A Cut Above
When Cinema Australia caught up with Jill Bilcock the Australian film editing legend was in the middle of cutting Mystify: Michael Hutchence, Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about troubled INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.
“Right now I’m looking at the scrawlings of Michael,” Bilcock told Cinema Australia. “I’m reading all his lyrics, and things he wrote in his notebook.”
For Bilcock, her career has come full circle having worked with Hutchence on Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space and she’s finding the whole experience quite personal.
“I’m learning a lot of new things about Michael. His poetry is fascinating but his handwriting is appalling which makes it difficult to translate. I imagine we’re going to have to get someone in to do a voiceover so the audience know what he’s written.”
While Bilcock is hard at work on the Hutchence film, a documentary about her own life, Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible, is about to hit the Gold Coast Film Festival.
“I don’t think anyone will give you the money for that pile of shit.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
What was your reaction when you heard Axel Grigor wanted to make a documentary about your career?
I thought it would never happen. [Laughs].
That the documentary would never happen, or that no one would every make one about you?
I just thought, “That’s great Axel. I don’t think anyone will give you the money for that pile of shit.” [Laughs]. I’m joking, but I didn’t think it would be of any interest to anyone. He’s done a great job with this documentary and its turned out to be quite a history lesson on Australian cinema. You forget how much you’ve done in the past. Axel has done a really good job. I was not very cooperative, the poor darling. I’m not used to being followed around or constantly nagged.
How humbling was it to see so many other industry icons speaking so highly of you? Rachel Griffiths, Cate Blanchett and Bruce Beresford all take part.
Axel has a real nerve going to all those people. [Laughs]. It was so lovely to hear Cate Blanchett speak. I was absolutely thrilled by what Axle has put together. He’s conducted some remarkable interviews here.
So what’s your opinion on the editing of the documentary?
[Laughs]. Oh it was excellent, of course. I would have taken a few of those ugly shots of me out, but other than that it was great.
Take us back to your first editing job on Lowenstein’s Strikebound.
Well Richard was my assistant. We both went to Swinburne and we were doing the film course there a very long time ago. I was working on commercials and Richard was my assistant. He told me he was making a feature film and I told him I would edit it for him. We reversed roles and he became my boss after I had been his boss.
Is this the film you edited on your kitchen table?
Oh no, that was a student film. That was 16mm reversal film and there was no editing machine at that time. I had done two years of the film course at that time and the editing machine only arrived in the last couple of weeks of that. I had to edit mine by chopping it up using a small picture viewer. I must admit, people look at that footage in this documentary and go, “What on Earth is she doing? Why is she throwing all that film all over the place?” My assistants only know digital now and they think that what I was doing was hilarious with all that actual film.
Well that is where the saying cutting room floor came from.
Yes absolutely. And I loved cutting stuff out of movies.
What happens with all that film?
Well the general rule is that you never lose a frame. Nothing should ever be lost. You’ve got to file it away. In the old days you used to turn it over and use it as sound spacing because it was on magnetic tape. That was always great because you’d get reject prints from the laboratory. I remember using Romper Stomper bits as sound spacing and I remember saying to myself, “They’re really having sex in this shot!” [Laughs]. It was amazing because often you would be working away, winding through film, and you would stop to look at the spacing just to see what was on some of those reject pictures from Romper Stomper. Romper Stomper’s outtakes looked to pretty out there.
Did you know that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life while you were making Strikebound?
No. I always thought that I would do various things. I travelled a lot in between. I spent a year in South America and a year in Asia. I went to China for a year when I was 18 at the time when that wasn’t open. I was very big on travelling. I didn’t have boundaries when it came to travel. If someone told me to take a camel up to the border of Pakistan I would, or if someone said to go to Afghanistan I would. I would just make it up as I went along and that’s how I chose films. I don’t have an agent and if I feel like doing action I’ll do action. If I feel like doing music I’ll do music. As long as the challenge is hard and interesting, with a talented director, I’ll do it. I do tend to be very selective with who I work with. I like to work with people who I can have fun with.
I imagine editing being quite a placid gig. Where does this energy come from to be this adventurous traveller on the side?
Well maybe it’s because I’m locked up in a small room most of the time. [Laughs]. I am pretty bossy and I do get sent to a lot of places, like studios for power meetings with studio bosses. I do have to stand my ground from time to time. Editing is certainly not always confined to a small room that’s for sure. It’s a great job, but you have to get out.
How isolating is it being an editor?
It’s not that isolating really. It’s as isolating as you make it. You can go on set if you like, but I tend not to do that because I don’t usually like to see what they’re doing. I’d rather see everything for the first time on the screen in front of me.
