June 29, 2010: Brisbane, QLD. Prime Minister Julia Gillard waves to supporters after visitng the member for Petrye Yvette D'Arth and the Labor Party faithful at Theodore's Bar in Brisbane, Queensland. Published: The Daily Telegraph - July 3, 2010 Page: 97 Keywords: first week / black and white / politics / politicians / waving / car / 2010 walkley award winners (Photo by Phil Hillyard / Newspix)
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‘Girls, There is Change Happening All Around the World’: Strong Female Lead Editor Rachel Grierson-Johns Talks Julia Gillard, The Final Quarter, and Editing During a Pandemic
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Strong Female Lead is a powerful documentary about the Julia Gillard government and the systemic attacks of misogyny and sexism that she endured through her tenure as Prime Minister of Australia. Editor Rachel Grierson-Johns worked alongside director Tosca Looby, collating media images, news footage, parliamentary question time, and social media reactions, into a searing, essential viewing experience that has arrived at a pivotal moment in Australian political history.
Andrew interviews Rachel below, discussing the editing process of Strong Female Lead, while also discussing the films influences, the difficulties of editing during a pandemic, and the future of editing.
Readers should be advised that this interview includes discussions of sexual abuse.
This interview has been edited from its original discussion for length purposes.
The Curb: How did it working on Strong Female Lead come about for you?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: I’m a freelancer and I do quite a lot of work for Northern Pictures. I have done Love on the Spectrum, See What You Made Me Do, and Employable Me so I’ve done quite a lot. And I just I saw The Final Quarter and I just remember going ‘oh my God everyone, this film The Final Quarter (Ian Darling’s documentary about footballer Adam Goodes) was amazing’. I really loved to do that film but about sexism and Julia Gillard, because I’m obsessed with that sort of style of ‘archive only’ style. I love Amy, I love Senna. I love all the films from Asif Kapadia.
Tosca (Looby – director) heard me and she said, ‘Oh, I want to do that too. I’ve been wanting to do a film like that for ages.’ It was just a tearoom chat, but next thing I know Tosca is on it. There’s funding for a trailer, then I’m cutting a trailer in my spare time. That was the end of 2019, cutting a trailer and I thought, , these films, half of them never get off the ground. And you just think, even if it does, it’s going to take a couple of years, so I just didn’t really think too much of it.
As I’m cutting it, I was going ‘okay, this is good. But, is there enough material to make a whole film like this?’ We were always questioning and not quite sure if there’s enough material, how long is it going to be?, oh probably going to just be an hour or maybe 40 minutes. We just didn’t really know. So that’s where it began and then we got funding from SBS.
We weren’t meant to start cutting it till later on in 2020, because I was doing See What You Made Me Do with Tosca as well. It’s a SBS show about domestic violence. Then the pandemic happens, and stuffed up all the shooting. We had a little bit in the can to edit, but then we had to stop shooting. So then we went, well, we’ve got this archived film that we’ve sort of got funding for and we were gonna plan to do later on in the year, and then it just suddenly it’s like, right, yes, keep everyone working. And so we were able to start working end of May in 2020.
The Curb: It’s really powerful. What draws you to this archival style of documentary filmmaking?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: I feel like sometimes talking head interviews takes you out of the moment for me, and brings you back to the present. And sometimes it’s nice not to have that feeling to be broken. And, with important films like The Final Quarter, which is about racism and Strong Female Lead, which is about sexism, it’s hard. A lot of people are going to have opinions about it. I always knew that there was going to be a reaction to it. And it has been overwhelmingly positive, but there’s been negative reactions.
I think the beauty about films… – and I’m going to keep going on about The Final Quarter, because I love that film – it wasn’t people talking in interview about their own experience, they weren’t putting their agenda forward. It was things that actually happened and you can’t just think that they happened. It was what was said at the time. And I just felt that was so much more powerful to me than having someone interviewed saying, ‘well, when I remember when that person said that, and it made me feel that’, like it just takes you out of the moment. You needed to feel that moment and feel the shame of what was said.
