The Rough Cut: Telling the True Story of “Killers of the Flower Moon”

Killers of the Flower Moon editor Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE has literally had a front-row seat to some of the most celebrated films of the past four decades, working as director Martin Scorsese’s editor and filmmaking partner. The pair reunite once again for Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, two mainstays of Scorsese’s acting troupe, as well as Lily Gladstone, who delivers a breakout performance as Mollie Kyle.

Killers of the Flower Moon plot summary

Killers of the Flower Moon was directed by Martin Scorsese from a screenplay he co-wrote with Eric Roth, based on the 2017 non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann. Set in 1920’s Oklahoma, it focuses on a series of murders of Osage members and relations in the Osage Nation after oil was being produced on tribal land. Tribal members had retained mineral rights on their reservation, and whites sought to gain their wealth.

In our discussion with Killers of the Flower Moon editor Thelma Schoonmaker ACE, we talk about:

  • Leaning into the love story
  • When to cut to DiCaprio or De Niro
  • Scorsese’s shooting style
  • The structural perfection of Goodfellas
  • Twelve cuts to completion

Listen while you read…

Editing Killers of the Flower Moon

Matt Feury: As I understand it, you typically come on when the film starts shooting. But before that, are there any ways that Martin Scorsese brings you into the process, perhaps in terms of feedback on the ideas for the film and the material before he begins shooting?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Rarely, but there was one time that I enjoyed. It was when we made the movie Kundun, about the Dalai Lama being forced to leave Tibet because of the Chinese invasion. He needed to have some idea about the sand mandala, which is an amazing sand painting that the monks did for two weeks using little funnels of different colored sand. These monks create an amazing design with different symbols for the religion throughout.

After they finish doing this sand mandala on the ground, they wash it all away in the river, which is a beautiful idea. Marty wanted to start Kundun with some very tight images of some of the things we see in the mandala.

He sent me down to observe the monks creating a sand mandala in a studio in New York. What they were doing was being filmed in a beautiful way for use throughout the movie. There were times when we would suddenly feel that some images from that mandala would be helpful to us in certain transitions, particularly when the Dalai Lama is being forced to flee.

I loved getting to know the monks and also getting to know the idea of making this mandala, which is so intense, and then washing it all away, which is a very Buddhist idea. That was the only time that I was called in beforehand so that I could give him suggestions. I would say, “This image is good” and give him stills so he could know which ones he wanted to photograph.

MF: One of the great things about filmmaking is you get to learn so much about other people, places, and time periods through the material. In Killers of the Flower Moon, you have a book that you could draw from. Did you read it or was there any temptation to read it going into this project?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Oh, no, no, no. I knew that I should read that book. I definitely read it. That’s what the film is based on. But it is a documentary book. It’s not a fiction book. Marty wanted to transform it into a movie. But the information in that book is so critical to understanding what happened and the wonderful, amazing things he found out, which took him quite a while.

That book is so popular because of what people have heard about the movie, or what they already knew. It was number one and may still be number one on the list of best-selling books. After the big reception of Killers at Cannes, it was number one.

Number two was the second book by David Grann called The Wager. It’s about a mutiny on a ship off the Cape of Good Hope or something. I don’t know which cape it is. I haven’t read that one. I haven’t had the time. But he was number one and number two on the bestseller list. People are using his book as a wonderful source if they want to know more about what is being portrayed in the movie.

MF: I have read that Marty, and that name sounds wrong coming out of my mouth, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll say Marty.

Thelma Schoonmaker: That’s okay.

MF: Thank you. Marty has an editing style and pace in mind going into a film.

Thelma Schoonmaker: Yes. He wanted to use a simple style and get the viewer to engage with scenes where they’re spending some time with the characters and beginning to feel what they’re like. It was a simpler style than some of the other movies he’s made in the past. That would have been very strong in his mind. This film has a certain build that is important.

It was a simpler style than some of the other movies he’s made in the past.

For example, there’s the wonderful opening scene where Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) is invited to dinner by Mollie and they are gradually feeling each other out. He’s finding out that she’s quite a formidable woman with strong opinions and dignity. And she is finding out that he’s quite honest about his weaknesses. He knows that he is lazy and he likes to party.

It’s interesting because it starts as a little joust between the two of them and gradually you can feel how their attraction to each other is building. The fact that he’s handsome and that he’s attracted to her allows her to think about him even though he’s confessed these weaknesses. I think she feels that he wants a home. He’s been through probably not an easy life, being in World War I and coming back from something like that.

In the scene with her sisters, she says, “He’s content.” She’s basically saying, “He’s not going to run off.” She doesn’t say those words but she senses that maybe this is someone she wants to have a relationship with. That develops gradually.

