Walter Murch interviews Anne Coates

This is a great combination of two incredibly talented editors who are also articulate and very concerned with the art and the future of editing. As usual, I've highlighted areas of special interest to us.


Anne V. Coates has edited 48 films in as many years. Her first love was horses; as a girl, she thought she'd be a race-horse trainer. As a teenager, an introduction to classic literature on film, such as "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights," changed her mind. She took a job with a small non-union house, Religious Films, which led to her joining the union and working as a second assistant at Pinewood Studios. The first film she cut was "The Pickwick Papers." A self-described intuitive editor, Coates has edited such films as "The Horse's Mouth," "Lawrence of Arabia" (for which she won an Academy Award), "Becket," "The Elephant Man," "Ragtime," "Chaplin" and, most recently, the Julia Roberts hit "Erin Brockovich".

A generation after Coates began her career, Walter Murch graduated from the USC School of Cinema-Television along with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Shunning Hollywood, the group set up shop in San Francisco, where they opened Zoetrope Studios. "Our idea was to have an egalitarian studio," Murch says. He worked as a sound recordist and mixer before taking on his first film as picture editor, "The Conversation." Since then he has edited such classics as "Apocalypse Now," the "Godfather" trilogy, "The English Patient," for which he won the Oscar, and last year's "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Murch and Coates sat down together recently to talk about their careers, editing styles and philosophies, directors they have worked with and the future of editing.


Walter Murch: When editing started out in the early years of the century, the larger portion of editors were women, and it was with the coming of sound that men proportionately began to be more involved in editing. Do you see this, or is it different in your experience in England?

Anne V. Coates: When I first came into the industry in England, there were quite a lot of women editors. And then slowly they fell by the wayside. They didn't seem to have the ambition, which I always thought was strange. When I left in 1986, I think there was only one other woman doing big features in England. There were quite a few doing television and commercials and things, but I can't put my finger on why that was. But I have a different theory about the beginning. As you rightly say, most of the editors were women, and they started by cutting negative. And I think that women were considered more patient and careful and all those sorts of things.

Murch: Maybe they didn't smoke as much.

Coates: And they were more precise. But I was taught, or I must have heard it somewhere, that as it became a more important job, men started to get in on it. While it was just a background job, they let the women do it. But when people realized how interesting and creative editing could be, then the men elbowed the women out of the way and kind of took over. There were some wonderful women editors who helped inspire me to go into editing in England. In a way, I've never looked at myself as a woman in the business. I've just looked at myself as an editor. I mean, I'm sure I've been turned down because I'm a woman, but then other times I've been used because they wanted a woman editor. I just think, "I'm an editor," and I never expected to get paid less because I was a woman. I grew up with three brothers, and I never thought I would get paid less for anything than they did.

Murch: When you were growing up, did film interest you in a particular way, and if it didn't, then how did you get involved in film? Laurence Olivier in "Wuthering Heights"

Coates: I didn't go to the cinema very much as a child. When my parents divorced, my father used to take us to the cinema for his treat. I remember seeing films like "Lost Horizon," which I thought was magic, "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." I fell madly in love with Laurence Olivier. When I saw the magic on the screen, what it could do, it suddenly came alive to me. It held my imagination in a way that made me become interested in films. When I had my first job, I had never seen a piece of 35mm film in my life.

Murch: Really?

Coates: No. I was a projectionist and sound recordist. I sent the films out, and when they came back, they were nitrate-filled. I learned how you do those lovely patches, things like that. And it was kind of fun. Then I got into the real world of film.

Murch: How did that happen?

Coates: Well, they unionized us, and nobody wanted to go into the union except me. Then I heard there was this job at Pinewood Studios for a second assistant, so I applied. But I was not qualified, so I wasn't truthful in my interview. I said I could make tracks and order opticals and do all these things which I had never done in my life. Then I had a crash course for a week with a friend of mine in the editing booth. The first film I did was for Michael Powell, who was making "The Red Shoes" at the same time. Reggie Mills, who was his top editor, took the picture over to recut it. Reggie Mills didn't want the first assistant to go up with the film, so I went up. And he was wonderful. I mean, he never actually taught me anything as such, but watching him and the discipline were so good for me. And, you know, he never spoke. I just used to hand him the trims and ask for the trims. Then I got into working on "The Red Shoes" for a little bit, helping out on that, and was able to go on the set to watch, so it was an interesting time.

Murch: Digital editing doesn't allow you to have a relationship with somebody like Reggie Mills in quite the same way. In the old days, with Moviola, an assistant stood right next to the editor and handed trims. An assistant was able to watch everything that was going on and was a minute-by-minute participant in the process. Now there tends to be a division between what the editor is doing, and all the requirements, which have ballooned tremendously, that an assistant has to do, which are administrative in a different sense.

Coates: And they have to be in another room.

