Editor Cushla Dillon: How I Got Started in the Industry

When I started back in 1986 (my first official job was as Director’s assistant on ‘Starlight Hotel’) the only ‘filmmaking’ courses in NZ were a Masters in Broadcasting at the University of Auckland and a newly established Broadcasting school in Christchurch. So my only option was writing letters to film producers asking for jobs on productions. Even though I’d trained at Radio NZ as a studio operator, none of the producers or production managers were interested in my ‘sound engineering’ skills. But when I said I could type, they couldn’t hire me quickly enough.

I was obsessed with films – filmmakers, arthouse films, foreign films, the history of films etc. I went to the Film Society, and the festival was my yearly indulgence. I read the local industry trades so I knew the names of crew members and what they had all worked on. I look back now and realise I was a bit of a ‘trainspotter’, but knowing all this information meant I stood out as someone who really wanted to be in the industry. I continued to work in production for the next decade as a Producer’s Assistant, Director’s Assistant, Production Coordinator, Production Manager, 1st AD, and 2nd AD. But I also made short films of my own and was happiest when editing them. This was where the magic happened, where films were truly made. It was time to switch roles in the industry and learn how to edit.

At the time, TV3 allowed people to train for free in their newsroom (I don’t think it was official, it was a word-of-mouth thing – it would never fly today!!). You could cut news stories during the very quiet times of the day, and then when you felt confident or they felt confident in you, they could offer you a job. All this time, I was working as a waitress at night, and continued this for many years as I got my freelance career on track.

Cushla cutting ‘The Justice of Bunny King’ in Kauaeranga Valley, Thames.

I look back now and realise I was instinctively obsessed with story: how we told stories, why we told stories, how other cultures told stories, why some films moved me, and why others didn’t. I loved going to the movies and I LOVED being moved to tears, to joy. And that’s why editing is the best place for someone like me, as the editor is the conduit between the audience and the material the director brings to the edit room.

All these obsessions and developing skills came together one day when director/actor Harry Sinclair approached me to edit a TV series idea he had called Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. I’d never edited drama before (except my own short films) but we clicked. My instinct for storytelling made up for my lack of technical experience, and this TV series morphed into a feature film. Two years later I received an editing award for my work on that film, and this stroke of luck meant people saw me as an editor. 

My advice to anyone wanting to break into the NZ film industry is to use the tools at your fingertips to learn who is who, what they have done before, and be really clear about what kind of films you love and why. For editors, the key is to understand storytelling and the huge scope of how we can tell stories. For me, screen stories are constantly pushing the boundaries of how stories are told, and I include documentary when I talk about storytelling.

But also, I believe working in our industry is a privilege we have to earn, as all artists do. So it requires the right balance of ego and humility, madness and caution. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about what one does, but at the end of the day, we are just storytellers and part of a team, so we must prove we are team players as well.

About Cushla Dillon

Cushla Dillon has played key roles in the NZ film industry for several decades, most notably as an award-winning feature film editor of drama and documentary (The Justice of Bunny King 2020, The Price of Peace 2014, Pictures of Susan 2012), but also as a production manager, development manager, screenwriter, script editor and most recently as co-director and editor of the 2023 NZIFF festival sellout King Loser. She has been awarded Best NZ Film Editor on four occasions (Snakeskin 2001, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives 1991, Beautiful Machine 2012, Orphans & Kingdoms 2014) and nominated four times.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

Last updated on 27 March 2024