You edited Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy. Was that enough for you, or was it just a matter of not being asked to work on Australia and The Great Gatsby?
It was his decision. I was fine with that. Both those films take a different twist compared to the previous three. Although I’d probably say that I would have protested a bit had I edited Australia. Some of it didn’t quite land. It was very successful and Baz wanted to make his Gone With the Wind. I probably would have loved to have worked on it but I’m sure I would have wanted it to take a few different turns than it did. Nothing specific. Look, after three big films together you get exhausted. We had an absolute ball working together and I love him and I respect him dearly. I think he’s extraordinarily talented. I think we both needed a bit of a change at the time. As I said, I don’t want to be locked in and Road to Perdition was a real change for me at the time. It’s challenging when you’re working on a more reserved style of storytelling. You’re working with greats like Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, an extraordinary crew and I can’t think of one person on that which I didn’t learn something from. When you move forward you have to be learning.
Did you work on Road to Perdition in Australia or did you travel to America.
I travelled to America. Sam Mendes and I were very close. We both had a great time working on that and it was a completely different way of doing things for the both of us. Of course Baz and Sam’s personalities are very different. That’s always a challenge in itself when you meet someone new and you take time to start to read exactly what their vision might be. It takes a while to take on board what somebody’s creative wishes might be.
Is there a common similarity between all the directors you’ve ever worked with?
Only that they’ve got something to say and that I’ve got to work within how they want to say it. They are storytellers and I completely admire them. I don’t know how they do it. There’s people asking them questions endlessly. The responsibility that they take on is enormous.
In the documentary Baz Luhrmann comes across as being quite intense. Have you ever worked with a more manic director?
[Laughs]. He has the same kind of energy as Guillermo del Toro. I helped del Toro on one of his childhood projects called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It was the first horror movie he really loved as a child and he remade it with Troy Nixey. He was producing something else at the time and ended up becoming part-time director of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. His speed and creative energy was very similar to Baz’s. Because I have an art background, and because I love extreme visuals, that connection was very similar with both him and Baz.
What is it about Australian films that sets them apart from other world cinema?
Australian films are so blatantly honest. They’re a bit cringeworthy in a good way. Sometimes they can be so out there with how Australian they are. Also, you can see the genuine love of the cast and crew. The love translates well to the screen and you can tell that the cast and crew are usually happy on the shoot. It’s such a difficult thing to get an Australian film made. The other thing that sets them apart is that they never seem to have enough money to do the visual effects right. There are a few details we don’t get to do which is sad because filmmakers want it to happen but things like creating fire on film, for example, costs a lot of money.
There’s not a lot of money for CGI or marketing unfortunately and a lot of local films go widely unseen in Australia. What’s the one film you worked on you wish more people had seen?
Well it’s not Australian but The Libertine is one. Laurence Dunmore and Johnny Depp wanted to keep the original cut the way it was but Harvey Weinstein didn’t want it that way. Weinstein pretty much shelved that film and it went widely unseen. Weinstein was a bully in more ways than one.
What’s the best edited Australian film you’ve seen recently?
It’s a weird thing to say but I don’t look at films for the editing, unless it’s bad. [Laughs]. I see many Australian films and one which really sticks out in terms of editing would be Sweet Country. It’s excellent. I don’t really go for things like Mad Max: Fury Road even though it’s done really, really well and you can see the labour in it. I prefer smaller films. A well edited film is a film that works. I can see the skill in a lot of movies but I’m just not that interested in the way a film is edited. [Laughs]. It has to be emotional, it has to arrive to a conclusion and it has to tell a good story. I don’t go for all that invisible bullshit. Sometimes it’s correct and other times it isn’t. It’s just got to deliver stylistically according to the director. Baz was a madman so I’d give him a mad edit! [Laughs].
Is the Australian film industry in a better place now than it was when you started out?
I wouldn’t think so. There wasn’t much happening when I started but there was much more optimism than there is now. The more boxes you have to tick to get something done is never a good thing and that’s a big part of the industry now. It doesn’t feel the same anymore. It doesn’t feel as impulsive. It’s much more measured. You can see in a film like Lion that someone has interfered and told them to hurry certain bits up. Lion was on its way to being the perfect film. Even though its done incredibly well, you can see the interference from the studio. It’s not constant in style. Other people may have been interfering for the wrong reasons.
What advice do you have for people starting out on their own filmmaking journey?
Go out there and do it. You just have to take action and do it. If you’re good you will rise to the top. You can’t whinge about how you couldn’t do this or that. Everyone wants a sunny day to shoot, but sometimes you’re going to get a rainy day. Accept change and adapt. Work your way through it.
Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible will screen at the Gold Coast Film Festival on Friday, 20 April. Details here.