What does it take to make a great film? Stephen Schiff watched Martin Scorsese edit 'Casino' - and found that even he still isn't sure
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ON THE video monitor, two giant red dice floated into view. One at a time they crashed down upon the green baize, very, very slowly. Then they cannoned majestically toward a distant black void. If the dice had made any sound at all, they would probably have rumbled like those buildings on the evening news that are gently blown up at the behest of real-estate developers. "Yeah, it looks like a skyscraper coming in," the film director Martin Scorsese agreed. "It looks great." Another pair of dice bloomed on to the screen, and then another. "That one was very nice," Scorsese said. "Oh, that! That's very nice! That looks a monolith coming down, you know? Interesting." Sitting at the controls, the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker twisted backward in her chair and gazed over her glasses at Scorsese. "As opposed to... " she said, and two more red dice bounded slowly before us, one at a time. "But there was too much time between the first die and the second," Scorsese said. "Wasn't there?"

Was there? I was sitting next to Scorsese in his editing room, on the seventh floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, and, peer and ponder though I might, I found it humiliatingly difficult to tell whether there was too much time between the first die and the second. If there were too little, you might reason, the impact of their size and slowness would be diminished; too much, and the shot would grow boring. And it all depended on what came before and after, didn't it? Would the dice slow down the action or provide a welcome respite from some previous frenzy?

Such are the quandaries of the editing room, where the questions a filmmaker faces lend his enterprise a kinship with endeavours far afield from cinema - music, for instance, and mathematics, and even epistemology. Popular magazines and television shows have exposed us so exhaustively to the ins and outs of filmmaking that we feel we know what happens on a movie set. We understand that every moment of a film gets shot over and over again, in a dozen different ways. We know that when the director gets to the editing room he wants to see each moment of the film represented from all sorts of angles and distances, so that he and the editor can choose from a menu of shots and splice together a smooth, captivating whole. But here is where the questions arise. What makes something smooth and what makes it captivate? And, more epistemologically: what makes audiences pay attention? How much attention do audiences have to pay? And when they pay all that attention what makes them feel they are getting their attention's worth, so to speak?

The movie Scorsese was editing was Casino. It runs at nearly three hours, so it's the longest film Scorsese has ever made. It is also the most ambitious. Focusing on a period from the early Seventies until 1983, it uses a romantic triangle between a casino manager (played by Robert De Niro), his alcoholic wife (Sharon Stone), and a depraved gangster (Joe Pesci) to tell the largely true story of the last days of the Mob in Las Vegas; along the way, it provides a detailed map of the town's maze-like inner workings - the payoffs and scams, the hirings and firings, the cultivation of high rollers, the placating of town fathers, and, when all else fails, the mysterious burials in the desert. The screenplay was written by Scorsese and the journalist Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote a literary version of this material, a nonfiction book called Casino), but it changed innumerable times in the course of filming; it was being altered even during the last few weeks of editing. And the complexity (some might say, chaos) of the project was exacerbated by Scorsese's use of two elaborate voice-over narrations - one by De Niro and one by Pesci - and an intricate soundtrack pieced together from old pop songs.

"This picture's a big one, so it's like chipping away at a big sculpture," Scorsese said. "Honing constantly. And it's tough because there is no plot, really. It's just how these three characters interrelate throughout the picture and how things intensify." Scorsese sucked in a breath and beat a tattoo against the arms of his chair. "OK, Thelma. What's next?"

What was next was one of those voice-overs. On the video monitor, Sharon Stone was striding confidently through the casino, folding wads of bills and distributing them, along with a fetching variety of winks and grins, to assorted doormen, card dealers and valet parkers. On the soundtrack, Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" was thumping, and Robert De Niro was delivering the voice-over. "Ginger had the hustler's code. She knew how to take care of people, and that's what Vegas is all about. It's Kickback City. She took care of the dealers, pit bosses, floor managers. But mostly she took care of the valet parkers, the middlemen of Las Vegas. Ginger took care of the parkers because they took care of security guards, who took care of the metro cops, who let her operate."

Schoonmaker stopped the clip, turned and, once again, peered over her glasses at Scorsese. At 55, she is an ebullient woman with plump, ruddy cheeks and wild white hair; in another decade or so she might easily play Mrs Santa Claus. She and Scorsese met as film students at New York University in the Sixties; Schoonmaker went on to edit documentaries (including Wood- stock, which Scorsese also helped edit), but her first big feature was Scorsese's Raging Bull in 1980. The movie won her an Academy Award - "It was Marty's Oscar, not mine," she says - and she has edited every Scorsese film after that. "I wouldn't want to work for anybody else," she says. And since Raging Bull she hasn't.

