Editor Megan Gill once vowed to herself that she would cut a feature by the time she was twenty-five. It ended up taking ten years longer, but the movie in question is the Oscar-winning Tsotsi.

Today she is in the US working on Rendition, the new film from director Gavin Hood starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep. What’s more, according to influential movie websites like www.thefilmexperience.net and www.incontention.com, she is one of the favourites to receive an Oscar nomination next year for her work on the political thriller.

Andrew Worsdale caught up with the Johannesburg-born editor at New Line Studios in Hollywood via email to chat about her rise in the industry and the tricks of the trade.

Megan grew up in Johannesburg’s Kensington suburb and went to four different high schools, including Roedean, Woodmead and Jeppe Girls. She says she has always loved movies. Her mother, Gwen Gill, a renowned local journalist, had a movie courtesy card which Megan borrowed to go to the movies nearly every Wednesday afternoon in her early teens. “I suppose that’s when the film bug bit me, sort of. I loved being in a cinema, escaping homework and reality. But I always thought I would end up being a journalist.”

She left school with no idea of what she really wanted to do with her life, so she spent a year studying for a BA degree. She then went off to the UK to au pair for six months. Upon her return she got a call from a school friend who was working as an assistant editor on the hit TV show Agter Elke Man and needed an extra pair of hands. “It sounded better than waitressing, so I did it,” she says.

Soon after this she got work on a B-movie as a third assistant and that’s when she realised she had found something she wanted to do. After an apprenticeship on the soap opera Egoli, cutting an episode per day, she moved back to being an assistant. She worked alongside people like David Heitner, Darrell Roodt and Anant Singh on movies ranging from the schlock horror flick The Mangler to Cry, The Beloved Country and Sarafina!

To this day though, she says she doesn’t know how you learn to edit, apart from through experience.  “I was really lucky, after I made my decision to stay in editing, that I kept getting work. And I was still so young – only 23, I think.  Of course, I didn't feel young, although I was giving up on my dream of editing a feature by 25. As I learnt more about editing I began to be intimidated by it. The more I learnt, the more I realised how much I didn't know. I’m not sure how you learn to edit. I feel like I imbibed it, by being there, with all those different people.”

She will never forget the time during the production of Cry The Beloved Country when David Heitner cut a scene of James Earl Jones at a political rally. “There was a huge amount of footage; lots of set-ups.  And David basically cut the scene in three or four shots. It was cut so simply and so beautifully. That was the moment when I became really scared of editing. All the arrogance of youth, gone. In a million years I would never have cut the scene in that way. I would have cut the hell out of it and it would have been terrible. Until then I had still believed that I could edit, if only given the chance. After that my respect for the craft deepened immensely and I realised I still had lots to learn. Suddenly I wasn't so eager to jump into the editor's chair. My road to editing ended up taking a long time, but I am very grateful for that now, because I think I'm better at it as a result.”

Megan confesses that if she ever had to teach an editing class it would focus on pace and “how one cut of a scene could really mess up a whole movie and another cut could change the movie so much”. She adds: “I don't know how you measure pace. I usually do a first cut that is slower than it needs to be and then I start to take stuff out. It is like a slow-burning fire – eventually things begin to grate, to feel too measured. Then I slowly cull it.  But all sorts of things determine pace. Shooting style, obviously. Where a scene is placed in the film. How the actors perform. Mostly, for me, it is performance. If a performance can sustain a moment, I stay with it. If an audience member can connect with that character for as long as he is on screen, then stay with it. Don't cut for the sake of cutting, stick to simplicity and honesty.”

She believes she’s lucky that she has good instincts. “I suppose the thing I'm proudest of is my editing of actors’ performances. Directors very rarely change the takes I choose.” The question is, however, how does one edit a bad performance? Megan answers, “Mostly by cutting things out, getting rid of dialogue and putting in pauses. Scripts are often overwritten and a lot of my work lies in simplifying – finding the key elements of a scene and making those resonate in some way. This can often be done by playing the silences.”

More than twenty years after she decided to pursue this career, Megan is now putting the finishing touches to her second film with Gavin Hood. Rendition is New Line Studio’s most prestigious title of the year. The story revolves around an Egyptian terrorism suspect who ‘disappears’ on a flight from Africa to Washington DC. His American wife (Witherspoon) and a CIA analyst (Gyllenhaal) find themselves caught up in a struggle to secure his release from a secret detention facility in the Middle East.

To produce the whole of Tsotsi cost roughly what Witherspoon charges to appear in a movie, so we can be sure that Rendition probably cost a huge amount more than the homegrown Oscar winner. Such high costs must bring extra pressures, but Megan is not fazed. “Editing is editing, I suppose, whatever the circumstances. Things are slightly easier because there is a huge support system on a film like this. I can focus more on just the editing. But I'm always insecure about my cutting. I never know if I've got it right, so it's never really fun for me. I love cutting but I also spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. It is such an indefinable craft and there is no right way to do it.”

Megan says: “The most important thing for an editor is to not have too big an ego. You have to accept that you aren't always right and that it is fine. You can't be expected to always know exactly how a scene should work. You must, however, be able to defend your point of view too. A director isn't always right and you need to be able to tell them that – without pissing them off, of course! Most of my job is being a therapist, I think. Overall, you have to be prepared to put your ego aside and just keep at it. Eventually you will discover the film that's buried inside all the footage.”

Rendition will have its gala premiere between 6–15 September at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival.