Monday 23 May 2011

Editor Anne V. Coates - From Lawrence of Arabia to Erin Brockovich

Anne V. Coates has edited more than 45 feature films, she won an Oscar for her editing on Lawrence of Arabia and has been nominated for Oscars on a great range of remarkable films including Becket, The Elephant Man, In the Line of Fire, Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich.

A lover of cinema from her teenage days in Surrey, she became an assistant in the cutting rooms at Pinewood Studios in the late 1940s, stepping up to editor herself in 1952. Now based in Los Angeles, in 2007 she was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship. Here she discusses her collaborations with Steven Soderbergh and David Lean, the pros and cons of editing in a digital age and how she’d really like to cut a cowboy film.

Has digital technology changed editing?
Steven Soderbergh said this to me about editing on digital: it’s still the same as editing on film – it’s all about making it funny, making it exciting and saving the actors’ performances. I told George Clooney that and he thought it was really funny and we’ve been friends ever since.

Digital technology hasn’t basically changed editing because you’re still doing the important part of editing, which is telling stories, doing the timing, making it funny if it’s supposed to be funny, making it dramatic, cutting the action scenes in the most exciting way, and saving the actors’ performances. But admittedly it was quite difficult for me to go over to digital because I wasn’t a 15 year old.

At first cutting digitally I felt very remote. When you’re cutting digitally you’re sitting back watching scenes rather than up close and personal as you were on a Movieola. On film I’d cut a scene together and I wouldn’t look at it as I was going along. Then I’d have my assistants splice it and I’d take it into a screening room with my crew and get their impressions. I’d say, “Don’t look at the cuts individually, just see what the story’s telling you, what are the actors telling you?” I miss that.

When I went over to digital I said to myself that I wouldn’t keep stopping and looking at the cuts, but you find that you do. On the Avid, I’ve got a big screen and I can run the scene immediately. But you don’t get the perspective that you had before.

Has the style of editing changed in the digital age?
A little bit, but that isn’t only because of digital technology but due to music videos and commercials, which have had a huge influence on film. Today teenagers watch so much fast-moving film imagery and they can take in a story so quickly, that cutting in feature films has become much faster. But that’s not due to digital technology, just the evolution of film.

Does the ease of using digital technology lead you to experiment more?
Yes, I do experiment more, although I was always into quite a lot of experimentation anyway. Digital technology certainly makes it a lot easier to experiment. But that said, it’s all trick stuff, not emotional, storytelling stuff.

Do you feel that the generation of film editors who’ve grown up with digital are missing something from not having learnt on a Movieola?
All students should learn on film. There’s something about film that’s personal and everything is getting less and less personal. Films shot on High Definition have a coolness about them that film doesn’t have, which I find worrying. It’s getting so technical that we sometimes seem to lose the heart out of things.

What are your first steps once you start on a film?
To assimilate the story so that I’m very secure in it and its nuances. But I don’t work out things a lot beforehand. Of course, one has ideas how one’s going to edit a scene, but until you see what the actors have done, I don’t think there’s too much point. I’m an actors’ editor; to me performance is so important. Even if I’ve got preconceived ideas about a scene, if an actor’s giving a wonderful performance, I’ll adapt my cut to include that in the general structure of the scene. Some editors plan a lot more ahead, but I’m more of a maverick. I just like to see the way the director’s approaching it and follow the performances.

Sometimes you’ve got a really bad actor and you can help the performance by very clever cutting. It wouldn’t be the way that you’d cut the scene if you were getting all equal performances, but if one of the actors is weak, you can help them enormously.

What’s the status of editors these days?
Editors are getting more respect than they used to and people are better informed today as to what an editor actually does. When I first told people what I did, they thought I cut out the bad pieces of film like a censor. They didn’t think that an editor could bring a whole film together and make it dramatic and funny.

