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Film producer and industry icon Sue Milliken has now produced a book from which some enterprising filmmaker may one day make a biopic – it is full of movie stars and studio execs, it has international deals, the glamour of Cannes and the story of a young woman gaining maturity in parallel to the Australian film industry maturing. Andrew L. Urban talks to Milliken – one more time.*

Bruce Beresford planting a halo on Sue Milliken on the set of Paradise Road (1996)

“The Cate Blanchett problem on top of the Jean Simmons problem is finally one too many and I’m hanging out for a Scotch …” so writes Milliken in her diary of May 14, 1996, during a night shoot on location in Cairns when making Paradise Road – the film that launched Blanchett’s film career, thanks to director Bruce Beresford insisting on the then unknown when the studio (Fox) wouldn’t sign off on her (that was the Cate Blanchett problem). This snippet from her personal diary is part of the Prologue to her book, and is a good example of what makes it so darned readable I couldn’t put it down.

Having been a film journalist and writing about the Australian film industry since 1985, there are many films and events with which I am familiar – although not from Milliken’s point of view. So it’s satisfying to read about the people and the events from the other side, as it were. 

"Milliken’s working relationship with Beresford is platinum"

For example, the first time I went to the Cannes film festival as a working journalist was 1986 – the year that Bruce Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers was in the Competition. That was the third feature Milliken has produced. She writes of that experience: “Having attended the Cannes Festival with films which were not in Official Competition but battling with hundreds of others to find buyers in the marketplace, I now discovered that being in Competition was definitely the way to go. We were accommodated at the best hotel in Cannes, the Gray d’Albion, and our every minute was taken up with functions, drinks, dinners and press. One night at dinner I sat next to Tony Curtis, a fabulous old charmer who had everyone laughing.”

Milliken’s working relationship with Beresford is platinum: he wrote the foreword to her book. He also tried to talk her out of producing Barry Humphries’s disastrous attempt at putting his unique comedy persona Les Patterson on the screen in Les Patterson Saves the World. But it was Beresford whose praise for Milliken’s work prompted Humphries to call her in the first place. Beresford and Humphries are best friends, you see…

“Don’t do it,” urged Beresford. “I love Barry but the script is terrible. Barry had asked him to direct but he declined.” (George ‘The Man from Snowy River’ Miller was hired to direct.) Milliken has never put the film on her CV. “There were times I wished I wasn’t there,” she says now, “but by the time I thought I really should get out, it was too late.”

Milliken also recounts how on the last day of filming in Los Angeles (scenes of the President in the Oval Office and exteriors of New York) she booked a table for all the Australian cast and crew at Hollywood’s trendiest restaurant, Spago, on Sunset Boulevard. 

“As I was reaching for the bill at the end of the meal (the production company would pay as a way of saying thank you) Barry leaned over and said with emphasis, so that everyone at the table could hear, “I’ll take it, Sue.” As it came to around $1,000 everyone was impressed by his generosity and thanked him profusely. I smelled a rat. Sure enough, the bill turned up in the film’s accounts department a few weeks later. Barry had paid on his credit card. I thought that if we neglected to reimburse him, he wouldn’t have the nerve to ask for the money. This proved to be the case. So he earned the crew’s thanks after all.”

To make matters worse, Milliken and Humphries’ then wife, Diane, “quickly grew to loathe each other”.

Not everyone who plays a role in this book is mentioned by name; the film industry executive whose $10,000 party bill at Port Douglas turned up by mistake at the production office of Paradise Road remains a secret.

“The biggest challenge in writing this book,” says Milliken, “was what to leave out. There are two or three really bad experiences that I haven’t included, because I was trying to write a book that was entertaining and balanced. I didn’t want it to come across as a series of whinges.”

"forthright and witty"

The 255 page book (plus a useful index) is “forthright and witty” as Beresford notes. If she were to sell the movie rights, we banter jokingly, it seems obvious that she would have Beresford direct … and French actress Anouk Aimee would star as her. Interesting choice.

One of the motivations for writing her memoir, says Milliken, was the recognition that she has had the widest possible experiences across every facet of the business, from junior and senior production roles through managing and reviewing industry organisations, even to completion bonding, a specialised form of film insurance. In the latter, she had access to all the details of dozens of productions – although she is quick to point out those records are secure in an archive and have not been raided for her book.

But yes, there is a draft of what we could call the ‘extras’ if the book were a DVD; “that’s not for publication until I’m dead,” she laughs. But she’s not dead yet; Milliken is thoroughly enjoying life and is currently producing a 60 minute TV documentary about the National Black Theatre. “I think no more feature films for me,” she adds. “I find the financing too difficult these days … I don’t have the energy to spare. Might do some more writing …”

Industry feedback to her memoir has been entirely positive. “That’s been fabulous but I don’t suppose people who don’t like it will ring and say so.” But with her track record as both a great professional and a level headed negotiator, Milliken has made many good friends and acquaintances. “I can be confrontational,” she assures me, “but it’s quick and it’s over. I don’t hold grudges.”

Published August 15, 2013.

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By Sue Milliken
Hybrid Publishers, July 2013

Sue Milliken

* Urban has interviewed Milliken countless times before, including on location in the snowy, icy depths of North Canada when she was producing Black Robe and in suburban Sydney when she was producing Paradise Road, as well as in her various roles as a senior industry executive.

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