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Interview with Thelma Schoonmaker

Thelma Schoonmaker is a film editor who has worked side by side with Martin Scorsese, on "Raging Bull", "The Aviator", and "The Departed".  She has been nominated for six Academy Awards, and has won three for best editing.She was married to Michael Powell, who directed many classic films, including, one of Scorsese's influencial favorites, "The Red Shoes". Please read her discussion on "The Red Shoes", and film restoration and preservation:TS: We almost lost "The Red Shoes" twice during WWII. Emeric Pressburger funded all of these wonderful movies, all original ideas. When he saw this film, he thought, "these people are crazy, this is a terrible movie. He didn't give in a premiere. He sent it out in England and it was pulled very quickly. Two Americans, who had some success with Powell/Pressburger films in America, looked at it and said, "Let's give it a try". They converted a theater into a film theater and It ran for TWO SOLID YEARS. It was a huge success, and it became a hit all over the world then, but we almost lost it.  The second time we almost lost is because it was not properly stored, and it was covered with mold.  At UCLA, Robert Gitt's, a very famous film restorer, was in charge of the restoration, when he found out it was covered in mold, he was horrified. They had to  wear Hazmat suits. They did clean the mold off,  but there was some substantial damage, fissures and cracks. There was also dirt. Technicolor films were three strips in a huge camera.  My husband, Michael Powell, used to call it "The Cottage", because it was so big. It was amazing to see what they could do with that camera. There were three strips of film, blue, green, red, and then they would use dye later to make matrices from these records, and they used raised rubber stamps and apply dye and then print the three strips on top of each other. That meant that when we did this restoration we had to do three strips, instead of one. So there were half a million frames of film, that had to be cleaned, and restored, the mold taken off, the cracks, everything removed.  We tried to do it photochemically, but it turned out we had to do it digitally. It's an actual film print made off the digital information. There's also a digital cinema version of this.  It's a 4K restoration, really expensive, but well worth it.  It's been 60 years since this film was made, but because we had the original camera negatives, that's why we were able to do such a good job on it.  "The Red Shoes" is a film about DARING. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were at the height of their powers when they made it, and they wanted to go for broke. It's one of the reasons so many people committed themselves to art after they saw it.  Thousands of people became ballet dancers after they saw it.  Nicholas Pileggi who wrote the original book, "Wiseguy", from which "Good Fellas" was made, was raised in a Brooklyn Italian family who didn't encourage his ambition to be a writer, and after he saw "The Red Shoes", said, "to hell with it, I'm moving to Manhattan, and I'm going to be a writer".   It gave him the courage.  At the end of the film, it encourages, "do what you want to do, take the dare".     Discuss the casting for "The Red Shoes"TS:  Emeric Pressburger, director and producer of "The Red Shoes", had originally written the script before the war, or right at the beginning of the war for Merle Oberon, Indian born British actress, 2/18/11-11/23/79. Merle was married to the great director/producer, Alexander Korda. If they had made that film, they would have used a double for the ballet dancers, and Michael Powell, when Emeric Pressburger had suggested to him that they bring that script alive, said only if the major part is played by a dancer. Quite right he was. So he started looking, and Stuart Major actually suggested Moira Shearer/ Vicky Page, who was an up and coming dancer, competitor to Margot Fonteyn de Arias, 5/18/19-2/21/91, English ballerina.  And there she was, Moira was picked for the role of Vicky Page.  She not only can dance, she's beautiful, and she can act, but she HATED the movie, I think because it made people jealous of her. She had become a worldwide, famous actress, and people in the ballet company she was in were a little bit jealous of it.  The amazing thing is, until the day she died, she still hated this movie.  Recently her granddaughter came to visit us, and Marty Scorsese,  when he heard the Moira's granddaughter was there he, of course, he was interested in talking with her. She was 15, and wanted to learn all about her. She didn't know too much about the film. When we launched the restoration at Cannes, I had brought all the relatives I could find of the great artist who had made this movie, and she was there with her mother. Her mother had never seen Moira Shearer dance. I couldn't believe it. She was in tears throughout the whole screening.  We had a wonderful screening in Cannes. So, now she is part of the team that supports Powell/Pressburger films, and we are very happy to have her there.   Is there ever a point when you are restoring a film that goes beyond the original intention of what the film was?  