Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winning film editor Anne V. Coates…
“When I was a really small girl I was very horsey; I used to think I’d like to be a race horse trainer,” recalls British film editor Anne V. Coates whose cinematic career spans over six decades. “Once I reached about 16 and became interested in movies, I thought I would like to be a movie director.” The shift in thinking occurred while the teenager was at boarding school; she and her classmates were taken by their teachers to see classical films. “When I saw Wuthering Heights  I was in another world; I was swept away by it and Laurence Olivier [Sleuth]. It suddenly made me realize that would be quite an interesting job to be able to take a book like Wuthering Heights and make it something magical on the screen. It had a profound influence on my life.” Even with a family member being an influential figure in the British film industry, Coates had to be persistent to make her aspiration a reality. “It was very difficult to get into movies even though my uncle was Arthur Rank; he didn’t want me coming into movies. The unions were strong and very difficult to get into.” The young woman pursued an alternative job path during World War II when she worked for the British Red Cross as a nurse at a plastic surgery hospital. “I was interested in medicine but I was really only doing it to fill in the time until I could get into movies.”
“My uncle was very religious,” says Coates of the legendary Arthur Rank who established a small production company called Religious Films. “He became interested in movies; he saw how much film influenced people, particularly young people. He started making religious films for his Sunday schools. Then he became really interested in them and the rest is history. That’s how he started.” Rank hired his niece. “He thought if he put me in Religious Films there wasn’t much glamour, so if I was going in for those reasons I would soon tire of it.” Coates did not tire of the enterprise. “I did projection and sound recording. We made some Sunday shorts. I used to send the films out to the churches on the weekend for them to run. I was really interested and enjoying it.” The union issue remained. “It was a nonunion job. You couldn’t get into the major studios unless you were in the union.” A solution literally presented itself. “Eventually they decided to unionize all the small companies so they came round one day and said, ‘We want you all to become members of the union.’ The people who were more religious and there for principles, didn’t want to but I said, ‘Give me the form.’ immediately. Suddenly I was in the union. I heard about this job at Pinewood; they were looking for a second assistant in the cutting room. I applied and got an interview. I didn’t speak the exact truth because I had not worked in a cutting room.” The new hire sought the help of some friends who owned an educational company to give her a crash course. “I knew very little when I started there. I’ve always believed you should take a risk and hope for the best.”
“I was lucky when I worked on The End of the River ,” admits Anne V. Coates. “Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were producing it, didn’t like the work the young editor was doing so they decided to give it to their top editor Reggie Mills [Romeo and Juliet] who at that time was cutting Red Shoes . They sent me upstairs to be his assistant. There I was working with one of the top editors in the world on my first picture; it was very interesting because I was able to watch him recut the work. I was also in The Red Shoes cutting room. I never worked on it officially but I would help out.” Coates had a brief encounter with a Hollywood icon while she was visiting a friend in an edit suit at Pinewood Studios. “Charlie Chaplin [Modern Times] came in and Gordon [Hales] introduced me. Charlie barely shook my hand and said, ‘Hello.’ He came straight over and nudged me away from sitting behind the Moviola where I was looking at his film. I didn’t have the best of meetings with him. I felt embarrassed so I left very quickly.”
When the film editor she was assisting had to pass on cutting The Pickwick Papers , Coates jumped at the opportunity. “I went off and met with the director. I didn’t feel like I said anything particularly bright but apparently I impressed him. I got the job with the proviso that if I didn’t work out in the first two or three weeks they would change me or bring in someone over me. My friends said, ‘You must be mad working with Noel Langley, a known misogynist.’ I said, ‘He was very nice to me.’ He was a very good writer but not an experienced director; he was making a lot of mistakes and it was difficult to cut. I was doing my best but I know they were not totally happy. Then they did a courtroom sequence which I apparently did a really good edit of and everything went smoothly after that. They put me under contract and I did another picture for them. You have to take the breaks when they come.”
“The story is that Alec Guinness [Our Man in Havana] was offered the John Mills [Ryan’s Daughter] part of the disciplinarian Colonel in the army and he’d played a similar Colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai ,” reveals Coates who edited Tunes of Glory (1960). Guinness wanted to play the role of Major Jock Sinclair whom he viewed to be a vagabond with a lot of character; however, director Ronald Neame (The Odessa File) balked at the idea. “Alec did a test for them and they decided to take a chance on him. Then they got Johnny Mills to come in and play the Colonel, which he was happy to do because it was a wonderful part. They were both wonderful parts.”
