‘STRONG FEMALE LEAD’ – INTERVIEW
The following interview with the Editor of 'Strong Female Lead', Rachel Grierson-Johns, was published by The Curb and is reproduced with permission. It has been edited slightly for length. Thank you to Andrew Peirce who is an ardent supporter of the film industry and is particularly interested in focusing on the lesser-explored aspects of the process.
'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 film's 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.
Karen De Souza.
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 including 'Love on the Spectrum', 'See What You Made Me Do', and 'Employable Me'. I’d just seen 'The Final Quarter' (Ian Darling’s documentary about footballer Adam Goodes) and I remember going “Oh, my God, everyone, this film 'The Final Quarter' is amazing!” I’d really love to do a film like that 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 the next thing I know Tosca is on it. There’s funding for a trailer. That was the end of 2019, cutting a trailer, and I thought half of these kinds of films never get off the ground, and even if it does, it’s going to take a couple of years.
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 how long is it going to be? Thinking probably an hour or maybe 40 minutes. So that’s where it began and then we got funding from SBS.
We weren’t meant to start cutting it until later on in 2020 because I was doing 'See What You Made Me Do' with Tosca, an SBS show about domestic violence. Then the pandemic happens. We had a little bit in the can to edit, but then we had to stop shooting. So we thought we’ve got this archival film that we’ve got some funding for that we were planning to do later on in the year, suddenly it’s like, right, yes, keep everyone working. 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 take you out of the moment, and bring you back to the present. I think the beauty about these archival films – and I’m going to keep going on about 'The Final Quarter' because I love that film – it wasn’t people talking in interviews about their own experience, they weren’t putting their agenda forward. It was things that actually happened. It was what was said at the time. 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.
There were so many horrible things that were said and it’s not like there hasn’t been a 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. I think that’s the thing like (racism in) 'The Final Quarter' it’s like you saw a pattern of sexism through the media, through Parliament, through the way that she was discussed and the differences of how her clothing was discussed, how her relationship and her childlessness was discussed, which would never happen to a male leader, in my opinion, and never has happened to a male leader.
That was kind of why I really like archival style. I just think it’s much more truthful. Not to say that other styles 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 behaviour 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 have been amplified?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: Well, it was just so bizarre. I’m not a person that believes in spirituality or anything, but it 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 and all the extramarital affairs, all of that sort of stuff - we thought okay, this is the time for it come out. We heard about 'Ms Represented' the ABC show that was getting made, which was good for us, but also bad because we were concerned 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'. I’m glad that we waited because I felt like Julia Gillard would bring enough to the table 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. 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 just had to pull back on it. I think she announced the election at the end of 2013, and then the Murdoch papers were like, "Oh, she’s got a new haircut." "Wow, look at those glasses." "Oh, my God, look at those glasses." You look and it always just took away from whatever she was trying to say. And there are endless things about her shoes.
We had to simplify complicated things with parliament because we didn’t want to make a film that was too isolating for people that weren’t really into politics. We were trying to do a film that was about politics, but not too much. So it was trying to simplify the political things, but also be truthful.
The process was I was just looking through hours of footage, we had over 300 hours of archive. 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 so I was just collating clips. I just organised it into years: the end of 2010, into '11, '12, and then 2013, which was ultimately the government’s demise. So we just went through that way and I just 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 a process of going through all these archives. There is a news piece here with a clip of a press conference, then asking does the whole press conference exist? It was constantly just ordering footage and waiting, I’d have to put that scene down because I’m waiting for that press conference to come through or that footage to come through. Not everything is archived properly; you were just hoping that the footage you want is still around and that rushes still exist. It was a kind of a weird process of media wrangling in the very early stages of the edit for months.
I worked on the edit from the end of May 2020 and then we downed tools in September because I had a baby. That gave us eight weeks off, and then then I just took to it whenever I could, and just did it part-time. Then from January to April, I had a friend help out as a nanny a couple of days a week. That’s when the film kind of got really refined because 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 the six-week edit or an eight-week edit that I’m used to doing.
The Curb: When you’re getting the images and the clips, do you get in contact with the media organisation and say, "We need this?" Or is there different archive storage of this kind of material?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: We had someone in our team that was in charge of all the archival ordering for us, Laura Grace is amazing and she became very good friends with Charles at ABC. 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 reams 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 as to what the end project is?
Rachel Grierson-Johns: There were a lot of late-night Zoom calls to Tosca going, "You’ll never guess what I just found out." There are the things that just went under the radar. For example that Charles Wooley interview about, "Do you love your partner, does your partner love you?" I watched it and went, "Hang on a second, no-one would ask Scott Morrison if he loves his wife." And it was these little subtle moments where the penny drops. We all knew that the whole thing with Tony Abbott was he had a problem with women, but it was just more surprising to me was the sort of subtleness or the insidiousness of how the media treated her. It was just quite shocking.
When you put it all together you think, "Oh, there was that moment." Then there was 'At Home with Julia' 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 thought that would never happen with a man. Those are the sorts of moments where you feel like you have to 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! 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. That to me was more shocking than just lots of Murdoch papers. Obviously, they were involved as well, but, yeah… there were 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 young women and girls to see 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."
For a long time, it was just in the edit as a title ‘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 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. It felt like "Well, that’s the end." We needed to say, "Look, girls, there is change happening around the world. And, it’s happened here, and it’ll we’ll get another female leader later on, we’ve just got to make sure that this doesn’t happen again." We just wanted to leave it positive. Even though it’s a hard film to watch.
From the feedback I’ve gotten, lots of women have gotten very angry. I think that’s a good thing to get angry, we should all get angry, and men too. 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: I think every Editor will tell you they want to work on something they care about. In a way, I feel very sad that 'Strong Female Lead' ended because it was like a drug. 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. I just became obsessed with things and you think, "I’ve got to see this through." Anything where your core values are able to be expressed through an edit it’s a dream come true. I’m very, very, very privileged to be 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 the future of editing.
Working on archival documentaries sort of feels like you’re kind of a co-director. It was very nice at the beginning of the film that we had a credit "A film by Tosca Looby and Rachel Grierson-Johns" 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 are 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 there are lots of ideas popping around. And I’d love to see those sorts of films.
The Curb: 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 respect needs 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 recognise this - and it’s something that I need to do more of myself as a critic and my fellow critics need 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 are 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 sometimes have to find a story. It’s not like a drama where there’s a script. In documentary, you can tell a story in so many different ways. 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.
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. 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, 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. Edit anything.
It’s always a step forward and it’s 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 you have to learn, the conceptual side, whether you’re editing a music video, what makes someone feel something, it’s all relevant, even reality TV. I’ve done reality TV, which is more like cutting to story and cutting quickly, learning quickly, and be able to identify how to cut a conversation down to make sense, 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: 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.
('Strong Female Lead' is screening on SBS on Demand and at the Sydney Film Festival. The trailer is on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ryqj3EQTMJw)
About The Curb:
The Curb is a proudly independent website, run out of Boorloo (Perth) and lead by AFCA award-winning writer, Andrew F. Peirce. With a keen focus on Australian films and culture, The Curb aims to critically assess and support the Australian identity as seen on screen. With a dedicated team of diverse writers, The Curb highlights all aspects of Australian films and the filmmakers who bring it to life with reviews, interviews, and profiles.
Karen De Souza
Executive Committee Member
(eNews 106 - October 2021)