Women in Film: Jill Bilcock

 By Nathania Gilson

The essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy. Francis Ford Coppola

The work of a film editor is more often than not contradictory: hours and hours of precious time are spent pouring over reels of footage whilst making imperative decisions about what makes the final cut of the film alongside the director's vision. Yet so much of what makes the film, truly, is the editor's ability to remain invisible - to not be seen, but felt with every purposeful cut and story-telling device in place for audiences to make the most of.

This is why I find the mind and work of Melbourne-based film editor Jill Bilcock so fascinating. She has worked with a menagerie of both Australian and international directors, noted for her daring (turning down Sam Mendes' American Beauty to work on homegrown film The Dish) and ingenuity (she cut her first film on her kitchen table due to limited resources; it soon went on to premiere at various film festivals upon its completion), and ability to win the hearts and trust of every director she has worked with.

Jill Bilcock at Sundance in 2011 (via zimbio)

Jill was most recently a guest speaker on the lecture series Friday on My Mind (a free AFTRS initiative held at ACMI in Melbourne) to share her experiences and approach to the craft whilst working on films such as Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom, Road to Perdition, and most recently, Red Dog.

 She just dovetails and squirrels away into the mind of the director. She gets into the subconscious and comes out and conjures up an edit. She's like Tinkerbell. Shekhar Kapur on Jill Bilcock 

For those of you reading who are curious about the role of an editor in the filmmaking process, and about some of what it takes to be a particularly good one, here are some tips based on Jill's own philosophy and advice from experiences over the years:

Take the risk and work with first-time directors.

Jill enjoys working with new directors for the passion and enthusiasm that they bring to their projects that well-seasoned vetrans in the industry may not necessarily share. As she has pointed out, "...they're still terribly excited about what they are doing. And, not open to pleasing anybody else. Because they are passionate and believe in what they want to do - they haven't been worn down by studio experience yet so creatively they tend to step into areas that are much more interesting as opposed to some people who have been making films for the last thirty years."

Working with people who love what they do is never a certainty but always a pleasure when it is the case -- as an editor, enjoy the opportunity if the project is up your alley and if  creative synergy that could be possible seems an exciting prospect.

Never lose your ability to be affected by your work, and the work of others. 

Director Rob Sitch once spoke of Bilcock's ability to remain 'vulnerable' to a film, which seems an important consideration to avoid your story becoming a messy, self-indulgent and irrelevant tale filled with unrelatable characters. After all, we make films so that audiences may be affected by them; however big or small in feeling, you want them to emerge from the cinema or end of the film a slightly different person, and this can only really be genuinely achieved if as an editor, you maintain a way to connect to the people watching and not just the people who were involved in its making.

Embrace new technology.

In 1994, Jill used a minimalist piece of editing software called Lightworks that allowed for a no-nonsense approach to cutting a film together in the edit suite. Since its original inception, countless Hollywood films have adapted to this workflow (Hugo, Shutter Island, Pulp Fiction) and is now highly regarded in the industry as the go-to choice for award winning editors. Jill herself has used it with films such as Moulin Rouge! and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Being an ever-evolving industry will little to no certainty about what works, is 'in', or worth investing in, keeping afloat about new and emerging technological advances in the industry is incredibly beneficial and shouldn't be taken for granted.

Do It Yourself.

One of Jill's first memories of cutting a film was with a knife on her kitchen table for a student film project whilst she was studying at the VCA, shot on her own 16mm Bolex camera. Take initiative and find resourceful ways to reach the end product -- you'll learn more, as Jill suggests, doing it your own way and learning on your own curve.

Respect the director's vision, but offer your own take on the story, too.

Directors look to their editors as someone who can interpret their vision in the best way possible, after all, the cutting room is essentially where the real film gets made, with every cut and transition from scene to scene and moment to moment being driven by purpose and momentum. However, remember that as an editor, as was the case with the partnership between Jill and Baz Luhrman, you're their 'bogus detector', too. Don't be afraid to point out where something doesn't seem right, or something doesn't work emotionally, not just visually. Good directors will respect your honesty and listen to the advice you have to offer. Trust between the two of you in this crucial partnership is very important.

Don't be in it for the glory.

Despite having worked on so many award-winning films, as an editor, Jill Bilcock may not necessarily be the first name that comes to mind when a person conjures up memories or buzz surrounding her filmography. The work of an editor; the seamlessness of their technique often ends up seeming invisible, and best appreciated when it's not even noticeably 'there'.  An editor is such an important part of getting the film to its final stages of the theatrical cut, as are all the other valued crew who work in post-production alongside them. Love of the craft and creative impact you have on the stories you help tell will ultimately surpass the egotistical reasons someone may be attached to a project in the long run.

Keep an open mind.

You never know where your next project or collaborator may come from. This is exciting; stay open to possibilities and opportunities around you.

Jill's most recent film, Red Dog is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and to download. She is currently based in Melbourne, and we can look forward to watching more of her work on screen in the near future.

Nathania Gilson is a young filmmaker living in Melbourne, Australia. She has spent the last three years working on a number of short films, music videos and documentaries. Her side projects involve curating content for independent publications, adventuring and maintaining the ability to function on minimal sleep. She is excited about the future.