A regular collaborator with Los Angeles-based director Niki Caro, he’s recently completed work on Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, featuring Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl and Johan Heldenbergh. Coulson visited Auckland in August and is now working with Caro in Canada on the Netflix TV drama Anne.
Take a stroll down Memory Lane. Where did you begin your career?
After leaving Canterbury University I started at Television One at the Avalon Television Centre in 1977, when it was the hub for TV production in New Zealand. The whole place was purpose-built. I remember a corridor that had 20 or more edit suites coming off it – and all of them had editors working in them. The place was just buzzing. You really felt something was happening in that building.
Around 1979 I moved up to Auckland to join TV2’s drama department, but after a while I decided to get out. Another editor, Alf West and I imported a Steenbeck machine from Australia and we set up shop just off Queen Street, picking up independent projects, overflow work from TVNZ and some overseas productions visiting here.
In 1981 I was asked to view some freshly-shot film for a visiting UK news crew before they had to get it away to London. It turned out to be footage from Gisborne of the protests at the first Test on the Springboks tour. We’d recently seen the news footage from the UK of the Brixton riots and I thought, ‘Wow, the same thing’s happening here?’
Through the 1980’s I assisted on some overseas feature productions which meant work in the US, Australia and England whilst editing features, dramas and documentaries here in New Zealand.
And what happened in the ‘90s?
More of the same really, though it was during this period that I also started editing commercials, and I was fortunate to work with many of New Zealand’s best commercials directors at the time like Gregor Nicholas, Kevin Denholm, Chris Dudman, Lee Tamahori, Josh Frizzell – those kinds of people. I’m a great believer in the cross-pollination of editorial skills and techniques between all the different story forms – be they features, documentaries, shorts, dramas or commercials. I think we are always trying to tell a story one way or another.
We first met working on commercials, and quickly found that we had a good collaborative relationship. This was tested under fire when we made Whale Rider, where we had a great time and as a huge bonus, the film turned out really well!
Niki has a very open, intelligent, emotional and creative aesthetic. Over the years our relationship has grown. As it turned out, those commercials were good training for working with studios, which is where we’ve progressed to.
Describe a little about your process
On any new project I spend the first two or three weeks viewing and assembling material basically looking for the DNA of that particular film and what makes it special, different. Once you’ve found that, it gives you a blueprint for the thousands of decisions that follow.
Sometimes Niki doesn’t know exactly how a scene will end up looking. Sometimes I don’t know how it will work out either, but in those instances, Niki shoots coverage that allows a lot of possibilities. There’s a scene in McFarland USA when the boys are training, running up and down mounds of almond husks. Niki shot around two hours of coverage for that. This enabled a very organic approach to the construction of what is a very successful scene.
The scale is one of the main differences when you work for American studios. It’s not the budgets per se, though they are different, but what those budgets mean. More money means more everything – more crew, more equipment, more trucks and, of course, more at stake. Editorially, since working on my first US film North Country, this has meant my standard crew is now an assistant, a second assistant and a PA. Typically this means we’re now occupying more space and using more equipment than I ever did in New Zealand.
I remember when we did North Country we worked in Minnesota and New Mexico on the shoot, and then we came back to New Zealand to do the Director’s Cut. We returned to Los Angeles not really knowing what to expect when we showed it to Warners, but I guess we figured maybe half a dozen key people would be in the room.
Anyway, about 50 people from a multitude of departments arrived. That made me realize we were now working at a different level. But I have to say, the feedback was great. We were given notes but told to use the ones we wanted and to ignore the rest.
I’m back here in Auckland to see family and friends, sort out the house and run a workshop for DEGNZ. When we went to the US three years ago we didn’t know how long we’d be there. I’m naturally cautious so I still treat it like I’m staying in LA rather than living there.
Niki’s in Canada at the moment prepping a TV series for Netflix, Anne (based on the Canadian children’s classic, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables). I’ll join her there in September for three months or so.
I’m very excited about The Zookeeper’s Wife which is all put to bed now. It currently has a release date of 31 March next year, but I have discovered that in the US, release and distribution is very much a live organic environment. Dates get changed.
When we were moving towards the release of McFarland USA, it was slated for a (US) holiday weekend in late 2014 but then a blockbuster – maybe one of the Hunger Games titles – got dated for the same weekend.
Those types of pictures can suck all the air out of the box office for a week or two so McFarland USA got pushed back into early 2015. It did well, took US$44 million. I was disappointed that the studio decided against giving it a theatrical release in New Zealand, for obvious reasons but that’s the thing – when it comes down to it, it’s just business.
Keith is the editor of SCREENZ, and the co-creator and founding editor of CREWED.