Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winning film editor Anne V. Coates about Lawrence of Arabia…
“I was doing some turning out in England the other day because I’m selling my apartment there,” recalls British film editor Anne V. Coates who made a surprising discovery. “I came across this letter which said, ‘Dear Mr. Spiegel, I don’t think I can cut Lawrence of Arabia  for the money you’re offering.’ I turned down the picture. It’s a two page letter saying all the reasons why I wasn’t going to do it.” Coates explains, “I had already cut Tunes of Glory  and The Horse’s Mouth . I wasn’t a complete nonentity. They were offering, and they paid me, very little money. Sam Spiegel said to me, ‘If you cut Lawrence then you would be able to ask any money you like afterwards.’ So seven years later when they asked me to go back on to do the recut for television, I asked for a huge amount of money. Sam said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I said, ‘I’m doing what you said.’ and he paid me. I had forgotten I had ever written that letter and to come across it was really weird. I thought, ‘I wonder where I’d be now? Probably, not here in Hollywood.’”
Money was not the only factor to consider. “I was one of the up-and-coming young editors in England at the time,” states Anne V. Coates. “I had a meeting with Stanley Kubrick about doing Lolita  and I liked it; we got on very well. It was a question of going with a new director or what we call in England ‘an old hat director’ like David Lean. My husband said, ‘You can’t even think twice. Don’t even think about Stanley Kubrick. You have to work with David Lean.’ I’ve never had a choice of two such interesting films at the same time.” Reflecting on her decision, Coates admits, “I was very disappointed not to work with him. He never asked again. I saw him occasionally and he rang me about one of my assistants on Lawrence that he wanted to use. I couldn’t part with that one but I gave a very high recommendation to my second first, Ray Lovejoy, whom he took, and he became a top editor. He cut 2001  for Stanley. I had a chat with Stanley then; that’s probably the last time I spoke to him.”
As to how she got associated with Lawrence of Arabia, Anne V. Coates retells an often told tale. “We lived on top of Harrods, the store in London and we used to go into the juice bar on Saturday mornings. We met a friend of ours Gerry O’Hara, who was a First AD, and I asked Gerry, ‘What are you doing at the moment?’ He said, ‘I’m working with David Lean. We’re doing a week of tests on Albert Finney [The Bourne Ultimatum] for Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’, which was what Lawrence of Arabia was called originally. I asked, ‘You’ve got anybody editing it?’ He said, ‘I don’t think so. I’ll ask the production manager on Monday.’ Monday morning John Palmer rang me up and said, ‘Do you want to come and cut this? We’re only paying 50 pounds a week.’ Before he went on, I said, ‘Yes.’ To work with David Lean, to me, was magic. Some scenes were Finney as an English officer and some were him living with the Arabs. I cut the two sequences. It was the one when he was an English officer that I did first. We were running the dailies in the theatre and David asked, ‘Have you finished cutting that scene yet?’ I was very nervous and I said, ‘Oh, yes. I would like to run it for you tomorrow.’ ‘Oh, no.’ he said. ‘Go fetch it now.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to run it in front of all these people.’ He said, ‘Go and get it Annie.’ I went and got the scene. I was so frightened that I didn’t even see a cut go by; at the end of it he got up and said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything cut exactly like I would have done it myself.’ A few days later he asked me to travel up in the Rolls Royce with him and Sam Spiegel, and he offered me the picture.”
“I was very scared when I first started because he had been such a famous editor,” admits Anne V. Coates. “He was a handsome man, and arrogant but not unpleasantly so. He had a lot of distance about him. He didn’t chatter to begin with when shooting. Coming into the cutting room he was a different person; he just loved the cutting room. He became warm and fun.” Coates was reluctant to make suggestions to Lean. “He said, ‘If you have any thoughts tell them to me.’ So sometimes I’d say things to him. He’d say, ‘Oh, Annie I don’t know that seems like a pretty stupid idea.’ But then two or three days later he’d sometimes say to me, ‘You know that idea you had the other day well that didn’t work. But I’ve been thinking about it. If we did this and that, then I think it would.’” The legendary filmmaker installed confidence in the film editor. “What he mostly taught me was to give a shot a bit more measure. I know that I cut some of the scenes, particularly with the camels, a bit short; he extended some of them. He said, ‘It’s a beautiful scene. Imagine it with music and as part of the story. Have the courage of your convictions and keep it the length you think is right.’”
