ART OF THE CUT with legendary Oscar-winning editor, Anne Coates

I have interviewed nearly 60 of the top editors in the world at this point including more than a dozen Oscar winners and I have never been star-struck until this interview with Anne Coates, ACE. At the same time, I felt like I was talking to a long-time friend. Coates won an Academy Award for Best Editing for “Lawrence of Arabia” three weeks before I was born in 1963 and has been nominated for “Becket” in 1965, “The Elephant Man” in 1981, “In the Line of Fire” in 1994 and for “Out of Sight” in 1999. She has edited more than 50 feature films including “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

(All of my previous articles used images by permission… for this one most of the movies are older and I scoured the web for appropriate images… if you are the copyright holder on one of these images and want me to remove it, please let me know.)

HULLFISH: You were quoted as saying that you thought there may have been some jobs you didn’t get because you are a woman, but there were also probably jobs that you got because you are a woman. Which jobs do you think you got because your gender?

COATES: Sometimes the more sensitive movies. They don’t usually go for the women for the action movies, but I’ve done a couple of action movies, so I don’t think it follows.

2000 Julia Roberts Stars In The Movie Erin Brockovich. (Photo By Getty Images)
2000 Julia Roberts Stars In The Movie Erin Brockovich. (Photo By Getty Images)

HULLFISH: What about “Erin Brokovich?”

COATES: I think it was because I’d done a good job on “Out of Sight.” That’s more likely. It was the same producers and directors and we’d all gotten along very well and they were very happy with what I’d done. But it may have helped that they thought I would have a certain empathy with Julia, but I don’t think that was the main reason.

HULLFISH: Anyone who’s been nominated for five Academy Awards is probably wanted by everyone regardless of their sex. Talk to me about your decision-making process. What informs you when you’re trying to make a cut, when you’re deciding on timing, performance?

COATES: It’s difficult to say because it’s so personal. That’s why editing is so difficult to talk about, because it’s a very personal feeling and each film you bring something completely different to it and different ideas and ways of working out. If you’ve got really wonderful actors and they’re all wonderful, you’re very lucky. Very often you’ve got a weak actor and you don’t know you’re going to be faced with that until you are. Then you have to cut round them or make their performance the best you can. One actress I was working with, I mostly picked out where she looked charming and smiled and cut away from her when she was talking. I would have her start a sentence and then I’d immediately cut away from her onto the reaction or the dialogue of the other person. So you’ve always got different kinds of problems to think out. Typically, especially in the old days, I’d map out in the script how I was planning to cut certain pieces. Not everything, but the key scenes. But when I actually came to cut them and I saw the performances, I often had to alter them because the people were so good in certain areas and not so good in others that I couldn’t follow the way I’d originally wanted to cut it. You have to be very adaptable. I’m a great actors’ editor. Not great in that way, but that I love to cut with actors’ eyes and what I see behind what they’re thinking and saying. You can’t plan too much. I just love cutting because it’s always such a challenge and interesting and you’re faced with something you’re not expecting. It’s fun. It’s fun to tell stories with the actors.

HULLFISH: What’s your process of watching dailies?

COATES: I like to sit back and enjoy them, actually, like a movie-goer in a way. I set with my director, preferably in a theater on a large screen. I don’t like it in digital where you hover around a small screen. I like seeing it on a big screen and I leave myself open to watch it and enjoy it. In that process I’m picking out little things that I like and remembering them. I don’t make any notes. If I’m sitting there with my assistant, I’ll nudge him. I won’t tell him what I’ve nudged him for, but he’ll take down the timecode. I don’t write notes myself because I find it distracts me from watching the rest of the footage. I’m what I would call an avid moviegoer. I just love movies. When I look at my first cut I look at them from a point of view of what they’re saying to me: the emotional level, am I getting from it what I want, or am I just being very clever with cuts, because that’s not what I want to be, I want to be where I’m affecting people and getting across on the screen what I want. Or if it’s action, I’m all for flash cutting if necessary, but I don’t believe in cutting where you don’t see anything. That’s OK for commercials. If it’s telling a story and I’m seeing stuff, I’m happy with it. I like the films that go with really quick cutting on some scenes.

