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This story first appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Renowned British film editor Anne V. Coates, 90, will be presented with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Career Achievement Award at the group’s Jan. 9 awards dinner in recognition of her 60-plus-year career, one that has encompassed David Lean’s iconic epic Lawrence of Arabia, for which she won an Oscar, as well as the four other pictures for which she was nominated for film editing: Peter Glenville’s Becket, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. For Coates, the movie business is very much a family affair: Her husband, Douglas Hickox, who died in 1988, was a director; their sons, Anthony and James, both direct; and their daughter, Emma, became an editor. Today, Coates says the “best in my life” are her grandchildren. She spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about what editors really do, succeeding as a woman in Hollywood and how Fifty Shades of Grey, her most recent film, could have been sexier.
What’s most misunderstood about the role that film editors play?
In the old days, it was quite funny. People thought what we were doing was editing out the censor material — if it was too violent or too sexy or whatever. They didn’t realize that we’re really part of telling the story of the film, which is very important. We continue where the scriptwriter and director leave off. We work very closely with them. It’s very difficult for awards because I don’t really think many people understand editing. [The editing community] is trying now to get [editing categories added to awards programs] because often a film festival will give awards to the cinematographer and sometimes the production designer but not the editor because they don’t really understand our contribution. We are a little underrated.
How did your famous match cut in Lawrence of Arabia — the cut from a close-up of Peter O’Toole blowing out a match to a wide shot of the sun rising over the desert — come about?
By accident. When we were cutting Lawrence, we were working on film, and so when we were running the sequence, we saw it cut together. Nowadays using digital, you would have done a [dissolve] in the machine, and you never would have seen it cut together like it was. Almost at the same moment, David Lean and I looked at each other and said, “That’s a fabulous cut.” He said, “It’s not quite perfect — take it away and make it perfect,” and I literally took two frames off the outgoing shot, and that’s the way it is today.
What was it like working with Lean?
For most of Lawrence, he was out in the desert or in Spain, where we shot a lot of it. When he finished shooting, he spent a lot of time with me in the cutting room. We were working seven days a week, all hours of the day and night, because arrangements were made for a big premiere with the queen, and you don’t alter the queen’s dates.
What did you learn from him?
To have the courage of your convictions. I was a little nervous putting forth ideas. But he said, “If you got an idea, Annie, I want to hear it.” He taught me to hold onto shots. In Lawrence, we do hold onto shots for quite a long time, and I’m not sure without David encouraging me I would have done that. And I think I helped him in a way because the French films were being cut in a rather different way at the time, the nouvelle vague. David had never seen that, and I suggested he go to the cinema and have a look, and of course he loved it — and then he did it better. He was the first person who made me realize maybe I had some talent for editing.
How difficult was it for you, as a woman, to build a career?
I always thought of myself as an editor, not a woman. I had three brothers, and I was always very competitive with them. When I tried to get into the industry, there were only certain jobs open to women. Things like hairdressing didn’t really interest me. I might have been interested in photography, but women couldn’t do that in those days. I found the most interesting job a woman could do, other than acting, was editing. I didn’t know much about editing when I went into it, but I learned to love it.
What was it like to work on Fifty Shades of Grey?
It was kind of fun. I thought it could have been a little more raunchy myself. Creatively, it was quite interesting because they were trying to get as sexy as they could and get an R rating. So we were very delicately going around some of the scenes. I was surprised to be asked to do it, but I think it was because I did [Adrian Lyne’s] Unfaithful, which was fairly sexy.
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