Jocelyn Moorhouse on juggling motherhood, caring and a screen career

Jocelyn Moorhouse at the Raising Films Australia Screen Industry Forum. (Photo credit: Rosie Keogh) 

Writer and director Jocelyn Moorhouse was the keynote speaker at yesterday’s Raising Films Australia Screen Industry Forum at AFTRS. The forum, held off the back of the organisation’s survey report, ‘Honey, I Hid the Kids!: Experiences of Parents and Carers in the Australian Screen Industry’, aimed to identify workable actions to address the needs of and issues faced by, parents and carers working in the Australian screen sector. Moorhouse’s speech is republished here with permission. 

Hello everyone. It is an honour to be invited to speak to you today. I am a writer and director of movies and television. Some of the films I have either written, produced or directed include Proof, Muriel’s Wedding, Unconditional Love, How to Make an American Quilt, Peter Pan, Mental and The Dressmaker.  I wanted to be a writer/director since I was a young girl. It was that or become a composer, or an orchestra conductor. I was very lucky that my parents believed in me, and raised me to believe I would have a career. My mother had a career. She was a school teacher, but she also wrote articles for newspapers, and poems and stories for her own pleasure.

I was never a mumsy type. My girlhood dreams were of living an adventurous life, of finding my calling, and excelling in whatever career I chose. I never ruled out the possibility of having kids one day, just like my mum did,  but my theoretical motherhood hardly ever entered my thoughts. I preferred cats really. When it came to human babies, I usually tried to avoid them. I had a morbid fear they might cry, or wet their pants, or worse, poop their pants. I had no idea how to change a nappy or wipe a baby’s bum, and no desire to learn these skills.

At 18, when all my friends were babysitting, I was earning extra cash teaching piano lessons. Anything to avoid child care. I had a boyfriend and we would stay up late dreaming of what we would be when we were all grown up. He was going to be a successful jazz musician, and I was going to direct movies. I forced my family members and friends to act in my surrealist super 8 movies. I went to film school, this film school actually, the AFTRS, where I met Jane Campion and Alex Proyas, and my future husband, PJ Hogan. We made student films together and after film school began to search for ways to break into the Australian film industry.

One of my first paying jobs was as a script editor at Crawford Productions in Melbourne, where I worked on shows like the venerable Flying Doctors and the completely forgotten Prime Time. But all the while I was secretly working on a feature film script, an odd story about a blind photographer.  It gave me joy to work on an idea that had erupted from my subconscious, and was all my own. PJ and I got married in 1988, and at the age of 29,  I experienced what seemed like two astonishing miracles. The first miracle: I got a film financed. The Australian Film Commission (AFC) and Film Victoria liked my feature script which I had now titled Proof. A month later, I discovered I was three months pregnant with my first child. That was the second miracle. My first thought was “How wonderful”, my second thought was “There goes my movie”.  I can’t possibly have both a baby and spectacular career break. Life didn’t work that way. Did it? I assumed that as soon as the Australian Film Commission discovered I was pregnant they would take my funding away and give it to someone who was not pregnant. I assumed that I would be forced to choose between being a mother and being a film director. Why did I think that?

Well, it was 1989, remember.  The Berlin Wall was still standing, The Simpsons was in its first season, and the number of Australian female film directors was a lot smaller than it is now. Times were different. Yes, feminism was well established by 1989, but the idea of a big bellied pregnant woman giving orders on a film set just didn’t compute. Times have thankfully changed since then, and I have absolutely given orders on a film set while hugely pregnant. But back then I was still feeling outrageously lucky that I had a career at all. It was harder for women to get a foot hold in the industry in the 1989. As for leadership positions, very difficult. So, the concept of adding motherhood to my status as a woman, seemed to be rocking the boat a little too much.