HULLFISH: How does your assistant prepare your scene bins for you?

film bins
Film hanging in a film bin

COATES: Not a lot of organization. In the old days, they would lay out my scenes and I had great difficulty in getting an assistant who would lay out a scene in a way you were going to cut it, but it didn’t matter, because I knew what I wanted. Nowadays, that it’s done in digital, it’s completely different. It’s more or less the same, but instead of being given little rounds of film that I’d take and unwind, I just had it in blocks up there in bins laid out in scenes, but you can seldom get an assistant that will actually put it together in a way that you’re going to cut it.

HULLFISH: Tell me about your approach to a scene.

Moviola editing machine.

COATES: I run the scene two or three times. I make notes occasionally. Mostly I just get it in my mind how I’m going to do it and I run through the material and when I’m actually cutting it and looking at the shots more closely I find things that maybe I want to change from my original idea because I’ll see things closer. Sometimes things swing by me when I’m running through and I’ll see little close-ups and little things to use and I’ll put in but I run the scene two or three times and it’s just my process. I generally get an overall feeling of a scene and when I’ve cut it in the old days on film I used to clip it and not splice it – clip it together – and my assistant would splice it and we’d all go into the theater and watch it on the screen. But I would say to my crew, “Don’t worry about the actual cuts. I want to know the impression you get from the scene: whether I’m telling the story I want,” and it was very helpful and you’d see something you hadn’t seen (on the Moviola). But nowadays it’s difficult to do that because you’re running it on these little screens all the time, but I do try to involve my crew and run scenes for them. I always said I wouldn’t keep running backwards and forwards and looking at my cuts because I think that’s not right. I think you’ve got to cut the whole scene and then look at it THEN go back and work on the cuts. But I think it’s very important to get an overall feeling of a scene in that position and later on when you’re putting it all together you may change it because it may be too fast in that place, where it seemed perfect when you cut it as a single piece. But when you get the balance of the scene before or afterwards, I find it quite fascinating that every film you do has different problems. Like when I did “Murder on the Orient Express” Sidney Lumet knew exactly what he wanted to do so we had very little cover, but I managed to find a few close-ups here and there that I’d pop in and Sidney liked then and was OK, but he knows in his head more or less what he wants, so you follow his path, more or less, and try to improve on it. To remind the audience of who the people were we did those little page-turn things and we worked on those and did all sorts of little opticals. We didn’t want t be too obtuse with them, but we wanted to use them enough for the audience to remember without having to stop and think, because that takes them out of the film. Can I tell you an interesting thing about Sidney? Only a director as focused and disciplined as he is could really do it: and that is, to save a lot of money he shot all the shots in the train one way over two weeks, let’s say, of the different interrogations, and Albert Finney was always a little different in his acting with each character – he approached them differently, which made it quite difficult, because he then turned the train around over a weekend and he shot all the reverses. So he shot Albert walking out of a shot and three weeks later he had him walking in the other side and they had to have exactly the same emotion and timing the rhythm that they were having before and it’s seamless because the actors were very good. They were all very accomplished and Sidney was wonderful. But it’s quite interesting because every scene – this doesn’t happen that many times, where they’re walking in and out of shots – but the reverses are happening all the time, where they’re just sitting there and they’re shooting three weeks later or four weeks later. It saved a fortune because they didn’t have to keep turning the cameras around all the time, so that was interesting.

HULLFISH: In another interview you’d mentioned that Sidney Lumet was one of the few directors – the other being Milos Forman – who actually knew the difference between 10 frames if they asked you to trim a shot. Does your collaboration change when you’re working with a director when they really have that level of detail?

COATES: No, no, no, no. I cut my own way and hope for the best. Interesting with Milos Forman, we were editing with two editors at one time, and at the end four or five editors, the other editor who was working with me was an excellent editor, but he decided to go through the cut and tighten up ten or eight frames off quite a few cuts and I have to say that Milos noticed almost every single one of them and made him go back and put them all back in again. The guy was pretty impressive.

