What Makes A Great Edit? Scorsese’s Legendary Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Dissects “Hugo” Via “Goodfellas”

Three-time Oscar winner and current nominee Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited every Martin Scorsese film since Raging Bull, dissects a sequence in Hugo that prompts her to recall the process of cutting Joe Pesci’s “Funny, how?” scene in 1990’s Goodfellas.

What Makes A Great Edit? Scorsese’s Legendary Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Dissects “Hugo” Via “Goodfellas”

Towards the end of Martin Scorsese’s 3D movie Hugo, the title character, a little boy who lives in a Paris train station, jumps onto the tracks to retrieve a key, unaware that a train is barreling at him. The scene, which–spoiler alert!–turns out to be a dream, follows a pattern set out across 10 pages of illustrations in Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the basis for the film.


“It was very important for Marty and the visual effects team to follow the book,” explains Thelma Schoonmaker, who’s up for her fourth Oscar this Sunday (this is her seventh nomination). “But I like to read the book and read the script and then put it away and not think about it anymore. I then watch how the film is developing before my eyes, in the dailies.”

Co.Create asked Schoonmaker to break down how she put the sequence together, bringing it to life onscreen.

Following Scorsese’s Vision
“What Marty wanted to do there was have the audience slowly realize that they were in a nightmare, but not right away. Ordinarily the way you would cut that scene would be the boy would get on the track, he would pick up the key, and then you would cut to the train, coming towards the track. The boy would turn in horror and run off the track. The way Marty directed it was the boy does not react even though the rail beside him is shaking with the vibration of the approaching train. He keeps looking at the key, and then finally the engineers in the train are realizing the boy is on the track, and they’re going nuts trying to stop the train, and yelling at him to get out of the way. But he’s not responding. And finally he looks over, but slowly. He doesn’t jump up and run off the track. He just looks over. And then finally he turns, but again we still cut to the train. And he still hasn’t run off the track. And then we cut to him actually reacting.”

Crafting the Audience’s Emotional Response
“Now, what that does is it should give you a gradual strange feeling, like, Why isn’t this boy reacting? And then gradually it should begin to dawn on you that maybe this isn’t real. But the way Marty [shot] it you get this very strange feeling, you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. And then it gradually dawns on you. And of course it particularly dawns on you when the train crashes through the window onto the street and the boy sits up [in bed]. Then you know it was a nightmare. It was very important for me to cut it in a way–we had many options–to cut it in a way that we’re giving you this very slow, strange…something’s wrong here. It’s not classical editing at all, and that was a lot of fun to do. We fooled around with it for a long time.”

Intellect vs. Gut Feeling in Editing
“The way all of that is framed, lit, and how it’s cut is so critical. It’s a very hard thing to describe. The intellectual idea was Marty’s idea of how to direct it. He could’ve directed it just as the boy sees the train and runs off the track. But he didn’t. When we’re editing it, it’s kinetic, it’s a feeling from your gut…running it over and over again and feeling, Oh, no, we’re waiting too long on the boy here, or not.”

Thousands of Decisions
“Many, many, many thousands of decisions, that’s what goes on every day in an editing room. It’s hard to track it unless you’re sitting there. It was a matter of, How long are we going to let this go on? How many times are we going to cut to him, and what should he be doing each time we cut to him? And when should we show the track shaking? And how quickly should the engineers react? And how long can we get away with the boy not jumping off the track as he sees an approaching train? It took a long, long time to really come to exactly the right pace for that–how long to hold on each shot, and what shot to put in between the shots of the boy.”


It’s Like Joe Pesci’s Scene in Goodfellas
“It’s similar to what happens in Goodfellas, when Joe Pesci says, ‘What’s so funny about me?’ Marty and I experimented for a very long time in exactly how long to hold on Ray Liotta. He knows he’s in trouble, and he knows that if he says the wrong thing he’s going to get killed. He’s sitting there waiting to try and desperately come up with something. And finally he says, ‘Oh, come on, Tommy,’ you know, and breaks the mood. Otherwise he would’ve been shot. So how long we waited–and we screened it four or five different ways. We waited nine seconds, or we waited six seconds.”

Editing on the Set
“Do you use a close-up or do you use a medium shot? Do you use a wide shot with both of them in the frame? All those decisions are very critical in how you create someone’s performance. In fact, in the scene ‘What’s so funny about me?’ Marty deliberately did not shoot any close-ups. He [knew] he wouldn’t use them. He wanted to show the people around Ray Liotta and around Joe Pesci. They’re laughing at the beginning, and gradually they fall silent, and then they get very worried. So he didn’t even shoot them. Until the owner of the nightclub comes over and asks Joe Pesci to pay his bill–and then we had a close-up and we cut in. You have to know as a director how to use your tools. Everything doesn’t have to be handheld or have a snap zoom in it, which is the way things are done today.”

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.