Australian filmmakers Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan were riding high. It was 1996 and the couple had parlayed the international success of their first movies — Proof and Muriel’s Wedding, respectively — into Hollywood careers.
Moorhouse’s How to Make an American Quilt had been well received and Hogan’s follow-up film, My Best Friend’s Wedding, was about to become a global sensation.
To top it off they had recently celebrated the arrival of their second child, Lily, a sister to six-year-old Spike.
“We were on top of the world,” Moorhouse recalled.
“Our careers were successful, our family was perfect — one boy, one girl. We had really, really made it.”
But 18 years would pass before Moorhouse directed another film, and only recently has she begun to talk about why.
An inseparable team
They met on their first day at film school in 1981, and they could not have been more different.
Moorhouse, a shy 20-year-old, came from a loving Melbourne family and was engaged to her longtime boyfriend.
Hogan, 18, came from a family so dysfunctional he felt the need to exorcise its demons twice on screen and again recently onstage.
His father was a small-town councillor who routinely harangued his family.
“Muriel’s Wedding is very much a portrait of my family and so is Mental, which I made later,” Hogan said.
“I was one of seven kids but my dad seemed to find a reason to be disappointed in every one of us.”
Hogan’s attraction to his fellow student was instant. Not only was she one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen, but she was also intriguing and smart.
The feeling was not entirely mutual. Moorhouse was wary initially, thinking him clever but also “slightly scary”.
But over the course of their three-year degree, the pair became inseparable. They helped make each other’s films, they shared a house and grew together.
As graduation loomed, Moorhouse realised she had fallen in love with the quirky filmmaker from Tweed Heads and broke off her engagement.
Russell Crowe, Genevieve Picot and Hugo Weaving in a still from the 1991 Australian film, Proof. (Supplied: IMDB, New Line Cinema)
Since then, the pair has forged a remarkable creative and domestic partnership that has produced some of Australia’s most well-loved and popular movies as well as a number of international hits.
“We’ve always relied on each other creatively,” Moorhouse said.
“It’s not like we have our relationship and then we have our work — it’s just all intertwined.”
They develop stories together, read each other’s scripts and are often on each other’s sets.
In addition to their breakthrough hits, Proof and Muriel’s Wedding, their credits include How To Make an American Quilt, My Best Friend’s Wedding, A Thousand Acres and Peter Pan.
At the same time, they also produced four children — Spike, Lily, Jack and Maddy. And while it might sound like a line from a bad movie, raising these children is possibly their greatest achievement.
Michelle Pfeiffer, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Keith Carradine and Tak Fujimoto in A Thousand Acres (1997). (Supplied: IMDb)
While producing Muriel’s Wedding, Moorhouse was staying at a Holiday Inn on the Gold Coast.
One day the receptionist mentioned that she had been receiving prank calls from someone pretending to be Steven Spielberg, asking to be put through to her.
Alarmed that it might actually be Spielberg, Moorhouse told the receptionist that if the prank caller rang again, to put through the call.
Sure enough, the phone rang and there was Spielberg on the other end, asking if Moorhouse would be interested in coming to Hollywood to direct his production company’s next movie, How to Make an American Quilt.
“I think if you’re an Australian filmmaker, if Hollywood comes calling, you’re going to say yes,” she said.
‘You’re told there is no hope’
Lily was a gorgeous baby but around the time she turned two, Moorhouse and Hogan started to notice something was unusual about her development.
Lily would scream instead of speaking. She would not make eye contact and did not want to be held.
Concerned, they consulted a range of medical experts and were eventually given a diagnosis.
Lily had autism.
“Specialists started saying quite brutal things to us like, ‘she may never talk’, ‘she may never know who you are’, and ‘you’ll probably have to put her in a home one day’,” Moorhouse said.
“That was devastating to hear. When all you want is hope and you’re told there is no hope.”
Moorhouse and Hogan’s second child, Lily, was diagnosed with autism aged two. (Supplied: Jocelyn Moorhouse)
‘Lily will speak’
Determined to defy those predictions, Moorhouse threw herself into Lily’s therapy. And that meant stepping back from her flourishing career.
“It was painful to walk away from my career, but my children are more important than anything to me,” Moorhouse said.
“I don’t think it’s hard for a mother to choose their child; it just comes naturally.”
Hogan said Moorhouse was fielding constant job offers but “she just said, ‘I can’t do it — Lily will speak'”.
Moorhouse read everything she could get her hands on about autism and eventually decided that applied behaviour analysis, or ABA, was the form of therapy best suited to Lily’s needs. She would undergo this highly structured therapy six hours a day, six days a week, for years.
Lily responded well, eventually learning to speak and developing basic self-help skills.
With family life more stable, Moorhouse prepared to make a comeback, agreeing to direct the $20 million film Eucalyptus with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. But the movie was sensationally cancelled on the eve of filming.
