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The unsung hero of great Australian films


Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible (M). Director: Axel Grigor. Starring: Jill Bilcock, Cate Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann, Fred Schepisi, Phillip Noyce, Bruce Beresford, Rachel Griffiths, Kriv Stenders. 78 minutes

Jill BilcockRightly or wrongly, in filmmaking, directors are generally held up as the auteur. Occasionally writers emerge whose style is so distinctive (think Charlie Kaufman) that they are seen as the primary visionary no matter who is at the helm.

But of all the arts filmmaking is arguably the most collaborative, with many contributions from skilled craftspeople pivotal to the end result. Perhaps one of the most unsung of these unsung heroes is the film editor.

Consider the output of veteran Australian editor Jill Bilcock. Her filmography over several decades reads like a cross section of classic Australian films: Dogs in Space, Muriel's Wedding, Head On, Evil Angels, Strictly Ballroom, Red Dog and Japanese Story, to name a few.

It's no accident. In Dancing the Invisible, some of Australia's most accomplished directors — the ilk of Fred Schepisi, Baz Luhrmann, Phillip Noyce and Kriv Stenders — line up to laud Bilcock's passion, vision and skill.

The film is not pure biography, though it does chart a chronology of Bilcock's career, from her days cutting commercials with an equally green Schepisi, to her entrée to the fledgling feature film industry alongside Richard Lowenstein (director of Strikebound and Dogs in Space) in the 1980s, and on to the mainstream with films like The Dish, the Oscar winning UK production Elizabeth, and Red Dog.

Nor is Dancing the Invisible a technical masterclass; hardcore film buffs might regret that there's not a more detailed technical breakdown of Bilcock's craft, beyond such simple philosophical insights as 'If it doesn't work, cut it out.'


"Bilcock argues persuasively why lingering in excruciating detail on the ordeal of dragging a body from a waterhole was vital to the story."


Rather it is a warm-hearted tribute to the art of editing, the process by which a film takes its final form, often as different from what was shot as the footage might be from the original script.

Also, to one editor in particular, whose sense of character and audience is hailed by these directors as defining their films. Bilcock's mastery and boldness shine through, as she relates telling directors on set that 'That shot won't work,' or advising structural revisions on the fly that she knows the film needs.

Her work with Luhrman is particularly illuminating. We hear how she salvaged the finale of Strictly Ballroom; how she established the distinctive rhythm and style that brought Shakespearean language into a modern setting in Romeo and Juliet; how she finessed the thematically and plot-pivotal three-pronged 'tango sequence' in Moulin Rouge.

Archival footage of Bilcock working with Luhrman in post-production in her Brunswick, Melbourne home captures the joyous energy of that partnership.

Elsewhere, Rob Sitch (director of The Dish) reflects on Bilcock's precision with comedy, where a half-second either way can kill a joke. Stenders credits her with making a fully-fledged character of the dog in Red Dog. Bilcock herself argues persuasively why lingering in excruciating detail on the ordeal of dragging a body from a waterhole (in Japanese Story) was vital to the story.

When she worked with Ana Kokkinos on cult film Head On in 1998, Bilcock was already a veteran to Kokkinos' debutante. Later, Shekhar Kapur recalls that she was the only editor he could trust with Elizabeth's nuanced characterisations.

'While [editors'] work gets praised the more invisible it is, this cloak of invisibility also has the unfortunate habit of concealing the person who worked so hard to create it,' notes the documentary's director, Grigor, himself an accompished editor.

'This has resulted in a fuzzy perception of what film editors do, and who these creative people are. In turn, this diminishes discussions about how good films and screen stories are made.' Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible stands as an entertaining and enlightening corrective.

Jill Bilcock and guests will be on hand for a Q+A screening of Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible on Thursday 5 July at Nova Cinemas in Carlton, Vic. Details and tickets


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Jill Bilcock, Axel Grigor, Cate Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann, Bruce Beresford, Kriv Stenders



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