Tribeca Film Festival 2014: Revealing the Secrets Behind Raging Bull

Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker reveals the influences, artistry and happy accidents that go into a great film.
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A film editor’s film editor, Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker focused just on Raging Bull for her master class at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Fortunately, the film is so rich and fascinating that she probably could have done a whole semester on it and still not exhausted the topic.

The 1980 Raging Bull wasn’t Schoonmaker’s first collaboration with Scorsese, but it was her first major Hollywood narrative picture (she had cut Scorsese’s 1967 Who’s That Knocking at My Door, but since then had worked on documentaries). “Raging Bull is like a textbook on filmmaking,” said Schoonmaker. There was plenty for editing geeks in her talk but she also covered the film’s sometimes surprising influences, as well as the hidden artistry and happy accidents that go into a great film:

• Michael Powell is one of the reasons Raging Bull was shot in black-and-white: Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger created some of the most gorgeous color movies ever made in the years just after World War II (including Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes). Scorsese, always as much a film student as a filmmaker, had lunch with an older, nearly forgotten Powell in New York when he was preparing Raging Bull and was “pummeling him with fast-talking questions,” according to Schoonmaker. Powell felt there was something jarring about the red boxing gloves that would be used in Raging Bull and Scorsese agreed, partly because all the fights he had ever seen were on black-and-white TV or on kinescopes. The only color in the film is the title and in re-creations of Jake La Motta home movies, which Scorsese made look amateurish and faded on purpose. “Marty personally made the scratches on the negatives,” said Schoonmaker, much to the horror of the film’s negative cutter.

• Scorsese had different-sized boxing rings built for different fights shown in the film, to reflect La Motta’s state of mind about each contest. (All the rings had to be large enough for the cameraman to get inside the ring with Robert De Niro and the actors playing his various opponents: “Marty saw every fight film ever made, and no one used a camera inside the ring, but he insisted,” said Schoonmaker.) For the fight when La Motta knocks out Sugar Ray Robinson, Scorsese used a large regulation-size ring to reflect La Motta’s triumph. For the fight when La Motta lost to Robinson on a technicality, a smaller ring was used, and Scorsese filled the arena set with smoke. “He also put flames under the camera to create a wavy, mirage look to the image, to show how unclear and unreal it was to Jake La Motta that he could have lost this fight,” said Schoonmaker.

Raging Bull artfully uses slow-motion to emphasize key moments and reflect La Motta’s state of mind, since virtually all of the film is done from his character’s point of view. Scorsese shot these scenes using four different slow-motion film speeds, “to give the editors a lot to choose from,” said Schoonmaker.

• Schoonmaker praised sound editor Frank Warner’s work on the film, which included consistent use of a bass drum sound as well as various animal noises during the fight scenes. She re-played a key scene and it was indeed possible to hear a horse whinny and an elephant bray amid the other noises, particularly the popping of old-fashioned camera flashbulbs. “Frank Warner burned all the sound effects he did for each movie, not because he was afraid of others stealing them, but because he didn’t want to re-use them himself,” revealed Schoonmaker.

• About those flash bulbs: The production spent $90,000 just on them, part of Scorsese’s mania for authenticity, which included casting as many real-life boxers, trainers, and referees as possible. Today, the bulb images would be added later via CGI. Visually, the bulbs flashing not only showed La Motta’s progress with the press and as a public figure, but they served a practical purpose: a flash on De Niro’s face made it easier to do a jump cut to Robinson’s fall to the canvas, also illuminated by the quick flash.

• The drive for authenticity sometimes made things difficult for the creative people, including Schoonmaker. A long scene between De Niro and Joe Pesci, playing his brother and manager, was done as an improv between the two actors. “Normally when Marty shoots improv he uses two cameras so as to capture both actors’ unscripted reactions, but the scene was being shot in Jake La Motta’s actual kitchen [not a set] so there wasn’t room for a second camera,” Schoonmaker revealed. “It took us a month to wrangle all the film that was shot into a scene. I found my experience in cutting documentaries helped with cutting improv.”

• Even in a film as meticulously planned as Raging Bull, happy accidents occur. One was in this same improv scene, which Schoonmaker says Scorsese based on his own confusion in talking to his agent about the business side of moviemaking. Pesci is explaining to the stubborn La Motta that taking a fight he doesn’t want to take will actually be good for his career, whether he wins or loses the bout. Pesci and De Niro spar back and forth in a kind of Marty-esque “Whadda you wanna do tonight?” “I don’t know, whadda you wanna do?” Finally, Theresa Saldana, playing Pesci’s wife, enters the improv scene by asking a question. Pesci turns with a look of surprised territorialism, apparently not at all happy that either the character or the actress has dared to interrupt. “His real reaction was so good that we used it in the film,” said Schoonmaker.

• Asked about editing using digital software, Schoonmaker said she has used these tools since Casino (1995). “I find I experiment more [with different ways to cut a scene] with digital, because it’s easier to save different versions,” she said. With older technology that required cutting actual pieces of film, it took more time to prepare alternate versions, which was how Schoonmaker and Scorsese resolve their creative disagreements - by looking at different versions of a scene. Scorsese doesn’t entirely like that digital makes it so easy to see different versions one right after the other: “He likes to take time walking around, talking and thinking in-between. We talk about everything while we’re working [in the editing room], not just the film,” said Schoonmaker.

• Asked about her collaborative process with Scorsese, Schoonmaker says “he wants me to be a colder eye than his, because he’s spent so much time dreaming about his films and what goes into them that I can see things he doesn’t. He says I see the humanity in what’s on screen.”

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