Home » “There’s absolutely no excuse for not telling women’s stories”: Australian producer Sue Maslin shares her wisdom

“There’s absolutely no excuse for not telling women’s stories”: Australian producer Sue Maslin shares her wisdom

24 Jul 2018 | BY Shelley Lee - @ShelleyLee_

Producer Sue Maslin, Managing Director of Universal Pictures Australasia Mike Baard and Director Jocelyn Moorhouse at The Dressmaker premiere
(Producer Sue Maslin, Managing Director of Universal Pictures Australasia Mike Baard and Director Jocelyn Moorhouse at The Dressmaker premiere.  Source: @suemaslin/Twitter)

Why Sue Maslin got arrested, and how a good parking spot can change your life.

With her never-say-die attitude she’s become one of Australia’s most successful film and television producers making and documenting history for more than 35 years.

“Every single film I’ve ever pitched has been knocked back once, twice” The Dressmaker creator told The FIERCE.

It seems strange but despite these setbacks, Maslin boasts a swag of successful award-winning features including the afore mentioned The Dressmaker starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth, which in 2015 earned more than $20 million at the box office and took home five AACTA Awards, as well as Japanese Story and Road to Nhill.

Her documentary credits include Hunt Angels starring Ben Mendelsohn and the just released Jill Bilcock: Dancing The Invincible turning the camera on the mastery of the titular Australian film editor behind hits include Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Elizabeth and Red Dog as well as The Dressmaker.

“Jill is the unsung heroine, really, of the Australian film industry. She has worked on so many iconic films. It’s about time her story was told.” Maslin says proudly of her colleague.

Maslin herself also has nothing prove, except perhaps to her mother, who still wishes the Adjunct Professor of the School of Media & Communication at RMIT University would settle down and get a real job. “It’s hilarious! She’d be much happier if I was earning a pay-cheque, and sometimes I have to agree with her,” she laughs.

“I’m a producer, and that means I only prove am only as good as my capacity to raise the money for the projects that I work on, and touch wood, I’ve been very, very fortunate over a long period of time to keep doing that, and I love doing it”.

Maslin and the team from 'The Dressmaker' at the 2015 AACTA Awards

Maslin and the team from ‘The Dressmaker’ at the 2015 AACTA Awards (source: @suemaslin/Twitter)

For fear of disappointing her mother, Maslin, who grew up in the New South Wales Riverina around Jerilderie on the Hay Plains, where it was “very flat, and not much there”, stuck with the science degree she went to Canberra to study. Despite loving the subject matter she soon knew being a vet wasn’t her calling.

“Doing a science degree means that you go down a pathway of increasing specialisation, and become an expert in a very narrow field, if you’re going to have any serious career. And that was the complete antithesis of who I was, so I wanted to discover everything there was about the world.” she says of the realisation.

Graduating from Australian National University with a degree she’d never use she went searching for the right path. The parking gods that so often work against the rest of us, that day giving her a prod in the right professional direction.

“It was literally the car park, at Canberra University, where I went thinking, “I’ll wander around this campus and see if there’s anything I could do,” recalling “I knew that I needed to do something else with my life, but I had no idea what it was.”. The car park, with a vacant space that welcomed her, was positioned right in front of the media studies building which was the first she stuck her head into “I never made it out of that building, really. So, it was a complete fluke in many ways.” she admits.

Politicised on campus by the birth of second-generation feminism in Australia, Maslin started what would become a life-long fight for women’s rights. “We were challenging everything back then, everything from abortion, choice, through to issues to do with sexual harassment on campus, equal pay. You name it.” she reminisces. “It was a really, really exciting time to be a young feminist.”

Her first feature documentary, Thanks Girls and Goodbye (1988), wrote the missing chapter in history about the Australian Land Army – the women who worked on farms during the Second World War and supported the war effort through food production. “The Australian War Memorial fell over themselves, by saying, ‘We have nothing in our collection. If you’re prepared to go on the road and collect those stories, and collect those images, and document the films, we’ll fund you to do it.’”, so she did.

It wasn’t Maslin’s first crack at a feminist filmmaking. Few know it was her arrest in 1981 that was the genesis of her very first documentary project.


“I wasn’t filming it that year. I was too busy getting arrested”

She was among the Women Against Rape demonstrators arrested and charged in Canberra for controversially using the platform of ANZAC Day to protest rape being used as a weapon in war.