To me was the reason why we went with this kind of style, because there were so many horrible things that was said and it’s not like there hasn’t been discussion about the sexism that Julia Gillard faced. I just didn’t feel that it would benefit to make another film where people discuss it. It was just like: this is the pattern of it.
That was kind of why I really like that style. I just think it’s much more truthful. Not to say that those kinds of films are unimportant or don’t have their place or that I don’t like making films with talking head interviews. I just feel like when you’re trying to show a pattern of behavior for something like sexism or racism, then I think that style is better.
The Curb:Both films are absolutely powerful. The Final Quarter and Strong Female Lead, they’re coming at times where it feels essential to now. It feels kind of like kismet in a way that this film has come out in the year that it has. How has that been for you as somebody who’s worked on the film to have it released in a year where so many stories about sexual assault, abuse, and the misogyny within parliament house has been amplified this year. How does that feel for you?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Well, it was just so bizarre. I’m not a person that believes in spirituality or anything, but they did feel like there was this unforeseen, invisible force pushing this film to get made. Like the pandemic helped us because it made us do it earlier. But when that stuff started happening around us, I think it was the end of 2020 was there was that Four Corners report (Inside the Canberra Bubble) about the stuff that goes on in Parliament House, the prayer rooms are all the extramarital affairs, all of that sort of stuff.
And we thought, ‘oh, okay, this is this is the time for it come out’. We heard about Ms Represented that ABC show that was getting made, which it was good for us, but also bad because, like, ‘oh, we could be saying the same thing’. I think that series is amazing. And it’s almost a companion piece to Strong Female Lead. But once Grace Tame, and Brittany Higgins and all that stuff came out, and then the wanking on the desks and all that, we were like, ‘holy shit’. Wow, the timing just seemed insane.
I think SBS wanted us to even put it on the air earlier, they wanted us to do it in the height of all that, and we didn’t want to have our air date too close to Ms Represented. And I think I’m glad that we sort of waited and because I felt like maybe Julia Gillard would bring enough to the table to have it discussed. And we didn’t have to be on the back of the storm. It did create its own storm, hopefully. We couldn’t believe what was happening. And I think it’s amazing and positive, really, that these things are being shown and being discussed.
The Curb: For us, we lived through what went on with the Gillard government and the rampant misogyny that occurred during that era, yet, collating it all into a film and seeing it (at once), instead of experiencing it over the years, it’s really kind of, it’s a damning thing to experience. How did you go about collating the images and editing it into something that carried weight? And was there anything that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: There was so much we left on the cutting room floor. So much. That was part of the edit: just taking stuff out, because the pattern of her clothing was something that just went on throughout, but it just became relentless and boring. Some of the feedback on earlier cuts, we had a two hour cut at one point, it was like, some people just went, I want to vomit.
We had to simplify complicated things with parliament, because very early on we’re trying to explain things, but we didn’t want to make a film that was too isolating for people that weren’t really into politics. Like, we’re trying to do film that was about politics, but not too much. So it was trying to sort of simplify the political sort of things, but also be truthful to that.
The process was… I’ve never done anything like this before. I was just looking through hours (of footage), I mean, we had over 300 hours of archives. So Tosca, she had an Avid as well at her house, because we did this all remote. We were just looking through (clips). Each and every week I’d have a drive arrive. And so for a week, I was just collating clips.
I sort of just organized it into years: the end of 2010, into 11, 12, and then 2013, which was ultimately the governments demise. And so we just went through that way and I just sort of cut down years and then went from there. I could start cutting things that you knew were going to be in the edit: the misogyny speech, obviously, like the carbon tax rally, and sort of just sort of tried to work out what was around that area and what led to that area.
It was just the process of going through all these archives. ‘There is a news piece here, there’s a clip of a press conference in this news, what went out on ABC or something? Is this the whole press conference that exists?’ It was constantly just ordering footage and waiting, I always have to put that scene down because I’m waiting for that press conference to come through or that footage to come through. Because not everything is archived properly. I was sort of just hoping that the footage you want is still around and that rushes still exists. It was a kind of a weird process of media wrangling in the beginning very early stages of the edit for like months.
