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Australia’s internationally respected film editor, Jill Bilcock, can fashion a film out of almost anything or even nothing, and Baz Luhrmann has dubbed her his bogus detector. Russell Cawthorne reports as she jets off for her next American film (with John Malkovich and Johnny Depp), which will be post produced in Australia. 

Jill Bilcock is talking with DreamWorks about doing another movie with Jude Law. Sydney Pollack’s connections wonder if she may be available to edit his new film. But what she really wants is a call from John Malkovich, confirming that he will finish his new independent feature, The Libertine, in Australia, with her as editor. Malkovich’s company, Mr Mud, will produce and he will star along with Johnny Depp. 

It will be a first movie for British director Laurence Dunmore, who cites a TV commercial for Johnny Walker whisky as his greatest directorial achievement to date – a useful credential given the central character in The Libertine. Based on the raunchy 1994 play of the same name by Britain’s Stephen Jeffreys, it’s about John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester and the leading figure at the court of Charles II. Womaniser, drunkard, atheist, pornographer and rebel, Rochester died of alcohol and syphilis at the age of 33. 

Much of his poetry was banned until the 1960s, but he is now recognised as one of the major poets of the 17th century. As Malkovich, who played Rochester in the 1996 American production puts it, “This is a very dirty movie”.

"I like danger"

At her Melbourne home, Australia’s most famous film editor relishes the potential chaos. “That’s where I’d like to be after doing a calm movie like Japanese Story, to energise myself again,” says Bilcock. “I need a real fight. I like danger.”

She must, given her choice of how to spend the Christmas holiday before her final college year. As 1967 loomed Jill was 18. She was a pretty, diminutive kohl-eyed, trench-coated blonde – and she was not only “inside a closed China, but an honorary Red Guard!  We were not popular when we (returned through) Hong Kong wearing the (Red Guard) uniforms.”

Hardly surprising as the then British colony was about to be torn apart by riots and madness instigated by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She was also in her element when she found herself juggling Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which brought her an Academy Award nomination, and Sam Mendes’ 2002 film Road To Perdition. It was only Mendez’ second film. She passed on his celebrated first, American Beauty, because she was tied up finishing The Dish.

“I overlapped … it was wild … but I actually like that. It was a bit like my artwork. I do very minimal line drawing, but when I paint (it’s) highly decorative.”

Her soundscape for Perdition is minimal, spare, so finely drawn you can almost hear each snow crystal crunch underfoot – while tommy-guns belch death in total silence. 

With Moulin Rouge, Bilcock was in full decorative mode. The film begins at a pace other movies save for the finale – and picks up from there. Oversaturated colours whirl and writhe on a canvas that often seems too insubstantial to support their frenzied energy, then, just as it seems about to sag and tear, comes a dab, a deft cut, the soundtrack soars toward the realm of pain … and the film dances on. Magic.

"to create any emotion"

“Moulin Rouge was my major work of montage. I have been able, through montage, to create any emotion, any story out of anything, pretty much.” Or out of nothing, pretty much? The irreverent question draws a mischievous grin, but no denial. Small wonder director Baz Luhrmann calls her his “bogus detector”.

Fred Schepisi, who was one of her college examiners, gave Bilcock her first job at $30 a week and told her to do whatever she liked. A couple of weeks later, the protégée produced a Hush Puppies commercial. Assisting Schepisi often required diversionary tactics – “distracting policemen while Fred was filming in places he shouldn’t” – and soon Bilcock was retreating to the editing department. That’s how it all began, explains the film editor whose credits include Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, Romeo and Juliet, Head On and Elizabeth.

Her Hollywood initiation was tough. “They wanted to kill me at first,” says Bilcock. “One journalist wrote that Romeo and Juliet looked like it was cut by a Russian serial killer on crack.”

Audiences took a different view. So did directors. Bilcock’s treatment of The Bard had Oliver Stone rushing to phone her and others including Mendes were soon lining up. She loved Perdition. “Fabulous, just heaven to do. The discipline of working with a man of such intellect and talent was good for me.” 

Many felt Bilcock should have won an Oscar for Moulin Rouge and the applause was loud when she collected top honours for Japanese Story at the 2003 Australian Film Institute Awards. The event, held at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, may have been more ocker grunge than Oscar glamour, but it gave nothing to Hollywood when it came to political attitude – a veritable deluge of doom and gloom about the Australian film industry. 

"there has to be somebody who inspires"

Bilcock agrees there are problems, but not that they can all be solved by protectionism and handouts. “We have generations,” she explains. “We had a generation with Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce and Fred Schepisi. Gillian Armstrong was close with them. Then there was P. J. Hogan, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Jane Campion – that was another lot.”
“We don’t seem to have another group of young people who have been inspired and wild and coming through. I tend to feel there has to be somebody who inspires. The environment needs to be friendlier.

”We are not good with writers. We don’t pay them, we don’t look after them. We don’t give them enough time. We back first-time directors and then we don’t back them again. We don’t develop people. We don’t carry through.”

The constant plea for more and bigger subsidies for Australian films, doesn’t wash with Bilcock. Many independent American filmmakers, she observes, manage very well on very little. “They really do! The budget for Being John Malkovich was minute! Something like $2 million. Ours are like $6 million and they’re still ‘low budget’, but they have no production values and there is usually like half a dozen people who are like dreadful actors or something …”

For the moment words fail, but the feeling in the sad shake of her head is unmistakable. It would have been a smile that greeted the news when it finally came, indirectly and a few weeks later: The Libertine is going to be post-produced in Australia, later in 2004 and Bilcock has flown off to Wales for the first stretch of the task.

Published April 1, 2004

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Photo by Paul Knight
At Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces
200 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia

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