Axel Grigor: Making the Cut With Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible

July 7, 2018
Veteran Australian editor Jill Bilcock (Dogs in Space, Evil Angels, Muriel's Wedding, Moulin Rouge, The Dressmaker, and many more) finally gets her due in a new documentary. We caught up with director Axel Grigor to cut to the heart of the matter.

Editors are the unsung heroes of the film industry and editing is the element of film that sets it apart from other art forms. It must’ve been really exciting for you, as someone from an editing background who teaches editing, to be able to do a documentary like this. How did it come about?

The reason why I wanted to make the film goes back to meeting Jill in 2012 when I invited her to be part of an international seminar, a gathering of film editors in Brisbane. I hadn’t met her before but I had been admiring her work from afar in Sweden. Then when I moved to Australia, and when I met her and, having made a couple of documentaries myself and knowing how much you needed a central character that drives any story to make it interesting for an audience, I just found her to be most wonderful. Not just a crowds person, but someone who’s lived a life and was energetic and outgoing in a way you want a character to be in a documentary, so I started this delightful, fascinating journey and got access to some of her stories.

How did you first become aware of her work?

Well, as a Swede, I moved to Australia in ’97, but at film school, and before then, the only films I had been exposed to that she had cut were Strictly Ballroom in ’92, Muriel’s Wedding two years later, and of course Romeo and Juliet, which blew everyone away when we saw it at film school in Sweden. But there was something in the new Australian film water. I felt that, looking from afar, there is a way of making films that are different in Australia and when I realised that there’s one woman that’s connected to all these films, Jill Bilcock, I just found it fascinating to see how someone could work that well in different kinds of storytelling and modes of filmmaking, so I started connecting the dots. When I came to Australia and I saw more of the films that she had made before then like Dogs In Space and Evil Angels, the breadth of her experience and technique, I just found it fascinating.

Dogs in Space

What is it about her technique and her approach to editing that sets her apart and made her a worthwhile subject for a full documentary?

I think it’s just the range of collaborations that she’s able to work in, the filmmakers are all very different, and yet she was drawn to these different kinds of stories and people to work with and, having worked as an editor myself and knowing how much you rely on a proven, tested way of working with someone to build a career, her constant hopping from one way of telling a story to another… I wanted to know what was it about her that made her able to shift that quickly and to absorb the material and give something new to the audience every time. She clearly did not want to repeat herself.

Speaking of her collaborations, it was fascinating to see the sequences which showed her being on set, and at one point actually picking up a camera to pick up shots. That can’t be normal, is it? That is an unusual level of collaboration for an editor, would that be correct?

Well, it would be considered unusual – but then again when you’re working in the lower budget environment that Strictly Ballroom was made in, she was one of the most experienced people on that film and when she saw that something needed to happen in that very short window of time, for her, grabbing a camera was not something strange. She was basically used to jumping into whatever the role required and if there was a challenge there and it needed to get it done, she would do it.

Evil Angels

You’ve got some fantastic interviews with luminaries from Australian cinema and international cinema. How did you go about getting these interview subjects? How did you pull these people in?

It wasn’t easy to open the doors but when we approached people like Bruce Beresford and Baz Luhrmann about the idea for this film, so many people were saying “Finally, it’s about time that we recognised what incredible craft that this woman has made which is done locally for the industry here in Australia and internationally.” So it was really more a matter of the timing, trying to fit into the schedules and knowing where to fly to be able to grab them, that was the main challenge. But the doors had opened up for us to tell the story.

In putting together the documentary and looking at her career, have you noticed an evolution in her cutting style? How does the modern-day Jill compare to the one who cut Dogs in Space?

I think the modern-day Jill is a combination of everything she’s done before and she’s still to this day as hungry to jump on a completely new journey, something that she hasn’t done before, or go into a place where she hasn’t worked before, and do that. I think the Jill that we meet today is really not that much different from the Jill that started working back then. She has a bigger body of work now, she’s respected widely and the door’s open, of course, but she still doesn’t have an agent, and she goes by the feeling of “what would tickle my filmmaking fancy,” and I just find that so refreshing, she’s just unpretentious that way.

What did you learn along the way that surprised you? Was there anything which really made you reframe the way you looked at her and her work?

The thing that astounded me about Jill was seeing her work and being in the editing room with her is the way she fights for the vision, for the film, the way she really treats it as “this is me and the director going on a very intimate journey together and we are going to fight for the story that we said we’re gonna make.” The lengths that she goes to to make sure that relationship is protected is just such as important a lesson I’ve taken, and I think if anything that this film could pass on, it is that. You should be brave in the editing room the way she has been brave, try new things, prepare to fail and go back and work really hard to make it work. I think that’s why she’s been able to constantly reinvent herself and do new things, because it comes back to that human contact.

Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible is playing at the Noosa International Film Festival, which is on October 25 – 28, 2018

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