It’s been 18 years since Jocelyn Moorhouse was behind the camera and directed A Thousand Acres. I caught her in jovial spirits laughing a lot as she talked about that film, and learned about the personal reasons that kept her away until now. For her return, Moorhouse has adapted The Dressmaker from Rosalie Ham‘s novel about Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslett), a dressmaker returning to her home in the dusty Australian Outback after a career in sophisticated Parisian fashion houses. Aside from having to reconcile with her estranged mother, Tilly also finds love in the form of Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth). The film earned over $21 million Australian dollars, thrusting it to the top of the chart of highest grossing films in Australian box history, alongside Mad Max and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Awards Daily: The Dressmaker is right up there as on of Australia’s biggest hits. What’s the attraction of the film?
Jocelyn Moorhouse: I think what happened was this was targeted at women. We knew that there was an audience of women out there that went to the movies, and we knew that this was a movie written by a woman, about women, and starred incredible women. We wanted to make sure they saw it, and if they did it, they would probably tell their friends about it, and go and see it again, and that’s exactly what happened. They’d see it, and go back with their girlfriends.
It’s also something a lot of women relate to because it’s about the female condition — being a mother, a daughter and being a woman and having to cope with what that means.
Also, Kate Winslet is really appealing and everybody loves her, and this is the perfect role for her because it shows her as this amazing kick-ass woman. Instead of Clint Eastwood coming back to a town, and he’s got his gun and horse, we have Kate Winslet coming into town to get revenge and she’s armed with a sewing machine with knowledge of haute couture. That gives her power to become something that all the women in the town want. It’s almost like a magical person who can transform them into who they want to be. By doing that, she empowers them and sets in motion the revenge she wants.
It’s a very different story and one that women will find familiar.
AD: It’s relatable. There’s a very strong protagonist without guns and just a little bit of violence. That’s something we see in your films a lot. Is that deliberate choice?
JM: Yes it is. I’m very drawn to finding stories about women. I love working with actresses. I am a woman and therefore, I want to tell stories about what it’s like to be a woman and the sort of things that happen in a woman’s life and the domestic and hidden battles we face . People don’t write about the emotional wars we go through. As a female film maker, I’m naturally drawn to these stories, and I feel I have a duty to be making films that further the world’s understanding about what it is to be a woman. I really want to do that, I like doing it.
AD: How did you come on board? It’s been a while since we’ve seen you behind the camera.
JM: I had actually been on a break. After I made A Thousand Acres, my world fell apart because my little girl, Lily who was 2 at the time was diagnosed with autism which is a non-curable, life-long condition. It affects the whole family and the mothers of these kids usually are the ones who have to do most of the work in the beginning because you might be the only person they pay attention to.
When you start doing the therapy, it has to be the mom, and I had no choice, it had to be me. I adore my children so that was not even something I had to think about, and I dropped everything because I was going to do whatever it takes to help her.
I’ve been doing that for a long time. Luckily I was married to P.J. Hogan who was able to pay for all our therapy for the kids. I say kids because I had another child, Jack, and he too developed autism. For the last 18 years, I’ve been involved in the world of autism and boy, do I know a lot about it. [laughs]. It took over my life and changed me profoundly. It made me a better director as it made me have to understand the human mind on such a deep level. I think I have a deeper understand of what it means to be human.
I always wanted to come back to directing. I loved film making before I loved anything. I loved it as a kid. My mom used to let me make films with her Super-8 camera, and I’ve never stopped loving making film. It was hard to keep away from it.
I always hoped a miracle would occur, and Sue Maslin contacted me. I had heard about the project, but I was so involved with my son’s therapy and I had sent that person who had the film at the time, away. Sue came to me a year later with the film, and I said no. At that point, Jack had a second diagnosis of epilepsy, and finally he started to get better, and my life started to get easier. I realized I didn’t have to keep breathing for my children anymore. They could breathe on their own.
I started thinking about my creativity again, and Sue came back a third time, asking me. I read the book, and I said yes. I thought, “I’m going home.” [laughs]. I was living in LA at the time. Reading the book made me homesick, and I was so in love with the character of Tilly, and then I met Molly, then the cross-dressing policeman. Also, haute couture in the outback? I knew it would work. I thought of how visually beautiful it would be and how amazing it was all going to look.
That’s what got me on board. I was drawn by the genres and able to express my love for film with this. You can see there’s a lot of references to great films because I love the Sergio Leone movies. I love Billy Wilder and Film Noir. I loved Fargo and the Wes Anderson films. It made me so excited to go back and do this.
AD: But, what a comeback! Then you get Kate Winslet.
JM: [laughs] Well, that was the other thing. I thought I’d be able to get some really great actors for this role. I approached them all by writing love letters to them and it worked. I got them.
AD: So, you wrote to Hugo, Kate and Judy?
JM: Oh yes. Very sincere love letters about how much I adored them. Of course, I’d worked with Hugo before, and he was always hoping to be reunited, and so I said, “I know you’ve done a man in a frock before, but this will be a bit different.”
AD: He was game to get frocked again?
JM:[ laughs] He was very excited. He gets to be a bit of a designer. He wanted to work with Kate and Judy. It was a mutual love admiration society. They loved Liam, they teased him a little but they loved him.
AD: Not only do you get Kate speaking with a full Australian accent, you get her to sew, you get her sporty. I watched that and thought, “This is incredible.”
JM: [laughs] I think she really enjoyed the challenge. When she read the script, it took me nine months to get an answer from her. I didn’t mind waiting because she was who I wanted. She wrote to me and said, “I love this film. I love Tilly. I am Tilly. I understand her.” She wanted to know how we were going to make it happen.
Judy was on board from the beginning, and she was happy to do something funny. Also, the prospect of working with Kate was appealing because they’d never been on screen together.
Can you imagine how excited I was to have two of the greatest actresses on screen at the same time, in my movie? I was thrilled.
AD: Finally, America gets to see this film because it’s been out over a year.
SM: It did. It’s been traveling the world. I’m delighted to be showing it here.
AD: What’s your favorite scene? We love the final scene. How did you decide that’s how you wanted to end it the way you did?
SM: I was thrilled and looking forward to it. [laughs]. When we were developing the script, we had reservations. Are people going to think she’s bad? Then we thought, “Come on, everyone secretly wants to do that act because it’s purifying. Everyone’s going to love it.” They do. You want this to happen. It’s a primal part of the Australian psyche. Once a year in Australia there are wildfires, and a lot of our Eucalyptus forest needs fire to be reborn. There was a symbolism to that scene because she’s being reborn.
AD: Let’s talk about the costumes. Do you have a favorite one?
JM: My favorite is Kate’s purple and red dress that Liam unzips. It’s such a gorgeous dress and shows off her body in such an exquisite way.
AD: I don’t think anyone else could have fitted into those gowns as perfectly as Kate. Her body is perfect for them.
JM: Doesn’t she have it? She’s got such a perfect figure and 50’s body. It’s amazing.