The question now was this: Scorsese and Pileggi had come up with a line that they were thinking of wedging into De Niro's voice-over, after "the valet parkers, the middlemen of Las Vegas". They thought it might clarify matters if they added "the guys who can get you anything".

"The way it is now, first of all I'm not sure if we're listening," Scorsese said, assuming the role of the audience. "Are we listening to it? And, you know, do we even have to be? In other words, the actual voice-over - 'Ginger took care of the parkers because they took care of the security guards, who took care of the metro cops' - it sounds byzantine enough, don't you think? Do we have to put in 'the guys who can get you anything'? If they're the middlemen in Las Vegas, that kind of says it. Hey! What if you dropped 'middlemen' and put in 'the guys who can get you anything' instead? Know what I'm saying? Because 'middlemen' is more abstract. Because if a guy can 'get' you anything, it's 'get' - something physical. It's money, drugs, whatever. Getting things. So 'get' might cut through all the images, and maybe the audience will hear. 'Get.' "

During this speech, Scorsese had leapt to his feet, smoothed his hair, sat down again, leapt back up, pounded his fist into his palm, thrust a hand into his pocket, taken the hand out, and sat down yet again. Schoonmaker took it all very calmly. "Shall we try that?" she said.

"Will it take a long time?" Scorsese asked. To me, he added, "With this computer, sometimes it's so fast. I mean, before when you wanted to make a cut, you changed the reel, and I could get up and make a phone call. But here you take a second and it's done, and I can't leave. I can't take a break. I'm trapped." While he was saying this, Schoonmaker was manipulating the computer, and you could hear De Niro's voice drawling over and over, forward and backward, "The valet parkers, srekrap telav eht, the valet parkers, srekrap telav eht, the valet parkers... "

Scorsese leaned back in his Eames lounger and stretched his legs straight out in front of him. He is a small man with profuse black eyebrows and quick, dangerous-looking eyes. In the old days, he used to wear a Satanic black beard, and, since he would occasionally portray scoundrels in his own movies (in Taxi Driver, for instance), he acquired a somewhat sinister aura. But on this day, a few weeks before his fifty-third birthday, he looked exceedingly civilised, even elegant: he could pass for an obscure Sicilian duke. He wore a beautifully pressed pin-striped shirt, silky tan slacks, and woven loafers. His greying hair was swept regally back on the sides, and his nose was a complicated, chiselled affair whose facets and planes suggested privileged bloodlines, though during the Satanic- beard days they mainly suggested a series of run-ins with much bigger guys.

To get to the editing room, you had to go through a room that looked as though it ought to be the editing room: brown-black celluloid was draped across tables, and earnest young men and women were poring over it as though they were translating cuneiform. But the real editing room was the light-filled eyrie next door, and there wasn't a strip of film in it anywhere. Instead, there was a huge wall chart that described Casino's 269 scenes in the tersest possible terms: "Dead Dealer", "Body in Trunk", "Lawyer's Car Explodes". Below it were two video monitors, a keyboard, and a console that resembled something from a miniature-train set. These were part of the Lightworks computer editing system.

"Ordinarily, I would be saying, 'let's go to the next reel,' " Scorsese explained, "but there's no such thing. See, she has all those 'tiles' up on the screen - those are the rushes. And the film is all divided up into these 'towers'." He pointed out several grey metal boxes that were far too squat to merit so lofty a designation. The "towers" are essentially enormous computer drives, and they contain everything that Scorsese shot during the production of the film. But they don't contain film, or even videotape. They contain patterns of numbers: zeroes and ones. Every face, every colour, every scream that Scorsese shot and printed has been "digitised": turned into binary data, just as music is turned into binary data when it's imprinted on a CD. And, instead of actually snipping celluloid, the way editors did in the old days (which is to say five years ago), he and Schoonmaker now use keyboards and mice to manipulate "information". That information is then handed over to the earnest young cuneiform readers in the next room, who translate it back into actual snips and splices.

In the editing room, the conver-sation often sounds encoded. "This?" Schoonmaker will say, and Scorsese will say, "Tighter, tighter, tighter, tighter, tighter." Sometimes he will simply slap the arm of his chair and whisper "Bam!" at the moment he wants a cut. On one occasion, as I was watching what struck me as a perfectly smooth sequence, Scorsese and Schoonmaker looked at each other and sighed.

"Right?" she said.

"Yeah, it's slowing the whole picture up," he replied.

Schoonmaker removed a nanosecond or two of footage and played the sequence again. This time, it felt fleeter, more vivid, more alive. "Excellent," Scorsese said. "What's next?"