How do you know what that point is? TS:  You have to be very careful. We studied every print that we could get our hands on. Scorsese himself had several technicolor prints, and the technicolor prints were not always that accurate. Sometimes they were good, sometimes they were bad. We studied everything we could. We have many, many advisors, to make sure we didn't go too far. The sound is one of the areas where people sometimes go to far, but I think Bob Giff did a beautiful job on the sound restoration. I have seen transfers of films, even on TCM, I'm afraid to say, because we revere TCM, but of films like, "This Happy Breed", 1944, Directed by David Lean, transferred in a modern technique that makes them look completely wrong.  It's just shocking.  It's very important that we have so many people, particularly Scorsese.  There's no film he makes that's not influenced by "The Red Shoes".  We were very very careful.  I worry more and more that digital is not stable. That was a shocking fact I learned. Actually film, when kept under the right conditions, in low humidity and low temperature will last for 100 years. Digital is NOT stable. This digital information will have to be transferred within five years to another format, which will probably have come along by then, or it will vanish.   You have transferred it to a negative, which is stable?TS: There is also a digital cinema version of it, but Marty and I prefer the film version. We like the flicker and we like the grain, but it is a serious problem, digital failure is a serious problem we encountered when we started doing this restorations, and we talked to people who filmed in such things like,  "Panic Room", had vanished after it was made, a couple years later it just vanished.  I have talked to many restorers who have restored a soundtrack on a movie and gone on the original version and then they do a back up, and when the original version had failed, they went to get the back up, and it was gone.  So, it's a very serious problem.  The original negatives of these films should be treated like a crown jewel. If I were the queen of England, I would put the negative in the Tower of London, because they are so important.  The previous restoration that was done on this film, was done from separation masters, NOT the original camera negatives. This was done from the original camera negatives, and LOOK AT THE RESULTS!  So these original negatives have to be really carefully preserved, and a lot of them had been thrown away because people got away with separation masters. Your correspondence, your photos, you have to transfer them every five years, or they are going to be gone.  Is this film negative good for 100 years? TS: If it is transferred, if it is kept in the right conditions.   Where is there additional literature on the process of film restoration?TS:  UCLA website: Film and Television Archive, Marty S and I wrote a book. He carefully documents how he does this.  He was quite doubtful about using the digital process as we all are, cause we love film,  but it turned out that because of the three strips that I was telling you about earlier, if you can't pull them into registration using the photo chemicals process, you have to use the digital process.  When you do you get such startling sharpness and detail. Maybe not even originally, did we ever see it.  Maybe the original three strips  that they maybe print from originally were not is such good registration, so he was very doubtful, but after he completed this restoration, he was a complete convert. Now you don't have to do that hopefully with films that don't have three strips, because you don't have many problems then. There are still great restorations that are done photochemically.  But technicolor you have to do. The next one we are doing is, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp". (1943), and we are doing that evenly as well, because we learned a bit of a lesson from the last one. It will be ready soon. *** I am so grateful for Martin Scorsese, because he is the person who can raise the money for these very expensive restorations, and he is so committed, you have no idea.  We are so grateful to him. We would never get the money for these things if it weren't for him.****  What was the budget for "The Red Shoes"?TS: When my husband, Michael Powell, was making films, they did them for very little money.  This was the most expensive film they ever made. $250,000.00  That's coffee money on a movie today.  They were extremely budget conscious. Sometimes they only took one take. Which takes you much less time to edit, than if you have ten takes, on each actor for each line.  Not that long. It was carefully planned, so aware of cost, and so disciplined.  It was the most expensive film they had made up until that point.  You can see why.  $250,000.00, are you sure that's all?TS: Yes, and the Rank Organization was horrified.  Rank Organization formed during 1937, integrated film company in Britain, owning production, distribution and exhibition facilities. Pressburger took very little money. One of the reasons the budgets were so low, they believed that the filmmaker should take responsibility ALONG with the studio for the financial perspective on the movie.  So they took a large percentage. They got paid, you wouldn't believe what they got paid to make these movies. Years later, unfortunately, not before  both of them had died, that percentage began to pay off, to the heirs.  