I worked on the edit from the end of May 2020. So we worked from the end of May, and then we downed tools in September, because I had a baby, and that kind of gave us eight weeks off, and then then I just sort of took to it whenever I could, and just sort of did it part time. And then from January, February, March, April, I sort of just had a friend help out like a nanny a couple of days a week. So I was doing it much more of the time. But that’s when the film kind of got really refined, because it was just… gosh when we first did a rough cut, it was so long! And didn’t have the emotion. It’s just it’s the sort of film that takes time. It’s not like a six week edit, or an eight week edit that I’m used to doing so.
The Curb: When you’re getting the images and the clips, do you get in contact with the media organization and say we need this? Or is there a different archive storage of this kind of material?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: We had someone in our team that was in charge of getting all the archival ordering that for us, Laura Grace is amazing. And she became very good friends with Charles at ABC. She was constantly ordering stuff from him and he would also say ‘if you ask for that, then this great bit is available’, etc., etc. And because Parliament closed or something during the pandemic, we were able to get lots of Parliament footage quickly as well, which doesn’t normally happen. So we ordered reems of that. And, from all the other sources as well, radio, all that kind of stuff. It was a constant process of going through our emails, going to the archive, and (adding) all into the system.
The Curb: It seemed it’s really overwhelming. That’s the thing with The Final Quarter too, when it’s presented in an hour and a half kind of experience, you just think ‘how did we let this happen?’ I’m curious for you, as somebody who sat there watching all this, how do you grapple with what you’re watching? How do you deal with that mentally, and stay on focus into what the end project is?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: There was a lot of late-night Zoom calls to Tosca going, ‘you’ll never guess what I just found out’. And there was a lot… there are the things that just went under the radar. For example, some of that Charles Wooley interview about, ‘do you love your partner’, ‘does your partner love you?’ I mean, kind of watched it and went, ‘oh’. And then I went, ‘hang on a second’. Sometimes things needed a couple of watches, because no one would ask Scott Morrison if he’d love his wife. And it was these little subtle moments that were more ‘the penny drops’ to me, because I went ‘hang on a second what, what am I watching here?’
We all knew that, for a certain extent, the whole thing with Tony Abbott and stuff like that was he had a problem with women and all that kind of thing. But it was just more surprising to me was the sort of subtleness or it’s like the insidiousness of how the media treated her.
It was just quite shocking, actually.
When you sort of put it all together, you think, ‘oh, there was that moment’. And then there was that At Home with Julia thing, which I remember watching and thinking ‘what’. ‘This is kind of awkward.’ You see Prime Ministers get satirised all the time, and it’s funny and whatever. But this is like a personal relationship getting satirised while the Prime Minister is still in government, and they’re pretending to have sex. I just went ‘that would never happen with a man’. Those sorts of moments like that where you kind of feel like, you kind of had to just do a double take and go, am I seeing this right?
The Curb:I remember when that was on, and I just thought this is utterly absurd. It’s disgusting and absurd. Like it doesn’t make any sense, why they made or screened.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: And that was the ABC! We’ve seen some reviews where people are like, ‘oh, this is just SBS bias or blah, blah’, I’m going ‘no, no, it was all media’. It wasn’t just Murdoch or right-wing people; it was the ABC that did that. This wasn’t something that it was just a certain section of society. This is sort of all of society really, I thought. And that, to me, was more shocking than just lots of Murdoch papers. I mean, obviously, they were involved as well, but, yeah… there was just lots and lots of late-night phone calls to Tosca.
The Curb: The film is really of the moment as well, in the sense that it wraps up with events from earlier this year. And it feels a bit like a baton handing off in a way where it’s like, Julie Gillard is a strong female leader, and here are the next generation of leaders coming up. What was the decision behind showing some of those clips here? Especially the poetry from Biden’s inauguration (by youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman), which is beautiful.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Earlier cuts… the feedback was that it was truly negative. And, why would women watching this ever want to go into politics or leadership or in business roles or anything like that. We’d always thought that this is the kind of film that we wanted, more than anything, we wanted young women and girls to see this and think like, hey, I want to be different, we’re not going to let this happen again. And, I’m going to change this. We didn’t want to leave it negative.
