The Dressmaker and the Filmmaker

Sue Maslin is one of Australia’s most successful film, television and digital content practitioners with a track record of creating award winning feature and documentary films. Her most recent is the smash hit The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet and Judy Davis. It grossed more than $20 million at the box office and garnered the highest number of nominations at the 2015 Australian Academy Awards, winning five including the coveted People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. Sue is also a strong advocate for women in screen, and she took the time to speak with us prior to her attendance at the Women in Film lunch as part of the Gold Coast Film Festival.

Is this your first time at the GCFF?

It is, I’ve been to the Gold Coast for a number of times for movie conventions but I’ve never been to the film festival so I’m really looking forward to it.

Congratulations on the success of The Dressmaker . Adaptation I find is a really tricky medium but it was incredibly done.

It’s an incredible challenge because you can’t put a book on the screen, for obvious reasons, it would probably run for 6 hours or audience witness but what you are trying to do is that you’ve captured the spirit, the essence of what the book is about and of what people love about the book, and you hope that you’ve captured that essence in the film, and of course all gorgeous ‘cozzies’.

Were any of the clothes kept?

Yeah, I’ve kept them all, in fact curated with Marion Boyce, the costume designer, has put together an exhibition, which is currently on tour. We have around 50 of the costumes together with props and the sewing machine going into national trust properties around Australia. It’s a 3-month exhibition so people can get up close to those costumes.

Did you keep any yourself?

I own them all, but I keep them as a collection. My plan ultimately is that they stay together as a collection, and that they’ll go into the national film and sound archive.

So you’ve been developing this project for quite sometime, why now? What was it about timing that it all came together now?

Your question is an interesting one, why now? Why does a film resonate when it came out, because even when I acquired the book which was in 2008, it was still a 5 year journey to get that film written and financed, and there was a lot of barriers around the idea that a story that was largely, well a female event story that unashamedly targeted towards a female audience, and at the time, and we’re going back now five years, commercially that was a no, no because that was seen as a limited audience.

We all know now and intuitively as women we like time at the movies and not only do we go to the movies, we often go as groups, we take our family, women go to the movies, but in this country in Australian film, we don’t see many stories that are driven by many female characters, female protagonists. So when I was pitching it there was only one company which was universal pictures, which I could have a sensible discussion about women as a commercial demographic, who could see the commercial potential, so that’s why I stuck with universal because they’d had phenomenal success with Mama Mia, Bridesmaids, 50 Shades of Grey, they’ve gone after that audience for a long time and now all of the other distributors are realizing there is something here, in the last few years you’ve seen more and more female driven comedies and more films that are recognised and can go to the movies.

It appears in the past romantic comedy was the only content specifically designed for women for so long. It’s strange that they don’t identify women as the target audience for other types of content.

That’s right and of course one of the things that were, even though we went pretty much after a female audience, we didn’t position it as a chick flick. It is a film that resonates with men as well and I’m really delighted that a lot of men have really enjoyed the film.

And it had such a positive response, top of the Australian box office, multi award winning, it must have been really gratifying to you to have all of that hard work and advocacy for this type of story come to fruition.

Well you never know that of course when you start 12 years ago, you never know how an audience may or may not respond, but I’m particularly proud of the fact that it gave Jocelyn Moorehouse the opportunity to get back in the directors chair, it had been 16 years since she had directed the film and I was convinced that Joselin was the one director for this film and she is a talented writer and director and she understands comedy drama, she did it beautifully with her first feature proof and I felt certain that she could do it again and she did. To be honest that is one of the most satisfying parts of the whole process, just seeing Jocelyn back in the director’s chair and doing it so beautifully.

It’s very exciting to see her attached to the project and so many fabulous female female and male actors. The range of female characters was just beautiful and it’s exciting to see the calibre of female artists involved. 

Ahh, they all wanted to be part of it, most of those actors are lead actors in Australia in their own right but they all wanted to be part of this ensemble and we’re knocking on the door saying please please please be part of it and it was wonderful to see that level of excitement on that script.

