Words & interview

Lillian Crawford



Jake Alexander

Thelma Schoonmaker: ‘Powell left a little furnace burning inside of me’

Ahead of the BFI's landmark Powell & Pressburger retrospective, the legendary film editor speaks about her relationship with Michael Powell, the process of restoring film, and how Powell & Pressburger influenced Killers of the Flower Moon.

Thelma Schoonmaker has been editing Martin Scorsese’s films since 1980, when they collaborated on Raging Bull. While working on that film, Scorsese introduced her to one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers, Michael Powell. His career with Emeric Pressburger had long since ended, and his marriage to Schoonmaker reinvigorated Powell until his death in 1990. Since then Schoonmaker has been the executor of Powell’s legacy, working with Scorsese both as editor, having just attended the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon, and as a partner in restoring Powell’s films. With a major retrospective of Powell and Pressburger’s work about to open at the BFI, Schoonmaker reflects on the films, the man, and her enormous contribution to cinema.

LWLies: How did you first meet Michael Powell?

Schoonmaker: Marty went to the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1974 to collect an award for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. They asked him who he wanted to present it to him, and he said Michael Powell. They had no idea who he was. No one did, but I found an American doing publicity for Kubrick’s 2001 who knew where he was. He introduced Michael to Marty at a lunch where Marty bombarded Michael with questions about how he did this and how he did that. Michael writes in his autobiography that the blood started to run in his veins again, it had been so long that he and Emeric had been living in oblivion.

Marty brought Michael to America, where we had already started working on Raging Bull. Marty had been educating me about Powell and Pressburger’s films, sending me home with VHSs. I had fallen in love with them, and then he said that Michael Powell was coming for dinner one night and asked if I would like to meet him. That’s how we met and eventually became involved, all thanks to Marty.

Did Powell ask you to take care of his legacy?

Yes, he made me his executor. When I lost him it was terrible and I didn’t particularly want to live anymore, but I had to help Scorsese finish Goodfellas. That pulled me through. Michael left a little furnace burning inside of me. It’s a great joy to constantly be involved in introducing his films, and I’m working very hard on his diaries, which he started as his career began to fail until the end of his life, to hopefully get published. Living with the words he wrote every day is just incredible.

When you are working on the restorations, do you have to try to see things from Powell’s perspective?

Oh yes, from what he said to me personally over the ten years we were lucky enough to live together, and also what he says in his autobiography and the diaries. I never get tired of looking at it. When we’re doing this we’re watching the films over forty times but I do so happily. They’re sustaining, they are living. They are not old movies. They made films for the world, for humanity.

The colour of films like The Red Shoes is central to their appeal today, but fell out of fashion in Britain with the turn to kitchen-sink realism and black-and-white films. Could you talk about the process of restoring Technicolor film?

The reason Technicolor was so beautiful was because there were three strips of negative being exposed in the camera. Over time they had shrunk, so digitally we were able to realign them so they looked perfect. There isn’t any blurring, and we remove mould, fix scratches and dirt, and make them beautiful again. But it was because Technicolor was such a stunning, wonderful process.

We almost lost all these Technicolor negatives when the CRI, Color Reversal Interpositive or Internegative, was introduced and studios started throwing them away. The Rank Organisation called the British Film Institute and said we’re going to destroy these negatives unless you take them. And so the British Film Institute somehow pulled themselves together to save them. Rank dumped their film negatives in the parking lot, it was raining, and the BFI scrambled to take them in. That’s what we’ve been able to use in these colour restorations.

You’ve recently restored I Know Where I’m Going, which is being released by the BFI in October. How did restoring a black-and-white film differ?

Erwin Hillier was the brilliant cameraman on that film, and he was involved in a transfer to video that was done by Criterion. Now we’ve restored it properly from the original negative, but it was important for Erwin to tell us how much density to give it and so on. One of the most beautiful shots in film is towards the end where Roger Livesey says goodbye to Wendy Hiller and they walk away from each other. He walks down a little road which is so beautiful, and captures the great look of Scotland.