And editors are involved more now and should be involved even earlier in the production. It’s helpful to be in on rehearsals, because you gain by seeing what the director is aiming for. It’s the editor’s task to try to reproduce what the director wants, adding your own touches as you go. A lot of directors are not necessarily good at communicating, so that’s why I like to spend time on the floor as you can watch the director and see how the performances are changing. You can learn a lot doing that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen very often, because it mostly doesn’t occur to anyone to invite the editor to rehearsals or on to the set.

Which of your movies has given you particular satisfaction to cut?
Out of Sight. I knew that Steven Soderbergh could be a really interesting, somewhat way-out director, and I wanted him to stretch me. On Out of Sight we did a couple of really good sequences and some great work we didn’t put in the finished film. People have asked if the scene where we intercut George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez flirting with their later lovemaking scene was inspired by the love scene in Don’t Look Now, which also included flashforwards. But I didn’t even think about Don’t Look Now, we just tried it in the cutting room. I cut the two bits separately and then we mixed them together. I also really liked Erin Brockovich, my other film with Steven Soderbergh. It wasn’t such a huge challenge, but it was a wonderful story and Steven shot it so well. I loved working with him.

I loved The Elephant Man, too. And I was also very proud of the work that I did on Becket. It’s not that well known a film but it’s beautiful, with beautiful dialogue and great performances of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton acting off each other. Other films I loved working on are Greystoke, In The Line Of Fire and Unfaithful.

Who have you learnt from in editing?
Working with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia was a wonderful experience early on in my career. He’d been an editor himself before becoming a director, but he didn’t teach me just about editing but about my approach to editing. He taught me to try everything and experiment. I could come up with any ideas and sometimes he’d say that they were idiotic but then he’d work on them or he’d say, “That was a silly idea but out of it I’ve thought of something and maybe it’ll work out”. He taught me to have the courage of my convictions and that has left me in good stead. I’m now known as a pretty honest editor.

Of course, he taught me about editing as well. That if you believe in a shot, hang on to it. I was quite horrified at the length we held on to some of the shots in Lawrence of Arabia but he told me: “Wait till the music’s on. You’ll see. It’ll be perfect.”

I’ve also learnt from contemporaries that I’ve liked, editors such as Dede Allen (Dog Day Afternoon, Wonder Boys) and Michael Kahn, who has cut almost all of Steven Spielberg’s films. And I learnt from older editors like Jack Harris, who worked with David Lean on Great Expectations and throughout the 1940s, and Reggie Mills, who cut for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They were wonderful editors who could make a film almost sing.

Which genres do you prefer?
I like dramas – human stories which approach problems of today with interesting actors giving interesting performances, such as Erin Brockovich. I also like period dramas too, my favourite film being Wuthering Heights, although period dramas aren’t that popular these days.

Editing special effects films is fantastic work, but I’ve mostly avoided them, because you don’t really feel that it’s your film. You have to work so closely with the effects people and cut to suit the effects, rather than the way you really want to do it. Although I learnt a lot on The Golden Compass and it’s great to stretch yourself, I found the process quite frustrating.

And I’ve always wanted to cut a cowboy film. I’m still hoping that one of these days I will.

Unlike some other editors, such as Thelma Schoonmaker working with Martin Scorsese or Michael Kahn with Steven Spielberg, you’ve not established a long partnership with any one director.
I don’t know why that is. I did do five films with Jack Gold, but with others I’ve not. In some cases it’s timing. I’ve got three children and I took time out to have babies and so lost continuity with a particular director. Sometimes, it’s just luck.

In some ways I wish I’d had an ongoing relationship with a director, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be like Thelma Schoonmaker, who virtually only cuts for Martin Scorsese. I’ve enjoyed working with some of the young directors, with new people who have new ideas.

Also, I like taking time off between pictures to travel and I’ve travelled round the world. Film isn’t the end of everything for me. You have to have a life as well.

January 2009. movieScope Magazine

1 comment:

  1. An interesting interview from someone in a craft that for so long was often overlooked (especially by critics). But it's slightly depressing that she doesn't mention the screenplay or the screenwriter.