Murch: What's your feeling about that, and how do you think we can move forward in training upcoming editors?

Coates: As opposed to the way I did it, just watching, hoping and learning, I think we've got to involve them, have them in the cutting rooms and show them what we're doing. I try to let mine cut some scenes and then talk to them about it. I don't do it as much as I should. And I try to be careful not to trample on my own assistants and stifle their ideas. But I can't actually have somebody watching me cut -- my first cut, that is. I like to be alone.

Murch: I remember when I worked with Fred Zinnemann in 1976 on "Julia." I'd cut the first two or three scenes together. He was shooting on location up in the Lake District, so he said, "Why don't you bring what you've cut, and we'll take a look at it?" I did, and we looked at it. I thought to myself, "This is terrible," but he thought it was very good. He said, "Remember that editing film is the most solitary job on a motion picture."

Coates: I think editing a film is such a personal thing.

Murch: I took that to heart, and I went back and said, "All right, it's just me and the film. I'm not going to think about anybody else. I'm going to tell a story that makes me react in a good way," obviously hoping that this would please others as well. It was a liberating experience. Until then I had worked with friends, Lucas and Coppola. We'd all grown up in film school together, and we all knew each other. So it was really just a band of jolly fellows. "Julia" was the first time I'd left that particular nest.

Coates: Oh, I see. I didn't realize that. David Lean always used to say, "Have the courage of your conviction, tell the story your way. I'll respect what you did, although in certain instances I may want things another way." He would hold these shots of the desert, and I'd say, "David, you can't hold them that long." However, he said, "Wait until the music's on, wait until the whole rhythm is together." And he was right.

Murch: That's something that you feel (and I think every editor feels) in the pit of your stomach when you sit down, particularly to cut the first scene of a film. Because you're not only cutting this scene, you are establishing your relationship with the project -- how this project is going to be different from other projects that you worked on. You want to be as true as possible to that difference. The possibilities are vast, but you have to start somewhere, so you think, "Where could I begin the scene? Let's open with this shot."

Coates: Yes, just go for something.

Murch: And then once you make that first decision, the possibilities decrease: "If I've begun with this, then I have to do this, and then it might be interesting to do that." And step by step you find yourself suddenly...

Coates: Following a particular line, dictated by the story, the performances, the way the director shot it and that sort of thing. I find when I start on a new film, it usually takes me a scene or two to get into the film and find the particular style or feeling for that film. I usually cut to two or three scenes and I think, "Oh, God, I've lost my touch," and then I cut a scene and think, "Wow!" That gives you the confidence, and you go back to the others, and you've got the line, you've got the feel for the film.

Murch: You've worked with so many different directors over the course of your career. How do you establish the working creative relationship with the director?

Coates: I like working with different people, and particularly with young directors. I talk to them about the film and try to find out what the director is expecting. Some of them are not very communicative, and finding that common ground takes a little bit of time, too. I like to run scenes with a director after I've begun, but Steven Soderbergh didn't see a foot of "Erin" before we finished. He did on "Out of Sight."

Murch: "Out of Sight" was the first time you had collaborated together.

Coates: Yes. But on "Erin," he didn't see any of it, due to circumstances: they were on location.

Murch: Also, presumably, because he'd worked with you before.

Coates: I was trying to get him to see things, because I wanted to feel I was on the right line. But I don't ever cut two or three versions, like one can do digitally. I show the director one version. Then if we alter it, that's fine. But you know, I have my feeling about the film, and I guess I've been lucky that most of the time I've been in the same direction as the director. I try to work with directors whose work I like and find interesting. When I was younger, I had to find work where I could, and I had some not great experiences with directors. I like having a little edge with the director -- you know, discussions and arguments. I think that's what editors are partly there for, like a sounding board. When I first worked on "Out of Sight," I knew that Steven did things in a fairly far-out way. So I said to him, "Stretch me." We tried a lot of things that we didn't put in the picture. Steven was always coming up with great ideas. I like working with him a lot.

Murch: What are the things that determine your choice of a particular project?

Coates: How it moves me. How it involves me. I like films about people, human stories. I enjoy special effects movies, but I don't enjoy cutting them that much. Also the director. I like to be challenged and I like it to be different. The thing I want to do is a cowboy movie. I'm hoping one of these days it will come along.

Murch: Also, every film has its own fingerprint or genetic marker that makes it different from the others. Editors are on the film for the better part of the year on the average, so you get soaked in that particular broth.

Coates: And you want to get it out of your mind. I like to take time off between films. I think it's important to live your life. I don't think that if you are just an editor all the time that you are going to be a good editor. You've got to go out and experience things, see things and travel.

Murch: I think that, too. I look at it in ways similar to how an actor would. You want the part to be recognizably you, otherwise it's a complete miscast. On the other hand, you want something that is going to stretch you and take you to a place that you've never been before. That challenge is an important part of maintaining your sanity in this business.