MF: The audience enters this world and experiences things through Ernest. But we’re not completely aligned with him because, as you pointed out. We only get a true sense of who he is over time. We see the atrocities and the violence he takes part in.

You give us a quick scene showing him taking part in a robbery and then losing the jewelry he stole in a poker game. We know he’s corrupt and simple and kind of dumb, but we still don’t feel the depth of his betrayal and complicity until later. Is that something that you had to focus on calibrating, how sympathetic we could be or even how much we could possibly like Ernest?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Yes, I do think that the love story is the basic thing that Marty decided to focus on when the idea about the film changed. DiCaprio decided he would like to play Ernest instead of the FBI man, the role that Jesse Plemons plays. As you can imagine, that was a dramatic change in the script. They were still working on that as they were shooting with the two actors. Lily Gladstone and DiCaprio were working with Marty to create scenes that would show the evolving love story.

This is all true because I think there were three trials. They couldn’t get Robert De Niro’s character in the first trial. I think there was a mistrial and then he was found not guilty. Then, finally, when the DiCaprio character decided to testify against his uncle who has had him under his thumb for the entire movie, that’s when they finally got William Hale sent to prison, to Leavenworth Penitentiary.

At that point, the FBI agent said to the real Mollie, “Why do you stay with Ernest?” and she said, “I love him.” So, this love story is very important in the movie. Most people tell me they believe it. There have been movies made by people like my husband, Michael Powell. He made Peeping Tom, where there’s a man who’s a real murderer but you feel sympathy for the way he’s been tortured and made into doing these terrible deeds. That’s why the critics flipped out and decided they wanted to destroy the movie. They were feeling guilty about having any compassion for this man.

But that’s the great strength of Peeping Tom, which we’ve restored now and is being shown all over the place again in theaters. That’s all due to Scorsese, who has always been the biggest supporter of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger‘s films from very early on. He went and found them living in oblivion, forgotten, these great masterpieces not seen anymore. Now they are being seen. I’m in England now celebrating the work of the two great men. Young people are flocking to the screenings and we’re selling tickets and it’s really working. But that was all due to Marty and the British Film Institute.

MF: I can’t believe that you brought up Peeping Tom. I was not aware of this new effort, but I wanted to tell you how much that film impacted me in film school. It’s incredible that you brought that up. We’ll talk about that a little more some other day.

Describing editing is not an easy thing to do, considering how instinctive so much of it is. But I’m going to ask you about one scene in particular. It’s the first scene between Ernest and King Hale. The rhythm of that scene is very basic if I can use that word. It’s a two-shot. Then, you have some over-the-shoulder shots between the two of them. What drives the rhythm of that scene? As I was watching it, I just thought, “I wouldn’t know where to go.”

Thelma Schoonmaker: Well, you have to have fantastic performances to start with. That is always very helpful.

MF: Yes, I imagine.

Thelma Schoonmaker: What you should feel there, and I think you do, is that the De Niro character, Hale, is feeling out this nephew of his. He’s trying to figure out if he can use him because he’s attractive and unmarried. Can he use him to force his way into the wealth of Mollie’s family?

The one important thing there was to wait sometimes before De Niro spoke. You see him looking. He’s analyzing his nephew. He’s got his head back and he’s looking at him, sizing him up. That was the way we worked on the rhythm of that scene, to make sure that we sometimes paused for a few seconds more than we normally would.

You see that De Niro is trying to make up his mind. He’s thinking, “What questions should I ask next to find out if this guy is going to be a tool I can use?” It’s obvious in the film that DiCaprio’s character doesn’t read, for example. His uncle says, “Do you read?” and he gets nervous right away, He says, “Yeah, you know, I’m not thick, I can read”, but you can tell right away that he doesn’t know how to read. He can barely read. He’s been horribly educated, whereas his uncle is much better educated than him.

Hale also has this bizarre love of the Osage but at the same time, he is willing to inflict injury upon them. That kind of character is not rare in fiction. It’s fascinating to see this strange combination. Even De Niro said during the press conference at Cannes, “I don’t understand him. How could he hold these two ideas in his body?” But he played him beautifully. That was how we did the rhythm of that scene. We used some hesitation and some quiet moments.

I don’t understand him. How could he hold these two ideas in his body?

MF: As you said, King Hale asks Ernest, “Can you read?” He asked that because he gave Ernest a book. It’s called Lilly’s Wild Tales Among the Indians, and it has a chapter on Osage culture and history.

Thelma Schoonmaker: Yeah.

