Martin Scorsese Saved Michael Powell from Destitution and Anonymity

In the new documentary directed by David Hinton, “Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger,” Martin Scorsese pays tribute to the work and life of Michael Powell and his filmmaking partner Emeric Pressburger, as he analyzes their incredible body of work (“The Red Shoes,” “The Tales of Hoffman,” “Black Narcissus”) through the lens of the profound influence it had on him as a director. In the film, Scorsese also discusses the friendship that developed between Powell and himself in the ’70s and ’80s, and the invaluable guidance the great British director provided at critical moments of his own career.

When Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime editor who was married to Powell before he passed away in 1990, was a guest on an upcoming episode of IndieWire’s Toolkit podcast she made clear there was another side of the Scorsese-Powell relationship that wasn’t as heavily emphasized in the documentary.

More from IndieWire

“Marty did so much for Michael, it’s not documented enough and we couldn’t put it in the documentary because we had so many other things [to get to],” said Schoonmaker, who was an executive producer on “Made in England.”

According to Schoonmaker, this dates back to 1974 when Scorsese traveled to the Edinburgh Film Festival to receive an award for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” When the festival asked who he wanted to present the award to him, Scorsese said his filmmaking hero Powell, to which festival brass allegedly responded, “Who’s Michael Powell?”

As is covered in “Made in England,” the post-World War II British film industry went through a rough time and no longer provided large mystical canvases that launched Powell and Pressburger, who lost their creative independence and struggled throughout the ’50s, before disbanding in 1957.

When Powell made the brilliant low-budget “Peeping Tom” (1960) without Pressburger, the disturbing and ahead-of-its-time film was discarded by its producers and pawned off on a porn distributor, effectively ending his moviemaking career in England (he’d go on to make two films in Australia).

'The Red Shoes'
‘The Red Shoes’Criterion

“After Edinburgh, [Scorsese] was so disturbed by that they didn’t know who Michael Powell was, that he came to London and he just kept asking everybody, ‘Does anybody know where Michael Powell is?,’” said Schoonmaker. “Nobody did, except this one man [Mike Kaplan], who was doing publicity for [Stanley] Kubrick on ‘2001.’”

Kaplan, a fellow American film aficionado, informed Scorsese how bad things had gotten for Powell, who was living in a cottage in Gloucestershire, and arranged for the two men to have a drink in London.

“He was really becoming destitute. He had no money coming in. And he couldn’t even afford to heat the cottage. And that’s why he got those, what they call chilblains, those rosy cheeks, which he hated when people told him they liked it here in America, because they didn’t know that it was caused by an unheated house,” said Schoonmaker. “He couldn’t buy a bottle of whiskey, and he loved to have his five o’clock whiskey. He would hide a biscuit for his dog, and when the dog found the biscuit, he would have his whiskey and the dog would have the biscuit. He didn’t have that for years. He almost got taken to jail for non-payment of the rates, what we call property taxes, a friend stepped in and paid for it, so he didn’t have to go to jail. It was a really, really bad time. He didn’t let many people know how bad it was.”

During Scorsese and Powell’s meeting at Julie’s, a still-operating London restaurant, the fast-talking Scorsese professed what films like “The Red Shoes” meant to him, and drilled him with filmmaking questions about the masterpieces he had watched countless times.

“And that’s where the wonderful moment occurred where Michael says, ‘The blood started to run in my veins again,’” said Schoonmaker, quoting Powell’s autobiography. “And from that moment on their friendship just grew and grew and grew into something huge and wonderful, and Marty brought Michael to America.”

Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom'
‘Peeping Tom’Criterion

Scorsese connected Powell with film critic and historian David Thomson, who was a professor at Dartmouth, where Powell would start to teach as well. Scorsese also helped propel, along with Powell and Pressburger scholars Ian Christie and Kevin Goff Yates, the ongoing revival of Powell’s great films, making sure the New York film community were introduced to a director every bit the equal of lauded names like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Kubrick.

“Marty [was always] showing his films, having him meet people, and entered ‘Peeping Tom’ in the [1979] New York Film Festival, which is where Francis [Ford] Coppola saw it, and Steven Soderbergh, who then made ‘Sex, Lives, and Videotape,’” said Schoonmaker. “Marty was constantly educating people and helping Michael come back into the world again.”

Coppola would hire Powell to be the Senior Director in Residence at his Zoetrope Studios in California, where he would start to write his autobiography. It’s when Scorsese and Schoonmaker made the trip out west for the 1981 Academy Awards, where “Raging Bull” had received eight nominations and Schoonmaker would win for Best Editing, that she and Powell started to become romantically involved.

“He came to New York with me when we made ‘King of Comedy’ and then from that point on, he was with us all the time, on the sets or watching edits, it was so wonderful for Marty,” said Schoonmaker.

In the documentary, Scorsese talks about having Powell as a “constant presence” in his life from the production of “King of Comedy” (1982) to getting “Goodfellas” (1990) off-the-ground, supplying sage guidance during a difficult time in his career.

Thelma Schoonmaker at the BFI presenting Powell & Pressburger retrospective
Thelma Schoonmaker at the BFI presenting ‘Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger’Tim Whitby

In the 34 years since his passing, Schoonmaker and Scorsese continue to preach the gospel of Powell and Pressburger, most notably by continuing to restore their films, which Schoonmaker personally oversees. Recent restorations include “The Small Back Room” and “I Know Where I’m Going!” which are part of touring retrospectives hitting New York (happening now at MOMA through July 31), Los Angeles (The Academy Museum July 18-August 19), Seattle, and Chicago.

“Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger” opens at the Quad Cinema on July 12, Landmark’s Nuart in Los Angeles on July 26.

Look out for IndieWire’s Toolkit episode with Thelma Schoonmaker on Spotify, Apple, and other major podcast platforms July 11.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.