I spoke to Kathy Robinson and Peter Sainsbury at the AFC about my dilemma and, to my surprise, they agreed the funding for Proof would be waiting for me when I went back to work after giving birth. Lynda House came on board to be Proof’s producer. We formed the company House and Moorhouse, and set about planning the production of the film. Meanwhile, PJ and I went broke from not having any work. We could no longer afford to pay our rent. We had to move in with my sister while we tried to find employment.  We both got some writing gigs. PJ wrote some TV, and I got a commission from the Womens Weekly to write a romantic novel. We applied for unemployment benefits. I was a tragic sight, standing in the dole queue at Centrelink with my big belly. We met with the employment officer who declared were were pretty useless when it came to work skills. “Don’t you have any other qualifications?” she asked, appalled.

“No”, we answered. “All we know how to do is make movies”.

Lynda and I continued to have meetings throughout my pregnancy, and once my baby boy Dowie (later to rename himself Spike) was born, Lynda would sit with me in his nursery while I nursed Dowie in a rocking chair. Lynda, amazing human that she was and is, accepted that I was sleep deprived and hormonal, and a complete wreck of a woman, but she saw through all that, and saw me as a talented director she wanted to work with. Lynda kept persevering with her early pre-production meetings, helping me select heads of department, and possible locations. If needed, she even babysat little Dowie so I could attend meetings. Lynda and her partner Tony Mahood continued to believe in me as a director, and that was a wonderful gift to me. Without their belief, the movie would never have been made. And I would never have had a career.

Baby Dowie had been born by emergency C-section. As a result, I was unable to bathe him or change his nappy for the first two weeks. Instead, while I was dosed up on morphine and learning how to breastfeed my baby, my husband PJ took on all the other caregiver duties. After we left the hospital, he had to teach me how to bathe our son, how to change Dowie’s nappy. I had to adjust to this new role, motherhood.

Motherhood – the most primal, emotional, back-breaking and heart-bursting role I had ever taken on. I thought I knew what to expect, but becoming a mother was an all encompassing tsunami of brand new feelings, brand new fears. My body looked as if it had been stretched and twisted and slashed open. Which it had. The lactation hormones surging through my blood provided me with incredible boobs, the likes I had never seen in my mirror, but also changed my personality on an hourly basis.  I had so much milk, I had to to milk myself (yes, just like a cow), with the assistance of a weird, wheezing, pumping machine. This was so I could give the milk to PJ for night feeds so that I could sleep occasionally. You see, if I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t think straight and I wept at the drop of a hat. PJ was very supportive and took turns with me getting up at night and feeding Baby Dowie the expressed milk.

When Dowie was four months old, Lynda House insisted we begin auditions for Proof. She told our casting director, Greg Apps, that Baby Dowie would be coming to casting sessions and needed to be slotted in every four hours in between actors. PJ would bring him to me for a feed, then take him home again. Later Dowie accompanied us on location scouts, until he got bored with all the driving around. During this time period, PJ was trying to write his screenplay for Muriel’s Wedding. 1990 was a very challenging time for both of us. Eventually we hired Ruth, a Nanny, to work eight hours per day. It was an odd feeling, trusting my child with a woman we barely knew, but there was no other solution.

And so began a lifelong emotional and financial balancing act, that continues even today. Can I still be a great mum if I am not there at home all the time? How much money will I have to live on, after taxes and the nanny fees?  I can tell you because I did the math. Ruth’s fee took up 72 per cent of my directing fee after tax. Yes, 72 per cent of my net fee. Was it worth it? Yes, because Proof went on to be very successful, and launched my international career in filmmaking. Was it stressful? Yes. Did we run out of money to live on? Yes. All the time! Dowie was ten months old when we started shooting Proof. In the NFSA there is a crew photo of the Proof team. Sitting with gaffers and grips, boomies and the camera team are PJ, Dowie and Nanny Ruth. I considered my nanny part of the film crew. I still do.

