Interviews with Great Editors: Anne Voase Coates
By Justin Chang
Anne Voase Coates initially wanted to be a film director, an aspiration frowned upon by her uncle, the famed British film entrepreneur J. Arthur Rank, who assumed she was only in it for the glamour and the good-looking actors. But Coates was persistent enough in her passion that Rank eventually found her a job at a production company specializing in religious films. There, Coates learned to project footage, record sound, and splice scenes, and she eventually became an assistant film editor at London’s Pinewood Studios.
Coates received her first editing credit on Noel Langley’s The Pickwick Papers (1952), ten years before cutting the film that won her an Academy Award, David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962). She went on to receive four more Oscar nominations for her work on Peter Glenville’s Becket (1964), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993), and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). Her other editing credits include Young Cassidy (1965), The Bofors Gun (1968), The Public Eye (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), What About Bob? (1991), Chaplin (1992), Congo (1995), Striptease (1996), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Unfaithful (2002). Coates remains active in Hollywood, having recently co-edited The Golden Compass (2007) and edited Extraordinary Measures (2010).
People often ask me if I have a style of editing. I usually say I don’t, but one day my daughter said, “Oh yes, you do. We were studying it in class.” So perhaps I do. Everyone has a certain style, but I do try to adapt mine to whatever picture I’m working on. I don’t want people to see my films and say, oh yes, that was cut by Anne Coates.
I remember cutting a few test sequences on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and David Lean asked me during dailies, with the whole crew present, if I had finished cutting the first scene. I said I had, and he asked me to bring it down and show him. I said I couldn’t possibly show it to him in front of all these people, but he said, “Don’t be so silly, just go and get it.” I was terrified. I sat there watching, and I don’t think I saw a cut go by; I was so frightened. When it was over, David got up and said, “I think that’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen a piece of film cut exactly the way I would have done it,” which was the best compliment I had ever had in my life. I was stunned, absolutely stunned.
In the script, we had always intended to dissolve from the shot of Lawrence blowing out the match to the first shot of the desert. We marked a dissolve, but when we watched the footage in the theater, we saw it as a direct cut. David and I both thought, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” So we decided to nibble at it, taking a few off here and there. David looked at it and said, “It’s nearly perfect. Take it away, Annie, just make it perfect.” So I took literally two frames off, and he said, “That’s it.”
If I had been working digitally, I would never have seen those two shots cut together like that. We would have done the optical in the machine, and when we took it into the screening room the dissolve already would have been there, so we never would have seen it as a direct cut. I like to think we would have gotten the idea anyway. But another director would not necessarily have seen it or liked it. Luckily, David and I thought alike.
I loved cutting on film. To me, it was always more personal than it ever is or ever will be on digital. I made my first cut on a Moviola with just my little screen and me, with nobody else looking over my shoulder. I felt much more closely involved with it, in a way that I never experience on digital. Back in those days, I never spliced my own film. People used to scoff at me, in a nice way, because most editors spliced their film and then had a look at it. But I would get my assistant to splice it, and then I’d run the scene in the screening room with my crew, and I’d tell them, “Now, don’t worry about the cuts. I can smooth the bumps out. I want to know if you find it amusing, if you follow the storytelling, if you like the performances…
I suppose I cut differently now, on the Avid, but I get much the same result as I did on film. There may be a few more cuts, but I like to think the story I’m telling and the emotion I’m trying to get out of the scene would be the same either way. I did have some trouble adapting to working digitally. But I said to myself, “Well, it’s only a tool. You’re telling the same story and going for the same laughs and the same action.” Once I could get that into my mind properly and just tell the story, I sailed ahead. I was stumbling for a time, but I was determined to do it. I had thought I would never actually have to adapt to it in my lifetime, but when the older editors started converting, Jim Clark and other great friends of mine, I realized that I would have to learn, too.
Excerpted from FilmCraft: Editing by Justin Chang © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved