Writer Rosalie Ham, 65 (right), and producer Sue Maslin, 61, attended boarding school together in the 1970s. They lost contact for 30 years, until Sue read Rosalie’s debut novel, The Dressmaker, and turned it into an award-winning film.
SUE: We met at boarding school in Melbourne. We were both from Jerilderie in southern NSW; Rosalie was in town and I lived on a sheep station just north. She was three grades ahead of me, so we weren’t friends but we caught the bus home together on school holidays. She was a bit rebellious, probably the only kid in school with pierced ears. I remember she went to the Sunbury Pop Festival, which was the height of cool. She had something of the joker about her, and she’s still a show-off, which I love.
We had no contact for 30 years, until I was in a bookstore in 2002 and saw The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham. I thought, “There can’t be too many Rosalie Hams out there.” I fell in love with it and had to see if I could option it. We had a drink and, sadly, she’d already optioned the book to another producer, but we started playing golf together – and still do. There’s nothing more fun than going out on a golf course with a writer, talking about books, movies, life, death and the universe.
Five years later, Rosalie said, “I’m thinking of not renewing it with this other producer. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Oh my god, yes!” Reading The Dressmaker, I could see it. The irony of those fabulous couture dresses in the Aussie outback – so completely wrong but so completely right. I know those towns and characters. That’s Rosalie’s gift: in the exaggeration she finds the truth.
Rosalie and I went on a road trip in search of her fictional town of Dungatar, heading to the country we love best: the wide-open plains. It’s one of the happiest memories of our friendship, finding silos and football ovals, eating at local pubs and playing golf each morning. I brought in Jocelyn Moorhouse as writer-director and was too terrified to show Rosalie the script until it was finished three years later. She was equally afraid; even when I asked her what she thought of it, I don’t think she’d read it.
There were many times we called the film The Stressmaker. We had to raise $17 million; I thought it’d never happen, but Rosalie’s belief kept me going. She’s intensely optimistic and it drives people mad at times. That optimism and her unfailing politeness mean she can be less than forthcoming; after she saw the film, it probably took a year on the golf course to get to the bottom of what she felt about it. I think she was a bit taken aback by the changing of some of the characters.
Rosalie has written four more novels, including her latest, the sequel The Dressmaker’s Secret. She still has the same wry, ironic, funny take on the world. She was a nurse for 20 years in aged-care homes, where you see life and death in all its joy and messiness. It’s given Rosalie a window into human nature and an incredible depth to her work, which is probably why her observations ring so true.
We grew up with a lot of sadness and tragedy – droughts, fires, kids our age getting killed – but everybody in the country can turn those things into a story, and often find a funny yarn in the middle of it. That’s what binds us, that sensibility. We’re both extroverts, so we’re not exactly opposites; we’re partners in crime.
ROSALIE: When Sue emailed me, I didn’t remember her, but she was from Jerilderie so I was going to meet her – if she’d needed blood, I’d have donated blood. The second I laid eyes on her, I knew who she was. Her hair and the freckles across her nose, her demeanour, were exactly the same. She has a calm, contemplative presence; I remembered her on the bus, looking out at the landscape going past. Both our parents were separating, and in a school with a lot of urban kids, we didn’t really fit. Things like deportment and ballroom dancing; we kind of went, “Why?”
When we met in 2002 there was an ease, a familiarity. We approach things in a very practical, sensible way. Sue could open any gate on any farm on any planet, and so could I. The plains were where our creativity came from, because we had to go outside and play. At shearing or harvest time, there was no, “You’re a girl, you can’t”; it was, “Get in there and have a go.” We came out of a place with a population of 800 and thought we could do anything.
One of the conditions of Sue making The Dressmaker was that 11 of us had to be extras: my nieces and nephews, my brother, my husband and a couple of besties. On set we had to make way for the superstars [including Kate Winslet and Judy Davis], and Sue would sit with the normal people from Jerilderie for a while; it was probably a great relief.
One of my loveliest memories is of Sue walking me through the cameras [before shooting the dance hall scene], standing me in front of Hugo Weaving and saying, “This is your dance partner for the day.” I was shitting myself, but I rose to the occasion. Pairing me with him was such a kind and wonderful thing for Sue to do.
I admire her absolute capability, the way she says, “I will do that”, then does it. I reckon if you gave her a hammer and an instruction book and asked her to build a house, she could. As a kid, Sue rode her horse at the Yanco bush picnics with every cowboy, horseman and jockey within a 150-mile radius and won it – twice. I’ve only beaten Sue at golf three times in 18 years. '
Once, when we were in New York together, there was a huge line out the front of a restaurant. I don’t know what Sue said, but she just fronted up to the doorman and they let us straight in. I’ve learnt from her to give it a try.
I see the film as a bit of a gift, but the book was also a gift to her. We sometimes look at each other and go, “Oh my god, that was amazing.” It was the initiative, chutzpah and drive that she put into it; we both benefited from it. At the world premiere, the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, Sue was still on the phone organising things 10 minutes before the big black car arrived. There was a red carpet almost as wide as the road and we were marching up the middle. That’s when you revert to those two schoolgirls, going, “Holy shit! Look where we are now!”