Michael's and Emeric's grandchildren and daughter are still getting money from these things BECAUSE they took a percentage. They believed they had to share the risk, which is not the way people think today. They get salaried instead. They were really firm in that, they really believed in that.  When was the first time you encountered, "The Red Shoes", and how it influenced you?TS: I saw it for the first time when I was 12.  I saw it on the island of Aruba, where I grew up in the Carribean, how it got down there, I have know idea. I never forgot it.  It's marked me forever, but I didn't know enough to acknowledge that, until I met Martin Scorsese, and he started teaching me about the history of film. Then I remembered seeing this great movie, also, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", which I saw on Million Dollar Movie here when I did finally come to the United States when I was 15. I'll never forget having seen that movie. He reawakened these memories. It had a startling effect on me. Scorsese, who has a ten year old daughter has been dying to show her this movie, but he's not sure what age is quite appropriate for her, but I think he has gotten up the courage to show it to her in the next couple of weeks. It has the same impact on him. He was younger than me when he saw it, and he never forgot it.  It was one of the few films he saw in the theater, of Powell/Pressburger, as opposed to on Million Dollar Movie, where sometimes he was seeing them in cut versions, for example, "Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" was a whole little section cut out, or black and white.  Beautiful color films in black and white, but still whenever he saw that arrow right into the target, he always knew it was an amazing movie.  One of the things I think is happening, the reason this film is having such a profound impact around the world, people from Taiwan write us and say could we please keep it for one more screening, because we didn't have a chance to see it. It's partly because you are seeing it on the big screen.  A lot of us unfortunately look at films on tv or laptops, or cell phones and one of the thing I have noticed going all around with this movie, is that people sharing it together and seeing it properly on the big screen, makes such a big difference. These films were made before television, they were made to be seen on the big screen, and SHARED with people. My husband used to say, "I didn't make these films to be seen by only one person alone in a room", now all of us do that now. Seeing it together and talking about it, is one of the reasons it's had such an enormous impact.  I can't tell you.  It takes countries by storm. It's been wonderful to see the reception of it.   "The Red Shoes" took off in the US before it did in the UK, did it not?TS: They would have vanished forever if it hadn't been for two Americans who brought it here. Arthur Kremlin and Bob Benjamin.  Otherwise, we would have lost it forever. It probably would have been thrown out. We are very lucky.  How is the restoration process of "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" coming along? TS:  It's going very well, except unfortunately, Powell/Pressburger, cut the film themselves, the beautiful middle section of the film where he goes back to England and WWII begins and he goes to find Anton in a criminal war camp. It's one of the most beautiful parts of the movie as far as I am concerned. They were asked to cut the film at the time it was being distributed during WWII because the technicolor process was very expensive. So Emeric and Michael cut the entire middle out of it, for American distribution. We have not been able to find the original camera negative for the middle section. We have the original camera negatives for the beginning and the end, and we have very good separation masters for the middle, but I am desperately searching all over the world for wherever that middle section is, which I'm probably going to cut somewhere in America, and maybe in a lab.  I remember when Movie Lab closed in New York, and there were all kinds of wonderful things in there, God knows what happened to them. It will be beautiful anyway. We are working very hard on it.  What was Michael Powell's favorite film? TS: His favorite film was "A Matter of Life and Death", because he could be a magician like he was in the silent days. He could create heaven and earth. The major theme of that movie really for him having lived with him for ten years, I can tell you, I know, he always said when he introduced the film himself, that "love is about sacrifice, and sacrifice is about love". That's what that movie is for him. When Kim Hunter steps onto the stairway to heaven in order to allow her love, David Niven, to live. That is the way Michael Powell felt about people.  Also, he had no fear of death at all.  You can see that in the movie. When Roger Livesey gives up his life for David Niven, and David Niven cares about it, he doesn't go, "Oh my God", he accepts the gift, and I always thought that was the most amazing moment in the movie.  Then when you see Roger up in heaven, he's walking along and having a wonderful conversation.  It's an acceptance of the fluidity between life and death. 

Emeric Pressburger's favorite film was, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", but they both loved, "The Red Shoes". 

Sharon Abella


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