Michael said that Erwin drove him crazy on the film because Erwin would say, “Mickey, Mickey, just a moment, there’s a cloud coming that is going to cover part of the Sun”, and Michael would say, “Just shoot the damn thing!” But Erwin would win out. That’s why they got that beautiful shot! That’s a particular favourite, it’s just heavenly.

In his memoirs Powell writes about the idea of the ‘composed’ film, in which music and image are combined as totally as possible. What is your perspective on that concept?

On Black Narcissus, he worked with Brian Easdale on the score, who timed that sequence at the end when Sister Ruth comes out on the roof to the music. Scorsese was so impressed by this that he used that idea in Goodfellas when De Niro is knocking off all the people who participated in stealing the money. And he shot, actually, with ‘Layla’, the wonderful piece of music, and he designated certain bars for certain shots, so when I was editing it I had to make sure I was fitting that properly. He really took that idea from Black Narcissus.

In The Red Shoes, when we enter Vicky Page’s subconscious, the production design by Hein Heckroth and Cardiff’s cinematography are very important, but the editing by Reginald Mills isn’t often discussed. Can you talk through the editing of the ballet from an editor’s perspective?

The ballet is supposed to be intriguing and non-classical, jumping time frames, because Michael wanted to show what the dancer was feeling, not the audience. The editing is what allows her clothes to get more worn, without any care for continuity. The knife turns into a twig, the dancers speed up and slow down. Marty was very intrigued by all those devices, like the newspaper that turns into Robert Helpmann, and even the simplicity of jumping into the shoes. The red shoes are wired, and if you stop on the frame you can see the wires. Mills cuts out what’s in between when they were preparing to drop Shearer in. These are visual tricks that people of the silent era were used to. But Mills was inventing a new way of editing film, it’s unlike anything else at that time.

Powell’s last film, Bluebeard’s Castle based on Béla Bartók’s opera, is going to be shown in the UK for the first time in December. What has the process been like bringing that film back to life?

I’ve read Michael’s diary on this film and he loved making it. They had very little money, working for a German television station, funded by the opera singer Norman Foster. It was his idea to talk to Hein Heckroth who was designing sets for opera in Frankfurt and he then called up Michael. It was a big subject and they had no money, but Michael made it work. Then it was difficult to get the materials together for restoration, but fortunately something did exist that we could work on and there are some video versions with hints of what things should look like. It was an arduous process but it was great fun.

The film is sung in German rather than the original Hungarian, and only has limited subtitles which Powell provided. Why did he not decide to translate the whole opera for English-speaking audiences?

Well this is very interesting. I’m still conflicted about whether possibly it was just a monetary issue to not have subtitles. but I don’t think so. From what Michael told me he wanted people to watch the film and not read subtitles, because of course in opera there’d been tons of them. He decided that he would just give them a little bit of a summary of what’s happening so they can get the emotion from the music and the performance.

This inspired Marty when we were working on Killers of the Flower Moon. A great portion of it is in Osage, and he decided not to have subtitles in certain places. There’s an argument between DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone, and you get the idea that she’s upset about the doctor giving her a shot because she doesn’t trust them, but there are no subtitles in that scene. The actors were trained to speak Osage and Lily did it so well that the trainer said she sounded like her mother. She’s phenomenal. And so Marty said no subtitles here. So that was something that Michael was feeling, particularly with opera. Where you really want to see the singer emote as well as sing beautifully. It’s a radical idea.

What film would you like to restore next?

Gone to Earth, but there’s all kinds of problems with that. Selznick cut into the original version so we’re missing frames and things, so that’s going to be a really hard one. But it’s beautiful. The evocation of that part of the border between England and Wales where Michael’s father grew up. And she’s wonderful, Jennifer Jones. I think it’s probably the best thing she ever did! The BFI will continue to be instrumental to that, as they have been throughout the resurrection of Powell and Pressburger’s legacy. It’s their vault with all the negatives and prints, it’s critical what they’ve done, and I hope they’ll be allowed to go on doing it!

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs at the BFI Southbank from October 17 until December 21, with screenings and events also taking place at other venues around the UK.

Published 17 Oct 2023

Tags: Emeric Pressburger Martin Scorsese Michael Powell Thelma Schoonmaker

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