HULLFISH: One of the things you mentioned earlier was that when you cut a scene by itself and you feel good about that, but then when you see it in the larger context of the movie, your perception of the pace of that scene changes.

lawrence-of-arabia-posterCOATES: Generally your film is too long. 99 per cent of the time. “Lawrence of Arabia” we kept it long, but most films you go through and you start taking out the dead wood as we might call it, but particularly the scenes that are repetitive, but you might not have noticed at the time. So you start trimming those down or taking them out, taking lines out here and there and you’re speeding up your rhythms because when you first cut it, it’s a little slower. You’d like it to play down as fast as possible, so you do a lot of that when you look at the film overall and sometimes you put it back again because it was better the other way, but you have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So that’s a very good thing to remember. You know the film so well, and the director knows the film so that if you aren’t careful particularly if there’s a scene that you don’t like very much and isn’t playing very well and there’s another scene that’s similar, you’re inclined to cut it out and then you don’t know why it isn’t playing so well, so you put it back in again. When we did “Out of Sight” we did a lot of very tricky cutting. Very interesting, a lot of which stayed in. I said to (director) Steven (Soderbergh) one day, “I think we may have overdone it. It’s so jerky and I don’t think the audience will be able to follow it.” We had him going to three different prisons and all sorts of things that aren’t in the finished film, so we went back in and simplified it all, because when we looked at it we realized that each scene in and of itself was very clever and good and interestingly cut, but all together it became a bit of a mish mash, so we simplified it. So each film has its own kind of problems. On “Lawrence of Arabia” which we kept very long to begin with and we were in a big hurry – we only had 16 weeks and we usually have 20 weeks on a normal film from the end of shooting. (Producer) Sam Spiegel did a clever thing. He booked the showing for the queen early on and you don’t move the queen’s dates! So David had to be finished by then. We were working seven days a week, 12, 14 hours a day, and I don’t know how, now that I think about it, that we got it finished, but we did because we had to. Sam Spiegel was bringing over the dubbing at night and he was bringing us lovely meals to eat, lobster and stuff like that, you know, to keep us happy and working well. As soon as we were finished we were cut off immediately. We were lucky to get a sandwich. We cut “Lawrence of Arabia” down twice. I wasn’t on it the first re-cut when they cut out 15 or 20 minutes. Seven or eight years later I went back on and we cut another 7 or 8 minutes out for television. They promised David that they’d never use that cut for anything else, but of course they did. So then we went eventually to put it all back because it had been cut down two different times, so it was quite difficult because we’d used a cut to get from one place to another so it was quite tricky. But I thought it felt a bit draggy and a bit long and I knew we didn’t really have time to fine cut it as much as we would have liked to originally. David never felt that as much as me actually, but when we were doing the re-cut to put it back together again, I said to David, “Shall I do a few trims here and there? It does look a bit long.” So he said, “Yes. Go ahead.” I said, “Maybe when he rides in to Auda’s camp and they’re riding around him and he’s really happy and Auda’s really worried because he knows it might be a trap.” But it was really self-indulgent I thought, so I trimmed it all down and I took it back and I ran it for David and we looked at each other and he said, “It doesn’t work.” It had its own kind of pacing and rhythms and we put it all back. Maybe if I’d done it at the time we would have accepted it but it was really weird because it just didn’t work. It just worked long and everybody has always agreed that the film just works better long. But it didn’t at the time. David’s friends were saying it’s much too long. That’s why he cut it down. Billy Wilder and all those people were saying it was too long, but I never wanted to cut it down. I always thought it was better long. Sometimes films are. You know, you cut them down and they’re not as interesting as when they’re longer. greystoke“Greystoke” was a film like that. We cut it down because the studios wanted it no longer than 2:08 and when it was 2:20 it was a much better film because a couple of things were explained and not cut out. But they were so adamant about it and (producer) Hugh Hudson was having rows with the studio at the time. They insisted upon their way, so we cut some stuff that was really important, but it never went back.

HULLFISH: What were some of the challenges when you went from editing on film to editing digitally?

