Before Steve Soderbergh was his own DP and editor, he worked with some of the best of these talents in Hollywood. For his adaptation of Elmore Leonard, he chose Academy Award winning editor Anne V. Coates to guide the story in post, making Out of Sight at the time, his most successful film. When he was tapped to turn TV Movie of the Week material about a blue collar single mom who takes on big industry into a compelling (and his most mainstream) narrative, he brought Coates in again, and again, his latest, Erin Brockovich, broke his previous box office, as well as help Julia Roberts secure a Best Actress win.
Anne V. Coates has one of the most dynamic and eclectic editing resumes in the business, not to mention probably the most impressive track record for almost any woman editor. So it’s no surprise that a packed Club TCM awaited her interview with writer/director and AMPAS Scholar Cari Beauchamp, with baited breath.
Once the 90 year old Brit ascended the stage to join her interviewer, it was immediately apparent why her list of credits and the atypical projects she takes on is so varied. She is cheeky, quick-witted, won’t suffer fools and without question, knows what she’s talking about.
Initally wanting to be a professional equestrian, she admits to falling in love with film, when she fell in love with Laurence Olivier upon first seeing Wuthering Heights. The film, and the medium, “opened up a new world to me, and how to tell a story visually.”
Coates was brought up in a staunchly conservative Methodist household, which meant when she voiced an interest in getting into film, a relative connected her with a religious film company. She did everything from splicing film strips together, to making runs and delivering prints to different venues. When Unions came knocking, the company held firm against joining, which she happily did, and thus began getting work in mainstream movie production.
As part of the edit support team to Powell and Pressburger for The Red Shoes, she learned a lot in a short time, so that by 1952, she was lead editor on The Pickwick Papers, a Dickens adaptation. Soon, she was one of the most sought after editors in England, and landed that position in David Lean’s much lauded and awarded masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. After helping to redefine film grammar on Lawrence and taking home an Oscar to boot, her reputation preceeded her to the states, and before long, she found herself in demand on both sides of the Atlantic.
She was anxious for the opportunity to work with John Ford on one of his final films, Young Cassidy, sharing the story that Ford would do his interviews from bed, which consisted of nothing more than some quick pleasantries, and then the admission, “If you were good enough for Lean, you’re good enough for me. You’re hired.” Unfortunately, Ford was only on the picture for 4 weeks, when it was taken over by Jack Cardiff. She admits the rumor that everything good in the film came from Ford and the substandard material from Cardiff, was false. She was actually “underwhelmed” by the footage that came from the Hollywood legend.
Coates also revealed that she has good memories associated with almost every film she worked on, even if the director was difficult or the script weak. The Adventurers, for instance, was horribly received upon its release in 1970, but all she remembers is getting to travel to Rome and then South America to edit. “Edit films and see the world, “ is her motto. And this film also gave her the opportunity to direct some of the 2nd Unit material, because, basically, the footage coming to her was so bad.
In 1980, Executive Producer Mel Brooks approached her to edit The Elephant Man. While best remembered as a David Lynch film (his most mainstream), it was Brooks who hired all the crew and talent. Lynch and Coates did not get along, but again, she finds something positive to take away from the experience, including Lynch’s “outside of the box” thinking, which meant he “kept her on her toes.” She also admits he was very aware of every little detail. She felt he used too many black frames. She would trim a few out from each sequence, and he would notice, telling her to “put those black frames back in.”
There was major debate over when the audience should finally “see” John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Lynch believed it was when Dr. Treves visits him in the circus; so shocked is he that a single tear rolls down his cheek. The other opportunity is when a nurse’s assistant unexpectedly walks into Merrick’s hospital room and is unprepared for what she sees. Producer Brooks felt the moment should be withheld, allowing Anthony Hopkins as Treves first sight of Merrick to be told just from his stunning close-up. Since Producer and Director disagreed, Brooks asked Lynch to shoot both versions, so the decision could be made in edit. Of course, the obstinate director only shot the first version. When Coates got her hands on the footage, she agreed with Brooks that the moment should be held back as long as possible. Without the necessary shot for the later reveal, she had to manipulate a take from a whole different set-up, pushing tighter on the frames, to make it work where Brooks had suggested.
