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Master of the Hidden Cut

Master of the Hidden Cut

Articles - Editing

Lawrence of Arabia

During her more than 50 years in the craft, film editor
Anne Coates has been a stealth collaborator and ally to many of
the world’s finest directors including Sidney Lumet, David Lynch,
Milos Forman, Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Soderbergh. She has left
her mark on a remarkable catalogue of films that contains more gems
than the crown jewels of merry old England. Starting with The
Pickwick Papers
in 1954, Coates went on to edit such films
as The Horse’s Mouth, Lawrence of Arabia (for
which she won an Oscar), Becket, The Elephant Man, Ragtime, Chaplin, In The Line of Fire, Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich.

Easygoing and totally unpretentious, Anne Coates is
mindful of her good fortune, and will quickly tell you how lucky
she is. Still, while luck may have played its part in her success,
it can’t possibly sustain a career marked by such a consistent level
of excellence. Not one to sit around and analyze how she does what
she does, Coates is more or less an intuitive artist. Her creativity
comes forward in the thick of the process. Currently on the set
of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, she talked about her Lawrence,
Lean and getting off the ground in the unforgettable Red Shoes.

MM: You like to spend time on the set when
cutting a picture. Why is that?

AC: Watching the director work helps me hugely
because generally they don’t have the time to tell you what they’re
thinking when they are in dailies or rushing from one place to another.
But when you see them on the floor they’ll often come up and talk
to you about the scene they’re doing. You see them directing the
artists, so you see what they don’t like and even though you don’t
necessarily hear what they’re saying you can see the difference
in the performances.

MM: When you think about your early work,
what are some of things you remember learning?

AC: Well I was lucky with the first film that
I worked on as an assistant which was called End of The River,
which Mickey Powell and Emerich Pressburger produced because, unfortunately
for the editor, they didn’t like his work very much so Regi Mills,
who was at that time cutting The Red Shoes – and one of
the top editors in the world – took it over.

And, for some reason, he didn’t want the first assistant
to go up with him with the film. He wanted the second assistant,
which was me. So I worked directly with him and of course learned
a huge amount about editing, about storytelling and what was important.

MM: When you’re working in different genres
do you find that your approach to the cutting changes?

AC: I think so yes. I try very hard not to
have a style, though I’m sure that to some extent everybody has
a style. I like cutting quickly, and certainly today, the way stories
are told, you can do that more and more; it’s the influence of music
videos and commercials. I worked with a director some years ago
who was very slow – having come from theater – and I actually recommended
that he go and do a few commercials and learn to tell a story in
a minute, because I think that’s wonderful training. It’s wonderful
training for editors too.

MM: Having worked with so many outstanding
directors, what sort of advice might you give to new directors.

AC: People storyboard a lot these days and
pre-visualize the way they see a scene going – which is commendable,
I like that – but you’ve always got to allow for the fact that when
you get the whole film together, a given scene may be too long or
extraneous; you may find that it says what another scene later on
says, so that you want to cut it down or use it in another place.

MM: How much time do you think you spend
cutting versus just thinking about the film?

AC: That’s interesting. I never really thought
about it. They’re interlocked with each other. I think about a scene
before I start it and then, if I don’t like the way it’s going,
I’ll stop and rethink it. For me, a lot of the thinking time comes
as I cut. I’m quite fast on the machine, but I can’t fly as some
people can. Though I cut quite fast, so I can think as I work. I
came up working that way – with time to think, to talk to the director
– but you don’t see that as much these days. I sit with my back
to the director, who will sit. Steven Soderbergh used to lie back
on the sofa a lot of the time and talk to me.

I find a lack of communication is not good. Just chatting
is good, it doesn’t necessary have to be about what’s happening.
You can learn a lot by just talking to someone. I had a wonderful
time with Steven Soderbergh because he is a walking encyclopedia.
He used to talk about the old British films for hours; it was really
great for me.

MM: How do you generally work with sound
and music? How do you allow for the fact that it will change what
you’ve done, change how a scene plays?

AC: You don’t often get the chance to work
on things like Lawrence of Arabia, where you have big open
spaces for music and sound, but I often put a shot on the end or
leave a little something on the beginning or even in the middle
where I want a particular sound effect to come to enhance something.
A simple example would be a bell in the distance that you want to
create the mood; you might leave a little pause for that.