What was next was a reel change, and for editors as fastidious as Schoonmaker and Scorsese the reel change is one of the most vexing bugaboos. To put it simply, projectionists in many cinemas have to change reels several times as the movie plays. Twelve feet (or eight seconds) before the end of a reel, a little mark in the upper right-hand corner of the screen signals the projectionist to get ready. About 10 feet later, another mark tells him, "Change the thing now." If the projectionist does his job well, no one watching the film will notice the switch. But projectionists often don't do their job well. "Inevitably, you're going to miss part of the scene is what happens," Scorsese said. So he and Schoonmaker were trying to determine which bits of dialogue or action they could allow the audience to miss.

On the screen, Robert De Niro, as the casino manager, had just fired a witless local bumpkin who was supposed to be supervising his slot machines. Now Kevin Pollak, who plays the casino's figurehead owner, was telling him: "You can't just fire him. Webb's his brother-in-law. He's county commissioner." Schoonmaker stopped the clip.

"All right," Scorsese said. "If you do the reel change right after he fires him, guaranteed you're gonna lose 'He's county commissioner.' You're gonna lose it."

Schoonmaker played a little more of the scene. There was a closeup of a yellowish blueberry muffin, largely bereft of blueberries. De Niro gazed down at it and said sourly, "Look at yours. Look at that." A shot of Pollak's muffin, glistening with blueberries. De Niro said, "Look at this, there's nothin'. Look at how many blueberries your muffin has and how many mine has. Yours is falling apart. I have nothing."

"What are you on about?" Pol- lak said.

"It's like everything else in this place," De Niro replied. "You don't do it yourself, it never gets done."

Cut to the casino kitchen, where De Niro was about to bawl out the muffin chef. Scorsese looked mournful. "You've got to do the reel change there," he said. 'That's all you can do." He turned to me. "It's really bad when the logistics affect the picture. All the technical stuff affecting the aesthetics of it." He shook his head.

"You know, there are several voice-overs still in the film where they're not listening, really, for some reason," Schoonmaker said. "I don't know what it is."

"I don't know what it is, either," Scorsese murmured. He rubbed his eyes with his fists.

Whatever it was, it was one of those editing-room questions, one of the perplexing epistemological questions that no one has time to think about while the film is being written and shot - like the question about what information the audience can do without during a reel change, or, in the "valet parkers" scene, the question about whether the audience will get "get".

Now we were watching one of Scorsese's beautiful, gliding dolly shots - a shot that took us into a room full of surveillance devices and fancy microphones and men sitting in front of spinning tape recorders. A voice- over explained what was going on. But I noticed that no matter how many times Scorsese and Schoonmaker played back the scene I always stopped listening to the voice-over at exactly the same point - the point at which one of the men lifts a weird electronic contraption toward the ceiling, and the camera rapturously follows the movement. At first, I thought it must be me - I was getting sleepy, perhaps, or the Editing Room Diet (chocolate, coffee, more chocolate) was making my head swim. But then Schoonmaker turned to Scorsese and said, "That's one of those voice-overs I was talking about."

Scorsese shook his head. "I know, I know," he moaned.

"What is that thing?" I asked. "That thing he holds up toward the ceiling - is that some kind of bugging device?"

Scorsese's eyes widened. 'That's interesting," he said. "See what you said? This is one of those times when the images just carry the wrong weight. Something intangible you can't touch, a combination of the word with the image that it's on, and suddenly the audience doesn't hear or comprehend. Now, why? We don't know what it is. You said, 'Gee, it's interesting - that bugging device going up to the ceiling.' Well, of course. Your eye is going up there - you're not listening to what this guy in the voice- over is saying. The shot alone makes sense, the voice-over alone makes sense. Put them together, it's a mess."

This was somewhere between an artistic discovery and a philosophical one: human beings - at least, Homo cinematicus - have a limited amount of attention at their disposal. When you throw too much information at that attention, it does not necessarily expand to receive your offering; instead, it may contract or flee, or, if you continue to tax it beyond its limits, shut you out completely - at which point Homo cinematicus announces that he is going out for some popcorn. "It's amazing how just moving something a little bit can make a big difference in the way it plays," Schoonmaker said.

"It reminds me of painting," Scorsese said. "As a painter, you put one colour against another colour, but you never know what the feeling will be until you try it. There's no intellectual reason or concept behind it. It just feels better. So there's no way to relax when you're doing this stuff. There's no way to relax and say, 'At least here we know.' You never know."

Scorsese stopped for a moment, put his hands together as though he were praying, and pressed his index fingers to his lips. "Every time you go out to do a picture, you learn that you really don't know," he said. "You rediscover how to make pictures every time - every time you're out." He stopped himself, took a breath, and rubbed his hands together fiercely. "All right, Thelma," he said. "No more fooling around. What do we got?"

! 'Casino' opens 23 Feb. Nicholas Pileggi's book of the same name is out now (Corgi, pounds 5.99).

! Reprinted by permission; c Stephen Schiff. First published in the 'New Yorker'.