Editors are one of the least visible groups in the film industry. Even in this age of DIY filmmaking, where people are much more attuned to the editing process, the editor still carries little weight either for the success or the failure of a film, even though they can play an influential role.
How many people would recognise the names Anne Coates and Kevin Tent? Probably not that many. But few people would have trouble recognising the films they edited: Anne Coates won an Oscar for her work as editor on David Lean's classic Lawrence of Arabia. She also won Oscar nominations for Becket, The Elephant Man, Out of Sight, In The Line of Fire, and Erin Brockovich. Kevin Tent has been Alexander Payne's editor on Sideways, About Schmidt, and Election.
Tent and Coates came together for a Cinematic Salon in July at Cineworks film and video access centre in Vancouver, Canada. Coates, still bubbling with enthusiasm for her work at 79, had travelled up from her LA home to "Hollywood North" for her latest project, indie film Catch and Release, which she describes as a "people picture" with humour, life and a happy ending. Kevin Tent was working on Robin Williams latest film R.V., a comedy about a dysfunctional family that rents an R.V. and heads on a roadtrip for the Colorado Rockies, where they have to contend with a bizarre community of campers.
To be, or not to be on set
In his seminal book In The Blink of An Eye (book review), Walter Murch talked about the need for an editor to maintain "a certain kind of virginity" towards the raw footage of a film. He argues quite persuasively that if an editor is on the set then he or she is in danger of "seeing around the edge of the frame," being drawn to, or resisting, footage for reasons other than the footage itself. It might be, for example, the fact that a lot of time and money was spent in getting a particular shot, even if that shot doesn't work.
Anne Coates takes a different view from Murch. She likes to get to know the actors and see what the director is trying to do with the film. "I like meeting the people. I'm a theatre person," said Coates. Since the editor's primary job is to transfer the director's vision, she finds it useful to watch where the director takes the film on set. The director may not articulate everything he or she is looking for back in the edit suite, so for Coates the experience on set can provide invaluable insights.
Tent said he might offer suggestions at rehearsal stage to director Alexander Payne, like there are two scenes that are very similar, but he feels less comfortable going on set. "I show up and people think I'm executive," he quipped.
Technology may have made the editing process a faster more efficient one, but Coates was a reluctant convert from conventional film editing. She talked wistfully about the days when she could hold the negatives up to the light and see the little pictures, and how she missed the freedom of working with her Moviola. In the old days, she would mark the cuts, her assistant would splice the film together and then having completed a scene, it would be put up on the big screen and everyone would gather together to watch it. "It was a big event," remembers Coates fondly.
Coates suggested that the editor's assistants would feel more involved. "It was a lot more fun working with film," says Coates who clearly misses the social aspect of those days.
Tent pointed out that now he is more experienced he labours less over the first edit. He'll rough it in, but not worry about being perfect. He'll leave in the scripted lines, even if they don't seem right.
With the advent of features shot on High Definition video, Tent likes having instant access to all the B-roll footage too. It makes solving editing problems easier. Tent talked about how in the past you would order a print from B-roll negatives from the lab to fix a problem in the edit suite but when it arrived a week later you would have found some other solution to the problem or even have forgotten why you bothered to order it in the first place.
Both editors talked about how the amount of time for editing has been squeezed in recent years, largely driven by technological advances. The drawback: "Studios don't give you thinking time," says Coates.
Coates remembers it taking 16 weeks, working seven days a week, for post-production for Lawrence of Arabia. Erin Brockevich was shown to preview audiences five weeks after shooting finished. Even special effects movies are being completed fast. For example, The Fantastic Four wrapped in Vancouver in December and was on general release in late June. Tent currently works with 3 assistants on a 10 week director cut.
Both editors agreed that "the good idea comes at six weeks" still applies whatever the tools of the trade are.
Working with a director
Different movies have different demands. Sometimes there is too much coverage, sometimes too little. "Stephen shoots just enough coverage," says Coates of Soderburgh. Adrian Lyne (Unfaithful) would do very long 1000 foot takes (11 minutes). Both editors said that being flexible and open to different directorial approaches and the spirit of the movie is much more important than developing a unique style. The editor's hand should be an invisible one.
In a room full of editors one of the key questions was how to balance your opinion with that of the director. Both editors' responses were the obvious, "Find a director who you like" so that differences of opinion can be amicably resolved. Coates pointed out that disagreements are usually an important part of the creative process. "I don't mind having rows," said Coates. With Adrian Lyne they'd have big arguments and then he would hug her at the end.
When it comes to making a stand on something Tent sticks by the "Three Times" rule. He'll quietly bring up an edit that concerns him three times before making a stand. "Usually by the second time they know." It doesn't always work. He once resorted to bribing director Alexander Payne $75 to to get his way over a scene in Election.
Coates has had her fair share of bad relationships with directors. One director told executives it was "Anne's fault" when a movie flopped. "I had a director who clicked his finger where he wanted a cut. He's lucky to be alive today," said Coates of another.
Like Tent she usually waits patiently for the dust to settle before picking a fight. If she believes in something she doesn't let go. "I fought for a scene: I fought, and fought, and fought," she said of Erin Brockevich. She was fortunate in that she had the producers on her side in this instance. She won her case and the producers bought her a drink. However, she didn't get another scene that she wanted in the same film. Compromises, compromises...
Director is an editor's best friend
While editor and director may disagree both Coates and Tent stressed how important it is that you should side with the director and speak your mind in private, because that's usually what is best for the movie. It was sugggested that there is a trend happening that producers will bring in a new editor, their editor, if the director isn't doing what they want. There's little an editor can do in such a situation.
Then there are the dreaded previews. The director and editor may be pleased with their cut, but a poor response from a preview audience can delay and disrupt a project. The worst thing is not knowing how the audience will respond, particularly if it's the wrong audience. "Preview days are the worst days of your life," said Coates.
Tent said that Election previewed badly. "It previewed seven times. The studio thought it was an MTV film. They were so stupid."
Becoming an editor
What advice would Tent and Coates offer those wanting to get in to editing? "Take jobs where you can," says Coates. She suggests working on short films, like commercials, because they are often harder to edit and will help you hone your editing skills.
Tent started doing educational films, then moved into Roger Corman films, and low-budget horror movies. Coates started off editing religious educational films for the UK churches, before getting a job in the cutting room at Pinewood Studios. You've got to start somewhere.