The Dressmaker director opens up about life with two autistic children

JOCELYN Moorhouse and PJ Hogan are one of Australia’s most creative couples, with their first feature film together being the iconic Muriel’s Wedding in 1994. Together, they have written scripts, directed films and parented four children — two of whom have severe autism. Here, Moorhouse, who directed the upcoming movie The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet, reveals how she balances the needs of her work and children.

WE FIRST noticed our daughter Lily wasn’t behaving like other two-year-olds when we were living in LA. It was 1996, and I had just finished directing A Thousand Acres with Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer. I was in denial, which the doctors seemed to encourage. They kept saying, “Oh, it could be a language delay, or she could be deaf.” But it wasn’t until she was three that we got a proper diagnosis: severe autism. My heart broke — she was my little girl.

I took her to a developmental paediatrician, who told me, “You’ll have to give up work. I know you’re a fulltime filmmaker, but you’re not going to be able to do that anymore.” I said, “Oh well, I could take some time off.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she replied, “you’re going to have to take years off. It’s an emergency for improving your daughter’s life.”

So it was a natural response to devote every waking hour to help her face the world.

 AAP Image/Mal Fairclough.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse on the red carpet at the Australian Premiere of The Dressmaker in Melbourne on Sunday, October 18, 2015. Picture: AAP Image/Mal Fairclough.Source:AAP

I was very busy from then on, finding Lily expert help and working with her myself, trying to teach her the things kids normally learn by themselves. I was also trying to shield our eldest son, Spike [then aged six], from the stress the family was going through because of the situation.

Lily’s therapy was run through UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], because they have top-notch autism experts there. They have a wonderful program, run by the late Dr Ivar Lovaas, that focuses on early intervention — he was one of the first pioneers to realise you can actually teach kids with autism. Back in the 1960s, people didn’t think you could, so, sadly, they were just written off.

Because autistic children don’t often pay attention to people, except for their mothers or their fathers, the experts advise you to do as much therapy as you can at home. It involves breaking down simple tasks into doable steps. Back then, researchers believed you could only help autistic children until they were about seven, but they now know the brain stays plastic throughout our lives. Lily is 19 now and I tell her, “You can still learn things! I’m not giving up on you, darling!”

While I did take a back seat for about 12 years, I was never completely gone. In 2003, I produced Peter Pan, which PJ directed, and it was then we discovered I was pregnant with [our third child] Jack. We were very excited — we love babies! But we were nervous too, of course. When he was born, we watched him like a hawk, and I had him checked by a paediatrician every month. For the first 12 months, he seemed perfectly normal and we were so relieved. I’d been doing a lot of speech therapy and taken preventive measures, just in case. I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

 AAP/Mal Fairclough.

Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook and Liam Hemsworth with Jocelyn Moorhouse, Sue Maslin, Rosalie Ham at the Australian Premiere of The Dressmaker in Melbourne on Sunday, October 18, 2015. Picture: AAP/Mal Fairclough.Source:AAP

I was going to make the movie Eucalyptus [with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, which was indefinitely postponed over script disputes], but just after that fell apart, I began noticing Jack wasn’t behaving like a normal 13-month-old. It’s like the house of cards fell down and his little brain started going off in its own mysterious direction.

We quickly flew back to the experts in LA, where Jack was also diagnosed with autism. He will always need help, but at least he can communicate. We were told neither Lily nor Jack would be able to speak, but now they both can. They can do a lot of things. They can get themselves drinks of water. They can turn on the TV and watch shows they like. They can go on the computer and search for things.

We ferociously love our kids and we’re an incredibly close family. We’ve been through a lot together. I think what keeps us strong is our sense of humour. If you can laugh about your crazy situation, I think you’ve got a better chance of surviving it.

There have been moments of absolute heartbreak, though. Weeks of weeping. In the early days, we were very overwhelmed and it seemed like a terrible sentence that our children had been burdened with. We were afraid because we didn’t know the future. We still don’t, but now we’ve been living with autism for 19 years, it’s not as scary. You have days when you’re living in your own hell, but if you look at the big picture, you think, “What do I really want for my kids?” I want them to be safe and healthy and feel loved and fulfilled. And they are.

A first look at The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet.

A first look at The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet.Source:Supplied

We fell pregnant with our fourth child, Maddie, [nine years ago] when I was 45. We’d stopped trying to plan our lives a decade earlier, and realised we just had to go with the flow. At this point, we loved all our children so much anyway that we thought if she [was autistic], we’d just love her and do our best. I did the responsible things and checked genetically for all the [indicators], but she had a clean bill of health. She’s an absolute bright spark, a total blessing for the family. She bosses around all her siblings and has already written three novellas!

It’s a creative household. The kids have grown up with their mum and dad writing, editing or shooting films. They’ve always been on set or listening to us read each other’s scripts. Spike, who is now 25, is studying to be a film director; he’s already done a few short films and he interned on The Dressmaker. Maddie was an extra on the film, too.

When the producer of The Dressmaker, Sue Maslin, approached me about the project, we’d just found out about Jack’s autism. I told her, “I would love to get back into the director’s chair, but I just can’t.” I even suggested other directors, but Sue came back every six months, saying, “I want you to do it.” Bless her, she waited nearly two years. By then, my children were at much better stages in their development — so I grabbed the chance.

PJ and I help each other a lot with work. In fact, we contribute so much to each other’s projects, sometimes it’s hard to know who thought of what. He contributed a lot to The Dressmaker and I was excited by so many of his suggestions that he ended up co-writing the script with me. He also helped me shoot the film. Some days I couldn’t get it all done, so we arranged a second camera and he wandered around one part of the landscape with half my cast, while I was in another part. We did that on Peter Pan and [the 2012 film] Mental, too; it almost feels like we co-parent our films.

 AAP/Mal Fairclough.

Liam Hemsworth with Jocelyn Moorhouse and Sue Maslin at the Australian Premiere of The Dressmaker in Melbourne on Sunday, October 18, 2015. Picture: AAP/Mal Fairclough.Source:AAP

It was a long journey, bringing The Dressmaker to the screen, but the most exciting part was making it in October last year. It was so joyous to be with a gorgeous cast and crew. It was a very child-friendly film; my kids were on set with Kate Winslet’s baby, Bear.

The women in this film are very kick-arse. It addresses these hidden, passionate feelings just below the surface. We learn to dampen them down, especially feelings of anger and injustice, and I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to find out what can happen when women explore those feelings. It’s about sisterhood, as well as about a mother and daughter. It explores the female experience and I’m proud of that. Hopefully, by the time Maddie enters the filmmaking world, if that’s what she wants to do, there will be a lot more courageous films about women and by women.

When we’re juggling work and family, PJ is a very supportive husband and a great dad, but he does work independently as well. So we rely on babysitters, who help us run the household and raise the kids. I couldn’t do it without them. It sometimes means most of my pay is going on childcare, but filmmaking fulfils me and makes me a happy person, so we’ve all decided it’s worth it.

But I’ll never regret the years I spent in the autism world, helping my kids and meeting extraordinary people; they’ve made me a richer, more empathetic human being. I’ve learnt so much about the human condition, mine included. You do a lot of soul-searching as parents of special-needs children because you blame yourself. But you have to learn to accept them for who they are — and accept yourself as well.

I’m now planning to write a book about my experience of being a creative mother of children with autism. I would’ve loved a book like this when I was new to the autism world. I’d like to write something that gives mothers and fathers hope.