EditFest Part 3 – A Conversation with Anne Coates and Tom Rolf

For the final part of my write-up of EditFest London we come to the highlight of the day for many people, the panel with the legendary Anne Coates and Tom Rolf. As with the other blogs I’ve written about EditFest, I’m writing from notes I made on the day, so this will again be less a direct quote of what was said, but more my recollections and impressions from the session.

Anne and Tom, as many of you may know have edited some of the definitive films in all of cinema. Most notably Anne cut Lawrence of Arabia for David Lean, for which she won an Oscar and was nominated again for Becket, The Elephant Man, In the Line of Fire and Out of Sight. Tom’s list of credits is no less impressive, nominated for a BAFTA for Taxi Driver as well as cutting The Right Stuff, Jacob’s Ladder, WarGames and Heat, to name but a few.

Their conversation was extremely friendly and casual, with their love of making movies clear to see. They talked for about an hour and a half, including showing several clips, but I’m sure the attendees could have listened to double that, given how much time they both spent talking to people at the cocktail party afterwards.

Firstly they gave a little background on how they each entered the industry. Anne cutting religious films in order to get into the union, and Tom assisting for years before graduating to being a full editor – a victim (in my view) of the “8-year rule” which meant that you couldn’t just started editing as you can now, you had to assist for 8 years first.

They then started showing some clips from their films – Tom showed a clip from the beginning of Jacob’s Ladder, which he describes as his favourite work, despite the fact that other films were more successful. He suggests that it was marketed as a horror rather than a psychological thriller, which may have contributed.

Anne then showed a fantastic sequence from Out of Sight, the scene where she cross-cut between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the hotel bar and later that evening in their hotel room. She showed the two scenes firstly as separate, but fully cut, sequences one after the other, straight off the Avid. That was as the film was written, and then she showed the finished sequence from the film. Aside from a couple of takes, the shots selected for each individual sequence didn’t change particularly (“George only got some of those rather difficult sentences right once really”), but the chronology of the two weaved together in a wonderfully economical fashion, charging each moment and line of dialogue with increased meaning. In fact Anne described the finished sequence as “married” together, which I thought was a telling and wonderful description.

For some reason it’s on YouTube in two parts… Mad, but here you go;

They had no system for how to cut the scene, they (Anne and director Steven Soderbergh) just tried out “for the fun of it” various points at which to intercut the two scenes. Anne told us “that’s what makes you an editor; where you cut”. That quote makes it sound so simple, and to some extent it is that simple, she’s absolutely right. Timing is everything. Even if the sequence contains lots of visual effects, or composited graphical elements, or is flashy for the sake of drawing attention to the editing style in that CSI Miami style.

Tom noted that when he started out, you absolutely did not ever call attention to a cut, it was supposed to be totally invisible and it was a bit of a shock when these hard cuts came in. But that’s just how editing has progressed over time. He also feels that there’s a lot of unmotivated cuts now.

Tom had a question from a friend of his, Norman Schwartz, which he put to Anne. I’m paraphrasing; editors are seen by non-editors either as 1) button pushers, their every move prescribed by genius directors or 2) the opposite – “the unsung, under-appreciated true creators of great cinema, whose cross in life is to suffer in silence as they save the lives and careers of an unending line of ungrateful incompetence”. (The second part got a nice round of applause). Of course neither, and therefore both, are true. So the question was how did two film editors (Anne with David Lean) work together to get to the finished cut. Anne replied that David often won arguments that they had and occasionally told her that it was totally silly, but would then a couple of days later add another layer to the idea which made it into something interesting, which encouraged her to keep offering suggestions. The only scene that they really disagreed on in Lawrence of Arabia was the scene where Lawrence retrieves his friend from the desert, in which Anne described her cut initially as a much more sentimental version than the final one, which she still wishes had ended up in the film.

Anyone who has seen the excellent Side by Side documentary will be familiar with the story of the “blowing out the match” cut, so apologies if you’ve heard it before – the cut was originally to be a dissolve, but of course in the days of cutting on film a dissolve was time-consuming to accomplish, so in Anne marked where the fade was to begin and end, but then just spliced the two pieces of film together as a hard cut… When she watched it back, she and David Lean found it interesting and asked her to “titivate it”. She took off a couple of frames, and that’s what you see in the movie.

It was somewhat encouraging to hear that even on a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, there was still a great squeeze on the schedule; it was four months between finishing the shoot and screening it for the Queen, and the first time Anne heard the famous Maurice Jarre score was at the dubbing stage – she never cut with it because it was being written “as it was being dubbed”, it was that tight.

Overall it was a great conversation, terrific fun to hear from both Anne and Tom, who came along to the cocktail reception afterwards and were quite wonderfully holding court as many of the attendees asked questions of them. I was lucky enough to talk to Tom for a moment about his work on Michael Mann’s Heat, and in particular the Pacino/DeNiro coffee scene in the middle of the film.

Here’s a clip;

Tom told me that the key to the whole scene from his point of view was that the two characters always had to be in balance, neither had the upper hand over the other, and that above all the way he cut the scene emanated from the performances. It was quite a thrill to talk to him about it, and to be able to thank him for coming and speaking at EditFest as well as the Supermeet the previous evening.

I’ll finish here with a couple of quotes from Tom which speak volumes on their own, I think they’re fantastic pieces of advice;

– “The most important talent you can develop is diplomacy”

– “Never hold anyone’s idea up for ridicule, every idea is valid… But fight for what you believe in”.