By Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
It’s a delight to have Joceyln Moorhouse returning to directing after an 18-year hiatus. Of course, she was plenty busy raising four children (two who were diagnosed with autism)and working on film as the producer of her husband PJ Hogan’s films, Mental and Unconditional Love. But it’s a delight to see her sense for the absurd comedy and clear visual style back on screens. Moorhouse is best known to US audiences for her dramas How to Make and American Quilt and A Thousand Acres. But her new film The Dressmaker would probably be better compared to her first film as a writer-director, 1991’s comedy-drama Proof; both of which won her the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Screenplay (she was also nominated for directing both, and won for Proof).
The Dressmaker stars Kate Winslet as the prodigal daughter of Judy Davis, who returns to a small town in the outback after years living abroad. Rather than a joyful reunion, Winslet’s successful dressmaker wishes to enact revenge on the town’s people that forced her to leave as a girl. Among those towns people there’s a charmer played by Liam Hemsworth and friendly cop played by Hugo Weaving. I spoke with Jocelyn about the stylish movie, out in theaters now.
Q: The film kind of reminded me of some of the Australian cinema I was first exposed to in the 1990s, but there’s also a heavy classic Western influence. What inspired you to take that approach?
A: It just felt like the right way to go. Because the whole story is about this stranger coming to town, and she’s mysterious, and the town’s nervous because they have these secrets. I was influenced by movies like Bad Day at Black Rock and all the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. I love his use of wide angle lens and stark landscapes. I thought, this is a revenge film, like a lot of westerns. And I didn’t want to be too heavy handed with it, so I kept things kind of subtle. There’s also a bit of film noir, which is my favorite genre. Kate reminds me quite a lot of Barbara Stanwyck or Lauren Bacall. She has the clothing and big hats with the brims. Although that first scene with her looking up with the big hat was based on Eastwood lifting his hat. And we were inspired by Morricone’s music on the Sergio Leone films. So this is hopefully a movie a lot of movie lovers will get a kick out of. I’m a movie lover, and I was trying to show my joy about movie watching and movie making. I waited 18 years to make another movie, I didn’t want to come back with something dull. I wanted something that was wild and unpredictable and brave. I just wanted to go for it.
Q: The thing I like about the Western approach is, the bigger you go and the more dramatic you take it, the more absurd it feels. Because in the end it is about a dresses, not gunfights.
A: Right, she only weapons that sewing machine. I knew I couldn’t make this movie any kind of naturalistic way. That would have just been silly. It’s a heightened story. The character’s names are even heightened. And I knew this is completely a fable, so it needs to be filmed like that. Let the audiences know this isn’t going to be a naturalistic film. Like fables, this movie has moments of great truth.
Q: Did you feel that sense of humor was in the book?
A: Oh yes, Molly’s hysterical. That’s probably why my husband and I adapted it. We’re kinda funny people and he makes comedy films. It’s certainly gallows humor, very dark comedy. And the subject matter is very dark. But that’s also the way I see life, my life is a black comedy. I have moments of great happiness, but some terrible things has happened. Life is a black comedy and I embrace that.
Q: Were there point when you felt you needed to pull back that black humor? I know I was shocked by how dark the scenes with the kids got.
A: It was even darker in the book, and I pulled back for that reason. In the book, Tilly is molested as a young girl by the boy. And I didn’t want to put that in the movie, and I didn’t think the movie could recover if we did. I couldn’t go back to making jokes after witnessing a little girl get sexually assaulted. You can’t make that funny. There’s bullying in the movie, which isn’t funny either, but that’s something we can all relate to. I was certainly bullied as a girl, I was an asthmatic with weird looking teeth. So I felt, that would be enough for Tilly. And that pain is universal.
Q: The movie certainly embraces absurd humor, and you have the visual humor with these elaborate, high fashion gown in the desert. What were your inspirations for those scenes?
