Cushla Dillon tried varied backroom jobs across radio, stage and screen before discovering editing was what most excited her. Initially hoping to become a sound engineer, Dillon did time in radio after leaving school, then later joined Theatre Corporate in Auckland as a stage manager/sound designer. A viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky sci fi classic Stalker opened her eyes to the potential of film.
Leaving New Zealand in the mid 80s, Dillon "got caught up in the political/squatting turmoil of Thatcher's Britain". Thatcher's Government was battling miners and unions over plans to shut 20 state-owned mines. Dillon got a crash course in class politics, as part of a group of alternative film-makers travelling around the UK getting miners' stories down on videotape.
Back home again, Dillon approached the team behind 1987 road movie Starlight Hotel, hoping her sound skills might be of use. But when they learnt she could type, producer Finola Dwyer and director Sam Pillsbury invited her to be their assistant instead. In the same period, Dillon began making short experimental films and music videos. She also did four years in Sydney, studying film at the city's University of Technology. By the mid 90s, Dillon realised editing was “the role where I felt the most connected and decision-making came easily and instinctively”.
After mentioning in passing to Harry Sinclair that she wanted to be an editor, he offered her a day a week working unpaid, cutting his new mini TV series Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. “I agreed and we started, with me not really having a clue how to edit drama or comedy”. The offer proved to be her lucky break.
Each three to four minute episode was shot semi-scripted on a Sunday. The no-budget comedy drama about a group of 20-somethings navigating life and love quickly found popularity on TV3. Realising how much material he had, Sinclair proposed to the NZFC that he turn it into a feature. The NZFC were quick to accept.
The film proved a hit. Australian reviewer Paul Byrnes called it “the freshest, cheekiest, most engaging film from New Zealand in years”. Dillon remembers Topless Women as a "very rare and special project", where inexperience proved a blessing. She won Best Editor at the 1997 NZ Film Awards, one of the eight the film won, including Best Film and all four acting awards. The TV series also won the TV Award for Best Drama.
Dillon teamed up with Sinclair again in 2001 on his second feature, quirky romance The Price of Milk. Mimicking the production style of Topless, the shoot occurred three days a week over seven months, with Sinclair working on the next part of the script the night before each week's shoot. Consequently much of the film’s story-telling, like Topless, happened in the editing suite. As Sinclair had said about their previous work “I guess in a way Topless has partly evolved out of me trying to make things that Cushla wants to watch!”
Dillon followed her first NZ Film Award winner with another, after teaming with Marcus D'Arcy on the edit of Gillian Ashurst’s road movie Snakeskin. Producer Vanessa Sheldrick described Dillon as having "a good sense of what the director needs as well as what the audience wants. She knows how to tell stories that will keep you interested from the time you go in to the time you finish. I think she’s one of the best in the country.”
Prior to Snakeskin, Dillon had already worked with Ashurst on her 1998 short film Venus Blue, Along with her own student films, Dillon has also edited numerous other shorts including Brave Donkey, The Handover and Choice Night. Her small screen credits include television series Super City (whose young creative team were "an absolute joy") and Filthy Rich, plus Michael Bennett’s acclaimed documentary about Teina Pora, The Confessions of Prisoner T.
Dillon feels that documentary is the genre which most tests an editor's ability. Having already cut hour-long documentary Beauty Will Save the World — the tale of a beauty contest in Muslim Libya — Dillon edited her first documentary feature in 2007, Juliette Veber's acclaimed Trouble is My Business, which followed the life of a teacher at one of New Zealand’s roughest schools.
Her collaboration with director Sam Peacocke on Beautiful Machine, a film about band Shihad, saw her winning Best Documentary Editor and Peacocke winning Best Director. In 2014 Dillon edited Kim Webby’s documentary The Price of Peace, which followed the trial of Tame Iti following the 2007 Urewera raids, and the effects of the raids on their community. The film screened at the NZ International Film Festival, and at the ImagineNative Film Festival in Canada. She is also credited as one of the writers and editors of Toa Fraser's extreme sports documentary The Free Man.
Alongside her forays into documentary, Dillon continues to edit fiction films. In 2009 she was the editor of Simone Horrocks’ debut feature After the Waterfall which, among other accolades, was nominated for Best Film and Best Editing at the NZ Film Awards.
She also edited Paolo Rotondo’s first feature Orphans & Kingdoms. Discussing her own role in the film’s production, Dillon has said “You’re always looking at who holds the power in the scene and how can I convey that in the edit room, and that determines how I cut from one person to the other... It was a great script for that. I remember reading it and thinking this will be a great script to cut." Critics seemed to agree; she won the 2014 NZ Film Award for Best Editing.
Dillon is also developing a number of her own scripts, including a movie inspired by her Rotorua upbringing which saw her spend five months at the Binger Filmlab, a prestigious feature development centre in Holland, and a drama project for which she won NZ Writers Guild development funding in 2015.
Profile written by Simon Smith
Cushla Dillon website. Accessed 15 June 2017
'Cushla Dillon: Accidental acting and award-winning editing…' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 16 May 2016. Accessed 17 May 2016
Jill Nicholas, 'Lights! Camera! Rotorua story to become movie' - Rotorua Daily Post, 20 August 2007
Fritha Stalker, 'The Write Stuff: Featured Writer/Editor - Cushla Dillon'. NZ Writer’s Guild website. Loaded 6 April 2011. Accessed 17 May 2016
The Price of Milk press Kit
Snakeskin press Kit
Topless Women Talk About Their Lives press kit