COATES: I’m not very technical, so it was quite difficult for me to learn. I’d never worked on a computer before. My assistants got me playing games: Naughts and Crosses (Tic Tac Toe) and Crosswords and things like that to try and get me OK with the mouse. I mean, I thought a mouse was something that ran across the floor. (laughs), because I’d never done anything like that. So it was a big change for somebody like me. Somehow, when you’re cutting with film you are so close to it. I used to love my Moviola, particularly rather than the Steenbecks and things I worked on because I could be just with me looking down and nobody can see over your shoulder. I liked that personal way of cutting, but when you’re on an Avid or something these days, you’re sitting back and your screens out here (she reaches her hands far out in front of her) and it has a rather impersonal feel that I didn’t like a lot. And you kind of cut from the outside in, because you have the material up there and you kind of cut it down. With a Moviola you kind of cut from inside out. You cut the other way round. But once I got into realizing that what you’re doing is really exactly the same, because you’re telling a story. You were making it exciting. You were saving the actors performances as I said to George Clooney. He thought that was very funny. We’ve been friends ever since. (laughs)

George-Clooney-in-Out-of-Sight-george-clooney-23756881-1280-720HULLFISH: You were joking with George Clooney about saving his performance. What are some of the ways that you shape a performance?

COATES: It’s very difficult to say. You don’t know what your problems going to be. Sometimes they’re so good that you can linger a little bit longer on them. And I was saying with one particular actor I was working with that wasn’t very good, but she was very pretty and I loved her smile, so I would cut to her when she smiled and cut away from her when she started talking because she was dreadful. (laughs) Nobody notices it if you do it really subtly.

HULLFISH: And did she win an Oscar for that performance? (laughs)

COATES: Not quite, but she did get very good reviews for it and I used to laugh. Other actors I’ve had other problems with. They’ve been way over the top – that’s the very common thing – so you have to tone down their performances a little bit. It depends on the actor and the performance. I don’t know, maybe I was wrong some times but I got high praise from John Malkovich once and I always thought that was good because he’s such a fussy actor.

malkovichHULLFISH: Malkovich is a Chicago guy.

COATES: Yes. That theater company in Chicago…

HULLFISH: Steppenwolf.

COATES: Yes. Were you involved in that at all?

HULLFISH: The post house in Chicago that I worked for (Del Hall Video) used to do some of their PR stuff, so for years I cut scenes with Gary Sinise, Malkovich, Joan Allen and John Mahoney. All these great theater actors that are now Hollywood names. What about sound design? Are you very involved in that? Do you find it helps you sell your visual cuts?

COATES: Generally speaking I’m not so involved. I have a first assistant… I’m very lucky, I had a first assistant for eight years who’s now a very good editor. He really should have edited earlier, but I couldn’t let him go, so I let him cut quite a few of my scenes. It’s an interesting thing: whenever I gave him scenes to cut he would always cut them too fast, when I was trying to train him. I was trying to train him to cut more slowly and let the emotions come through and not go snap, snap, snap all the time. Now, as I say, he’s cut a couple of very good films, but I let him do a lot of sound work and music work because he was a musician. He played the guitar and had a little group that he played in, so it made his life much more interesting and he was very creative with it.

HULLFISH: Who was that assistant?

COATES: Rob Sullivan.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about music. What do you temp with? How do you use music?

COATES: I temp with music a lot now. I used not to because it wasn’t a passion to. In the old days when I started, we were not on magnetic, we were on optical film and in those days I don’t remember ever putting music on except in a dance scene or something like that. But it slowly became popular, so all editors started putting music on. It was like in the old days when you used to say, “Wait till you see it in color!” Because you used to cut with black and white prints because it was less expensive and maybe you’d just print one scene in color to see what it was going to look like until you cut the negative, then you’d see it in color, so you used to say, “Wait till you see it in color!” and the same thing with music, “It might not quite be playing like you want, but just wait till we get the music on.” I think that music is very important, but it’s very difficult because it’s very personal. Steven Soderbergh particularly had some quite way out ideas about music which I would never have normally. David Lynch also. So you’ve got to get in to their minds somehow with music, and you’ve got to come out with some ideas of your own, even if they don’t like them. Try this and try that. But you can spoil a scene and spoil a picture by putting too much music on. Television uses far too much music. Wall to wall music. I think it should be used very carefully to enhance a scene, that’s what it’s meant to do, not drown it out. I mean, sometimes if you’ve got a scene not playing very well and you get the right music you can help it.


HULLFISH: What was odd about Soderbergh’s choices about music?