A: Well, the film is set in the 50s, but a lot of the scenes were inspired by those fashion sequences in the films of the 30s. But being set in the 1950s, when people were finally leaving behind World War II and were allowed to indulge a little. So after the repressed looks of Channel, with a very minimal use of clothing, suddenly Dior’s clothing comes out and there’s exploding fabric. It was like a celebration. Let’s let women celebrate their femininity again. I also thought, Australia had always considered itself part of England, and all that stuffiness that comes with it, but Tilly is coming back from Paris, so her inspirations would be different. And the women would think it’s scandalous, but really, they secretly love it. They all love getting their makeovers. And who wouldn’t? I love a makeover and I love a makeover scene in a movie. I love ugly ducklings to glittering swans.
Q: Were you emulating specific designers?
A: I did a lookbook, and had my favorites, all designers named in the book. And Madeleine Vionnet, who was more famous in the 30s but was revolutionary in her use of draping as a way to really dress a woman. She changed everything, so I knew I needed her in it, and there’s a picture of her in the film. So I worked with the designers to create the clothing. But it was important to remember that Tilly was inspired by these great designers, but had her own style. She was an artist. So I had two designers on the movie. Marion Boyce did the fashions Tilly created, and Margot Wilson did the clothing Tilly herself wore. They had to be different styles.
Q: I feel like the casting’s much unexpected, but also very refreshing. It’s great to see Judy Davis and Hugo Weaving being a little out there. It’s so nice to see Kate allowed to be funny, because I don’t think she’s given that opportunity enough in films.
A: And she is so funny. Not just in the movie, but just in her everyday life. Kate, Judy, Hugo, they’re all such funny people. I love Hugo, going back to my first movie I directed. And Judy loved the idea of playing Molly. She said Molly reminded her of her own mother, who was pretty wild. And she also loves comedy. She is, just like Kate, a naturally funny person. I expected to have to beg her, but she wanted to play Molly and she wanted to work with Kate. And oh my God, those two together. It was a total mutual admiration society.
Q: I feel like among actresses, Judy has become a real legend. I’ve heard so many actresses, especially from Australia and the UK, who say her performance in My Brilliant Career was the film that made them want to be an actress.
A: That’s the movie that inspired me to really pursue directing. That’s what was so beautiful for me about working with her on this movie. I was a very young women when I saw her in that movie, and I desperately wanted to be a director. But there were no women. And I wasn’t going to let that stop me from becoming a director, but when Gillian Armstrong arrived, boy did it help. It gave me faith that I could do it too. And of course, I just love that movie. And I ended up working with Don McAlphine on this, who was their cinematographer. And he and Judy hadn’t worked together since, so he called her young lady, just as he had on that movie.
Q: Have you had a chance to meet Gillian Armstrong?
A: Oh yes, many times. And I told her what an inspiration she was. We hung out at Toronto last year, I had this film and she had her documentary (Women He’s Undressed) and talked to her about how much her films mean to me.
Q: You’ve produced a number of films you didn’t direct. Did you find there were specific types of films you want to direct and certain types of films you want to produce?
A: I’ve been with PJ since we were in film school together. He was 18, I was a little older, still am. But even then, I recognized how brilliant he was. As soon as I saw his short film, I kind of hated him for being that good. But we were always working on projects together. I was working on Proof while he was working on Muriel’s Wedding. But we got Proof going first. So I said, if you help me get this movie made, the next movie we’ll make will be Muriel’s Wedding. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. And it was funny, because after I made Proof and it did pretty well, people asked me the next film I wanted to make. And they were confused when I said I want to produce a movie. But I really believed in Muriel’s Wedding, I’d helped him on the script, I edited it. And we’d been talking about it for years. So my producing credits are more about my belief in him. I’ve never produced for another filmmaker. And it was also easier when my children came along. Then of course, two of my children developed autism and in the early years, you really need to do as much intervention as possible. And that can be all consuming. They can communicate now, although they don’t speak that well. But they know who I am and who they are. And there came a point when I didn’t need to be around all the time.
Q: Were you looking for an opportunity to return to directing when Sue came to you with this project?
A: I was always looking and hoping to find something. There were projects I came close to directing but had to drop out of. I came very close to making Temple Grandin, but my son Jack got his diagnosis at that time. But after that, Sue arrived in my life with this film. And it came at the perfect time. I was home sick and wanted to go back to Australia, and this film is so Australian!
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (9/23/16)
Photos: Stills from The Dressmaker
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures, Samantha Bednarz (bottom)