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Editing Exuberance and Excess: Thelma Schoonmaker Discusses ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Few directors have Martin Scorsese’s talent to tell entertaining stories about the seamier side of life. He has the unique ability to get us to understand and often be seduced by people who live outside the social norms. That’s an approach he’s used with great success in films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Gangs of New York. Following this path is Scorsese’s newest, The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of stock broker Jordan Belfort.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, who founded the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s. The company eventually devolved into a financial operation based on swindling investors. Photo by Mary Cybulski.

Belfort founded the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s, which eventually devolved into a financial operation based on swindling investors. The memoir chronicles Belfort’s excursions into excess and debauchery that eventually led to his downfall and federal prosecution for securities fraud and money laundering. He served three years in federal prison and was sentenced to pay $110 million in restitution after cooperating with the FBI’s investigation. The film adaptation was written by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos), who spent some time working at Merrill Lynch during law school, a tamer environment than the one portrayed in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, along with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey as fellow brokers.

I recently spoke with Thelma Schoonmaker, film editor for The Wolf of Wall Street. Schoonmaker is a longtime collaborator of Martin Scorsese, most recently having edited Hugo. I asked her about going from a film as artistic and technically complex as Hugo to one as over-the-top as The Wolf of Wall Street. She says of the experience, “When I encounter people outside of this industry and they learn I had some connection with Hugo, they make a point of telling me how much they loved that film. It really touched them. The Wolf of Wall Street is a completely different type of film, of course.”

“I enjoyed working on it because of its unique humor, which no one but Scorsese expected. It’s highly entertaining. Every day I’d get these fantastically funny scenes in dailies. It’s more of an improvisational film like Raging Bull, Casino or Goodfellas. We haven’t done one of those in awhile and I enjoyed getting back to that form. I suppose I like the challenge because of the documentary background that Marty and I have from our early careers. Continuity doesn’t always match from take to take—that’s what makes the editing great fun, but also hard. You have to find a dramatic shape for the improvised scenes just as you do in a documentary.”

Jonah Hill (left) plays Jordan Belfort’s business partner, Donnie Azoff. Photo by Mary Cybulski.

Schoonmaker continues, “The scenes and dialogue are certainly scripted, and Scorsese tells the actors that they need to start ‘here’ and end up ‘there,’ but then, ‘have fun with the part in the middle.’ As an editor, you have to make it work, because sometimes the actors go off on wonderful tangents that weren’t in the script. The cast surrounding Belfort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff [played by Jonah Hill], very quickly got into creating [their characters], the group of brokers who bought into the method Belfort used to snag investors into questionable stock sales. They are portrayed as not necessarily the smartest folks, and Belfort used that to manipulate them and become their leader. This is fertile ground for comedy. Everyone dove into their parts with incredible gusto, willing to do anything to portray the excess that pervaded Belfort’s company. They also worked together perfectly as an ensemble—creating jealousies between themselves for the film.”

The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways a black comedy. Schoonmaker addressed the challenges of working with material that portrayed some pretty despicable behavior. “Improvisation changed the nature of this film. You could watch the actors say the most despicable things in a take and then they’d crack up afterwards. I asked Leo at one point how he could even say some of the lines with a straight face! Some of it is pretty bizarre, like talking about how to create a dwarf-tossing contest, which Belfort organized as a morale booster for his office parties. Or offering a woman $10,000 to shave her head. This was actually done in dead seriousness, just for sport.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

is in many ways a black comedy.

In order to get the audience to follow the story, you can’t avoid explaining the technical intricacies of the stock market. Schoonmaker explains, “Belfort started out selling penny stocks. Typically these have a 50 percent profit, compared with blue chip stocks, which might only have a 1 percent profit margin. Normally it’s poorer investors who buy penny stocks, but Belfort got his brokers to transfer those sales techniques to richer clients, who were first sold a mix of blue chip and penny stocks. From there, he started to manipulate the penny stocks for his own gain, ultimately leading to his downfall. We had to get some of that information across without getting too technical, just enough so the audience could follow the story. Not everything is explained and there are interesting jumps forward. Leo fills in a lot of this information with his voiceovers. These gave Leo’s character additional flavor—the writing reinforced his greed and callousness. A few times Scorsese would have Leo break the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience to explain a concept.”

The Wolf of Wall Street started production in 2012 for a six-month shoot and completed post in November 2013. It was shot primarily on 35mm film, with additional visual effects and low-light material recorded on an ARRI Alexa. The negative was scanned and footage was delivered as digital files for editing on a Lightworks system.

Schoonmaker discussed the technical aspects of the project. “Rodrigo Prieto [director of photography] did extensive testing of both film and digital cameras before the production. Scorsese had shot Hugo with the Alexa and was prepared to shoot digitally, but he kept finding he liked the look of the film tests best. Rob Legato was our visual effects supervisor and second unit director again. This isn’t an effects film, of course, but there are a lot of window composites and set extensions. There were also a lot of effects needed for the helicopter shots and the scenes on the yacht. Rob was a great collaborator, as always.

Director Martin Scorsese on the set.

“Scott Brock, my associate editor, helped me with the temp sound mixes on the Lightworks, and Red Charyszyn was my assistant handling the complex visual effects communication with Rob. They both did a great job.”

Scott Brock added some detail about their editing setup. He says, “The lab delivered the usual Avid MXF media to us on shuttle drives, which we copied to our EditShare XStream server. We used two Avids and three Lightworks for Wolf, all of which were networked to the Xstream server. We would use one of the Avids to put the media into Avid-style folders, then our three Lightworks could link to that media for editing.”

Schoonmaker continues, “I started cutting right at the beginning of production. As usual, screening dailies with Scorsese was critical, for he talks to me constantly about what he has shot. From that and my own feelings, I start to edit.

“This was a big shoot with a very large cast of extras playing the brokers in the brokerage bullpens. These extras were very well trained and very believable, I think. You really feel immersed in the world of high-pressure selling. The first cut of the film came in long but still played well and was very entertaining. Ultimately we cut about an hour out to get to the final length of just under three hours with titles,” Schoonmaker says.

“The main ‘rewriting of the scenes’ that we did in the edit was because of the improvisations and the need for different transitions in some cases. We had to get the balance right between the injected humor and the scripted scenes. The center of the film is the big turning point. Belfort turns a potentially damaging blow to an IPO that the company is offering into a triumph, as he whips up his brokers to a fever pitch. We knew we had to get to that earlier than [it appeared] in the first cut. Scorsese didn’t want to simply do a ‘rise and fall’ film. It’s about the characters and the excesses that they found themselves caught up in and how that became so intoxicating.”

An unusual aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street is its lack of a traditional score. Schoonmaker says, “Marty has a great gift for putting music to film. He chose unexpected pre-recorded pieces to reflect the intensity and craziness of Belfort’s world. Robbie Robertson wrote an original song for the end titles, but the rest of the film relies completely on existing songs rather than score. It’s not intended to be period-accurate, but rather music that Scorsese feels is right for the scene. He listens to [SiriusXM] The Loft while he’s shaving in the morning and often a song he hears will just strike him as perfect. That’s where he got a lot of his musical inspiration for Wolf.”

Digital intermediate mastering for The Wolf of Wall Street was handled by EFILM, although some release prints were also created. The film will be released on Christmas day in the United States.