Thelma Schoonmaker talks to Horatia Harold about her marriage to fellow filmmaker Michael Powell, the seminal director of cult thriller Peeping Tom
It was all fate. I’m not a big believer in fate, but, boy, I’ve had a lot of lucky breaks. The fact that I picked up the New York Times on that one day and saw an advertisement -‘Willing to train assistant film editor’, I mean you just don’t see ads like that - and answered it and took the job; and then, because of the job, went to the six-week film course at New York University that summer instead of the next one, it’s just amazing.
If I’d taken the next year, I wouldn’t have met Scorsese, because it was his last year at the university, and I might never have become a filmmaker. I wouldn’t have met my husband, Michael Powell, either, which would’ve been awful.
After Woodstock, Marty and I couldn’t work together for almost 10 years because I wasn’t in the union. He had moved to LA and busted into the business and I had to be in the union in order to work for him. Finally, on Raging Bull, they got me in. At about the same time, Marty was at the Edinburgh Film Festival getting an award for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and they asked him whom he’d like to receive the award from. He said, ‘Michael Powell’, and they said, ‘Who?’ No one knew who he was or where he was.
Michael thought that one of the problems that affected his career was that he and his partner Emeric Pressburger were always unpredictable. When their films came out, the distributors would always say, ‘How are we going to sell this?’ and the critics would say, ‘How are we going to review this?’ and then, when Peeping Tom came out, they must have said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve had enough of this!’ But Michael felt that if you were at the cutting edge of your art you had to understand that it was a dangerous place to be, and that history was filled with people whose careers had been destroyed by the fact that they went too far.
Carl Boehm, who played Mark in the film, was very upset by the reception it got. When we saw him, years later, for dinner, he would still say, ‘What happened? Why was it so badly received?’ Michael was much more able to understand that, I think. But then he fell into those terrible, terrible years of not being able to work, at the same age as Marty is now. Can you imagine? If Marty were suddenly told tomorrow, ‘You can’t make any more movies’? It’s just terrifying.
After the Edinburgh Festival, Marty finally found Michael in London and had a meal with him in Soho, and Michael said that it was as if he were waking from a nightmare, from those years of oblivion. He writes in his book: ‘The blood started to course in my veins again. This young fast-talking director knew everything I’d ever made and had a zillion questions about how I did it.’ It was terribly moving. So Marty raced back to America and said, ‘I’ve found him, I’ve found him! Bring him to the Telluride Film Festival, we’ll enter Peeping Tom in the New York Film Festival’, and it was a huge hit there. It was as if a bomb went off. People like Francis Coppola saw it for the first time, and Marty put up his own money to partially fund the re-release of the movie.
I wasn’t around then, but shortly after that, when Marty and I were working on Raging Bull, he started showing me the films of Michael Powell, which he does with anyone he cares about. Actors who start working with him for the first time are usually bombarded with DVDs of Michael’s films. And, at one point, he said, ‘Well, as you love his films so much, maybe you should meet him. He’s coming for dinner tonight.’
So I met Michael and fell in love with him immediately. He was such an extraordinary person. Even though he was 30 years older than me, he was so vibrant. His love of life was just written all over his face. He had these startling blue eyes, and when he spoke - and he didn’t speak a lot - whatever came out was so interesting and unusual and unclichéd, and always fresh. I was just stunned by him, but he didn’t know that. He came back and talked to me in the editing room for a bit. And then he would sometimes call, late at night, because he knew we worked very late and he liked to talk to Marty, and sometimes Marty wouldn’t be in the room and I would talk to him a bit.
When Marty and I went to LA for the Oscars that year, Michael was there at Zoetrope, which was Francis Coppola’s ill-fated experiment in independent cinema. Francis had asked Michael to be senior director in residence, because he had always loved Michael’s films, particularly The Thief of Bagdad. Michael and I started having lunch, and then we started having dinner and things began to develop between us, and, in 1980, he moved to New York to live with me when we started The King of Comedy, our next movie.
I have heard that Michael could be pretty rough on the set. He felt filmmaking was like a religion, and when you came on his set you had damned well better be ready and do the best possible job for him, and if you didn’t he could be merciless. I never saw that myself; you see, with me it was a different thing. But I’ve been told stories by actors of his bad behaviour towards them. Dirk Bogarde once said to me, at a dinner in Paris, after Michael had died, ‘You knew his cruelty?’ and I said, ‘No, I didn’t’. I never did.
Michael taught me a lot about love. He understood love in a way I think very few people do, and that was a great gift to me. It keeps me going now; it’s like a little furnace burning inside me. Scorsese and I learnt so much from Michael about filmmaking. He taught us always to be ahead of the audience - not to explain too much - and never to talk down to them. We learnt to be bolder in our films and not be afraid if maybe the audience didn’t understand everything.
Michael also taught Marty that you don’t need the beginning, middle and end of every scene - usually you can do without the beginning, just plunge right into the middle, and sometimes you don’t need the end either. Every shot in Michael’s movies taught Marty something - he so admired the acting in the films, the humour, the emotion, the dazzling style, the use of colour and the fearlessness, the absolute fearlessness.
Horatia Harold, 2007