Today, not much has changed when it comes to the cost of childcare.  There have been many times the cost of child care has used up a considerable amount of what I will earn for a job. Some people have asked then why do it? Why spend so much on childcare, to work in a job where you will end up with barely enough to live on? I have a number of answers to that question.

  1. I work in the film and television so yes, I am slightly crazy. In a good way, I hope.
  2. I don’t mind paying good money to a quality carer who will look after my precious children. I don’t want them to simply babysit my kids. I want them to love, and inspire, and teach my children. I want my kids to benefit, and be inspired by the people who care for them. Knowing they are in such good hands helps me do my job well. If I do my job well, I get more jobs. Movies hire a lot of people. More jobs all round.
  3. This directing job that I am recouping less for today because I am a working mother, is an investment in my future career. In my future career I will make more money and be able to afford child care without it meaning such a huge loss in my income. That is my hope, anyway. Eventually my kids will be older and need less care, and I will be able to save more money. In the freelance world, one job leads to another.

The average pre-production and shooting schedule for  director comes to around 22 weeks, and if you add on post-production, it comes to another 12 weeks. So that’s 34 weeks all up. Not extra time spent at festivals or on publicity tours. With my average daily hours being 8am to 6 pm, with shooting usually longer. I will need a lot of childcare. Sometimes shooting weeks go for six days, with only one day off.  If I will be away overnight, or shooting all night, which can definitely happen, I will need childcare for another 14 hours per day, for ten days. My husband PJ works full time so we can’t rely on him for childcare backup. Like me, he is a working parent. There are no grandparents living, and my brother and sister live interstate. If I want to work, which I do, it costs me a lot of money to do so. A lot.

Sometimes a job is interstate or overseas. I can choose not to accept the job and lose a career opportunity… or accept the job which takes me away from my kids for a long long time. In this case I need a full time carer for 34 weeks. These days, in 2018, two of my kids are profoundly disabled and complicated, so just handing them over to an untrained carer is not an option.  In fact my disabled kids need two carers, The total amount for childcare, for a 34 week job, is…well, way more than I can really afford. Luckily, in the past couple of years, the National Disability Insurance Scheme has come into being, and is helping to pay for the carers of my disabled kids. But Jack doesn’t get any care on Sundays.  Try telling autism that. Hey Autism, you really need to take Sundays off. But, seriously, the NDIS funding is an enormous relief and a huge help to people with disabilities. It’s a nightmare of paperwork and assessments every six to 12 months, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

When my eldest daughter was diagnosed with autism, back in 1997, I had just finished directing A Thousand Acres starring Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfieffer, Colin Firth and Jason Robards. Lily was two and a half, Dowie (who had now changed his name to Spike) was five years old. PJ had just finished directing My Best Friend’s Wedding. We had a three year deal with Sony Pictures, and we were living in America, fielding offers, and feeling on top of the world. Then, autism hit, and we were given the news that I would have to stop work and care for Lily full time – as not only her loving mummy, but as her full-time, 24/7 therapist and teacher. I was the only human being she really responded to, so of course I did not hesitate to throw myself, full time, into helping her. Autism parenting, like any parenting of a chronically ill, or overwhelmingly complicated child, is extreme parenting. I learned a lot more about child development, language acquisition, emotional evolution and neurobiology than I ever imagined possible.  I organised a team of therapists to help Lily because I was not enough for her. She needed more than just me. She needed an army of therapists and carers to help her cope with her day to day needs. Lily had to have six hours of therapy per day, six days per week, just to learn how to say simple sentences, and to be able to wash her own hands and learn how to use the toilet. The therapy was very expensive. Luckily PJ’s movie, My Best Friend’s Wedding was a worldwide hit. It made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. He was offered everything, and managed to make a lot of money, which was mostly spent on Lily’s intensive therapy. Back then not even DGA insurance paid for Autism treatment.