Questioned as to what movie she is most proud of, Coates answers, “It’s called The Bofors Gun  which was a film I did with Jack Gold [The Medusa Touch]; he was a wonderful English director who just never made the break to Hollywood.” The film editor explains the story that revolves around the anti-aircraft weapon. “It’s about a group of soldiers who are guarding it through the night during the war. It’s just these fantastic characters. Nicol Williamson [The Seven-Per-Cent Solution] was brilliant.” The inexperience of Gold, who was making his directorial debut, caused problems for the production; however, Coates was able to compensate with her editorial choices. “I succeeded in making it a better picture than the script. There’s a scene at the end before he [Williamson] commits suicide which is very moving.”
Anne V. Coates is best remembered for the film which won her an Oscar. “We had 33 miles of film. That’s a lot of film to go through and make choices on in very little time,” says Coates when talking about Lawrence of Arabia (1962). “When we were reconstructing it, David Lean and I tried a couple of times to cut down scenes. But we realized they were right the way they were. Lawrence had its own kind of rhythms and you had to go with them.” As for the famous transition featuring a lighted match and the rising sun, Coates remarks, “It was in the script as a dissolve but we saw it cut together before we had the optical delivered. We looked at the job and said, ‘My, God it worked fantastic!’ We tried taking a frame off here and there and David said to me in the end, ‘That’s nearly perfect. Take it away and make it perfect.’ I literally took two frames off of the outgoing scene and that’s the way it is today.”
“I was very surprised that I got one,” confesses Anne V. Coates who received an Academy Award nomination for her film editing on Becket (1964). “That’s nearly one of my favourite movies. I loved Becket. I thought it was so beautifully written. Peter Glenville [The Comedians] was a stage director and he was also wonderful with actors. Those two boys [Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton] were both fantastic and they really respected Peter. It tells a story very simply; there isn’t a lot of flourishing. I was a little disappointed with the dailies because they were so ordinary after the amazing stuff I’d been getting [for Lawrence of Arabia]. But then I began to appreciate it, particularly the dialogue. Hal Wallis [The Rose Tattoo] was a good producer. He didn’t interfere a lot. He didn’t give Peter Glenville very long to get it cut, like two weeks before we went back to America. The sets were so beautiful on that.”
The Elephant Man (1980) presented Coates with her third Oscar nomination. “I was always amused by my first interview. I went to the office in Wembley to meet with David [Lynch]. This young guy came out of the office and I was about to say, ‘Oh, well I’ll have a black coffee with sugar please.’ Then they said, ‘Let us introduce you to David Lynch.’ He looked about 15 years old. I was surprised because he doesn’t have a 15 year old mind at all; he’s a very sophisticated man. He had some great ideas, some of which I didn’t always agree with. We had quite a few arguments on The Elephant Man which was interesting. We had a problem at the beginning because Mel Brooks [Blazing Saddles] was producing it and the press thought he was doing a sendup of deformed people.” Coates learned that Lynch had a rather peculiar way of defining “a good time” when he gave her advice on a family outing. “David said to me one day, ‘You know what you should do. You should take them to the museum where the elephant man is. They’ve got some really interesting exhibits there. Two headed babies, deformed this that or the other. Your children would really love it. While you’re there you should take some sandwiches and have lunch.’”
“I was lucky to get that because Wolfgang Petersen [Das Boot] was interviewing three editors and my agent got me in first,” remembers Anne V. Coates, who was lauded with her fourth Oscar nomination for In the Line of Fire (1993) starring Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) and John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons). “Wolfgang was interested that I wasn’t just going for the action scenes but it was the telephone conversations that really intrigued me. I said, ‘They will be fascinating to cut.’ Which they were and I enjoyed them. They were difficult to cut because you didn’t have a huge amount of material. You had two excellent actors so you wanted to be on both of them all the time. We didn’t want to do that split screen idea; we always had to make a choice as to which person we would be on. That was quite difficult.”
“I love working with Steven Soderbergh,” states Coates who was presented with her fifth Academy Award nomination for Out of Sight (1998). “I did that one and Erin Brockovich  with him. He’s a fantastic filmmaker. On Out of Sight we had a lot of fun because we did a lot of different kinds of montage scenes. I know the one which became famous, where we intercut the cocktail bar with the bedroom. We also did quite a lot of other clever things not all of which were in the picture. One day I said to Steven, ‘We might have been too clever with the cuts within cuts. We could be losing the audience.’ We simplified it but kept the best stuff in. Steven is very interested in editing and we worked closely together. On Erin Brockovich he didn’t even come into the cutting room much because he trusted me more and he was already working on another film. We had Julia [Roberts] giving a really nice performance. It wasn’t as complicated a film.”
