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” – will get its own space in the next few days.
A confession: “Bringing Out the Dead” is one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films. Comfortably at home amid the great film year that was 1999, it’s a fascinating study, the last of a certain aesthetic for the filmmaker before he would head off into the aughts with large-scale prestige pics like “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator.” It was almost as if he had one last thing left to say, his way, before the clock ticked down on the millennium.
Indeed, the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, saw it as a reprise of a certain form as well. “I loved the movie when we did it and I love it now,” Rudin tells me. “It felt to me at the time that it was, for Marty, a return to ‘After Hours.’ But when I see it now I think it’s much more like an American Pasolini film.”
The film is rich with an echo of certain thematic and formal tendencies that had come to define Scorsese’s work until that point, not least of them being the eternal struggle with faith. Religion, Schoonmaker says, is something the director is constantly thoughtful of. Imagery of faith litters his filmography and it’s present in a deeply introspective way in “Bringing Out the Dead.”
“If you think of it, ‘Last Temptation,’ ‘Kundun’ and then ‘Silence,’ our next one, will be the sort of trilogy of religiously-based films, and I think ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ is almost in there,” Schoonmaker says. “That is the one that has never gotten recognition. But I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about that movie. There is a ripple that’s going on. Bertrand Tavernier, the really wonderful French director, just wrote a review of it again. I have friends, when they have friends over for dinner, they make them watch it. It never got its due because it’s about compassion. That’s why.”
The film was also marketed poorly, she says. It was sold as a sort of car chase film and likely, therefore, courted a viewership that expected something completely different. “The wrong audience went to it first and that was it,” Schoonmaker says. “We were done.” But that’s something she and Scorsese have become accustomed to, she says: the work not being appreciated in its time.
“Everybody hated ‘Casino,'” she reminds. “They would say, ‘It’s not ‘Goodfellas.” That’s right. It’s not. It’s Las Vegas. It’s not ‘Goodfellas.’ And now everybody loves ‘Casino.’ Now it’s a big cult film. ‘Raging Bull’ was a disaster and wasn’t recognized for 10 years. ‘King of Comedy’ was a disaster, now everybody loves ‘King of Comedy.’ This happened to so many of our films. But the one that’s never, ever come back is ‘Bringing Out the Dead.’
“I think when you’re an artist on the cutting edge, you have to expect that, kind of. It’s hard, because if your movies don’t make a certain amount of money – it’s very lucky for us that ‘The Departed’ made so much money because then he doesn’t have to fight quite so hard for the next one.”
Nevertheless, as he has with all of his films that didn’t land immediately, Scorsese took the dismissal of “Bringing Out the Dead” hard, Schoonmaker says. To wait so long for his work to be recognized feels like a brutal sort of torture that almost makes you begin to understand the filmmaker in a different light, full of unbridled passion and artistry, damned to sit back and observe as the status quo glacially finds its way to what he has to offer. But that curse is also a blessing, as it has instilled the fortitude he’s needed to keep stepping up to the plate each and every time.
“You see,” Schoonmaker says, “he learned how to survive in the film business in the struggle between art and commerce much better than my husband [Michael Powell], who never had to learn it and then when he did need it, it was too late. Marty learned right from the beginning how to talk to studio executives, how to bring them along, how to try and make them believe and get them excited, even though they’re terrified, which they usually are with every one of our projects. He walks that tight rope and it’s very dangerous, but he gets away with murder because he’s very effective when he’s talking to them, even though we have to drag them, kicking and screaming.”
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” opens tomorrow.