The biggest challenge was the amount of footage. “We had 33 miles of film. That’s a lot of film to go through and make choices on in very little time,” reveals the native of Reigate, England. “The difficulty was working out what you were going to leave out. David said that once. What makes a really good editor is what they leave out of a film.” A much celebrated transition is the one of a lighted match to a sunrise. “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. 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. It wasn’t a momentous thing to us. It was only when somebody rang me at three o’clock in the morning from Australia to ask me what I was thinking about when I did that cut; I said, ‘I didn’t have any idea.’ Several direct cuts like that were originally my idea because David hadn’t seen the La Nouvelle Vague French direct cutting. I got him to see a couple of films. He loved it and did it even better. We didn’t over do it. We had so much footage I could have cut another whole film of Lawrence. That is a challenge because you have to go through it so carefully to make sure you don’t miss any golden moments. We cut out a mirage scene just before we finished the film and I was sad because I’d always liked it. I think if you’re going to sit through three hours and forty minutes you can sit through three hours and forty-two minutes.”
While in a Culver City cutting room, Anne V. Coates was broached about reconstructing Lawrence of Arabia. I asked, ‘Can you find the film?’ Usually they throw film away after five years. Bob Harris said, ‘Yes, we’ve found all of it with your writing and the elastic bands around the cuts.’ I asked, ‘Have you found the goggles?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Great.’” Coates was given the task of calling David Lean and asking for his approval. “I rang David, he was working on Nostromo in Spain and I told him about it; he was terribly excited about putting back all his work that he did not want to take out to begin with. He said to me the same thing, ‘Ah, we’ll be able to put back the goggles!’ It is such a funny shot but it meant so much to the both of us in our own way.” The film editor enjoyed revisiting the project with which she was originally involved for 23 weeks. “It was magical. I had forgotten how good it was to be honest with you because I worked on it for so long.” Coates was at ease collaborating again with David Lean. “I was more confident because I had cut several films since then. He turned to me one day and said, ‘I’d forgotten what fun it was cutting Lawrence with you.’” The two colleagues attempted to shorten the biopic. “David and I tried a couple of times to cut down scenes and then we really hated them. We realized that they were right the way they were. Lawrence had its own kind of rhythms and you had to go with them.” The renewed creative partnership was brief because of the death of Lean. “He asked me to cut Nostromo which he was going to do next but he never did; I only cut Lawrence [for him]. He did originally ask me to cut Dr. Zhivago  but I was pregnant with my daughter so I couldn’t do it.”
“There’s a 50th anniversary coming up next year so I expect I’ll be going to one or two things,” says Anne V. Coates. “Somebody I know vaguely is trying to organize this big premiere in Wadi Rum, where we did the last battle in Morocco, in the open air and to get the king, the princes, Peter O’Toole, Omar [Sharif] and everybody to come.” Contemplating what it was about the editing on Lawrence of Arabia that resulted in her winning an Oscar, Coates observes, “If you don’t start with a good script you very seldom end up with a good picture. You can make it better and in some cases you can make it worse. Lawrence had everything going for it. It had a wonderful script, a great cast, a fabulous director and enough material to make two films at least. If you just happen to be lucky and have a gift for editing, you have all the good things going for you.”
The Most Famous of Edits…
Many thanks to Anne V. Coates for taking the time out of her busy schedule for this interview.
For an interview between Walter Murch and Anne V. Coates, head over to FilmSound.org.