A quiet chat with one of Australia’s most acclaimed directors about visual thinking, motherhood and her memoir, Unconditional Love. By Kirsten Krauth.

Director and writer Jocelyn Moorhouse

It was reading Rosalie Ham’s debut novel that reinvigorated screenwriter and director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s passion for filmmaking. After the success of her indie film Proof, Steven Spielberg came knocking and offered Moorhouse How to Make an American Quilt and the chance to work with Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn and poet Maya Angelou. But after she directed A Thousand Acres, things appeared to go quiet – for 18 years.

In person, Moorhouse’s voice is light and full of humour, even when wrestling with the dark times. She started writing the memoir Unconditional Love to fill in the gap before the release of The Dressmaker, her successful film based on Ham’s novel. “A lot of people were asking me, ‘Could you not just get a job?’” she says, “and I tried to explain all the complications of raising four kids and two of them with special needs.”

The memoir traces Moorhouse’s discovery that two of her children have autism and the challenges of losing both her parents in a short time frame. Overwhelmed with the cumulative effects of grief, Moorhouse felt she needed to bring the storylines of her life – her childhood, her children, her history as a filmmaker and her relationship with P.  J. Hogan – into a coherent narrative shape.

The writing was a very emotional process, a way of bringing her parents back from the dead. “I was sort of resurrecting them,” she says. “I was also thinking about how love gets passed along the generations and if you’re lucky enough to be loved very deeply by your parents, then maybe that teaches you to be able to love your own kids very deeply. Well, that’s the hope, isn’t it!” She laughs.

A central theme in Unconditional Love is Moorhouse’s strong desire for a creative career – often thwarted, and described at one point as “treason against motherhood”. But working on The Dressmaker led to a shift in thinking. She fell in love with the material, and directing the onscreen mother–daughter relationship (played by Judy Davis and Kate Winslet) ran in parallel with the prospect of losing her own mother. “She had a massive stroke and so I started to think about the bond between mothers and daughters – when you realise your mother is leaving you, the person who believes in you the most,” she says.

The film absolved Moorhouse from the guilt she felt about her career. She started to see the possibility of finding balance, of saving space for creative fulfilment. “It took me a long time to realise because having a special needs child makes those feelings more intense. You can’t help it, you somehow think it’s your fault, and you want to do penance.”

Moorhouse effectively juxtaposes and finds links between working and family life. She laughs often, remembering the many times she’s used her mothering skills on set. “Being a director, you have to be very good at crisis control and multitasking,” she says. Managing four kids at home for 29 years has helped her be calm and focused. “You’ll be dealing with the creative side of trying to make a scene good while at the same time the actor’s got to go in 10 minutes, it’s going to rain, the camera’s broken down so you’ll have to shoot with a different camera – there’s a lot of that stuff that happens that nobody realises.”

There’s a beautiful passage of Unconditional Love in which Moorhouse likens the photographs she takes for her daughter Lily to the pebbles Hansel and Gretel leave in the forest: the photos help Lily find her way home. It is this thinking-in-pictures that holds Moorhouse’s family and career together: her mother was a photographer and made home movies, and Moorhouse continues this tradition, sharing with her kids a love of photographs, film and picture books.

“Pictures can communicate very strongly and it’s a wonderful way to reach non-verbal people or people whose verbal abilities are very impaired,” she says. “It’s ironic that this is my strength (and P.  J.’s) – our kids actually depend on that imagery because they like to look at calendars and have picture schedules to tell them what’s going to happen.” Her son Jack still steals her storyboards to make his own collages, and Lily loves to watch home movies edited to her favourite songs. “I think that’s how they share memories with us,” says Moorhouse.

In the films that Moorhouse has written and directed, there’s a clarity of vision, even during moments of uncertainty. While directing an ABC series, Les Norton, she’s playing the waiting game for a film she’s passionate about, based on the life of musician and composer Clara Schumann in 1850s Germany. It’s still hard to raise finance for a film with a female lead but she’s patient. “A lot of people have said, well, maybe it should be more focused on Robert Schumann, and I keep saying no, this is about Clara.”

Moorhouse has now given herself permission to lead a creative life, and credits this to the joy she experienced while filming The Dressmaker. “You feel that unless you bleed yourself dry, you’re not being a good mother. And I don’t believe that anymore.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Bright direction".

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