When asked if films that have a cast of heavy hitters such as Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, etc), is there an expectation to cut to as many close-ups as may be deemed necessary by the studio who is trying to push the movie as a star-powered vehicle, Coates said quite the contrary. Director Sidney Lumet gave her very few close-ups to work with; he was more concerned with the claustrophobia in a train car that too many tight shots can create. It would seem no one pushes Coates around at all, so her edits are pretty pure. The most interesting detail about that legendary shoot was actually that any time there were reverse shot entrances or reactions needed, they held on those set-ups until the train got to the end of the line, turned around, and then they picked up all the reverse angles. Coates believes it takes a strong director like Lumet to be able to pull something like that off – and it worked.
Coates was not above delving into some gossip as well. When she was editing Chaplin, she remembers everyone knew Robert Downey Jr. was flying high on drugs. He had promised director Attenborough he would kick it for the shoot, but that promise lasted only a couple days. Still and all, she said he was one of the more inventive actors she had edited, and his choices were so interesting, whether he was under the influence or not.
Another highlight for Coates was working with director Wolfgang Peterson on In The Line of Fire (which she was again nominated for). While it was an action film, and conventional wisdom would be that the action itself would be the most challenging aspect, it was actually the telephone calls between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich’s characters that were difficult. It seems Malkovich, being the consummate “intuitive, method” type, would never do his side of the phone conversations the same, and his better “takes,” would find him facing the wrong direction.
Speaking of difficult actors, Coates found What About, Bob? (again, the wide range of projects this editor has worked on is astounding) the most problematic. It’s no secret that Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss “disliked” each other intensely, but there were two camps, and as an editor, she was in the middle. The Producers and Dreyfuss were on one side, and Bill Murray and director Franz Oz on the other. And the edit became a point of contention /“tug of war.” As well, Murray also never did a take the same way twice, and Dreyfuss stuck strictly to the script, making their scenes together some of the most challenging she had ever cut.
Coates is not a fan of “test screenings,” but felt the handful of times it’s necessary is with comedy, and it was essential with What About Bob? because they had scripted (and shot) three different endings. And as a result of the focus group “process,” the final ending was the weakest of all three, but desired by the studio. (It’s kind of sad when one of your favorite films is revealed to be such an unpleasant experience.)
When it comes to digital editing, Coates admits she was a late convert, but now, “would never go back to a flatbed.” She was hired onto the film Congo by Frank Marshall, with the understanding that she didn’t know how to use an Avid system, but would get on-the-job training. She still longs for the days of touching and working with film, the tactile sensation is “unbeatable,” but the options available with digital editing too good to ignore.
Of course, the highlight of Coates career was Lawrence of Arabia, and she was brought in to work on the restoration. Interestingly, only three years after the film’s initial release, she had to go back into the edit bay with director Lean and create a “cut down” television version. At first, this was a daunting prospect, but soon she and the director got into the swing of things, and found interesting ways to tell the story more economically. Flash forward 30 years, and they couldn’t find a complete print or negative that resembled the original theatrical version, so they had to pull out some of the streamlined storytelling devices they had created, and go back to the remaining raw footage to rebuild some sequences. She said the final restoration we have come to love is different from the first release, and attributes the improvement to having distance from the film. Over the years her editing style had improved and changed, and she found better ways still to tell the same story.
TCM came to Coates to ask her which films she wanted to represent her work, and she picked two. Of course, Lawrence of Arabia was her first choice, but the second, interestingly was Out of Sight, because she loved working with Soderbergh, and she felt it was her most unusual and creative work to date. Watching it again at the festival, you can’t help but notice how stylistic and mannered the editing is, which works perfectly for the subject matter.
Whatever type of film you like, Coates has tackled it, and reinvented it. What an honor to listen to this filmmaker and get a deeper understanding and appreciation of the nature of her work, as well as a debt of gratitude to TCM for bringing such an important talent, and interesting person, for those lucky enough to attend, to experience in this once-in-a-lifetime setting.