Thelma Schoonmaker: Powell and Pressburger made films for the world, not just for a country

Director David Hinton, along with legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who serves as an executive producer in Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, speak about the making of the documentary, Martin Scorsese's role in it, and the cultural impact of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Thelma Schoonmaker: Powell and Pressburger made films for the world, not just for a country

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, which is currently streaming on Mubi, is a colourful celebration of the rich cinematic legacy of the British filmmaking duo, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. With a vibrant filmography, that includes films like The Red Shoes (1948), A Canterbury Tale (1944), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the duo, who shared credits as writers, directors, and producers, left an indelible mark in cinematic history. While Made in England documents their contributions to cinema with passion and exuberance, its existence by itself is a nodal point that connects the life and journey of film royalty, like director Martin Scorsese and his longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who also happens to be the wife of the late Michael Powell. Schoonmaker serves as an executive producer in the documentary while Scorsese narrates it, flavoured with personal notes about how Powell and Pressburger's films influenced some of his own celebrated works, like The Raging Bull (1980) and The Age of Innocence (1993).

While Martin Scorsese might have introduced Michael Powell to Thelma Schoonmaker, the initiative to document Powell and Pressburger’s legacy, flowed from Schoonmaker to Scorsese. She recounts, “It was actually the idea of one of the producers Nick Varley, who had distributed Powell and Pressburger films for many years. I then took it to Marty.” Schoonmaker reveals that they thought David Hinton would be the perfect director to make the documentary, as he had already made a program with Michael Powell, when he was alive. Elaborating on how he built the script around Scorsese’s thoughts, David Hinton says, “I went into the archives and dug out everything Scorsese said about Powell and Pressburger, from interviews to introducing their films in screenings, and prefaces to books about them, there was a lot of material.” After the data culminated into a first draft, Hinton sat down with Scorsese to crystallize the structure. “He was very meticulous about getting every word exactly right. He thought about everything in great detail,” he says, before adding. “It was a very collaborative effort, even the editing. Even though Marty and Thelma didn’t take credit for it, they actually did a lot of editing for the film.” Reminiscing about the making of the film, Schoonmaker says, “It was a wonderful collaboration because we all have a deep love for Michael (Powell) (laughs). In fact, David (Hinton) knew him personally, he actually carried Michael’s coffin when he died.”

On the seismic impact of Powell and Pressburger’s films and their relevance in contemporary film appreciation, Hinton comments, “Almost any young British film director cites Powell and Pressburger’s films as an influence, even if they make films that are wildly different. They permeate the culture of British cinema.” Schoonmaker adds, “These films were made seventy years ago and the young people are responding to it beautifully. It is a great tribute to Powell and Pressburger that their films have lasted this terrible period when their films were thrown out into oblivion. Marty has done so much to bring their films back to the world.” She then goes on to expound on the universality of Powell and Pressburger’s films. “Michael (Powell) thought they should make films for the world, not for Britain or India. They both had a deep understanding of humanity. Marty said to me recently that he loves the characters in their films. What happens in these films is that even if someone is not a good person, they portray them in a way that is interesting and enjoyable. Both Michael and Scorsese share the idea that they do not want to deal with villains or heroes. They make films about the people in between. The loving way the people are portrayed in these films is really impacting the young, they are looking for that.”

David Hinton then takes us back to a period when Powell and Pressburger films felt out of resonance with the zeitgeist. He says, “During certain periods of time, certain types of films are fashionable. In the '60s, the great fashion was documentary-influenced films, what we would call ‘Kitchen sink dramas’, portrayals of working-class life, and a lot of influence from the French New Wave. A lot of these were very remote from what Powell and Pressburger have been doing for a long time. For a period, there was a sense that the only films worth making were the ones by young people, films that were politically engaged. This was also the time when social realism was regarded as morally superior to any other type of filmmaking. But, I think that is all completely in the past now. Young people are now open to films being good in all kinds of ways. You can have social realist films but people are quite happy to have extravagant, theatrical films as well.”

From a macroscopic sociological view, the conversation again zones in on the duo’s filmography. Hinton picks A Matter of Life and Death as his favourite Powell and Pressburger film while Schoonmaker interjects and reveals that it was Michael Powell’s favourite film as well. “I think it has the best beginning of any film ever made. I love the humour and the extravagant visuals,” says Hinton. On her favourite Powell and Pressburger film, Thelma Schoonmaker says, “I guess I know where I’m going with this,” she adds, “It is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, because it is the first film of theirs that I saw. I was very young and I didn’t know who Powell, Pressburger, or Scorsese was when I watched it. I was so stunned by it when I saw it on television in America and it never left me. It is such a remarkably brave idea to create three women that this man is in love with,” she laughs.

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