Interview: Producer Sue Maslin on The Dressmaker
By Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
While just hitting US theaters now, the team behind the Australian film The Dressmaker already had reason to celebrate when the film hit theaters last year (after premiering at Toronto). The film was nominated for eight Australian Film Critics Association Awards (winning four) and was nominated for 14 Australian Film Institute Awards (winning five, including People’s Choice).
The team has plenty to be proud of with their hit film, and producer Sue Maslin deserves credit for her role in bringing it from page to screen; buying the rights to Rosalie Ham’s novel, selecting Jocelyn Moorhouse to write and direct (who brought in her husband PJ Hogan as co-writer) and assembling the impressive team behind and in front of the camera, including Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, and Hugo Weaving in their award winning performances. Maslin brings with her more than 25 years of experience as a producer on both narratives (Roahd to Nhill and Japanese Story) and innovative documentaries (Hunt Angels and Dominick Dunne: After the Party). She is also the president of the Natalie Miller Fellowship, created to help nurture the careers of women not only in film, but to become leaders within their profession. We had a lively discussion about NMF and her excellent new film.
Q: Could you explain a little bit about your involvement with the Natalie Miller Fellowship and the goals of the organization?
A: We set that up five years ago to really recognize and nurture the next generation of female leaders in the film industry. Because we realized that there are simply too few women deciding what will actually make it onto screens. There are very few women making the decisions in distribution and exhibition area of the film industry. There are a lot of women in marketing and publicity, but there aren’t enough women sitting around the tables and deciding where the money will be spent. So we simply want to encourage more women to get involved in all that.
Q: Watching the film, I feel like it is truly a film from a female perspective, without being exclusionary or suggesting it’s “not for guys.”
A: Right, it’s not what would be called a chick flick as most people define it, because we know plenty of guys who enjoy it as well. But it comes from a female sensibility.
Q: When it came to producing the film and finally getting it made, did you feel the movie needed to be directed by a woman to maintain that perspective?
A: No, it was primarily my interest in finally working with Jocelyn. I’ve primarily worked with female directors, because I’m interested in telling stories about female protagonist, and most male directors tend to want to make movies about men. And I don’t just want movies with female protagonists, I want them to be complicated and difficult women at the center. On this project, I really just wanted Jocelyn’s sensibility telling this story. Her first film was called Proof, came out 25 years ago, and having just re-watched it I can say it holds up. It’s an outstanding film that manages to find that fine line between comedy and tragedy, which of course is where irony sits. But Jocelyn understands where that line is.
Q: What was it about the book that made you say “I could see this making a good movie” and “I would like to make this movie?”
A: The minute I read the book all that humor and tragedy was right on the page. It’s the most unusual story imaginable, it really is a fable. But I am well aware that having all those good things on the page doesn’t mean it will translate to the screen. But this was a story which could be done because of the visuals in it. The gorgeous gowns in this sweeping outback landscape.
Q: Based on the limited knowledge I have about Australian cinema, this movie reminded me of the films coming out of Australia in the 1990s, like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom, or Cosi, more so than the recent films that have come to US screens from Australia. Were you thinking of that time period in Australian cinema?
A: This film certainly has a similar sensibility to those film, but I would say this one aims to be a bit more sophisticated. But like those other films you mentioned, this film is tapping into something which is very Australian, an exaggerated sensibility. It’s a bit like Midwesterners here, like where Fargo’s set. When you live in extremes, you have to have a sense of humor about the wonderful things and terrible things that can happen. I think we share a certain gallows humor in order to survive. I grew up in a landscape like the one on screen. And you experience fire, flood, drought, death…and you tell those stories to hold the community together, we call them yarns, and we will always find something funny. No matter how terrible the story, we find the humor.
Q: In America, the idea of small town life has its own set of clichés. People think they’re more conservative, old-fashioned, and maybe gossipy. What is added by setting a story like this in a small town in the outback?
A: I don’t think it would have worked in a bigger town or city because the movie is so interested in the impact isolation has on the psyche. The people in this little town, only interacting with each other, and it’s just toxic for them. The movie is very much like a western in that way, because most westerns are set in these small, makeshift towns in the middle of nowhere, with a new person coming in and shaking things up. A new danger rides into town and rights the wrongs of a person that lives there and put some equilibrium back into the town that was becoming toxic. Jocelyn drew very heavily from the spaghetti western.
Q: The western often focuses on the father-son relationship, and here we have the mother-daughter relationship at the center of the film. And while certainly not true across the board, I don’t see a lot of male filmmakers who have a strong good grasp on the specifics of the mother-daughter relationship, particularly an adult mother-daughter relationship.