It must have been rewarding for you as a producer to be able to say, this is a project that I have identified as being valuable and everybody else does too.

It’s an interesting thing because as a producer you tend to say that pre-production and development period, you spend about 4-5 years trying to convince people of that, because people don’t know if it’s going to work or not or of the script is going to work or not and whether it’s going to work with audiences or not so in many ways it was quite an isolated period because, and there’s many, many rejections. I can’t tell you how many times you get the film nocked back as well, but it doesn’t matter and I’ve discovered this over 30 years of producing that it does not matter how many times a film project gets rejected, you just have to have 1 or 2 that say yes and then you’re up and running. You have to have the self-belief and the belief in the project and keep going on and on and on until you get it up.

And I’m so glad you did.

Thank you, I mean we did have a few challenges along the way, I mean Joselin turned me down the first time I went to LA to convince her to come home to Australia to direct the Dressmaker because she turned me down and it wasn’t the right timing for her and she’s got four kinds and two of those kids are autistic so she has big family challenges and like many women directors who have families, it nocks them out of directing so I didn’t take no for an answer and went back a year later and she said you know I’m so pleased you offered it to me and I’m ready now I’ll give this ago.

Why do you think women’s stories are seen as so risky and, as you said, the distributors are a bit reluctant?

Well up until really a few years ago we had a cinema exhibition and distribution business model which largely hasn’t changed for the last 30/40 years and it’s driven by mostly male programmers, all of the films we’ve seen screening in Australia on any cinemas are programmed by men. There’s less than 5 women programmers in Australia, and then you look at the distributors themselves, and while they have a lot of women in their organisations, they don’t tend to be in the areas that green light films. So if you follow the money and where the decisions get made, it’s usually made by a man so typically they feel more comfortable in placing, you know film is always a massive risk, it doesn’t matter what budget or what scale there’s always a risk, they feel more comfortable in taking that risk on men than they do on women.

So it’s been this model where it’s replicated the idea that the core audience, the money making audience who goes to the movies is men aged 15 to 24, that’s the driving force behind big cinema hits, and to an extent that’s still true if you look at big cinema block busters and so on it’s driven by young men.

But two things have happened, we’ve seen the complete disruption of that business model with new technologies, some are streaming and the fact that young people don’t go to the movies anymore because they can play anything that they want and they can stay at home and they’ve got all of these other forms of entertainment, games and all sorts of things, that they do with their devices, other than spending 15 dollars to go to the movies, so there’s been an absolute fracturing of how we used to do business and that is a good thing as well as a challenge, and the second thing that’s happened is that women have turned out to be the only demographic that is currently growing, more women are going to the movies now than ever before. You’ve got the baby boomers, the 50+ who have available time and it’s actually a really substantial movie going audience, so those two factors have meant a big shake up in the conventional wisdom in women being a viable commercial demographic.

It’s phenomenal that only the female demographic has grown.

It’s one of the only, every other demographic is falling, or has been plateaued for years and you can’t find this out because the distributors will not publish in Australia attendance figures, they will only publish box office which is not a reliable indicator, because box office is influenced by a whole range of things like new offerings, 3D cinema, Gold Coast, bringing life to theatre, there’s a whole stack of ways that they can charge more for ticked price so box office actually has been pretty constant or growing slightly, making up for the fact that in real terms, figures have declined.

That’s really interesting that they’re quite reluctant to distribute that information. As a female creative, do you feel that there’s more pressure for your films to succeed, particularly when it’s a female focused story.

I feel that that burden is actually off my shoulders now, I feel so delighted that The Dressmaker did everything that I had hoped and more that in many ways it’s just taken the weight right off my shoulders and I’m at a point in my career, that I want to focus on those projects or those things that I find really interesting. I’m not or never have been a producer that has a huge slate that is turning out content. I tend to focus on those projects that I find really curious or really challenging or that haven’t been done before or that people say can’t be done, so it’s had the complete opposite effect, it’s just made me feel released.

