Thelma Schoonmaker on Michael Powell: ‘He asked me to put ‘film director and optimist’ on his gravestone. Which I did’

Since her husband’s death, the Oscar-winning editor has been restoring magnificent films he made with Emeric Pressburger, including The Red Shoes

Thelma Schoonmaker was 44 when she married Michael Powell. He was 78, the English half of the film-making titans known as Powell and Pressburger. That was in 1984. It was, she says, a very happy and creative marriage. They remained together until he died, in 1990, since when she has been working ceaselessly with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation to help restore the films that her late husband made with Emeric Pressburger, which include The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and I Know Where I’m Going!

The effort has culminated in Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger, the BFI’s big retrospective that has been playing across Britain and Ireland. A restored version of The Red Shoes, to mark the ravishing ballet tragedy’s 75th anniversary, is released this week.

“I’m so grateful to be saturated in those films,” says Schoonmaker. “Having restored them, I get to see them over and over again. It’s hard to pick a favourite. When I’m forced to, I say [The Life and Death of] Colonel Blimp. But I’m madly in love with five or six of the films. I never get tired of watching any of them. You keep seeing little things that you haven’t noticed before. There’s a moment in I Know Where I’m Going! in which Wendy Hiller, who is now desperate to get off the island as she realises she’s falling in love with Roger Livesey, is in a livingroom, and they have a conversation. And they move in a really interesting way as he tries to make her understand that he is in love with her. She’s trying to be oblivious. And it’s so beautiful. Boy, what an experience to keep finding all these details.”

Schoonmaker’s eye for detail is no surprise. She first worked with Scorsese in 1967, editing his feature debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, since when their collaboration has yielded two dozen films, including The King of Comedy, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. She has been nominated for eight Oscars and won three, for her editing of Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed.

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Cinema’s best-known director-and-editor pairing almost didn’t happen. Schoonmaker was born in Algiers to American parents. The young Thelma grew up among expatriates on the Dutch-Caribbean island of Aruba. After she moved to the US to read Russian and political science at Cornell University, prospective employers at the State Department were discomfited by her views on civil rights and her opposition to both the Vietnam war and South Africa’s apartheid regime. She instead applied for a job as an assistant editor – but although she earned an Oscar nomination for her work on the music documentary Woodstock, and edited Scorsese’s debut, union rules then prohibited her from working on any more feature films.

“Marty called me again after Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’s wife, had to stop working for him because the Star Wars films were starting. So he found me through a mutual friend and decided to move back to New York. And that’s when we started working on Raging Bull.”

Schoonmaker likes to say Scorsese gave her the best job in the world and the best husband in the world: in the mid-1970s Scorsese had tracked Powell down to a ramshackle cottage in the Cotswolds. “Michael was really living in oblivion,” says Schoonmaker. “It was awful. He never stopped dreaming or writing projects. I have a list of almost 50 projects that came close to getting made and never did. But he was so broke he couldn’t buy a bottle of whiskey. And he liked a five o’clock whiskey! He had to chop his own firewood for heating. It wasn’t just Marty: it was also Ian Christie and the British Film Institute who had begun to try to make people understand how great these movies were again. But it was Marty who brought Michael to America and started this whole amazing resurrection.”

Schoonmaker first saw The Red Shoes as a girl in Aruba. Scorsese introduced her to Powell in 1979, at an event marking the American rerelease of Peeping Tom, the controversial 1960 film that is widely credited with ruining Powell’s career. “It wounded him deeply,” says Schoonmaker. “In the documentary that Melvin Bragg made, Michael says, ‘The movie died for 20 years, and I died with it.’”

Powell, who trained under Rex Ingram and Alfred Hitchcock, had been inspired to make his first personal project, the Foula-set drama The Edge of the World, from 1937, after seeing Honoré Daumier’s La soupe, a painting of a peasant family, including a nursing baby, furiously eating at a table. “That painting completely changed him,” says Schoonmaker. “He said, ‘I want to make art from now.’ Edge of the World was a big gamble. He raised the money himself instead of having a studio behind it. And he took people to an island so far off Scotland with no phone, no electricity. The ferry only came every two weeks. They moved that camera up to these impossible places and got gorgeous footage because they were so committed.”

Powell was subsequently paired with Pressburger to work on The Spy in Black, the first of their 22 film collaborations. Powell was initially impressed by the substantial notes provided by the “small Hungarian wizard”. Tellingly, their films were credited as written, produced and directed by the duo, even though Powell did all of the directing and most of the writing.

“The great thing about being with him was that he never became bitter,” says Schoonmaker. “He was the best husband in the world, because he enjoyed every minute of the day ... You cannot imagine what it’s like to live with someone like that. He asked me to put ‘film director and optimist’ on his gravestone. Which I did.”

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs at the Light House Cinema, in Dublin, and Queen’s Film Theatre, in Belfast, until December 31st. The Red Shoes is on general release from Friday, December 8th