Sue Maslin readies TV drama ‘Fallout’, Schumann biopic ‘The Variations’

18 April, 2017 by Harry Windsor

(l-r) Jocelyn Moorhouse and Sue Maslin on the set of 'The Dressmaker' (photo: Ben King).

Kicking off tomorrow, the Gold Coast Film Festival (April 19-30) will screen 32 feature films from 13 countries, including four world premieres and nine Australian ones, plus a host of shorts, events and filmmaker Q&A’s. The fest will also host a series of 14 panels covering a range of screen industry topics. On April 22, producers Jan Chapman, Sue Maslin and Trish Lake will talk about their experiences in a session entitled ‘Producing: Money Vs Time’. Maslin will also be this year’s special guest at the third annual Women In Film lunch on April 21. Presented by Screen Queensland, the lunch recognises the contribution of women in film and television in Australia. On the eve of the festival, Maslin speaks to IF about the push for gender equity and her slate of projects.

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What will you be talking about at the Gold Coast Film Fest?

I always try to ruffle a few feathers, so I’ll be talking about the representation of women on screen and behind the camera. There’s a huge amount of momentum for change, which is fantastic, and it’s across the board. Having been in the business now for thirty years, and seeing these programs and policy commitments come and go and nothing change, I actually feel genuinely optimistic now. I’d like to focus on who makes the decisions about what we see on our screens in Australia. It’s the distributors, the exhibitors, the broadcasters who sit around the table and greenlight. I want to focus on how women can have a much more empowered role in those areas.

What sort of steps need to be taken?

It’s about getting more women into roles of leadership. That puts the onus not just on the business but on the women themselves to step up and demand those roles. It’s a process of really owning the fact that women do have an important role in deciding what goes on our screens. And not just from the cultural perspective: it makes good business sense.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m gearing up for Cannes. Jocelyn has been busy writing the next screenplay, which will be an original one this time. It’ll be an international co-pro so I’m going over there to hopefully start patching that together.

This is The Variations?

It’s a goodie. We’ll be shooting in Europe and posting here, so it’s really good timing to start putting together that team.

Are you looking at a European cast?

Definitely a German or Austrian co-producing partner. And obviously Jocelyn directing. Because it’ll be a bigger budget production, we need to cast in such a way that we can raise that kind of budget.

How old are your Schumann and Brahms?

Schumann would have been close to 50. It’s really in his later years that our story picks up. Clara [Schumann] would have been in her early 40s, and Brahms was much younger; he was only 25 when he met them. He was this beautiful young wunderkind that came into their lives at a time when he was being pilloried by the critics and by the musical establishment because his music was so different. His first concerto was so hammered by the critics he didn’t perform live again for eleven years. But Clara and Robert recognized his genius and really mentored him.

What’s the significance of the title?

It’s called The Variations because that’s the name of those final works by Schumann. And it’s also thematically perfect because the fundamental dramatic conceit at the heart of it is a question over those final works by Robert, because he ended up mad; he ended up killing himself. Were those final works the work of a madman or a genius?

Is it a story of jealousy, a la Amadeus?

No. They both adored Brahms, and he was hopelessly, unrequitedly, in love with Clara. But there were much more complex things going on, because Robert ended up in an asylum for the final two years [of his life], so Brahms was the go-between. He was the point of contact for Clara because women were not allowed to go into those mental asylums in the late nineteenth century. She didn’t see her husband really right up until the very end. It’s a fascinating story but a tough one to pull off.

Are you finding it difficult to raise the money with that kind of ending?

Haven’t even started yet, that’s what I’m going to Cannes for. But I have certainly been talking about it in some quarters and there’s a huge amount of interest, because it’s such a profoundly dramatic story. Look at Amadeus: that had a very sad ending but [it was] utterly brilliant in its execution. I seem to have made a number of films over the years that have had sad endings but [they] have been well-resolved endings. That’s more important.

Has The Dressmaker changed the game for you?

Definitely there’s a lot of interest in Jocelyn’s next film. The thing you learn in this business is that you’re only as good as your last film. If you have a successful film that certainly gets you the meetings and the contacts but from that moment on you’re back to square one. Every film is a start-up business. But there is a lot of interest now in films that skew female, because we were able to show it’s a commercial demographic. And I think there’s interest in showing the story of Schumann and Brahms from the perspective of Clara. She’s such an interesting and little understood character, and most people don’t know her music. She composed a lot, and we want to include her music in the film.

You’re also developing an adaptation of Ann Turner’s The Lost Swimmer.

Ann has tapped into that market beautifully. As you know she’s a very talented screenwriter and director, but she started writing novels about three years ago, and it turns out she’s bloody good at it. She’s got a three-book deal with Simon and Schuster and her book’s been published in the UK and US as well as here. I’m really excited to be working with her on the screenplay adaptation of her first novel.

What about Film Art Media’s doc slate?

We’ve got three releases this year following the Harry Seidler release last year. We’ve got a feature doc about Jill Bilcock, the editor, which is fabulous. Jill is arguably one of the world’s great editors. You look at the top ten Australian hits, Jill’s edited five of them. She talks very specifically about the creative decisions she made on films like Elizabeth, Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom, and how she put together iconic sequences. It’s a filmmaker’s film. We hope to premiere that at the Melbourne Film Festival this year. I’ve also been executive producing a five-part comedy drama series for ABC iview. The thing with the ABC is they’ve got such phenomenal take-up now with iview. At a time when broadcast TV is plateauing or in freefall, iview is just going gangbusters.

Are you developing other TV projects?

We’re in development on a TV drama series called Fallout. The head writer for that is Jane Allen, who’s a fabulous television writer, and this series will be produced by [Film Art Media’s] Charlotte Seymour. It was an original concept by Charlotte, and then the three of us did a script intensive workshop together, so it’s being developed now. It’s a drama in the vein of those fantastic Scandi dramas – not Scandi crime but those intense family dramas that really get below the surface of the politics of family. Set in contemporary Australia.

Have you been in discussions with potential partners?

It’s a little bit early. We go into intensive writing in June-July. 

* This interview has been edited and condensed.

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