And for a long time, it was just in the edit as like a title thing, ‘epilogue’ and I’ll deal with that later. But, because of all the things that happened with Brittany Higgins, and then the march happened too I remember reading just going, ‘oh, my God, there is this march happening. We’ve got to get footage of that’. And then Kamala Harris was Vice President. It all just seems to be happening around us.
The feedback I’ve gotten, lots of women have gotten very angry. And I think that’s a good thing to get angry, we should all get angry, and men got angry too, I should say. But we shouldn’t just let that anger go to waste, we should channel that energy into change.
The Curb: How important is it for you as an editor to work on projects like Strong Female Lead and, and Love on the Spectrum, which brings a different view of society to the world in a wonderful way. I mean, everybody loves that show, as they should do, because if it’s a beautiful show.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Look it’s my to my dream. I mean, I think every editor will tell you, they want to work on something they care about. And in a way, I always feel very sad that Strong Female Lead ended because it was like a drug. It’s like a drug Andrew. I did this in the midst of pregnancy, lockdown, having a baby, and I was tired and but I just had just had to do it.
It was like, I just became obsessed with things. And you think ‘I’ve got to see this through’. And so because, it was a dream of mine, like anything like this, where your core values are being able to (be) expressed through an edit. It’s a dream come true. I’m very, very, very privileged and lucky to being able to work on a film like that. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to again, so I’m a bit sad about that. It’s just exactly why you do these jobs. This was one of the ones that I… it’ll definitely be one of my favourites, for sure.
The Curb: Where do you see the future of editing going in Australia? It’s interesting with the Australian industry at the moment with changes. I’m curious for you, somebody who’s working in both film and television and episodes, where do you see the future of editing going from here for Australia in particular.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: As far as the lockdown, the pandemic, it’s really helped. It’s being able to work remotely and I think that’s helped me tremendously with the young family. And that seemed very empowering as a woman to be able to still have a career and still have a family and not feel like either one of those has been ignored, because I’ve got the flexibility that I didn’t have previously.
I think a lot of editors are working remotely at the moment. And I think that will be something that won’t go away. I hope it doesn’t. And I think there’s merit to working remotely and working with the director together (in person). In a perfect world, there’ll be a mix of both. I’d like to see that in future of editing.
Working on these archives sort of feels like you’re kind of very much a co-director. I guess you kind of are in a way. That’s why really I don’t care about credits. I like going under the radar if I’m honest. It was very nice at the beginning of the film that we did a film by her (Tosca) and me, because we were very much just partners in crime. The edit was the filmmaking itself. There was no shoot. So it was all about the edit really.
Hopefully, Screen Australia and people come up with more archive ideas, and we’ll keep looking at history through this kind of lens. I’m sure that there’s probably people now looking at this going, right, this one, let’s make one about how, First Australians are treated and how refugees are treated. I’m sure a lot, there’s lots of ideas popping around. And I’d love to see those sort of films.
The Curb: Earlier in the year, I watched Ablaze, which was at the Melbourne International Film Festival. And that’s, it’s not a (completely) archival documentary, but it encompasses First Nations stories by First Nations filmmakers, and in a way which was unexpected. And that used archive footage as well. And I thought that that was really impressive. There are so many more different stories that can be told from this perspective, because how we see things through the news, how we see things through social media, informs who we are as people, it’s what we do day to day. Seeing it in this manner is just, it’s really powerful.
I want to lean back on what you were saying before, with you as an editor with these kinds of films and in documentaries in general, you are essentially the co-director in a lot of ways and the respect need to be given to editors for being able to pull something like this together in such a powerful manner. Congratulations on that to begin with, because it’s important to recognize this and it’s something that I need to do more of myself as a critic and my fellow critics needs to do more is recognise people. It’s not just a director or writer who’s working on the film, there are so many different other people.