COATES: They were a little bit way out. I would have been a little more conventional. I think you should be way out. I’m not at all against it, but I know Rob (my assistant) put in some music for him one day. Soderbergh was well known for being sarcastic and he said, “What film do you think you’re working on, Rob?” (laughs) which was very hurtful. Rob didn’t get over it for several days. (laughs)

HULLFISH: What are some of the things that make a scene difficult to edit? Performance, or is it the way it’s covered.

COATES: A scene that David (Lean) and I saw differently for instance was when he brings Gasim back from the desert and they’d been missing and Aldo’s family was waiting for them to come back and they’re obviously very attracted to each other and so I cut it rather like a sex scene. Getting nearer each other and little looks and things. Well, David thought it was too homosexual and didn’t want it cut like that, but I thought it was really emotional and great. But it’s not like that in the movie. You’ll never see it like that because I always had to do it the way David wanted to do it. There was plenty of emotion in it, but I was putting another layer onto it. That was quite difficult to do. Another scene that was difficult was “Becket” where they’re on the beach. Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton are on the beach and for various reasons I won’t go into – they were both hung-over and trying to manage their horses which they couldn’t really do. So that was extremely difficult because they were so slow in doing it we went into two days shooting it, so we had different sky, different clouds and the horses are facing this way and that way and there was usually somebody out of screen holding their bridles so they didn’t gallop off. That was a very tricky scene. I look at it now and I think, “What was so tricky about it? It’s perfectly simple.” But it was a nightmare to do. It’s a very important scene and I wanted to get the best performances out of those two. I mean, they can act – drunk or sober – they’re just a pair of wonderful actors. I’ve worked with both of them more than once. I wanted the best performances, but they’d be facing the wrong way around. Another one that was quite difficult to do was where Clint Eastwood is on the steps with Renee Russo in “In the Line of Fire.” russo ice creamThey’re eating ice cream. Clint Eastwood likes to “change his lines,” let’s put it. Forget his lines and change his lines. So he says it slightly differently, not all the time, but some times. So that was very tricky to get the emotion out of it… very, very important and they were eating ice cream whenever I wanted to cut or they weren’t eating ice cream, so there was that and the fact that Clint was changing his lines. And the scene is a beautiful scene and then she walks away and you wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait until she turns. And to get the right moment when she turns… I can’t say how I did it, but it just works out. Everybody says she turns at exactly the right time. It seems such a small thing but it was actually very important to the scene because she was leaving him at the time and he knew… he was waiting for her to turn, because he knew she would.

HULLFISH: Because there’s a tension in the waiting and you have to play the tension and release at just the right moment.

Carol ReedCOATES: You know. You’ve got no yardstick to do it by. You’ve just got your emotions. One of the best compliments I ever had – it always sounds conceited, but I love it – was Sir Carol Reed who said, when I was doing a not very good film with him, but he was a wonderful director. He said to me, “I’ve worked with a lot of good editors, but I’ve never worked with one with so much heart as you.” And that’s always been one of the nicest things that I’ve ever had said to me; particularly by such a wonderful man. I like to think that I’m an emotional editor.

HULLFISH: Do you find that your opportunities to work with some of these great directors are based on the fact that people just like to work with you? How important is that?

COATES: I think it’s important, but I don’t know how I would judge that really. There are people I’ve worked with several times. But there are directors who always work with the same editor. I look at it differently because I like working with different directors. The diversity. If somebody rings me up, the first thing I ask is about the director, whether it’s somebody I want to work with or not. I’ve turned down several films because I haven’t wanted to work with that director. Obviously, the script is the main thing, but I always ask about the director. Yes, I think that there some directors who wouldn’t use me. For one, I’m very expensive. (laughs). Another reason would be that they don’t want to work with a woman or they think I’m not right for that kind of subject or whatever. There are many films I’ve turned down for various reasons, sometimes it’s the director… I don’t do violent films. I mean, I’ll do things like “Out of Sight” which has some violence in it because of the story, but I don’t do out and out violence and my daughter, who’s also an editor, also doesn’t like to do violent films.

