were incredibly convincing, and Leo was just so dedicated to it. He was really putting himself physically through very stressful situations, and he did hurt himself rather badly during it, but just kept on like the trooper he is. I’ve seen Leo pass out on camera with a hundred and six degree temperature twice in movies we’ve made with him, because he will not stop. Because he knows how important it is, and he’ll just keep going for Marty until he drops.

But on this scene, the thing that was the most interesting was the wide shot of him crawling towards the car. I was worried when I saw the dailies. I said to Marty, “Didn’t you take any coverage of him in a close-up or a tighter angle from the side?” He said, “Oh no, no. The whole beauty of it is the wide-shot and the body language in the wide-shot.” He was so right, because the first time we screened it people were just laughing all the way through and there was no problem. I thought it wouldn’t sustain, but he knew what he was doing. He was quite convinced that that was the way to handle it, and not shoot any coverage. He said to me, “That’s my favorite shot in the movie.” And he was right [laughs], because the body language is so funny when he opens the door with his foot and he gets pulled up and he has to disengage himself. Then my favorite is when he pulls himself in the car, when just his bottom legs are hanging out. He’s hysterical at what his wife is telling him, that Donny’s on the phone with someone in Switzerland, and he knows the FBI is listening. He’s trying to tell her to get him off the phone and all you can see is his feet moving. It’s terribly funny, and Marty knew that. He knew that right from the beginning.

N: Does the method in which the two of you work vary from film to film, or has it remained consistent throughout your careers?

TS: I think it’s always remained consistent. It gradually changes, because Marty doesn’t want to repeat himself ever, and he’s always setting himself a new hurdle to go over, and I get to go over that hurdle with him. So in that sense it does change a bit. But the only difference here was that he had to understand that I had to spend quite a bit of time, before I even showed him anything, working with the improvisation and trying to get it wrestled to the ground without hurting the beauty of it. So that was slightly different. But other than that, no. It’s just been a gradual, slow, wonderful collaboration. I have the best job in the world. [Laughs.]

N: You’ve worked on so many films together – is there a favorite among them or do you love them all equally?

Raging Bull was my first major feature film. I’d helped him cut, but he was still training me then. It was the first time I’d ever been on a big Hollywood set, because we shot all the fights at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. I’d never been in Hollywood that long, or worked that way. The footage was just golden. It was so beautifully shot, so beautifully acted, so beautifully directed. The music was so wonderful. So, for me, it’s like my firstborn, my first baby. I will always have an incredible affection for that movie. But I love them all for different reasons. For example, Kundun I love because I got to know so many Tibetans and became involved in the Tibetan cause. It’s such a beautiful film and so tragic. So I love them all for different reasons, and fortunately Marty, like I said, doesn’t want to repeat himself; so every film is a different challenge. This film could not be any more different from Hugo if you tried. Then our next film, Silence, is gonna be so different from this, it’s unbelievable. So you can imagine what a joy it is to be working for a director who gives you this wonderful feast of different things to work on. A lot of directors keep doing the same thing over and over again, but Marty doesn’t.

N: Can you tell us anything about Silence, about the kind of film we can expect? Since it’s based on the true story of a Jesuit priest, the film would seem to have a strong religious component, much like Kundun or The Last Temptation of Christ.

TS: Yes. But I can’t say more than that right now. I’m not that familiar with it yet, but it’s in the process of being pre-produced so I’ll know more soon. [Laughs.] But thanks for being interested in it!

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