Anne V. Coates, ACE. Photo by Matt Harbicht.
THE EDITING LIFE OF ANNE V. COATES
by Edward Landler
Anne V. Coates, ACE, got her first full editing credit on The Pickwick Papers (1952) in the UK.
In 1963, a breathtaking cut from a close shot of a match being blown out to a vast long shot of the desert surely helped bring her the editing Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Nominated by the Academy four more times — for Becket (1964), The Elephant Man (1980), In the Line of Fire (1993) and Out of Sight (1998) — she most recently edited Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).
Less than a month after her 90th birthday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), at its annual Gala Awards Dinner on January 9, honored Coates with its Career Achievement Award. A few evenings earlier, on January 6, LAFCA presented an event at the Laemmle Royal Theatre devoted to her. After a rare screening of another film she edited, John Ford’s Young Cassidy (1965), Coates shared her experiences in film and her insights on editing in conversation with LAFCA president Stephen Farber, who also fielded questions from the audience.
Event co-sponsor Mike McClellan, former senior vice president of Landmark Theatres, extended welcomes and introduced Farber who spoke briefly about the film and its editor. The Irish-American director was attracted to John Whiting’s screenplay, largely based on playwright Sean O’Casey’s autobiography, Mirror in My House, focusing on O’Casey’s rise from laborer to recognized dramatist in early 20th-century Ireland. From O’Casey’s life and elements of fellow dramatist J.M. Synge’s career, Whiting shaped the film’s main character, Johnny Cassidy.
Anne V. Coates flanked by Mike McClellan, left, and Stephen Farber. Photo by Caroline Yeh.
After completing pre-production in Ireland, Ford fell ill early in the shoot and was not credited as director. The film’s titles read “A John Ford Film,” but Englishman Jack Cardiff replaced him as director. Known as a cinematographer, with an Oscar for his work on Black Narcissus (1947), Cardiff was carving out a directing career, having gained acclaim for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1960), another film about a working-class literary talent.
As soon as the movie was over, its editor pushed her walker up and sat in it in front of the audience next to Farber. “It seemed a bit long to me,” she said, and described meeting the legendary Ford when he hired her: “He was in his pajamas. He said, ‘I don’t look at dailies, I know what I’ve shot. If you’re good enough for David Lean, you’re good enough for me.’”
When Coates arrived in Ireland to start editing the picture, he was already gone. She recalled a scene she edited early on depicting a street riot pitting British soldiers and police against strikers. It was later praised as a classic Ford action scene, but Ford didn’t shoot it. The editor said, “It was shot by a second-unit cameraman who wanted to be a director, but he died young,”
Noting that Cardiff had started as a cinematographer and Lean as an editor, Farber asked if that made a difference in how they worked as directors. She answered, “It depends on the director. A DP works with actors and an editor doesn’t, but both were good directors anyway.”
As for editing the actors in Cassidy, Coates said that it took a while for her to get used to Rod Taylor in the central role. “He was miscast, but he grows on you,” she said. “I worked a lot at editing him, and I’ve landed on my opinion seeing it tonight: There was too much of him. After him, I was relieved to see Michael Redgrave as Yeats and Edith Evans as Lady Gregory, such great actors.”
Farber asked how she came to edit Lawrence of Arabia. Coates said she did not know Lean well when she was being considered for the job; she had recently cut The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960) for director Ronald Neame, who recommended her strongly. To demonstrate her skills for Lean, she said, “I cut the test shots for Albert Finney when he auditioned for the part of Lawrence and David liked how I did that. Afterwards, he said, ‘That’s the way I would have done it.’”
While prepping for Lawrence, she said, “I asked him if he had seen the French nouvelle vague films and he hadn’t. But then he looked at some and started doing that kind of cutting himself.”
Like everyone involved in the making of Lawrence, Coates knew the film was “something special,” but after its initial release, she said, “David’s friends, directors like William Wyler and George Stevens, all told him it was too long, and the theatre owners wanted it shorter so they could play it more times. And he listened to them. That was the first time we had to cut it down and I was very upset — more than David.”
