Thelma Schoonmaker recalls an unpredictable Jack Nicholson in Best Picture winner ‘The Departed’

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.

(“The Departed” SPOILERS throughout.)

In 2006, Martin Scorsese was coming off a pair of prestige – some might say Oscar-baiting – efforts in “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” films no less exemplary in his portfolio for their place in the season. Each, however, failed to bring the legend his first Academy Award, surely disappointing for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Films at the time. It wasn’t until “The Departed” and a shrewdly unassuming non-campaign campaign from Warner Bros. that Scorsese would finally pick up his hardware.

Thelma Schoonmaker landed her third Oscar for film editing to date for her work on the crime drama, an early signifier that evening that a very tight and unpredictable race might well fall Scorsese’s way. Upon accepting the award she called the career-long collaboration “tumultuous, passionate [and] funny,” and that had to be specifically the case on a film like “The Departed,” which seemed to have such energy, as if the director were free of some unseen shackles, delighting in remake territory with low stakes but a lot of artistic courage.

“At that point political correctness was sort of really becoming the thing, and Marty said, ‘I want to make a politically incorrect movie,'” Schoonmaker recalls.

The editor had a big board in front of her laying out the various elements of the film and the over-arching framework of the story. But that framework changed frequently. It was a film truly shaped by the post-production, and throughout its bulky 160-minute running time, the viewer is consistently confronted by flourishes of unencumbered editorial passion. Whole sequences mesh with others in what plays out at times like a symphony of moments and events, strung together with typically exciting (and excited) song choices.

“We had to struggle with that movie,” Schoonmaker says. “We had a lot of writing problems and structural problems, but that happens on a lot of films and that’s part of your job. Restructuring it helped. We pulled up the love affair and things like that. In ‘Kundun’ we pulled up the Chinese invasion. Things like that you have to do as an editor. It’s part of the job.”

The process made for a very loose and caffeinated edit, but some of that looseness also came as a result of something Schoonmaker has dealt with a number of times on Scorsese films over the years, most recently on “The Wolf of Wall Street”: improvisation.

“For Leo it was hard because Jack [Nicholson] was unpredictable,” Schoonmaker says. “That scene where he goes into the restaurant alone with him and he sort of accuses him of being a rat, Leo had no idea what was going to happen and he was just flying by the seat of his pants, hoping he could hang in there with Jack. Marty didn’t know what Jack was going to do. He pulls the gun on him, he burns the tablecloth, and poor Leo is sitting there trying to react to all of this! So the first take was the best because he was really reacting to it.”

The film had to be test screened for audiences, a thorn in many a filmmaker’s side but a particular bone of contention for Scorsese. However, Schoonmaker recalls one such screening in Chicago that couldn’t have gone better in their wildest imaginations.

“He was mumbling and grumbling,” she says. “But then the audience was just going with the movie. The stripping away of the DiCaprio character was so unexpected and sudden and powerful. There was this wonderful woman who reacted when he gets shot. I mean, her reaction was unbelievable. And then when Matt Damon gets shot she says, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ Marty and I were just sitting there, ‘Oh my God. It works!’

“It’s so terrifying, those things,” she continues. “We’ve had bad ones. We had a really bad one on ‘The Age of Innocence.’ So bad. And the studio head was great. It was Mark Canton. He said, ‘This is the wrong audience. We recruited the wrong audience. Go back and work on it and forget about it.’ I must say that was wonderful. They can be brutal, you know. They say it’s just for marketing but the film is not ready to be shown! It’s torture for us.”

Nevertheless, the film went on to win four Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. And upon receiving the directing trophy from industry buds Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Scorsese made sure to thank his “old, good friend Thelma Schoonmaker.”

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.