“I wasn’t filming it that year (1981). I was too busy getting arrested”, she explains with a small laugh “It was the following year. We challenged, after our arrests, the trumped-up charges, which were eventually dropped, and we lobbied for this quiet, dignified march to go ahead the following year”. So in 1982 they were permitted by the RSL to march, and Maslin documented it.

Footage of the demonstrations, which have been described as as a milestone for gender equality in Australia were used by Maslin in 1983 to make a music video for a song she had  written, called More Than One Day of the Year  exploring the issue of rape and war.

The whole experience left her pondering, why aren’t we telling women’s stories? Political and cultural limitations of previous generations were starting to be chipped away and the barrier of access to expensive, complicated cameras and editing equipment was removed by her ability to access to universityresources. It was all coinciding with the rebirth of the Australian film industry in the 70s and early 80s, and Maslin and other emerging female filmmakers embraced the chance to “grab a camera and tell our stories,” she says.

Since then, digital technology has democratised film making, in some respects. Anyone can make a movie, a blog, a YouTube Channel using a smartphone or camera. She says now “there’s absolutely no excuse whatsoever for not telling women’s stories, really, with greater diversity and certainly about women’s experiences.”

I think we are on the cusp of genuine change, and I don’t say that lightly, because I have been around over the last 30 years… But it is changing now.”

A member of Screen Australia’s Gender Matters Taskforce, Maslin was this year inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll for Women for her life-long commitment to gender equality and believes post-#MeToo, a true shift is finally happening.

“I think we are on the cusp of genuine change, and I don’t say that lightly, because I have been around over the last 30 years, and I’ve seen these waves come and go and nothing changed substantially in that time for either women in key creative roles behind the screen, or the portrayal of women on the screen. But it is changing now.”

She puts this, in part, down to a generational shift. “We’re finally starting to see the baby-boomers, myself included, who dominated the industry for the last 40 years, and aged with the industry, moving on and out. And thank goodness, because it’s making room for younger women, with issues and ideas that, I think, will quite rightly just say, ‘We’re not interested in just having a completely male-dominated screen space anymore.’”

Pushing through the glass ceiling in film distribution and TV programming isn’t just vital for gender parity in those roles, but because it’s those women who open doors for other women in the creative chain according to Maslin’s experience and research.


Kate WInslet in ‘The Dressmaker’ (source: Universal Pictures)

“If you actually look at most of the successful Australian directors, who are women, and women have absolutely punched above their weight, given they’re only 16% of the total number of directors, look at who produced their work, and you will find that in 90% or more of the cases, it’s a female producer. So, it’s women who give women the opportunity to tell their stories on the screen”. Like she did on The Dressmaker with Rosalie Ham’s novel and bringing in director Jocelyn Moorhouse.

As audiences, we’ve been doing our bit “I think people power and people’s choices is one of the most powerful tools we’ve got” Maslin says. Our binging on female-driven productions such as Wentworth, The Handmaid’s Tale and Killing Eve and comedies such as The Letdown has proven their commercial viability to networks. “Which is why,” she says, “We’ve had so many more programs that appeal to women, really, really successfully on the small box.”.

The glitch, she says, is with cinema. “It’s just not responding to what audiences want”, but she sees a slowly shifting tide “ I think The Dressmaker had a big role in that here in she Australia, because I was told consistently in development and financing that that film was not commercial, because it was targeted to a limited audience (ie. female skewed). It certainly proved the pundits wrong when the film went on to make more than $20 million at the box office, and I’m sincerely hoping that that will make the way for many more films to come through.”

After the film’s success, Maslin refocused her resolve to make more commercial content about what really matters to her. Which is why she is thrilled to celebrate the talent that is Bilcock in her latest release, and hints future projects will hopefully include a return to documentary directing, and second collaboration with Moorhouse.

She may never satisfy her mother with a “real job”, but she’s fought the hard battle for female filmmakers in this country and will leave the industry a better place.

She’s also been working hard to help sure up the future of Australian film and television production when she and her peers do eventually step down through decades of  mentoring of young filmmakers “My idea of passing the baton is to empower and make other filmmakers to tell their intimate stories and hopefully more stories that reflect gender and diversity”.


Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible is now showing