What does it mean to you to have immense creative choices in a particular film?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: There’s lots of different types of editors. And I like watching rushes. I like forensically watching them. Being a documentary editor, it’s almost like a bit of detective work, you kind of sometimes have to find a story. The story is there, but if there’s nothing shot… There’s a billion ways to tell the story. It’s not like a drama where there’s a script in store, you can deviate from the script, a little bit in drama, but in documentary you can tell this story in so many different ways to tell it, and I think that, that’s when you feel… you feel the power of it. Even things like, for example, I’ve done a lot of true crime as well, the order matters so much. ‘How do I tell this?’ How you drip feed information to the audience helps them come to the right conclusion at the right time, or give them that emotion at that time.
The Curb: …and in a way I mean, Strong Female Lead is its own kind of crime investigation.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: I suppose. Yeah. I suppose it is.
I have felt like that going through that many rushes. Sometimes there’d be days where I’ll be like ‘oh’, you think you’re watching the most amazing thing like, here’s this debate between Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard during the election where the worm… it’s like there’s like a blue line for men and the pink line for women and they respond to whatever they’re saying. You think that sounds amazing and then you watch and go ‘oh my God, that was the most boring thing’, and then you go ‘oh just watch this Charles Wooley thing, whatever’ and then you’re ‘oh my God this is what?’ It is like that sometimes it’s also like you’re just watching lots of detective footage or something.
A point I should make is that it really drove home to me as well how the different networks report things in different ways. Some of the coverage of things, how SBS would cover something is very different to how Channel Nine would cover something and then you start to think these disparities matter, because it shapes people’s opinions and their worldview. That really interests me I think.
The Curb: It’s very easy for a lot of people, I imagine, that they have a news channel of choice that they watch and then probably don’t stray into other territories all that much and it’s interesting to see what we’re blind to in different ways that that kind of astounded me in different ways. Because I don’t watch Channel Nine and certainly the Channel Nine that I get here in Perth is different than the Channel Nine that’s in Sydney so it’s alarming to say the very least.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Definitely and it’s sort of… especially the whole carbon tax thing, that was like honestly night and day, I was like wow this should be like taught in school. I just found that really, really fascinating.
The Curb: I’m curious if you have any kind of suggestions for up and coming or emerging editors in any tips as to what to do in the industry?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: I guess my advice would be to edit anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. I see some really great up and coming Junior editors and I think, they’re going to be very successful, and then I do see their mentality like ‘this is not what I want to do, I want to edit this amazing documentary it’s going to change the world’, and you think well, you’ve just got to work your way up there.
It’s always a step forward and it’s always about stories, always about telling a story, story is key. Whether you’re editing a corporate video about concrete, which I have done before, you’ve got to figure out what shots am I going to use to tell this story, what were the things are going to go in this? What you have to learn, the conceptual side, whether you’re editing a music video, what effects make someone feel something, it’s all relevant, even reality TV. I’ve done reality TV, that is more like cutting to story and cutting quick learning quickly, and be able to identify how to cut a conversation down to make sense. And to hit the right story points, get the point across, but also get the emotion across. It’s something that comes with time.
The Curb: Do you find your voice growing as an editor as you go along?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Of course. It’s sort of ‘been there, done that’ and you kind of go ‘okay, well, I think this could work because I’ve sort of done something like that before’. And you sort of get a bit more confident. ‘Well, I like the sound of that music, but I don’t know if that’s going to fit but we’ll give it a go and then hang on… I’ve got this idea in mind.’ I’m always up to trying what directors want to do and then giving my feedback, what I think will work, because it’s always a collaboration. I’m very often often wrong, and sometimes I’m right. Sometimes like they see just throwing stuff at it going, it’s gonna work and it’s gonna work. And I guess that’s the beauty of it.
The Curb: Are you going to work with Tosca again? I really hope so.
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Yes, yeah. Definitely. For sure. I think we’ve got some other things possibly in the pipeline. Watch this space. Which is exciting. But, again, these things take time. We’re in lockdown again, we’re a bit exhausted. I mean, it’s hard as well to get funding for these things. 100% positive Tosca and I work together again.
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