Set in 1950’s Australia, The Dressmaker is comedy-drama adapted from Rosalie Ham’s book of the same name. Tilly Dunage played by Kate Winslet is a beautiful and talented misfit. Tilly returns home to the Outback after spending many years working in the fashion houses of Paris. Her return reunites her with her ailing mother played by Judy Davis, and sees her falling in love with Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). Producer Sue Maslin had been looking to get this couture-infused revenge comedy in production for some time. I spoke to Maslin about the obstacles she faced when bringing The Dressmaker to the big screen, what she was told, and how she got the last laugh when The Dressmaker went on to become one of the all-time highest grossing films in Australia’s box office history.
Awards Daily: I’m just going to take a moment to gush over Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker.
Sue: The role was made for Kate. She’s such a great, dramatic and comic actress. She’s perfectly suited for those couture 50’s gowns.
AD: That’s exactly what I was going to say. Her body is just perfect for those gowns.
S: In those days, which was the end of the ensemble and great couture seamstresses, you couldn’t wear those gowns without a silhouette, and that’s where you needed curves and fantastic corsetry to get that particular look. The Dressmaker, it’s not just a matter of making those beautiful gowns and dresses and the transformation, every single corset was hand made for the actors and fitted.
AD: When did you first come across the book?
SM: I read the book shortly after it came out in 2001. I was just coming back from the desert where I’d been filming with Toni Collette. I’d been right there in the Outback. I recognized the author’s name, Rosalie Ham. I tracked her down and, sure enough, it was the same person I had known years ago, and we actually hadn’t seen each other in 30 years. I talked to her, she had assigned the rights to another producer. I finally got the rights and I was over the moon.
AD: When you’re reading the book, at what point did you think it needed to be made into a movie?
SM: I love literature for literature, but it’s not often that you get something that says, “This needs to be a movie.” It had to be one for a whole lot of reasons; one, that beautiful visual irony of having those Parisian inspired gowns in the dusty outback. Put that together with this ensemble cast, this spaghetti Western in this town, but instead of having a six-shooter, she has a sewing machine. It’s a really delicious premise. Put that together with a fantastic opportunity for casting, the book had everything in it. It needed to be crafted into a screenplay. Jocelyn Moorhouse did it perfectly. I had to wait a year for her.
AD: Hugo Weaving is in the movie.
SM: He was a little bit weary about being asked to frock up again. [laughs]. His character is so wonderful and warm, he’s Tilly’s only other ally in the town. He needed compassion, and this is what he’s so good at doing. He came on board because he adored working with Jocelyn and was in her first movie, and it was a nice opportunity for them to come together again.
AD: Did you always visualize working with Jocelyn?
SM: I had her in mind, and was the only director I wanted to work with. Proof is based on an ironic premise, it’s about a blind photographer who doesn’t trust anyone. Jocelyn gets that message between comedy and drama, and that’s why I really wanted to work with her.
I came to LA because she was here with her husband, and she hadn’t been back in over ten years, I had to convince her to make this movie.
The first time I asked her, she turned me down, for family reasons. I thought about other directors. I really didn’t want anyone else.
AD: How hard was it to get distribution for The Dressmaker?
SM: The film is called The Dressmaker, it’s obviously skewed towards the female audience. I was pitching it around six years ago. At the time it was hard to convince the studios that there was a market for films that were primarily targeted to women.
Fast forward five years later, they’re realizing the power of female protagonists. You just have to look at Mamma Mia, The Hunger Games, Bridesmaid, and Fifty Shades of Grey. These movies are making tons of money because distributors are cottoning on to the fact that women go to the movies and want to see strong, interesting, complex characters. That was really tough, so much so, that even with Kate attached, I was told, “You need an A-List actor attached in order for us to sell this movie. We can’t sell it with Kate alone. You have to bring in an A-list actor.”
That’s the kind of industry we work in. In the US, it’s worse than what it is in Australia.
AD: It’s insane. Mamma Mia and The Hunger Games both did great figures. It’s kinda of crazy to think that that’s still the thinking. Maybe times are changing?
SM: I think they are. In Australia, this became one of the all-time highest grossing hits. So, it’s right up there with Mad Max, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s the only one in that list, that has a female leading role. It was fantastic for it to do that.
If you go back to Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s, all those movies were led by the female stars. The whole melodrama genre was female driven.
AD: What about the costumes. Did you have anyone in mind?
SM: I actually worked with two costume designers. We worked with Marion Boyce who designed all the costumes that Tilly designs for the town. She was in charge of the transformation of these women who start off looking like sacks of potatoes and turn into these magnificent birds of paradise. Marion had to design over 300 outfits. It was a massive costuming job.
We also brought on Margot Wilson who designed specifically for Kate and gave Kate her own unique look. Costume designers often have their own personal style that is often different to the designers they do for clients. It worked out really well to have Margot work closely with Kate to get that look.
Also, Kate had to learn to sew as she had never sewn before. We got an old Singer sewing machine and brought in a specialist. Kate had to learn on a 1940s model and had to look like she knew what she was doing, as well as look like a seamstress.
AD: Who knew Kate could sew?
SM: Kate puts in the most phenomenal amount of preparation. She got the accent pitch perfect. Australians are very unforgiving if you get it wrong, they really appreciated just how good her accent is.
AD: What was your favorite costume?
SM: My favorite scene is scene 80 when Una arrives in town. She sees these women in these outfits, but particularly the one that Sarah Snook wears, that Constantia one, it’s made out of 40 meters of crepe and is over this pencil black skirt. That’s my favorite one.
The Dressmaker is on general release.