Academy Award-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker spoke to Sam Clements from the Picturehouse Podcast about her work on Silence, her latest collaboration with director Martin Scorsese. Schoonmaker first worked with Scorsese on Woodstock (1970), a documentary they edited together, and has edited all of Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull (1980).
Set in the 17th century, Silence is the story of two young Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), who go to Japan, where the ruling Tokugawa shogunate has banned Catholicism and indeed all Western cultural influences. Shocked by the treatment of their fellow Christians, they travel the country witnessing terrible persecution of their faith and facing very real personal danger. Adapted from Shūsaku Endō’s bestselling novel by regular Scorsese screenwriter Jay Cocks (Gangs Of New York), this dramatic tour de force is another strong Oscar contender.
How have you found the reaction to Silence?
We screen a lot when we’re editing, then we re-edit, then we talk to people after the screening, then re-edit. We could tell it was having an enormous impact on people, which we didn’t expect, and there would sometimes just be silence at the end of the screening as people were so overwhelmed and affected by it – which is fantastic to see. That seems to be continuing, since we’ve been getting great reactions and wonderful reviews in England!
Is that gratifying to hear?
This film is having the effect Marty wanted on people and that’s all we can ask for. It’s provoking some deep thoughts. I’ve heard people say: “I’ve thought about it for 2 weeks!” It’s quite something to see, very different to The Wolf Of Wall Street!
It was interesting after the screening I attended: everyone seemed to have a different reading of the film…
That’s good! Marty wanted to lay in all of the issues, including doubt and the faith. He didn’t want to make it simple – he wanted to make it complex, which it is in real life. The joy of Silence is that you need to go home and think on it.
Think and feel! That’s what Marty wanted from the beginning. The film starts with no sound under the logos for the companies and it slowly builds to the title. I think that hopefully allows you to calm down from our normal pace of life and to start opening your heart and mind so you can think and feel. That’s all Marty wanted, to think and feel and not be told what to think. That’s why the score is so minimal – you can’t even tell it’s a score.
Is that a challenge for you as an editor, to keep the film open enough but to move the story forward?
It’s a difficult thing to do, to find the right pace. People have different reactions to different parts of the film. We had to make a decision at a certain point to make the film go at a certain pace. We had to make decisions that were very different to what we did with The Wolf Of Wall Street. We usually ramp up to a big, climatic ending, as in Marty’s other films like Goodfellas, but I love the quiet way this film ends.
I loved the way the film winds down…
It stands out on it’s own… especially when compared to Marty’s recent movies. It was very brave of Marty to do this movie at this point. It was a real challenge to put it together: nobody wanted to make it, so Marty had to go out and raise the money himself. At Cannes one year, and take a little money from Sweden, from Portugal, from Japan, from Israel, just little bits of money and put it all together, which was hard. We all took cuts in our salaries to make it. It was eventually made at a very low budget for us – maybe not for Europe, but it was for a Hollywood movie. We shot the movie for something like $26 million. That’s pretty astounding. Everybody felt very committed and everybody involved took a pay cut to be involved.
That really says something about the material…
Everybody was really with it. The Japanese actors were just incredible and so devoted! I would say to Marty “look at this line of extras” as the samurai were coming into the village – every single person had the exactly the right look on their faces and their body language was perfect. In a lot of movies, the extras aren’t that good and you have to cut around them – “Ah we can’t use this shot because we need to cut around this guy over there” – but on this one everyone was perfect.
Was it a challenge to get to 2 hours 40 minutes long?
Yes it was. It was 3h20m at first, but we kept cutting down and down with each screening. It’s now 2h34m without titles. We had to drop some scenes and keep tightening. The imagery was so powerful and we found we needed less voiceover. There’s no dialogue really in the book, so he and Jay Cocks had to come up with the dialogue and the voiceover, and then we kept taking voiceover out. You just don’t need it. What you wanted to say is right there in the landscape. It was really interesting; the beauty of that island (Taiwan) is extraordinary. I kept saying to the cameraman: “This is so beautiful.” And he’d say: “Really?” They were exhausted from climbing up mountains with cobras, typhoons and mosquitos, fog, you name it – he couldn’t believe it when I would tell him. The fog was so wonderful: it would just come in for 20 minutes. There’s a scene in the film where samurai emerge from the fog. Marty had previously shot that scene with no fog, but when the fog came in as they finished Marty re-shot it. He just loved them emerging out of the fog and that’s what happened all of the time.
That’s something that I imagine, is hard to recreate with visual effects?
That’s right and I’m sure some people do think it’s visual effects but it isn’t. He’s quite deliberate. He said he wanted it to start with no sound at all and only wanted the actual sound that should be included in the shot. This sound should then hold long enough so that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on.
How long did this edit take?
Rather long, as Marty was working on his TV series Vinyl at the same time, but we got there in the end. I’m glad people can watch it in theatres now.
Silence is in cinemas from 1 January.