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'Of like minds': fruitful partnerships

Three creative partnerships have stood the test of time: Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, and director Oren Moverman and Woody Harrelson.

December 15, 2011|By Michael Ordoña, Special to the Times
  • Actor Woody Harrelson, right, and director Oren Moverman teamed up again for the movie "Rampart."
Actor Woody Harrelson, right, and director Oren Moverman teamed up again… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Some of this season's award contending films are the fruit of deep-rooted creative partnerships. Here, we look at three such pairings: the longtime alliance of director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, frequent collaborators David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, and the budding brotherhood of Oren Moverman and Woody Harrelson.


Scorsese and Schoonmaker have worked together on all the director's features since 1980, including "Hugo," which melds the stories of a young orphan living in a Paris train station in the 1930s and the early days of filmmaking.

"He taught me everything I know about filmmaking," says the two-time Oscar-winning editor by phone. "That's probably one of the reasons we work so well together. He shaped my tastes; he's one of the greatest teachers of film history in the world.

"He's constantly thinking like an editor when he's shooting. How much do I need here? What should the transition be to the next scene? He's constantly thinking about the pacing and the energy of the scene. So he's doing a third of my work already, on the set. A lot of directors don't do that. They cover with five cameras, or whatever, and just come in and put it in a blender," she says with a hearty laugh.

"She's like a guardian of what's right for the movie," says Scorsese in a separate interview. "I usually just like to watch [the footage] with her alone so I can say anything I want and she can also — at some time we say, 'All right, close the door. Don't answer the phones.'"

Schoonmaker says they are largely "of one mind," so disagreements are infrequent. "He's very hard on himself, very tough on his own material. But full of humor. And also moody. So it's all a very rich experience. Marty doesn't put half of what he's going to put into the film in the script. It's done as he's directing it. Wonderful, strange things happen that are not in the script. That's a great deal of fun for me, to react to."

The two even confer on reactions in previews, focusing on what is frequently singled out.

"Certain things people are complaining about, some of them are going to have to complain, because that's part of the story," says Scorsese, " but if this [scene] keeps getting hit on because it's unconvincing, that's different."

In "Hugo," the duo strove to weave in vignettes of the supporting characters without breaking the narrative flow. Sacha Baron Cohen's improvisations as the Station Inspector caused a happy problem of material selection. But it was an unexpected payoff at film's end that made them carefully retrace their steps.

"What happened with this brilliant little actor, Asa [Butterfield], and Sir Ben Kingsley is magical. We had no idea how powerful that ending was until we screened it the first time and people were weeping," Schoonmaker says. "So you have to make sure you don't ruin it by cutting it down too much or what precedes it that causes that emotional wallop. That's the great thing about filmmaking: Things happen you don't know are going to happen at the end."

"A Dangerous Method"

Director Cronenberg and actor Mortensen have made three films together, including last month's "A Dangerous Method," in which Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud. The pair's three movies (including "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises") have varied, but each bears the director's distinctive cool-eyed calm, almost casualness.

"But it's a deceptive casualness," says Mortensen by phone from Madrid. "Which is probably why he has never even been nominated for an Oscar: Some people look at it and say, 'Well, that's simple.' The first five minutes or so, that grace period you get from an audience, you can screw up a little bit. What he does is he throws a scene at you and you're like, 'What the hell is this?'"

He laughs wickedly. "Even me, I'm looking at his movies I've been in, saying, 'I know the movie's probably good, but there's something weird, I feel out of sync. Is this bad acting or bad editing, or is it really good and I'm not …' And all of a sudden, I forget the question. I'm [into the story]. It's kind of the opposite of a grace period; it's kind of a test.

"I think that's a sign of him being an original," Mortensen adds. "It's not coy. Whether it's a period piece, like this one, or a pulp story like 'History of Violence,' a noir-western, or a spy-cop thriller like 'Eastern Promises,' no matter what the story is, there's something particular about it. Without even trying to, he appropriates it and appropriates you."

On a couch in a Beverly Hilton suite, Cronenberg says of their collaboration, "I think what we've done is accentuate things we had going for ourselves anyway … the depth of research, the attention to detail … When we're together, we know we can really express those aspects of ourselves without restraint.

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