Thelma Schoonmaker on how Martin Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’ changed her life

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.

When people force Thelma Schoonmaker to pick a favorite of her collaborations with Martin Scorsese over the years, she always says “Raging Bull.” Indeed, when talking with her about a myriad of other projects, the 1980 Jake LaMotta biopic always finds its way into the conversation. It’s clear the movie changed her life and took her career into a whole new stratosphere. Suddenly she had assistants for the first time ever. She was finally in the union, able to work with Scorsese again after a long hiatus since “Who’s That Knocking At My Door.” And ultimately, she won her first of three Oscars for the boxing film, which is largely considered one of the greatest films ever made.

“When I talk to students, it’s like a textbook,” Schoonmaker says. “You can talk about directing, camerawork, acting, improvisation, costume design, set design. The footage was like gold. I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t take my eyes off De Niro when he was in my monitor. It was long and arduous because of the improvisation and waiting for him to gain the weight and all that, but it was a brilliant moment in my life. And when Marty and I saw it for the first time, just the two of us, we said, ‘Who the hell made that?’ I mean it was so strong, even in the first cut, which isn’t usually the case. It was so powerful.”

The movie was as much a milestone in Scorsese’s career and personal life as it was Schoonmaker’s. As recounted in last week’s larger interview with the editor, Scorsese was not interested in making the movie after having had a tough go at things in Hollywood. It took actor Robert De Niro visiting him countless times and encouraging him to, for lack of a better phrase, get back in the ring. And what he had in store was one of his most creatively aggressive accomplishments, the explosion of artistry and command of form that would come to be a hallmark of his greatest work.

“Marty’s use of music is so wonderful, too” Schoonmaker says. “When he scores a movie himself it’s a great joy to work with him as he’s finding the music, trying different things. But when I heard that Mascagni music that is the theme – who would think to do that? It was just so unexpected.”

Paul Schrader had cooked up a marvelous script but there was stripping away to be done. The famous final moment which features an overweight LaMotta commenting with sad levity on his life was actual strewn throughout the story originally, with a running commentary on his various fights and life moments. Schoonmaker says she and Scorsese felt it was more powerful to save that for just the denouement.

And then there was the way Scorsese envisioned the fight scenes. He used different sized rings depending on LaMotta’s psychological state. “The first time he knocks Sugar Ray [Robinson] through the ropes, his great rival, it’s a big wide ring with lights,” Schoonmaker says. “And then when he loses in a decision, which he doesn’t think he should have lost, everything is covered in smoke and Marty booms down into this pit of hell. It’s very hard to be in a ring with two fighters and a referee and do camera moves, because they’re moving all over the place. [Marty] was always in the ring, whereas in ‘Rocky,’ it’s seven cameras from mainly outside the ring. He was committed to being in the ring and that was very hard.”

Many of the shots throughout the film were carefully planned and storyboarded, which made Schoonmaker’s job easy enough, she says. But there were times when something would surprise them. Such as the scene in which Robinson beats LaMotta to a bloody pulp, capped off with LaMotta’s retort, “You never got me down, Ray.” There was something like 90,000 feet of film to go through, which is a massive amount, and they had a structure in mind. But certain elements stuck out, like LaMotta’s wife, Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty), putting her head down in dismay.

“That became an emotional moment that we built the montage around,” Schoonmaker says. “We spent a long time on that because of the emotional power of it. And Marty wanted to use the original ring announcer voice from the kinescope. It’s the actual original voice because, he said, ‘We’ll never get that kind of poetry from somebody else.'”

It truly seems like we – and for that matter, Mr. LaMotta – would never have gotten the kind of poetry that is “Raging Bull” from anyone else, either.

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 on Christmas Day.