MF: After Ernest meets Mollie on their first ride together, he reads part of the book out loud. For you, is this an effective means of providing a backstory about the Osage to the audience? Is it a way to demonstrate Ernest’s fascination with Mollie? Is it both or some other function altogether?

Thelma Schoonmaker: It was both. It was to show something about the Osage, only a little. Marty said, “I’m not making a documentary about the Osage. I’m making a film about a white man and an Osage woman who fall in love with each other. The movie will be filled with the Osage culture, with people on screen and off screen.” So many Osage worked on the film and are in the film.

We wanted to give some information about what had happened to the Osage, but we didn’t want to spend too much time on that. The book was a quick way to give the audience an idea of some of their history.

MF: I always felt like one way that you create forward momentum in the films that you do is by introducing characters before they’re part of the story and instilling anticipation for them.

For example, the character of Acie Kirby (played by Pete Yorn) is brought up a few times as this feared henchman before he’s ever actually there. I can’t cite examples off the top of my head, but I feel like that’s something that has been a part of your style over the years. Am I just imagining that or is there a conscious effort on your part to do that?

Thelma Schoonmaker: It could be. I didn’t think of it that way. But you’re right that he’s talked about a lot and you don’t see much of him during the whole movie. He’s only important as someone who blows up the house. He’s not as important as some of the other wonderful character actors in this movie.

Michael Powell and then Emeric Pressburger used to do what they called, ‘place little bombs in a movie’, little things that you may just barely notice that explode later. It’s not quite the same thing here, but that is something that Marty would have noticed in his devouring of the Powell-Pressburger films.

MF: The film is dedicated to the memory of musician and composer Robbie Robertson, somebody who’s had a hand in the music for many of the films you’ve done. In this film, he’s created a score that has a percussive nature that evokes the kind of drums and beat you might hear from Indigenous musicians. That score moves back and forth from almost a bluesy feel at times to having an edgier, almost dissonant sound.

I’d like to hear about your process for working with him and how you might use the stems from that music like the drumbeat or the throbbing bass line to underscore certain moments in the film.

Thelma Schoonmaker: The throbbing bass line was something that both Marty and Robbie came up with. It’s not only the drums that are so important to this culture, as you see in the last shot. The dances that they do are very sacred. You have to be invited to them. They’re not tourist things. The drums are incredibly important, and they consider the drum a person, as they do the pipe.

Robbie being half Mohawk was also important. Marty wanted an Indigenous person to do the music. He felt that this would drive the movie through to the end when we see the drums. It also is probably blood running through your veins. It’s probably got a lot of significance, but the fact that he continuously employed it meant that in his mind he was giving it to Marty as a way to move the film along.

He sent us a great deal of material, and Marty would take it and structure it the way he thought it would work best for the movie. He hit upon the piece that you see in the beginning right away. When you see the oil burst out of the ground you hear that very strong piece of music. Marty said to me, “I think this could be our theme”, and it is.

However, there’s also a lot of actual music from the time. Marty struggled to make sure that the music he put in the film, other than the score by Robbie, was music that would have been heard at the time either on a radio or on a record. The music you hear during the long Steadicam shot inside the house where all of Ernest’s family has invaded Mollie’s house is an example of that. The shot begins with a needle being put down on this wonderful piece of music.

Marty has put a great deal of music other than Robbie’s in the film, which he always does. He works really hard. He listens very carefully. He’s sure to be historically accurate. That work he puts in gives the sound of the movie a very rich blend.

MF: Does Marty have a specific set of tracks that he wants you to use or is it a team effort?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Marty chooses the music. Marty has one of the greatest gifts for putting music to a movie out of anybody, I think. Sometimes on a film like Casino, we would have six or seven pieces of rock and roll that he wanted to use in each scene. We would try each one against the first cut of the scene and usually one popped out. One would just fit perfectly. But it’s his design and he comes up with what to even play.

I am part of putting it to the scenes and seeing if it works. Then I am responsible for seeing that the music is properly handled and mixed. That’s something he’s just a genius at.

MF: I heard you say once that you have twelve different edits of the film. That sounded like a lot to me. How did that work for Killers of the Flower Moon?

Thelma Schoonmaker: We had about twelve. That’s the way Marty and I work. Then there was the Oklahoma situation. We couldn’t go to Oklahoma because Apple had an excellent system to keep everyone from getting Covid-19. They were testing everybody all the time. They wanted fewer people in Oklahoma to worry about. So we stayed in New York. Marty and I worked on Zooms to look at the dailies together.

That’s what we always do. He tells me what he thinks and I tell him what I think. I make notes from all of that. Then I do the first assembly. He also gives notes to the script supervisor during all of the shooting, which are excellent. I get those notes and use them all the time.

I make the first assembly and then he and I cut everything together. Once we feel we have something that works, we invite a small number of people and ask them afterward what they think and either accept it or not. Sometimes we don’t agree with what they say. Then we recut again and screen again and recut again and screen again. We’re very, very lucky to have that time to develop the movie properly.

MF: Do you recall what were some of the more significant changes you made to the tone or the structure of the film through those twelve different iterations?

Thelma Schoonmaker: There were certain scenes we moved around. It was not a lot. The big change was the love story becoming the central force of the movie. We did whatever we could to make sure that worked. People tell me it does and I’m very happy to hear that.

We did occasionally move things around, but you always do in your editing, usually, except for Goodfellas where everything was perfect right from the start. That was because Marty and Nick Pileggi were both so familiar with that world that they were working hand in hand. That movie was like riding a horse. It knew where it wanted to go. We dropped only one shot, which was the young boy learning to drink espresso. That film was just there already. There was a lot of editing, but it was interestingly a perfect structure.

MF: Since you brought up Goodfellas, I interviewed editor Kevin Tent and director Alexander Payne the other day. I asked them the question I’m about to ask you. It kind of got me in a little trouble. Against my better judgment, I’ll ask anyway.

At the end of this movie, when Ernest is on the stand, I cannot help but be reminded of Goodfellas. There’s the same beat where Ernest, like Henry Hill, is asked to identify and point out the defendant and it’s Robert De Niro again in the courtroom. With the body of work that you and Marty have, work that’s been celebrated quite often, do you ever notice things like that? Does Marty ever refer to any work you’ve done in the past?

Thelma Schoonmaker: Oh, no. I don’t think there’s a comparison there because that scene is cut in an entirely different way. We’re cutting back and forth between De Niro and the other criminals and Henry Hill. That’s a whole different thing.

What happened in the trial scene in Killers is that Marty called me from the set and said, “Leo is so brilliant in this first take. I don’t want to use anything else. I don’t want to even cut to the prosecutor. I want to just hold on him through his testimony”.

We did have to cut to the prosecutor twice. We had to cut to him when he says, “the person he is implicating here is” and a swish pan with his arm pointing to De Niro. But we stayed on Leo. We held on Leo. That’s one of the characteristics of this film. We hold on the characters and make you feel what they’re going through. And it is a brilliant performance.

That’s one of the characteristics of this film. We hold on the characters and make you feel what they’re going through.

Then we cut to Mollie at the end. Then, of course, we have the devastating scene where she asks him to be truthful with her and he can’t do it. Then she leaves him. It’s very different from Goodfellas.

MF: That’s why that question gets me in trouble. I’m going to stop asking it.

Thelma Schoonmaker: Well, you didn’t get in trouble.

MF: Does Marty indulge in doing a lot of different takes for his actors? Does he like to give you a lot of coverage or is he very economical in the way he shoots?

Thelma Schoonmaker: It depends on the film. In Raging Bull, he did fifteen takes at the very end of the film when De Niro is confronting himself in the mirror. He and De Niro were doing a very delicate change from take to take. They would whisper to each other between each take. They were trying to decide, “Should he be cold when he confronts himself? Should we feel some warmth towards him at the end?”Marty was adamant that he had to be cold. But we had the full range.

Normally, he never shoots fifteen takes. That was a very rare thing. And it was one shot, you know, so it’s very important to get it right. So, no, he doesn’t shoot a lot. He shoots less and less, actually, over time. My husband, incredibly, would only do one take. When you look at those movies you can see how brilliant the acting is. But those actors were working on the stage and making films at the same time in London. They were so geared up, so prepared, so polished that he could just do one take. That’s pretty astounding to Marty and me.

MF: That’s why they show that film in film schools.

Thelma Schoonmaker: That’s right.

MF: As I understand it, Martin Scorsese initially wanted to be a priest and you wanted to be a diplomat. Together you both ended up being pretty terrific filmmakers. If you could have done anything else other than editing, what would it be? Would it be to work as a diplomat or something else entirely?

Thelma Schoonmaker: No, no, no. Once you get addicted to film you never want to give it up. It’s so creative, it’s so engaging. You become addicted. It’s the best job in the world, particularly working for Marty.

Every film is different. Every film is a new challenge for me. I’m working with one of the greatest directors who ever lived. He also gave me the best husband anyone could want. What more could you want? I’ve had it all.

Matt Feury

Matt Feury is host and producer of The Rough Cut podcast, as well as the Sr. Director, Market Solutions – Video & Post for Avid.