That’s fantastic. In the over 30 years that you’ve worked in the industry, how do you see the differences in when you started and now.

There are a lot of differences. The main difference is that when I started most of us struggled to get access to media production, that is our hands on cameras, editing equipment, all of that was so expensive and so out of reach for most people, now the means of production is available everywhere. Everyone that has an iPhone or an ipad or a basic camera can be making broadcast quality content so we’re in an era now where the means of production is ubiquitous and everybody is a filmmaker in a sense, so the real challenge there is how do you, in such a crowded environment, make work that can stand out? How can you get your voice to be heard and your work to be seen, so that’s the biggest challenge, whereas when I started out, it was just about getting it made but once you got it made, then there was a very healthy cultural sector, there were lots of opportunities of what the filmmakers and serious critical writing about films which there isn’t anymore. There was a pathway and we used to make the work on film so we could have it screened in cinemas, so my first film was completed on 16mil and screened in a cinema, that doesn’t happen anymore.

Do you think, in terms of the different streaming and different digital platforms, that there was an opportunity for emerging filmmakers?

Oh absolutely, that’s what I mean. The opportunity to get your work made is very easy, the opportunity to get your work onto a digital platform is very easy. The challenge is how do you get it seen in front of an audience and make it a must see? In this information crowed world that we live in, people will not take time unless they have a sense that this is a must see experience. Whether it’s a 90 minute feature film or a 180 second clip on YouTube, it has to be a must see experience, that’s the challenge. The digital platform has been fantastic even for a film like The Dressmaker, very, very early on, because I had been working digital media for a number of years, I could see that this would be a pathway in starting to build our audience long before we’d even turned over the first cut of the film so about a years in advance, we set up our social media campaign, we started building our Facebook following and with the desire to take our followers on the journey of making the Dressmaker, so we invited them to audition as extras, we hooked up with bloggers and invited fashion bloggers to be extras as well (fashion bloggers) so we had a couple of those in the film and so by the time the film was finished, they’d been through that whole process of daily dispatches almost from the set and we had around 7,000 followers on the last day of filming and that meant when the trailer went out we really quickly went up to about 25,000 followers and that kept building and right now we have about 85,000 followers so in my mind that’s been one of the real plusses of the digital platform and what they can bring to help create that scene of the dressmaker being a must see experience.

I think that’s a great use of social media, having audiences invested in a film, not even if their financially invested in the film but if they’re emotionally invested in the development of the film.

Well I think audience investment is the key. You know, how do we get audiences to invest very very early. And the interesting thing is the traditional model of distribution an exhibition is that social media as a marketing tool doesn’t start until the film is finished and the trailer goes out, that’s when they usually begin it, and I think that’s done the wrong way around, it’s not a marketing exercise it’s a conversation and it’s an engagement, you’re building community. So it meant that I had to pay for it because it wasn’t then a marketing expense. The distributor then started paying for it once the trailer went out and the film was completed. They did a fantastic campaign as well, I’m not taking away from Universal, they did a brilliant campaign, which was very smart and their social media team was great, it’s just that mindset that it’s a marketing exercise that it doesn’t really start until then.

It’s interesting you mention community building because I wanted to talk about Women in Film and Television. You established the Victorian chapter, I understand.

Well I was part of the committee that established it back in the late 80s.

So how have you seen that grow?

