Perspectives On Editing: A Conversation with Anne Coates

Cannes Film Festival

Todd Wawrychuk


Anne Coates has been editing film for over 57 years.  This Oscar winning editor is an example of pure dedication, hard work, and lucky breaks.  After her first experience splicing educational films together for the church circuit, Coates talked her way into an assistant editing job with Pinewood Studios.  “They asked me if I could order optical and lay tracks and I had no idea what any of that meant, so I said yes, yes, and did a crash course with some friends,” said Coates.  “I’d never even seen 35mm film before!”

Concluding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s “Perspective on Editing” series, Coates engaged a full house to speak about her experiences working on movies ranging from “Lawrence of Arabia” to “The Golden Compass.”

Coates began the evening showing a rough cut of a romantic scene from “Out of Sight,” for which Coates received an Oscar nomination.  The scene was cut in the order it appeared in the script.  This clip was followed by the final cut, that took two different scenes and intertwined them.  Coates explained when she observed the audio from the two scenes, she noticed how the audio from the later scene provided extra sexual tension between the characters when introduced into the preceding scene.  After watching the clip, director Steven Soderbergh loved the dynamic provided in the mixed edit, and encouraged Coates to continue.  Coates defined her experimentation as a way the editor "can shape the outcome of the final film."

Coates stated that the movie "The Horse’s Mouth," staring Alec Guinness, was her first big break.  She edited the entire movie to fit the soundtrack, an accomplishment she was very proud of.   From that feature she moved on to "Becket," for which she received her first Oscar nomination.  Although she stated it was wonderful working with the two leads (Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole), "the movie was very difficult to cut.  The horses were ill-behaved, constantly moving and making continuity impossible.  The weather was poor, and the actors were often drunk.  It was really challenging to put together something seamless."

"The Elephant Man," another film that earned Coates an Oscar nomination, also provided challenges for the production as a whole.  The mask, constructed by director David Lynch, irritated actor John Hurt’s skin so badly, filming could only occur once every two days.  Although the production had delays, she recalled the joy of experiencing a well-written script:

"The script had such a strong emotional strength.  When I first read the script I didn’t think I could look at that face every day.  By the script’s end, I couldn’t wait to do the picture.  You get very involved with Merrick, he had such a beautiful mind and lovely voice."

The editing challenge in this film was revealing the character’s physical presence.  Lynch shot two separate scenes where the character’s deformities were discovered.  His preference was for an earlier scene in the film.  Producer Mel Brooks insisted revealing the character’s deformity later in the film would be more effective, so Coates had to modify a number of scenes prior to the reveal to ensure the character’s deformities were hidden.  

Although Coates had many personal stories revolving around the productions she edited, two additional films were editing standouts for her.  For the feature "Chaplin," Coates explained she wanted "the editing to be as graceful as the performance provided by Robert Downey Jr.  There weren’t many takes to work from, as the scenes were planned out very carefully.  There was a discussion about including an interview style devise, but I felt this would break up the film too much."

For the feature "In the Line of Fire," for which she received an Oscar nomination, Coates explained that she "never saw any dailies."   The movie has parallel action scenes, and director Wolfgang Peterson allowed her to take the time she needed in the editing suite to put the movie together.  "I was allowed to really pair down the action sequences and fine tune the elements that were important to link the characters together.  I enjoyed having this ability to really fine tune the action." 

The crowd cheered when a scene was shown from the film that earned Coates her only Oscar win to date: "Lawrence of Arabia." 

"The director (David Lean) had been a famous editor," said Coates.  "He really brought the best out of me.  I got the job through cutting tests of the original actor considered for the role, Albert Finney.   I spent 23 months cutting together the movie, it was a slow process.  The screenwriter went to Persia to do research before the second half of the film was written.  We ended up editing the second half of the film first because there was more acting in the second half.  The press screening of the finished film was the first time anyone saw the two halves of the movie put together in their entirety.  Luckily it all worked out."

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