And there were more shocks to come. Not long after the collapse of the film, the couple’s third child Jack, who was not yet two, also began to show signs of autism.
Devastated, Moorhouse and Hogan decided to return to the US where Moorhouse threw herself into the care and therapy of two children with autism. Meanwhile, her career seemed a distant memory.
Throughout those years Hogan continued to work, and Moorhouse bristled at the suggestion she might have resented him for having the career she could not.
“I did not resent PJ at all,” she said.
“I was so grateful that he not only had a career but a very successful one because we needed that money to pay for all the therapy. Because it didn’t come on insurance and it was not cheap. It would have been terrible if he too had dropped off the planet.”
Jack was the second child in the family to be diagnosed with severe autism. (Supplied: Jocelyn Moorhouse )
An unexpected gift
In 2005, Moorhouse assumed she was going through what her mother used to refer to as “the change”. She visited her doctor to figure out a plan, but there was another surprise in store.
At 45, Moorhouse discovered she was pregnant again. It was a tense time for the family, who feared another autism diagnosis.
“I was terrified,” Hogan recalled. “I just thought, I can’t have another autistic child. I absolutely can’t. I’ll crack.”
But Maddy hit all of her milestones and it soon became clear there would be no third diagnosis of autism. It was a profound relief for the family.
“We often think of Maddy as our gift,” Hogan said.
“We still look at her with absolute amazement that she’s doing things like texting her friends. You’d think we’d been on another planet and had never encountered a 12-year-old girl before.”
Coming home to Australia
In 2010, after being based in the US for more than 15 years, it was time for the family to return to Australia.
Although Hogan was making good money, the financial burden of raising two children with autism had become prohibitive.
They needed to get NDIS funding for Lily and Jack’s care so they would not be a financial burden on Spike and Maddy in the future.
“Joss made huge sacrifices for Lily and Jack,” Hogan said.
“I don’t think either of us want Spike and Maddy to make that level of sacrifice. I want them to have a shot at their dreams.”
After years away, Moorhouse was also contemplating a return to directing. She and Hogan had written an adaptation of the novel The Dressmaker and, in 2014, almost two decades after directing her last movie, she was back in the director’s chair.
The film, starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving, was a box office hit.
“It was a beautiful return to directing,” she said.
“It was quite emotional for me to be able to return to my first love and for it to be a success.”
Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kate Winslet on the set of The Dressmaker. (Supplied: Screen Australia)
Since then, it has been a busy time creatively for both Moorhouse and Hogan. Like so many filmmakers, Moorhouse is beginning to work in television and is currently directing episodes of the upcoming ABC drama Les Norton.
“I’ve always been curious about working in television,” she said.
“It’s way faster than filmmaking but I actually like the energy that goes along with that. It’s quite addictive.”
Hogan, meanwhile, has had great success with the musical adaptation of Muriel’s Wedding.
“We often joke that it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Moorhouse said. “We still get royalty cheques for it. Our tiny little movie, the first one he made, is still helping us financially, so that’s nice.”
Hogan and Moorhouse manage parenthood, the care of two children with disabilities and movie-making, but somehow it all just works brilliantly. (Australian Story: Greg Hassall)
In many respects, Moorhouse and Hogan’s life is highly unusual. They have to fit their home life around their work, which is sporadic but all-consuming and often requires travel.
They also have the additional challenges of raising two children with severe disabilities who require around-the-clock care, and the worry of what will happen to the children when they are no longer there to look after them.
“Look, it has been hard,” Moorhouse said.
“There are times when I was the one collapsing and just demanding that I get some time off. But I think we have a lot of compassion towards each other and we really love each other, so that helps.”
But at the same time, they have somehow managed to create a bubble of normality around their children. Their home is a sprawling oasis of calm. DVDs are piled high and the walls and shelves are covered with memorabilia from the many films they have together.
It is a comfortable space in every sense of the word.
Their eldest son Spike, 29, himself an aspiring filmmaker, credits his parents for keeping the family cohesive and happy.
“Mum and Dad are basically superheroes,” he said.
Hogan and his son Jack hunt for crabs while on a family walk. (Australian Story: Greg Hassall)
Making peace with autism
In their own ways, Moorhouse and Hogan have made peace with the challenges life has thrown at them.
“One of the most important things to let go of is the idea of a cure for autism,” Hogan said.
“There is no happy ending. The happy ending is that when we’re gone, they might be cared for. I’ll settle for that.”
For Moorhouse, it has been a long process of letting go.
“You have to grieve your imaginary child,” she said. “You have to grieve your expectations and your dreams.
“The greatest calm came to me when I realised that I had stopped trying to change Lily and Jack.
“I had actually grown to love who they really are.”
Watch Australian Story’s The Kids Are Alright at 8:00pm on ABCTV and iview.