After a few years, the American film critic, Elvis Mitchell, wrote an article in the New York times asking whatever happened to Jocelyn Moorhouse, the Australian director of Proof? Had her career nose dived? A lot of my friends sent me the article, thinking I would be pleased. It hurt actually, but I wrote to Elvis Mitchell him and told him I was now a carer, but I fully planned to go back to work when my daughter was further along in her treatment. It was childish of me to write that letter. Of course he didn’t care one way or another. I just felt so forgotten and invisible. What I was doing with my daughter was very important, and I was impassioned about helping her. All my creative thinking went into Lily now, and how to help her blossom. In 2003 I was blessed with another child, Jack. I also got offered a movie, completely out of the blue. It was called Eucalyptus.

PJ and I moved with our kids back to Australia to start location searching. We brought nannies and therapists with us. We found a great Autism school in Gladesville for Lily. Lynda came on board with the Italian producer Uberto Passolini.  I was still breast-feeding baby Jack, even though Uberto would express distress when I brought Jack to production meetings and kept asking me “When are you going to wean that baby!?” I would nurse Jack while my creative team Janet Patterson and Mandy Walker and I would discuss costumes and lighting. My Nanny and PJ  came along on location scouts to look after Jack, so he could still breastfeed during breaks. Jack would make funny baby sounds in the back of the car while we drove through country NSW. Mark Turnbull, my first AD, loved Jack, and would laugh at the various sounds Jack could make. Things were looking up, but it was not to be. The film fell through, as they often do, and Jack, by 2005, had an autism diagnosis of his own. It would not be until 2015 that I would find myself back in the director’s chair.

Producer Sue Maslin had loved Proof.  She had never forgotten it. I was back in Los Angeles, with both Jack and Lily at specialist autism schools, and in intensive therapy. I was first approached about The Dressmaker by a different producer, Emma Cooper. I had said no to Emma, and now Sue Maslin had the rights to the book, I found myself saying no to Sue as well.  Even after I said “No, no, I can’t possibly make this film, I have two kids with autism, plus a new baby girl I am still breastfeeding”, Sue would not quit asking me. I had practically given up on ever having a career again. But Sue patiently kept pushing me to read the book, think about it, think about it, I think you’ll love the book.… And I did. I desperately wanted to direct again.  Just like Lynda had all those years ago, Sue saw me as a talented woman she wanted to work with. When it came to production Sue made sure there was a special amount for childcare in The Dressmaker’s budget. This was a first for me, and something I hope happens more and more in production budgets.

I would not have a career, and The Dressmaker would never have been made, if I had not had the support of open minded producers like Lynda and Sue, if I had not had the parenting partnership I have with my husband PJ, and without the incredible support of the many carers who have nurtured and protected my darling children all these years. I am no less a mother because I hire carers to look after my children when I am unable to do so myself, and I am no less a film director or writer because I have children. Becoming a mother has made me stronger, smarter, and much more skilled than I was when I was childless. I am a master at multi-tasking, I am smarter with conflict resolution, I have way more sensitivity and a much bigger sense of humour.

I believe there is a need for the nurturing and caring of children to be not just a mother’s concern, or a father’s, but society’s concern. If there are initiatives in place to safeguard the wellbeing of our children then society as a whole will become more inclusive. More parents will be leaders, more women will be in positions to influence laws and change public perceptions.  The female voice will grow stronger. Nurturers will have more power. That’s got to be a good thing.

WIFT Australia will create a Raising Films Australia advisory board to ensure input from both decision makers and those with lived experience to drive and implement sector wide change. WIFT will also develop a follow-up forum report to be released in mid 2019 with recommendations for industry, best practice guides and case studies. Videos from the Forum are now available on the WIFT Australia website, along with an online submission form for those who would like to contribute ideas, case studies, best practice examples and feedback on how to make the screen industry more accessible to carers. WIFT Australia urges funding bodies, broadcasters and the wider industry to provide feedback with submissions open until 10 February 2019.