American Film


Anne Coates was born in Reigate, Surrey, England in 1925. She worked as a nurse in a plastic surgery hospital before pursuing a career as a film editor. Coates was hired to cut together elaborate screen tests that David Lean shot of Albert Finney for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. She was anxious when the time came to show her cut to the great director and his team. She needn’t have worried. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a piece of mine cut exactly as I would have done it,” Lean said. In addition to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, for which she won the Academy Award® for editing, Coates’ editing credits include BECKET, THE ELEPHANT MAN and IN THE LINE OF FIRE. She spoke to AFI Conservatory Fellows on March 1, 2000 – two weeks before the opening of ERIN BROCKOVICH, which she also edited – at a seminar moderated by Phillip Linson, AFI Conservatory's Vice Dean of Production and Post-Production and Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence: Editing.

“I like to watch the director working on the floor with the actors and crew because it helps me assimilate the film. I find that useful because often the director will come up and chat to me about a particular problem. Some directors rely on their editors enormously. I like to know what he wants from a scene and help him to achieve that. I see him working on the floor – I don’t even necessarily need to hear him working with the actors – and see how the performances are changing a little bit here and there, it helps me a great deal. I know some editors don’t want to go anywhere near the set during filming, but that’s not how I work. I find talking to the actors, and also the cameraman and sound crew, very useful. Much better to engage with them at the start of a shoot than come down from the editing room later on only to complain about things…

If there’s one thing I try to bring to every job it’s a sense of clarity. Some directors have a tendency to overcut. By that I mean they cut out important little things that add that little bit of clarification the audience needs. Directors obviously know their films very well and some have trouble looking objectively at them. One mistake directors can make is assume that the audience knows what they know. It’s sometimes only a line or two that helps bring things into focus, but during the paring down of a film when you make sure there isn’t any fat left on it, it’s possible to throw the baby out with the bathwater…

Generally, I don’t think there are any rules when it comes to cutting. That said, I was always taught that, with a well-shot scene and good acting, don’t cut in until you really feel the need to see a close-up. One of the things I’ve done on more than one occasion when I’ve been brought in late, to try and save a film, is take out some of the cuts and simplify everything. I’m a great believer in letting shots breathe. Sometimes you can find the essence of the performances – and even the story – when you slow the whole thing down.

On the whole I like working with young directors. I’ve found it disappointing a couple of times working with older directors whose work I’ve admired, because they are so set in their ways. Young directors have such wonderful enthusiasm and excitement, and they’re much more willing to experiment. They love it when I’m able to contribute ideas.”

At the time of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’s release, Michael Wilson, who was blacklisted in the 1950s, did not receive screen credit for co-writing the screenplay with Robert Bolt. However, his credit was restored by the WGA in 1978, and in 1995 he was granted an Academy Award® nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, an honor that initially had been bestowed solely upon Bolt.

For more on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA visit the AFI Catalog of Feature Films.