The editor was especially pleased in 1989 when she was consulted on the restoration of the epic to its original length. She said, “They put it all back just the way it was…except for the bit that was missing.” They were able to restore that bit in its proper place using production stills and having actor Charles Gray dub the deceased Jack Hawkins’ voice.
Speaking of her early career, Coates acknowledged the influence of Lean, Michael Powell and American pictures including those of Wyler. She said she got her first job, editing Pickwick, by chance through her friend Clive Donner, an editor (and later a director): “He was offered the job and he didn’t want to do it, so I said, ‘Why don’t you put me up for it?’ and I got it.”
Avne V. Coates flanked by editors Mark Goldblatt, left, and Stephen Rivkin. Photo by Matt Harbicht.
The Dickens adaptation was the first directing job for its screenwriter, Noel Langley, who had a reputation for looking down on women. One run-in between the director and the editor came about over his dislike of Nigel Patrick, who was playing Mr. Jingle in the film. Coates said, “Noel didn’t do any close ups of Nigel, which I needed to make a proper cut. I asked him to shoot them and he said, ‘If you want close-ups, do it yourself.’ So I did. You’ve got to take chances in this business or you don’t get on!”
Asked by Farber how she dealt with misogyny in the industry, the editor said, “I got myself accepted because I wouldn’t accept it; I saw myself as an editor. Think of yourself as an editor and a person, and go for it.”
Since 1970, Coates has worked on far more American movies than English. She briefly noted her fondness for Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), filmed both here and in England, but she spoke more about her work with directors Wolfgang Petersen and Steven Soderbergh.
For Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993) with Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich, she said, “He looked first at three editors. In their interviews, the others went more for special effects. I told him I was more interested in the telephone conversations.”
Coates edited two films for Soderbergh: Out of Sight (1998) with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and Erin Brockovich (2000) with Julia Roberts. She summed up her experience with the director by saying, “He let me work on my own.” Someone in the audience said that Soderbergh doesn’t like shooting coverage and she replied, “He didn’t shoot ample coverage, but enough.”
Asked about adapting to digital editing technology, Coates said that her digital education came when Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall asked her to do Congo (1995), based on Michael Crichton’s novel. She admitted, “Digital was very difficult…it came in very quickly and I had to be trained. I’m not very technical. I get it done and I do it the way I see it, but I work from the inside out and digital strikes me as outside in. I like to hold the film in my hands.”
“How did you come to edit 50 Shades of Grey?” an audience member asked. Coates replied that it was probably because she had done Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (2002), an American remake of Claude Chabrol’s classic La Femme Infidèle (1969). She said, “It was also about sex. I think 50 Shades should have been more sexy; it wasn’t very exciting. The director tried very hard.”
A question also came up about working with David Lynch on The Elephant Man. She said, “David Lynch is very talented but he’s got some quite weird ideas. We had some tiffs.” The director also had a major disagreement with the film’s producer, Mel Brooks. The editor said, “They had a difference about how to show the things done to the elephant man in the circus. David would not shoot what Mel wanted and Mel went ahead, shot it and put it in the picture.”
Reflecting on her career of over 60 years, Coates said, “From Lawrence of Arabia to 50 Shades of Grey, I think that’s great. I still haven’t done a cowboy film. Lawrence Kasdan and his brother said they’d write one for me to edit, but they still haven’t done it.” Coates edited a comedy for Kasdan, I Love You to Death (1990) with Kevin Kline and Tracey Ullman.
As the discussion came to an end, Farber asked her what was the incisive thing she looked for in cutting. She replied immediately, “The storytelling first, then the actors’ performances; they bring all sorts of nuances to it and you try to work those into the way you see it.”
In the lobby, the conversation continued. Jeremiah O’Driscoll, editor of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk (2015), was in the audience and remembered his experience as an assistant editor on Congo: “Anne had a big rowing machine for exercise in the editing room and we all had to walk around it. She would watch dailies while rowing.” Coates recalled it a bit differently, “No, it had pedals It was a stationary bicycle.”
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at email@example.com.