<I>Killers of the Flower Moon</I>: Editor Thelma Schoonmaker
Marc Loftus
November 7, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: Editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Apple Original Films’ Killers of the Flower Moon is both western crime saga and tragic love story. Based on David Grann’s best-selling book, and directed by Martin Scorsese, the film highlights the history of the Osage Nation — an Indian tribe that gains great wealth from its oil-rich Oklahoma reservation — and the terror they experienced from those looking to take their land. 

The film is set in the 1920s and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, a WWI soldier who’s returned from the war to work for his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), the owner of an Oklahoma ranch. Lily Gladstone plays Mollie Kyle, an Osage Indian that develops a surprising relationship with Ernest, in spite of her suspicions that he’s after her wealth.

The film was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s long-time collaborator. They have partnered on 22 projects, three of which (Raging Bull, The Departed, The Aviator) earned her Academy Awards in the “Best Editing” category. Schoonmaker recently chatted with Post about her work on the feature, which runs three hours and 26 minutes, as well as the process her and Scorsese follow in shaping the final cut.

Thelma, you and Martin Scorsese have been collaborating for 50 years. Can you share some insight into how a film’s edit evolves?

“Well, first of all, when Marty shoots, he's giving very intense notes to a script supervisor, and I get those every day. And then Marty and I look at the dailies together, and we talk about what we feel, and I make very careful notes from that. Then I start assembling the film. And when he comes back from shooting and is finished with shooting, then the two of us cut the movie together. 

“Most people don't understand how important his presence in the editing room is. When I say we do it all together, they go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, sure!’ As if I'm just being too modest — but I'm not! Marty is a great editor. I didn't know anything about editing when I first met him. He taught me everything, particularly on Raging Bull, which, as you can imagine, was a pretty great film to learn on.”
How does it develop over time?

“From the assembly that I've made, which often has choices in it of different performances, then, together, we work in the same room for a long time, editing the movie. It's a great, great environment with such a brilliant director, who is a great editor himself. (He) thinks like an editor when he's shooting…He's always thinking how one scene is transitioning to another. And then we start screening for a small group of people, and then we make it larger and larger. 

“We screen quite a few times and we debrief people afterwards. But just sitting in a room with people, who have never seen the film, is a learning experience that's very, very helpful. You can see if people are fidgeting, or are they laughing at the right place? Or the wrong place? You can feel it, and that is very, very important to our style of editing.”

I understand that Killers of the Flower Moon was shot on film, with additional nighttime footage shot using the Sony Venice camera. How far behind were you to each day’s dailies?

“These days, even though we're shooting on film, we get a digital version as well. So, I can start even before I get the actual final transfer of the dailies to digital. There's not much delay.”

Where are you working? Does it vary from film to film?

“It depends on the movie. Sometimes, if I'm on location, I can be very close or maybe half an hour away, depending on the facilities available. But on Killers, I couldn't be in Oklahoma because of COVID, and Apple had a very excellent system of keeping everybody safe from COVID, and they wanted as few people as possible in Oklahoma, so we stayed in New York, and Marty and I would look at dailies on Zoom all the time. That worked out fine, and I've done that before. When he was shooting in Morocco, for example, on two films, I couldn't go to Morocco, so we work it out. It's not really a problem.” 

What is your preferred editing system?

“I work on Lightworks, actually. I was trained on it by a very excellent fellow editor of mine — Scott Brock. He trained me on it and I liked it. And because he stayed with us, and worked on all our films, he's been able to support me and keep it going. And there are certain things I love about it, so we've [used] it for many, many years.”

Is there a scene that you would call attention to in this film?

“Yes, (the) brilliant speech by Everett Waller, who plays Paul Red Eagle in the tribal council. He's the assistant chief. It was terribly hot down there, and he was going into his camper just to get a little break from the heat, and Marty said to Everett, ‘Could you speak to the people who are in the tribal council here, so we can shoot some cutaways of their reactions?’ And when he started to speak, he was so powerful that Marty decided to shoot him on camera — completely unscripted at all. It's his beautiful use of the language and his intense passion for what the indigenous natives of America have gone through with us taking their land away from them. It's so beautiful. And then Marty said, maybe we should keep the strength up of this beautiful speech, (and) intercut it with the autopsy of Anna, who has been murdered, and then go back to the rest of his speech. And that way, I think, we gave the second part of it as much power of the first part. So that was an interesting decision in the editing room.”

I thought the passing of Molly's mother was also an interesting and powerful edit.

“That's right! Being ‘taken home’ is what they call it. Being taken home by her ancestors. The man you see first, with the beautiful orange paint on his face and the headdress, and then her parents are standing, waiting for her to join them, too. They have a beautiful smile on their face, and she has a beautiful smile on her face as she passes them, because she is back with her parents again. Yeah, it's such a beautiful moment. Marty did it so simply, and it just works like crazy. I mean, it's my favorite thing in the movie.”

Then it cuts back to the real world.

“Her children are grieving — everybody is grieving. It's beautiful. Absolutely. And the way the young ancestor, who gestures to her at first, that's based on a famous painting of an Osage. Every effort was made to make sure that was all very authentic. It's a beautiful idea, that they come to take her home. And Marty just wanted to hold on the shot as she joins her parents and they walk off together into the beautiful countryside. It's just a lovely way to do the passing.”

This film, perhaps unintentionally, has brought up the conversation of using intermissions. Do you have any thoughts on that?

“Most of the people I’ve talked to have no problem with the length at all. They love the movie. So that is really wonderful. With The Irishman, and the build you see in these longer movies, it's the build that's important — the slow build that is affecting you and you don't even know it. To put an intermission in would break that build. 

“With something like Lawrence of Arabia…they were carefully crafted to have an intermission. They were specifically shot a certain way so there would be one. Whereas this film has a beautiful, slow build to it. That is very important. An intermission was never planned for this movie – ever!”

I understand that your late husband's work is very important to you?

“I have a pet [project], which is the diaries of my husband, Michael Powell. They're very, very important, and I'm working to get them published. Any time I'm not editing, that's what I'm doing.”