Sue Milliken preps feature ‘Ladies in Black’, set in Sydney department store
After a stint at the ABC, Sue Milliken began producing in the late 1970’s with Tom Jeffrey. Together they produced Weekend of Shadows (1977), The Odd Angry Shot (1978) and Fighting Back (1981).
Milliken produced The Fringe Dwellers (1985), Black Robe (1991) and Paradise Road (1996) for Bruce Beresford, with whom she has just published a book of correspondence, There’s A Fax From Bruce, through Currency Press.
The veteran's other credits includes Sirens, Dating The Enemy, Imax documentary Sydney: A Story of a City, 2001 TV mini My Brother Jack, Colin Friels feature Solo, and sixty six episodes (three seasons) of sci-fi series Farscape for the Jim Henson Company.
Milliken recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Australian International Movie Convention. Her book of correspondence with the director Bruce Beresford, There’s A Fax From Bruce, was published in June through Currency Press.
She spoke to IF about her next feature, her new book and Gender Matters.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well I wasn't planning to make any more films, but there's this project which was called The Women in Black. It's from the novel called The Women in Black, which Bruce [Beresford] and I have been working on for twenty years really. On and off, could never get it financed. And suddenly we've got a new producer on board called Allanah Zitserman, and people are interested in it and it looks as though it could possibly get made. So I'm working with Alannah on that, to my surprise.
How did you connect with Allanah?
Bruce connected with her really. I'm really not sure how. Whether it was to do with the Dungog Film Festival and the other stuff she's done, I really don't know. But she's doing a great job.
Has the new interest or momentum in the project had anything to do with Ladies in Black, based on the same novel and now a musical?
It's the same project. We've changed the title from Women in Black to Ladies in Black because Women in Black sounded too much like something depressing, whereas Ladies in Black's a bit more glamorous.
So it would be a film adaptation of the musical?
No, the musical is a sort of side issue that was Tim Finn's idea. Bruce is Madeleine St John, the author’s, literary executor, so Tim Finn came to Bruce and got the rights to make the musical. Wish is a fantastic thing because it's been a huge success and it's just delightful. In January it's going to be at the Sydney Festival. I saw it in Melbourne when it was on down there. It's an absolute joy, you come out of it just smiling and humming a tune or two. It's just a lovely theatrical experience. And that has helped. The fact is that this kind of material suddenly has an audience. And of course The Dressmaker has also helped. It's not the same kind of film at all but it's in the same kind of audience range and it's set in the 50's and so on. There's an older audience for these kinds of films.
What's the story about?
It's set in a big department store in Sydney just at the end of the 1950's, into the 1960's, and it's about the tension between the migrants of the day, who were at the time mostly Hungarian, Slovenian, European, and the old Australians. And of course the old Australians resented these new people who were arriving and taking jobs and living a slightly different life and eating different food. And it's a rite of passage about a sixteen year-old girl who gets a job in the department store at Christmas. A Christmas job in women's frocks. And she's taken up by the fashion [maven] of the store, because she spots her as being bright. Everybody comes to realise that these people are really nice and they're just like everybody else. So it's a rite of passage and tolerance story I guess. It's very light, not in any way preachy; a very light and gentle film. Under which there's a past of tragedy: these people have been through the Second World War: they're refugees. It's a parable for the time I suppose.
How far along is the project?
There's a script, and we're heavily into the financing. We've got quite a lot of interest in the financing, and we're halfway through trying to close the financing and cast the film.
Where's the money coming from: private or the screen bodies?
It's the usual combination for an Australian film.
Would the hope be to shoot it next year in Sydney?
Bruce and you recently published a book together. Do you think that's helped in reviving this project?
Who knows. Things come in waves. I don't think it's done any harm. We had a fair bit of publicity as a result of the book and the book sold quite well, so it doesn't hurt.
Have you had much feedback on the book from the industry?
Quite a bit, yes, people loved it. It's entertaining and quite funny, and there's a sort of narrative. It's bookended by Black Robe and Paradise Road. It's the period in between and trying to get films made. Not just Paradise Road but the general complications of making movies, [making] independent films.
What do you think of the whole push for gender equity this year?
I think it's a great idea. Conversations about inadequacies and difficulties are a great thing and have proved very successful in the past in the film industry. There was the Women's Film Fund back in the Australian Film Commission [era] in the 80's. That gave a lot of people opportunities. There was the indigenous drama initiative at the AFC, which really led to the blossoming of indigenous filmmakers and their extraordinary talent. So this initiative for women I think's a good one. Still there's not enough women, not an equal number of women with men at the top level of the industry, so anything that helps the balance and doesn't hurt anybody I think's a great thing.
Have there been any shows or films made locally in the last couple of years, by women or otherwise, which have particularly impressed you?
No good ever asking me to come up with titles in a hurry (laughs). So possibly but I'm not sure.