HULLFISH: What appeals to you when you look at a script?

elephant man posterCOATES: One film – and I suppose this covers a lot of them in a way – was “Elephant Man.” When I was first offered “Elephant Man” and started reading it, I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t work with this face on my Moviola every day!” But then I read on for a bit and read on for a bit more, and I thought, “I don’t know…this is fantastic!” And I was starting to get very emotional about it and by the end I felt I HAD to do that film, I so loved it. There was just something so emotional about it that appealed to me and so real. It was a very, very good script. At that time I was also offered one of the big (cape?) films, it was a disaster in the end, Disney film with a big hero, swashbuckling hero. A big film. Much bigger than anything I’d ever done and much more money and all of that sort of thing, but I wanted to do “Elephant Man” because I found it very emotional and a wonderful story. There’s one line in it that brings a lump to my throat almost every time I ever see it.

HULLFISH: What’s the line?

TrevesElephantManCOATES: When he goes to tea with Treve’s wife, and he says, “I must have been such a disappointment to my mother.” The way John Hurt said it. He was fairly normal when he was first born and just got worse and worse and worse. His mother rejected him. It’s just the way he says it. John Hurt was so good in that part. It’s funny, because if you saw him walking about when he had the mask on and everything, you’d want to help him along, like he was an old man. He was so real.

HULLFISH: Were there things about switching to computerized editing that you actually liked?

COATES: Nobody’s asked me that before. I suppose it’s the speed at which you can see alterations. But I always had my film cut to camera at the end of shooting, so I was fast anyway, but the speed. I really loved film, when you used to hold it up and look at the little squares. When they were conforming the film – my assistants would conform the film – and I would go into the rooms where they were working and take the film and look at it, feel it. The celluloid. I would never go back to film again, but I did love cutting on film. I didn’t have it scattered all over the place, but sometimes I did have a bit hanging around my neck.

HULLFISH: When you cut on Avid you said you cut from the outside in, but when you cut on film you were cutting from the inside out. Can you explain what you mean by that?


HULLFISH. No. (laughs)

congoCOATES: It’s just something I feel. For me it explains why I was able to accept digital, because I worked that out for myself. It’s the same thing. I’m telling a story. 90 percent of what editors do is just tell the story. Write the script. That’s all I was doing, just in a different way. So I don’t know how different one would compare cuts. I don’t think that the films I’ve done digitally are any different than the films before. “Congo” was the first film I did on digital and it was very difficult. It was a difficult film because it had a lot of special effects and things, which is why it needed to be on digital actually. They told me, “You’ll have to learn digital if you want to do the film.” And they had me taught and my crew taught, so we all learnt together. It was quite a mess to begin with. I did two or three films on… what was it called?

HULLFISH: Lightworks?

COATES: Lightworks. Yes. I did the first couple of films on Lightworks because they were similar to film because they had a little lever thing and also they were English. So I learnt that, but then when I went on to “Out of Sight” and Steven Soderbergh wanted me to work on Avid because his sound man could connect with Avid, but he couldn’t on Lightworks. I didn’t want to move to Avid, because I thought, “I’ve learned Lightworks, and that’s that.” But I had to learn all over again.

HULLFISH: Did Lightworks feel better to you than Avid.

COATES: Well now Avid does, but since I learned Lightworks, I wanted to stay with Lightworks. To this day I don’t think I do things the right way always on Avid, but I’m very fast and I get the results I want. If I get stuck with it I get an assistant to come and get me unstuck, because I’m not technical. In the old days when the Moviola went wrong, I could get in the back and do things, but I can’t digitally. I could handle it pretty well, but I had an assistant working with me for a time that was really upset that I was doing things the wrong way in Avid. He was always trying to correct me, and I said, “John. l like doing it this way. It may not be right, but I seem to be getting results faster than you and I’m doing it the wrong way.”

HULLFISH: (laughs)

COATES: I think now I still do things the wrong way, but I get the results and I get the speed and I get what I want. I can’t do complex opticals, but I’m pretty good at doing standard opticals, but if it’s very complicated I get an assistant to help me because you can do such amazing things in different layers.

HULLFISH: Would you mind if my assistant, April Check comes in and listens? She’s quite impressed that we’re talking together.

COATES: Absolutely…You know I’m in London and I’m just impressed that I’m talking to you in Chicago.

HULLFISH: (laughs)

COATES: Have you worked with each other long?

