Film: The hand that rocks the cradle

From Red Shoes to Out of Sight via Lawrence of Arabia, Ann Coates is a woman who's seen and edited it all.
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The Independent Culture
When you're watching a film, as Anne Coates is the first to agree, you're usually only conscious of the editing if it annoys you. Every now and then, however, a film is put together with such conspicuous verve that you can't help sitting up and taking notice.

One such is Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh's snappy adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel about a fugitive bank robber (George Clooney) with the hots for the Federal marshal on his tail (Jennifer Lopez). The elaborate flashback structure might seem a commonplace in a Nineties American crime movie, but it's the jazzy rhythm of the film - a stream of freeze frames, jump cuts and momentary flashes backwards and forwards in time - which makes it seem less a thriller than a wry and tantalising evocation of frustrated sexual desire.

The real surprise, however, is that Out of Sight's editor isn't some Californian pop-promo whizzkid, but a veteran who started out half a century ago on The Red Shoes. The year of Soderbergh's birth, 1963, was the year Anne V Coates won Best Editing Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia.

"I like working with young directors, actually," says the 73-year-old Coates, her Home Counties tones unaffected by her years in Los Angeles. "They're not carrying a lot of baggage with them."

Her pairing with Soderbergh was engineered by the production company behind Out of Sight - Danny DeVito's Jersey Films - who wanted an "acknowledged editor" to babysit the indie auteur (best known for his 1989 debut Sex, Lies & Videotape) through his first big-budget star vehicle.

"I said to Steven right at the beginning: `I'd really like you to stretch me,'" Coates recalls, "and he certainly did."

The first stretch for Coates was to learn Avid, one of the digital systems which has revolutionised film editing in recent years, allowing editors to try montages out on the computer screen without having to cut and paste strips of celluloid.

"I didn't particularly want to learn anything else," says Coates, "but I'm glad I did. I love the Avid. Particularly with Steven, it saved us a fortune. What you see in the film is a minuscule amount of the experiments we did."

One experiment which really pays off in Out of Sight is the captivating sequence when Clooney and Lopez finally come face to face after a long pursuit from Miami to Detroit. As they flirt in a hotel bar, Coates throws in a flash-forward to them making love in the hotel room, to erotic and strangely poignant effect.

It's a long way from Religious Films, where Coates started out in the 1940s as "a sort of tea girl", patching up prints of devotional shorts before sending them out to the nation's churches. Born in Reigate, Surrey, Coates had what she calls "an over-protected upbringing". Dreaming of a career as a film director, but unable to find an opening in the industry, her schooldays experience in a Red Cross troop led to a stint as a nurse at Sir Archibald McIndoe's pioneering plastic surgery hospital in East Grinstead.

"We had mostly pilots in the hospital," she remembers, "and kids who had been playing with bombs they found on the ground and stuff. Pretty harrowing, actually, but it was intriguing for me just to be meeting other people - it opened my mind to communism and things like that which shocked my family."

After getting her union card, Coates landed a job in the cutting room at Pinewood, and worked her way up, getting her first editor's credit on 1952's The Pickwick Papers. But her big break a decade later was, she insists, entirely a matter of luck.

"My husband and I lived opposite Harrods. We used to go in there on a Saturday morning - our local supermarket, as it were - and we bumped into a great friend of ours, Gerry O'Hara. He said: `I'm doing these tests of Albert Finney for Seven Pillars of Wisdom for David Lean. He's doing two complete sequences, shooting them like films.' I wasn't working at the time, so I said: `Have they got anyone cutting them together?' Monday they rang me up and said: `We'll pay you pounds 50 a week to come in.' I didn't even meet David until I got there. Anyway, he loved the work I did on them and offered me the picture, much to my surprise."

Coates was on the film - later retitled Lawrence of Arabia, and recast with Peter O'Toole replacing Finney - for 22 months. A distinguished editor himself before he moved into the director's chair, Lean was an exacting taskmaster.

"I don't think he ever did realise how nervous I was working with him," Coates remembers. "But he was very open to ideas. He used to say to me: `Come on, we're really stuck here.' And sometimes I'd come up with an idea which was a little bit weird, off the cuff, and he would say: `That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.' And I'd feel really awful. But next day he'd say: `You know what you were talking about? It's pretty stupid, but there was something...'"

Lean offered Coates his next film, Doctor Zhivago, but by then she was pregnant with her second child, and couldn't face eight months abroad. While she was still working on Lawrence the legendary Hollywood mogul, Hal Wallis, came in for a sneak preview of Peter O'Toole, whom he had in mind for his next production, Becket. Impressed with Coates's work, Wallis offered her the film, which went on to earn her a second Oscar nomination.

"I didn't really know very much about Oscars in those days," she confesses. "I never went over, and now I somewhat regret it. I thought: `If I go it looks as if I think I'm going to win.' I didn't ever go to a ceremony until I was nominated for The Elephant Man."

Working with David Lynch on that film, his first after Eraserhead, was, she says with characteristic diplomacy, "unusual".

"It was curious: so much was in his mind, but he didn't talk about what he was doing, so it was difficult sometimes to follow. He's quite a macabre person. He said to me one day: `You should take the kids to the London Hospital and look at all the freaks in the bottles, the two-headed babies.' The actual Elephant Man was in there. He said: `You'll really enjoy it. Take some sandwiches and make a day of it.'"

Coates didn't take Lynch up on the offer, but she might as well have done. Her two sons by her late husband, the director Douglas Hickox (best remembered for his Entertaining Mr Sloane, with Beryl Reid) have grown up to be directors specialising in horror films. Anthony made Hellraiser III, among others, and James, Children of the Corn 2. Coates's daughter, who lives in Vienna, has worked as a film editor.

"So they're all in the business," she chuckles. "One of them should have been a bank manager or some safe job like that."

Apart from her brief foray as a producer on 1978's The Medusa Touch ("My main job was to try and get Richard Burton on the set - he wasn't drinking but he was having terrible withdrawal problems"), editing has proved a remarkably "safe job" for Coates. She received a fourth Oscar nomination in 1994 for In the Line of Fire, and now likes to do a film a year, taking a few months off in between to travel.

"I'm fairly choosy," she says. "You don't always get offered the films you want. I've never done a cowboy movie, which I grew up on - we were always, my brothers and I, being cowboys and Indians. Maybe one will come my way."

In the meantime, she hopes to work with Soderbergh and Clooney on their next film, Leatherheads. She has no plans to retire.

"I think in this business you get retired," she says. "Slowly maybe the offers start getting less, and when that starts happening, then maybe I'll just slow down."

Out of Sight is scheduled for release on 27 November