Coates: At one stage of my life, I thought I was getting into rather empty big pictures, and I made a conscious decision to do smaller, interesting pictures. I did "The Elephant Man," and that was one of the best decisions of my life. But it's difficult here because once you do them for less money, then they don't want to pay your money again. That doesn't happen in England.

Murch: Also in England there aren't the barriers between commercials, television and features, or big and small features.

Coates: When I first came to the U.S., you had to be an assistant for eight years or something ridiculous. I cut after about four years.

Murch: In my case, I never even passed through the assistant phase. I had done sound editing and mixing, and I'd cut documentaries and commercials, non-union. I had to be my own assistant. Suddenly I found myself the editor on "The Conversation."

Coates: But I think you've got to take the chances when you have them.

Murch: Yes. Even when I'm hiring somebody and I have a very strong feeling that they're gilding their resume, I don't hold that against them.

Coates: Everybody has to sell themselves. My assistants are all film-trained. None of them comes from computers. The first film I did digitally was "Congo," and Frank Marshall had my crew and me trained. We had private teachers, but we were really the blind leading the blind, and it was an extremely difficult picture. So I ran screaming and kicking to digital.

Murch: And that was the early days for digital, because it didn't come into its own until the mid '90s. When you started out, you obviously were working with a Moviola?

Coates: Yes.

Murch: Did you ever go through the Kem/Steenbeck phase?

Coates: I used both of them. I would do my first cut always on a Moviola, until I went digital, and then when I got to the next stage, working with the director, I would work on either a Kem or Steenbeck, and I found that was a lot better than working on Moviola. You could sit back and look at it. But I thought I would never do a first cut on digital. I mean, I thought I'd never get the same feeling of doing it that I had with my Moviola. But of course you do. You know, you cut it from the inside out when you're working on a Moviola, and you cut from the outside in when you're doing it digitally -- because it's up there and you cut it, and then you start molding more. With a Moviola, you kind of mold as you do it.

Murch: I went through all three phases. I started out on the Moviola. "Julia" was cut on a Moviola. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" was for the most part assembled on a Moviola and then cut on a flatbed. Like everything else during that period of the '70s and '80s, "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now" and "Ghost" were cut on flatbeds.

Coates: You preferred it? Or you just evolved to it because that was what was happening?

Murch: I certainly liked the viewability of the material on the flatbed, and it was part of Zoetrope's policy in the early days. We were going to be a modern company (this was 1969, 1970) and so there were no Moviolas around. When I got "The Conversation," it was simply understood that I would cut it on the Kem. I developed this rather quirky way of working on flatbeds, which is very much what you're talking about. The Moviola is sculptural in the sense of a clay sculpture that you're building up from bits, whereas the Kem is sculptural in the sense that there is a block of marble and you're removing bits.

Coates: You get the same thing because it's what's really in your head, but you just attack it a different way.

Murch: The big advantage that I found with the Kem is that I didn't make select rolls. You know, it's technically possible to create the digital equivalent of daily rolls.

Coates: I have a Kem roll made if it's a big sequence that we've seen, and maybe I'm not going to get to cut it for a few days.

Murch: Right, I do too.

Coates: How much do you think editing will change now that we're digital? They carried out a survey where they said there were many more cuts and certainly more opticals than there were before. But do you feel your style has changed a lot?

Murch: After I cut "The English Patient," which is the first full film that I cut digitally, I was curious to go back and look at something that I cut 20 years earlier, "Julia" or "The Conversation." But they looked the same to me. So I think it's more dependent on the people.

Coates: I don't think my style has changed particularly, either.

Murch: I think there is a period whenever new technology comes in that you get drunk with the potential of it and you overuse it. Look at when the zoom lens came into wide use in the '60s: there was all this fast zooming. None of that is left. Yet all films are shot with zoom lenses for the most

Coates: I think cutting is faster now than it was 20 years ago because of commercials and the MTVs and things like that.

Murch: On the other hand, you look at a film like "His Girl Friday," the Howard Hawks film with Rosalind Russellž

Coates: And Cary Grant.

Murch: There aren't many cuts in that film, but the speed with which the dialogue is given to you is something that audiences wouldn't know how to take today. You know the repartee and the need to keep up with the dialogue back and forth. It's similar to cutting. How fast you can process information is really all we're talking about. And in those days there was a style of quick repartee in dialogue that is almost completely gone now. And it perhaps has been replaced by a quick repartee in image, certainly in MTV and television-based things. I think it's less adaptable to the big screen, that extremely quick style of cutting.

Coates: I don't like when it's so quick you don't see what's happening. What's the point in having the shot?

Murch: Also, when you're looking at the picture, it's taking up a good 30 degrees of your vision at least. Sometimes even more if you're sitting close to the screen. Whereas a television is something that's over in the corner and it's maybe two degrees, so it has to be very aggressive editorially to catch your eye.

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