CHECK: No. But we know mutual people. We both worked for Oprah.

action-raw_deal.18160334COATES: Oh lovely. What a great job that must have been. I once worked on a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Chicago on a film called “Raw Deal.” I loved it in Chicago and I’ve been back once since with my children.

HULLFISH: Tell me about how you collaborate. What makes a good collaboration between a director and an editor?

COATES: The fact that the director will talk to you. I don’t mean actually TALK to you, but discuss. Some directors are very shy or reticent and they don’t express a lot, but I find it very important to talk to the director and have lunch with them… something social. You’re not talking just film. You’re getting to know them. I think that’s important and to be easy with them. With David Lean that took me a long time. I was terrified of him. I was a fairly young editor. I’d done two good films before but I hadn’t done much and he was well known to be one of the most famous editors in the world. So he was upset that I was frightened of him. He was always encouraging me to say things and that was great. But the important thing is to get to know the director so you know them as a person and it makes it easy to come up with ideas, which he might shoot down quite quickly. (laughs) You have to be on a good standing. But I want to know his overall idea for the picture. But not so adamantly than I have to follow it, but just like a blueprint, I guess. But I want to be left with a certain amount of freedom to do what I want and he can change it later if he doesn’t like it. I mean, a couple of directors I worked with Adrian Lyne and Ronnie Neame never saw a cut while they were shooting. They never wanted to see anything because they might not like it and they’d put off shooting for a week. They don’t see anything. But most directors want to see stuff. And I like it that way. I like to run some stuff, you know, come in on a Saturday and have lunch and run some film and talk about it an early stage to see if you’re on the right track. So I like to be closely connected with the director but I like to be left with space to try things, and if he doesn’t like things, that’s OK. I’m not one of those editors who doesn’t change things. If he doesn’t like it, I’m happy to try anything.

david-lean-428x267HULLFISH: Just to follow up on that. You said that David Lean was a great editor in his own right. Why should a director who can edit his own films use another editor to cut what he’s directed?

COATES: Well, a huge film like that shooting four cameras in the desert for eight months. He couldn’t possibly have coped with that on his own. When he came back he did some cutting on it. He had to or we wouldn’t have been ready in time. But I had the whole film cut by the time he finished shooting, except what we call “the bloodbath” which is the big battle shot in Morocco. They hadn’t shot that. But up to that, I’d got everything cut, otherwise we’d have never made it in 18 weeks. But in those 18 weeks we shot the stuff in England. The motor bike accident and the steps of Saint Paul and we still made the date…just. Literally taking it straight from the lab to the theater.

HULLFISH: I was looking for something a bit about how having an editor separate from the director is just an impartial voice and a second viewpoint. An editor who isn’t the director is much more apt to “kill the babies,” right?

Bolt Writing
Screenwriter Robert Bolt

COATES: A fresh point of view you mean? Well, that’s true. So some directors might use you for that reason but there are a few, like the Coen Brothers, who cut their own films. They don’t have an editor. They have a pair of hands, but that’s what they want. The editor that they give credit to is a fictional name, not a person. I think that maybe David would have liked to have done that one day… cut his own film. I think he tried that on one of the films he did, but generally speaking, he didn’t. On “Lawrence” he didn’t because he didn’t have time. But David discusses film quite a lot with me, though not at the beginning… more halfway through when we stopped shooting for a bit because the writer – Robert Bolt – went to jail.

HULLFISH: (laughs) I didn’t know that!

COATES: He was one of those politicals who marched down to Trafalgar’s Square and lay down and wouldn’t get up and he went to prison and Sam had to go get him out because Bolt wouldn’t apologize and we had a whole crew standing by with no work to do.

HULLFISH: (laughs)

CHECK: That’s awesome.

COATES: The crew was over 100 people. It was a huge crew. Four cameras – four 70mm cameras.

HULLFISH: Anne, I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today.

COATES: If you want anymore or anything, call me up.

HULLFISH: I’ll do that.

COATES: If you need something cleared up or because it’s muddled, which it probably was, call me and I’ll straighten you out if I can. Alright… and April, don’t let him bully you!

CHECK: I won’t. Thank you.

HULLFISH: That will not happen!

COATES: You’ve made it so easy to talk, so that’s nice. Bye!

To read more interviews in this series, click on THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter at @stevehullfish