Well WIFT has been around since I’d say the late 80s and in those days there was a very vibrant culture around women’s filmmaking, it was part of the new independent cinema, the experimental cinema, there was a women’s program specially at the Aus film commission and it’s how many of us back then got the opportunity to make our first films and to really test form as well as content, then that all kind of wound back in the 90s and when it was deemed look everything’s fine now we don’t need a women’s program and then we fast-forward 20 years later and realize well we’re still stuck, only 16% of all directors a women, around 23% of all writers and around 32% of all producers, so things have not shifted over that time with that focus. What’s happened with list is that it’s quite vibrant in NSW and Victoria, but we had hoped to build a national organisation back in the early 90s, which never quite happened. There was a few years where we ran a national conference and I think today it’s still fairly much an entry way of networking for women moving into the industry and wanting to build networks which is kind of where it all started. What we’ve now seen in addition to organisations starting up, so you’ve got the national fellowship which I’m president of, which is very targeted to increase the number of women in leadership roles in the screen industry because we recognize that we won’t have real change until we’ve got more women sitting around the tables that decide what goes on our screens, how the money is spend and what kind of screen culture we’re building, so we want to see more women involved at that end.

I think it’s certainly being heard, you know screen Australia announcing persuasive initiatives under the Gender Matters campaign to support female creative through the process and getting them practical experience and training to become decision makers. I know you said publicly that you don’t feel quotas are helpful.

I don’t think quotas are the solution. That is because quotas will alienate I think the sector that we most need to bring into this conversation, for the last 30 years the under representation on screen and behind the camera is being seen as a women’s problem, and it hasn’t been seen as everyone’s problem. It is, it’s a cultural problem and a business problem that effects men and women, so we’ve got to get the men involved in the solution for this. I think that the best way of tackling it is to involve those guys, the guys at the business end of the scale and green lighting projects, to bring them on board and help them to understand that it’s in their interest to make the kind of cultural and business changes in their own organisations, whether it’s in exhibition or distribution to TV or whatever, because it makes good business sense. And the second thing I want to say about that is screen agencies can have all of the quotas they like which may effect the development of work and get more projects coming in and potentially out there in the marketplace for consideration but none of them will go anywhere unless they get green lit at the market end of the value chain. And that’s the area that’s currently dominated by blokes, so we have to get change at that end, so we get more women in those decision making roles and more men realizing that it makes good sense to green light more projects that are written, directed, produced and are about women.

Did you see recently in the news Tropfest introduced blind judging I think it makes such a difference as you say those people in decision making situations to be involved in that process.

We need to involve them, there’s no point in alienating them, and they just get alienated by quotas. They just go sure, have the quotas you like but we’ll decide what will actually make it through and what should get funded.

What advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry?

At the end of the day, there’s two main things, one is persistence and not taking no for an answer, so just accepting that every project and I’ve been through this with every single thing that I’ve ever tried to get out has been nocked back at least once, usually twice, sometimes three times, but you’ve got to be there on the fourth or sixth time to get it through, it’s just that hard, so to persist and never take rejection personally which unfortunately a lot of women do and then go away and not try again.

The second part is be true to your own voice because that’s what’s going to help you stand out of the pack is what you specifically bring to the art and to the culture of screen content. Whether it’s film or digital or television or whatever, your interested in it because you’ve got a very particular or unique perspective or bent so let that shine and never ever try and second guess what you think the market wants or what the broadcasters or audience want, you bear that in mind in terms of how you’ll get it financed but your starting point is always what should come within you, what do you really passionately believe in and can offer that is different to everything else out there.

What project is next for you, what are you working on?

Well I’m in development in a couple of feature projects, another one with Joselin Moorehouse, the variations, so that development takes a couple of years so I’m definitely involved in seeing those through.

Is that the Clara Schumann project?

Yeah, this is a great story, and at the end of the Dressmaker, I just thought what’s the one film that you’ve always wanted to make but that you haven’t made yet because that’s the next one I’d really love to make with you. And she said there is a film there is one I’ve been kicking around for 10 years or more, and she told me about the relationship between Clara Shumann, her relationship between Robert Schumann the composer and then Johannes Brhams. It’s an extraordinary story and that’s what she’s writing in the moment. And I also auctioned a novel by Ann Turner called the Lost Swimmer, which is a psychological thriller so she’s at second draft as well.

Catch Sue at the Gold Coast Film Festival at the Women in Film Lunch on Friday 21 April.

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