A: And that really is the heart of the movie. We all have a mothers and those of us that are women, know about how complex the mother-daughter relationship can be. It’s full of rage and love, hate and dependence. It’s the stuff of great melodrama during the 40s and 50s in Hollywood for a reason. And being set in that time period Jocelyn decided we had this backbone of their reconciliation that you can build everything else, the sillier and bizarre stuff, around. The movie is very funny, but it is built on this great tragedy of these two women being ripped apart. In a way, that is very similar to Muriel’s Wedding. It’s a hilarious movie, but at the center, there’s a lot of sadness. And we put that relationship in the hands of Kate and Judy. Two of the great actresses of our time in the same movie is something people should just enjoy watching. This really is a film we are excited to allow people to enjoy in the theater. The beautiful gowns, amazing cinematography, and phenomenal performances.
Q: Speaking of enjoying, it’s so nice that we aren’t just seeing more women directors with feature films, but we’re seeing women directing comedies and women having box-office successes with comedies. Considering your organization’s mission, what does it mean to you to see these success stories?
A: It’s so interesting because we’ve seen for years, I’ve known for years, that well made movies for targeted female audiences will have legs. We’ve seen it time and time again with movies like Mamma Mia, Bridesmaids, Trainwreck, Melissa McCarthy’s movies. These movies can make serious money. In Australia, The Dressmaker became one of the all-time moneymakers. But what is strange is the market seems so resistant not only to changing, but to accepting that reality. And this is because for the most part, the people making the key decision about what goes on the screen are still being made by men. We have one women exhibitor in Australia, and you could probably count on one hand the number of female programmers we have. So all of it is geared towards what men want, because they are the ones making the decisions. So that’s where the Natalie Miller Fellowship gets involved, not trying to push men out but bring more women in. In order to mature the industry at large, which happens to be going through so many changes. We are seeing new online and over-the-top services, threatening the theatrical monopoly theaters once had. So now is the time for the motion picture industry to step up and make these changes. And maybe realize the untapped potential to have movies by and about women, to serve a market that’s been underserved for far too long. It only makes commercial sense.
Q: The other thing I see changing, after the lackluster summer we just had, is the realization that not every movie needs to appeal to the masses to be a success. If your movies are made with small, reasonable budgets and target specific, loyal audiences, they can make serious money without the pressure to please everyone. This movie was made on a smallish budget, but made plenty of money. Do you think of this movie as having a targeted audience that found it or did it have wide audience appeal?
A: I’m really interested in what I define as multiple niche audiences. And this is the beauty of online culture and social media. So with The Dressmaker, we had readers of the book already interested. And then you added the fashionistas and lovers of vintage clothing. And then you add those fans of Jocelyn’s movies and Kate and Judy’s fans. And suddenly you have a very respectable audience interested in your movie. I’m very interested in social media, not as a marketing tool, but as a way to get people invested as soon as we start working on it and share the experience. We did some of our casting of extras online, we posted behind the scenes pictures, and when the distributor picked it up, we celebrated online. And that’s when it becomes a marketing tool, but we already had 60,000 online followers, with that number growing every week. For me, that’s about having a new relationship with your audience, who want a new kind of experience when they go to the movies. People can see movies at home now, new movies at home. So why go to the movie theater? You have to offer something more. So I want to curate an experience where my audience wants to get dressed up, have a glass of wine, and go see a funny, sad, entertaining movie with their girlfriends and just have a fabulous night out. And in Australia, people who loved the movie had the chance to see the costumes on tour, I have them on tour for the next two years!
Q: What do you think the benefit of encouraging communal film going is? Not just continuing to see movies in the theater but planning a night of it. Audiences almost having book club meetings to discuss what they just saw?
A: For us, that is the key to word of mouth success. I don’t believe it’s enough to say I made a great movie, because most movies fail financially. I’m more interested in thinking, this movie is great, what will the experience be like for the audience? Most people will experience watching it online the first time, but that might lead them to taking others to see it when it comes to their theater, because they sense it will be a great night out. Whenever we see something we really love, the sharing of it is a great joy. That’s all word of mouth is, sharing what you love. That’s key to making a successful movie, having something people want to share.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (9/22/16)
Top Photo: Hugo Weaving and Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker
Middle Photo: Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, courtesy of Broad Green Pictures
Bottom Photo: Lesley Coffin
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures, Samantha Bednarz (bottom)