“I’ve had two nominations for Out of Sight and In the Line of Fire where the director was not nominated. I think that’s weird,” says Coates. “You aren’t going to get that editing unless you had fairly good material to work with.” Viewing the dailies with a director is a big help when assembling a project. “I’m always trying to create what the director wants. Obviously, you bring your own ideas to it but hopefully the director knows what he’s doing and you’re trying to make his work play out as well as possible. One or two editors cut against the way the director wants it to showoff. I believe you should work with your director.”
When asked what is required to be successful at her profession, the native of Reigate, England answers, “You need a lot of patience because film editing is not a quick thing.” Coates emphasizes the importance of being imaginative and decisive. “You’ve got to do your cut where you think it should go. I’ve known editors who have nearly had a nervous breakdown; they worry so much about what they’re doing and I don’t think that’s a good thing for an editor at all. They need to have the courage of their conviction and to experiment with things. It is very important to experiment even if sometimes a director asks you to do things and you think, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work.’ You should try it. Editing is exciting because you’re always exploring things; sometimes they work and sometimes it is a bit disappointing. I know when I first start cutting a film I always get very depressed about it. I think, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve lost my touch. I’ll never cut again.’ Then one day you cut a scene and you think, ‘Oh well, maybe that’s great.’ And you go on from there.”
“It took me a long time to go over to digital because I’d never been on a computer,” admits Anne V. Coates who eventually left behind the Moviola for the Avid. “I had to learn all the ins and outs of it which I don’t totally understand even now. The important thing is realizing that you’re still doing the same thing. You’re still telling a story. You’re still making people laugh or making them cry or terrified or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it with film or doing it digitally.” Coates does miss the old days. “What I liked about the Moviola was that it was so personal. It was just you and the screen; everybody else would be looking in. On the last film I did [Extraordinary Measures, 2010] , I had 12 people in my cutting room including Harrison Ford [Witness], all giving opinions on things.” Film editing has evolved over the years. “Most people think that commercials and music videos have changed the style of editing quite a lot. They’ve made it a lot faster. Audiences can pick up stories a lot faster now. In the old days we used to in the old days hang on to shots and explain things at length. Now we do a lot of jump cutting and the audience is nearly always with you.” Technique is not everything as one needs to have a sense of rhythm and imagination. “You have to be born with that kind of flair. It’s definitely not a mechanical job.”
“When I came in, which is many years ago, women couldn’t really do much; they could do makeup and hair, they could do continuity or script girl or they could be editors,” says Anne V. Coates. “They didn’t go in for camera, sound or directing.” The times have changed. “Women in television were given opportunities like directing, producing, cinematography, and sound, much more than they were in film. Then they were able to crossover.” Issues still need to be addressed. “I know Kathryn Bigelow [The Hurt Locker] did a great job but it hasn’t put her in the top rung of directors yet. We’ll see how she goes with her next movie. There really hasn’t been a brilliant woman director and they have had opportunities. I don’t think they’re as good as men at managing teams of people. They don’t seem to be able to make the right choices of subject, and never seem able to create on the screen what they have in their mind.” Hope remains in the female film students Coates has met. “Not many women wanted to take the risk of producing but they do now; they’re very adventurous.”
“I go to movies a lot because I belong to BAFTA and the Academy, and they’re screening films all the time,” states Anne V. Coates who tends to avoid watching DVDs. “I like the experience of being with an audience to see a film. Sometimes when the editing is atrocious I jump out of my seat a bit and when it’s really good I appreciate it.” Coates counts movies like Casablanca (1942) and Les enfants du paradis (1945) as classics. “I like adventure and historical films, and stories about real people. I like some comedies but sophisticated not slapstick.” As to the current films which have stood out to the veteran post-production specialist, she mentions The Social Network (2010) and a mind-bending tale by filmmaker Christopher Nolan. “I enjoyed Inception . I loved that layer of dreams. I thought that was fascinating. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t have more emotion to it.”
“I was determined to stay in because I went through some bad times in the English film industry when there was very little work,” reflects Anne V. Coates as to what has enabled her forge a long and successful career. “I went down from a first assistant to a second assistant to keep working. Once I got in I wasn’t going to let myself get out and never get back in again. I went after pictures. I had some bad snubs from producers when I was starting. They said, ‘Oh, we don’t want a young editor like you. We want a really good editor.’ You’d think, ‘Oh, my God, that’s very depressing. I don’t think I can call up again about films.’ But you do. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. I would always say to my sons who are directors, ‘If you’re interested in an actor, even though you think he might be too big for you, you should always ask. You never know, they may be interested in doing that kind of a story.’ You always have to take chances.”
Many thanks to Anne V. Coates for taking the time out of her busy schedule for this interview.
Be sure to check out the second part of this interview, where Anne V. Coates talks about her experiences on Lawrence of Arabia.
For an interview between Walter Murch and Anne V. Coates head over to FilmSound.org.