Thelma Schoonmaker remembers her first Scorsese collaboration: ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door’

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.

If you go back and look at “Who’s That Knocking At My Door” now, the first collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and his long-time film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, you’ll see a movie at once alive with the verve of a fresh film school talent and assured with the control of a filmmaker making his way into art as a profession. A cross-fade image of Zina Bethune’s smitten face over an aerial shot of Harvey Keitel recalling an amusing anecdote punch-lined by his character’s world view feels of a piece with a studied understanding throughout of the cinema form. And that makes some sense, for “Who’s That Knocking” is a tale of two movies.

Scorsese filmed much of the black and white effort as an NYU student short film in 1965 on a misframed 35mm Mitchell Camera. After graduating, Scorsese and a ragtag crew, including Schoonmaker, came together to shoot more elements, which were added to the short and fleshed it out into the (later re-titled) feature length film “I Call First.” The film premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1967, and it was there that a young Roger Ebert, Schoonmaker recalls, perhaps helped set Scorsese’s career in motion.

“He was the person who saw that and said, ‘Ah, this is a great new talent,'” Schoonmaker recalls. “And he was a tremendous supporter of it.”

When Ebert formally reviewed the film for the Chicago Sun-Times in March of 1969, he was measured in his enthusiasm, noting “serious structural flaws” and “a melodramatic hand” when necessary. But on the whole he was eager to see what Scorsese would do next, acutely aware of what was clearly a vital new voice in American independent cinema.

“The movies, in their compulsion to be contemporary, too often give us an unreal picture of ‘swinging youth,'” Ebert wrote. “We get discotheques, anti-establishment cliches, New London fashions and Christopher Jones being cooler at 21 than we hope to be by 50. If we like these films, it is because we identify with them–not because they understand us. In ‘Who’s That Knocking,’ Scorsese deals with young manhood on a much more truthful level.”

It was promise that excited him so. And that promise wasn’t lost on Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s fellow classmates even years earlier. “If you see Marty’s student films, like ‘It’s Not Just You, Murray!,’ you’ll see why we could see right away he had it,” she says. “The first shot, the camera is on the floor and a hand comes in and guides it up and the guy starts talking to the camera. It’s just brilliant, great humor.”

Schoonmaker says it was a crew of seven who came together to complete “Who’s That Knocking” basically “at cost,” because certainly no one was being paid. “I would drive the car with the cameraman on the front for a dolly shot and I learned to tie into power sources in the basement,” she recalls. “They said to bend your knees because if you get the jolt then you’ll collapse and that’ll break the connection! You know, I would get the lunch, I would edit the movie. It was a great time when all of us were constantly occupied. And then the editing, I was learning. I was learning, learning, learning. I think it’s got some real seminal Scorsese in it.”

Indeed, much of Scorsese’s (and Schoonmaker’s) voice, much of his world view as an artist, certainly much of his aesthetic, can be traced right back to that first collaboration. The seeds of a hugely influential talent are being planted right before your eyes in glorious black and white. But of course, at the time, it was just the excitement of the job that made for all the drive in the world. And to have someone like Ebert speak up for it was very special, because “not many other people did,” Schoonmaker says. “But then, we started getting used to that, our films not being recognized in their time. Fortunately ‘Aviator’ and ‘Departed’ did very well; that was a bit of a change. Marty’s agent told him how much his films have made over the years and it’s quite a bit of money, but it doesn’t ever feel like that to us!”

Then again, that kind of thing keeps one honest as an artist, no?

“Absolutely,” Schoonmaker replies. “They have to make money so we can survive, but that’s not why we do it.”

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.