Music is very important but I think that 99 percent
of the films made today have too much music; I don’t like wall-to-wall
music. If the emotion is there and the scene is playing, why throw
music all over it? I find it really irritating and disturbing actually.
[Music] should enhance the film. Steven Soderbergh had a very definite
idea of what kind of music he wanted; you couldn’t really put something
on a scene that you liked unless it was really what he wanted.

MM: Any general thought on the way you open
a film? I would think that you’re going to be fairly concerned to
set the right tone and pull your audience in as strongly as you
can.

AC: Well, there have been so many. Erin
Brockovich
opens with a clasp of Julia [Robert’s] face, which
was extremely effective. If you’ve got Julia Roberts looking somewhat
bedazzled, with her hair all fluffy, that’s a very arresting opening
to a movie. I don’t think you necessarily need a lot of padding.

MM: When you use landscape or exteriors
in a film – like for example the shot of the waterfall in the jungle
interior in Farewell to the King – are you using them consciously
to make a story point of some kind, or perhaps going by feel?

AC: They’re generally related to the storytelling,
or they should be. Setting the scene, giving you the atmosphere
for the story; they shouldn’t just be pretty pictures. They should
be telling part of the story and you should use them that way. That’s
where somebody like David Lean was so brilliant because he could
have those big expenses and then have two people in close up talking
or whatever, in front of it.

MM: He was also brilliant with the POV shot,
really bringing you into sympathy with a character by showing you
his or her world. The power of POV seems sometimes overlooked or
underutilized.

AC: Funny enough, there is a very interesting
POV shot in [Unfaithful]. I hadn’t visualized it when I
read the script first – it wasn’t a POV – and I hadn’t registered
that that was what it was. Interesting things like that Adrian will
introduce into the film. I do agree with you, I think that it’s
very effective at times. I think a lot of long shots should tell
that, even if they are not exact points of view; they should be
a point-of-view for the storyteller, in any case.

MM: Do you ever concern yourself with what
the production designer’s agenda is?

AC: Not generally speaking. An interesting
thing – going back to Lawrence of Arabia again – is the
shot when Ali comes out of the mirage: if you look at the desert,
John Box, who is a brilliant, added a bit of color to a strip of
sand leading up to the horizon line; it leads your eye toward Ali
as he approaches. These are the things that art directors do. That’s
a blatant example, but I think that art directors do that kind of
thing in the smaller and more subtle way. It’s getting exactly the
right place for the prop. So, you do work closely with the production
designer and with the cameraman. The cameraman will sometimes talk
to me about a series of shots, and what he’s trying to accomplish,
which is why I find it helpful to visit the [set].

MM: How important can a single frame be
for you as an editor?

AC: (Laughs) I’ll tell you a funny story really
that happened years ago on Lawrence of Arabia. David and
I were having a little disagreement about where to cut on a very
simple shot of someone going through a door and coming into a room.
I felt you wanted to be surprised at where the subject was going.
David wanted to cut it in a sort of conventional way, halfway through
the door. We talked about it for a bit and ended up discussing which
frame to cut on. He said that there was only one right frame to
cut on and I said "Well, in that case, if I have a right frame
and you have a right frame, who is right?’ and he said "I’m
the director, so mine is!’ (Laughs) Of course, a frame is important,
but you can’t spend hours going crazy thinking about your frame
– you just have an instinct about it.

MM: What have you learned about communicating
with the director?

AC: Patience is one of the first things you
learn. (laughs) I used to not think about what I was saying and
fly off, but now I’ve toned down. You have to establish that relationship,
find out where they’re going and what their idea of film is. I’ll
hear the director talking to the actors when watching the dailies,
in those moments before or after a take. He’s near the mike and
his comments come through. Mostly you talk to the director about
the way he visualizes the film, but they don’t necessarily tell
you how to do it. They’re employing you to come with your ideas.

MM: What do the best directors have in common?

AC: I think it’s enthusiasm. Most of them have
it in a way, but some have a bit extra. They really love their work;
it comes through to you more.

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