‘Unforgiven’ With A Sewing Machine: Jocelyn Moorhouse on ‘The Dressmaker’

The Dressmaker premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, although I didn’t get to see it until I returned. Now that TIFF 2016 has ended, The Dressmaker is finally opening in theaters. I actually got to speak with co-writer and director Jocelyn Moorhouse by phone on my way back from TIFF.

In the film based on Rosalie Ham’s novel, Kate Winslet IS The Dressmaker, Tilly Dunnage, who comes come to make glamorous dresses for the town women. We don’t want to spoil it, but Tilly gets some violent revenge in the process. The Dressmaker is now playing in theaters.

Jocelyn Moorhouse - The Dressmaker

Jocelyn Moorhouse on the set of The Dressmaker

What was it like premiering The Dressmaker at TIFF last year?

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Well, it was incredibly surreal because we’d only really just finished it. So hardly anyone had seen it. I was understandably nervous but really, really proud that it was going to show at TIFF because it’s a wonderful festival. I had no idea how big the theater was going to be so it was pretty daunting, but the response was so warm and ecstatic that I was just really moved by the fact that it was so warmly embraced by the audience. It was great.

I think The Dressmaker is your best film to date.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: So do I. So do I. Thank you.

And I loved the blurring the lines of genre. You captured the historical period, the humor, the drama. How did you blur the lines so well?

Jocelyn Moorhouse: I think in the last couple of years, I’ve been so inspired not necessarily by movies but by some of the drama I see on television. Like Breaking Bad and True Detective. Dramas and also comedies that stretched that basically experimented with a genre and the audience loved it. It gave me confidence that I could do this in a feature film. And Fargo, the Coen Brothers’ series. There’s such brilliant, brave and almost experimental comedy/drama going in some of the best of television that I just thought, “Why can’t I do this in a movie? This’ll be great.”

I thought it worked so well.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Well, I’m so glad. The book was a tragicomedy as well, so I was trying to capture what was in the book. I thought if I’m going to be true to the book, I have to keep this tone.

What was it like working with someone to cowrite the script? Is it daunting to adapt a book to the big screen?

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Well, yes it is. I loved the book, and I particularly loved the characters. I just thought that Tilly Dunnage was such a fantastic character. That’s why Kate Winslet came straight to my mind. I needed somebody as complex as her to play this complex character because she has really comic moments. She has incredibly important dramatic moments. She breaks your heart. She makes you laugh. I thought what a fantastic character. I want to do this movie. Then comes Molly who’s equally brilliant as a character in the book. So I was very inspired by the main characters. Sergeant Farrat, the cross dress policeman. The array of fantastic characters and also the magical realism style of the book got me very excited. If I was going to come back to making films, which of course I desperately wanted to do, I thought it’d be fantastic to come back with this film because it’s so out here. It makes a splash. So adapting it was hard because the book had so many more characters and so many more incidents in it that I’d have to do a miniseries to really be able to adapt the whole book. So to fit it into a two-hour format, I needed help, and I knew my husband, P.J. Hogan is a master at structure So I said, “You’ve got to help me with this, darling.” I was a joint project trying to wrestle this material into a satisfying feature film format. It took us a couple of years because he made a movie in between. I directed a play, so it was a long process. This script took quite a few years to write.

We couldn’t get to the 8:30 AM screening at TIFF.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Yeah, I get it.

Kate Winslet IS The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet IS The Dressmaker

The title The Dressmaker sounds like a female-driven film made for females, but then you watch it, and I couldn’t believe all the violence in it and how comedic it was. I had to take my wife to see it too. How do you go about that and market it to men as well as women? Is it a struggle?

Jocelyn Moorhouse: I think initially it might be because of the title. I agree. I had a similar problem with How to Make an American Quilt. I actually thought about, I actually said to the producers, “Maybe we should change the title.” Because in Australia the book is so beloved, they didn’t want to change the title. So I need to get the message out that it’s not actually a cute little movie about making frocks at all. I like to say it’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine. I love the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. I’m a big fan of them. I loved Bad Day a Black Rock which was more of a traditional western. When you do a western, you’re doing a fable. When you do those kinds of westerns anyway, a heightened one. I thought, “This is what she is. She’s that outsider, the stranger who comes to town with revenge on their mind. The town has a secret, and they’re terrified by the presence of this stranger because they know they’re going to get punished.” So to me it’s more of a revenge story but because it is a strange story and I’m not going to deny it has a feminine attitude. There is a female perspective that I think actually, influences the way the story is told and surprises people all the time because they’re not expecting stuff. Look, it’s a myth to think that women aren’t interested in violence. Of course, we are. We like it in films as much as anyone else, especially if it feels deserved. It’s not just gratuitous. So I like being able to show the darker side of womanhood because there absolutely is a dark side. If you’re married, you know that.

From a straight male standpoint, I was in love with the costume design. 

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Well, they’re so luscious, aren’t they? They’re gorgeous. They’re works of art. They’re not just clothes. They’re all a statement in the film, so they’re all characters. They’re all saying something about the people that are wearing them.

How much of a statement do you have and what was it like working with Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson?

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Oh well, I was truly obsessed with the dresses because I knew that they were going to be characters. So I took as much care of the casting of each outfit as I would with the casting of the actors. So I did a lot of research even before the costume designer started. I didn’t want not to know what era I was dealing with. I wanted to know as much as I could about it so that I could be educated and really collaborate with designers. So I took out a very expensive subscription to the Vogue archives which allowed me access to all their photographs of the fashion from the 1930s onward. There were articles on the brand new designer like Christian Dior. I suddenly realized what a momentous time in fashion history the 1950s were. Some people call it the golden age of couture because we’d all been through World War II. Well, I didn’t of course, and you didn’t. World War II, there’d been a lot of austerities and let’s not have any fun and let’s save all our fabric and just not do anything that looks like we’re enjoying life. But then when the ‘50s arrived, it was like hey, the war is over, we’re alive, let’s celebrate, let’s be excessive.

Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet as Tilly Dunnage in The Dressmaker

Christian Dior came along and shocked the hell out of everybody by using ridiculous amounts of fabric to create works of art. They were dresses, but they were actually works of art. Quickly followed by Balenciaga and Jacques Vert and Charles James and Balmain. I became obsessed with these, and I collected image upon image and lined my walls with them and created a ridiculous amount of look books for everybody to start to get a feel for what these dresses might be. So when Marion came along and Margot, of course, they already knew about the era, but they got to see what I felt each character might wear. It was probably about 30 choices for each character in each scene. Their job was to go, “All right, Jocelyn. I can see what you want. Now let me take over and we will find the right look for each character and each scene.” It was great because I was very hands on with that. We also discussed he color scheme of the film, so the background, the scenery and the interior looks and the exterior looks would be sort of dried out, like dirt and dust, earth tones. So that the rich jewel tones of the fabrics and the dresses would really pop out. It’s like the desert after it rains and all the wildflowers come out. It’s like Tilly brings beauty and life back to this toxic town.

Bravo, because for someone who has no interest in fashion, that was one of my biggest questions walking out of this movie. Where did you come up with the costume design? Your hard work really paid off.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Well, thank you, but of course I have to give credit to these brilliant designers too. We were a good team, and they knew how much I cared about it. I wasn’t just handing it over to them. In other movies, of course, I would just be quite content to let the actor and the designer do a lot of the groundwork and then show me the choices of what they’re thinking of doing, and that’s what I’ve done before. But because this movie was about the dresses and a designer, they were so much more precious to me. I knew it was going to be part of the entire look of the film, so that’s why I played a bigger role in it. But Margot Wilson was amazing with Kate. They became a team as well because they wanted her dresses to look quite different from the dresses that Tilly creates for the town women. So it was really good to divide it up that way.

You have this amazing cast: Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: I’m so lucky.

Then Sarah Snook who blew me away in Predestination.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Isn’t she amazing? Oh, she’s great.

Were they all the first choices?

Sarah Snook in The Dressmaker

Sarah Snook modeling one of The Dressmaker’s creations

Jocelyn Moorhouse: I’m so lucky, I got my first choice for practically everybody. I think what happened was once I had Kate and Judy and Hugo, pretty much everyone was putting their hand up. They wanted to be in the movie. I was just so lucky to have the cream of Australian actors all wanting to be part of it because they had heard the script was really good or they’d read the script, and they loved it. They really wanted to work with these incredible actors. It was really amazing. It was wonderful to every day have these extraordinary performers to work with. It was a joy, an absolute joy.

How much of Hugo Weaving’s performance was him and how much was you directing? 

Jocelyn Moorhouse: You know what, once he embraced Farrat, it took him a couple of days to think about whether he wanted to put on a frock again in the movie, but I went around his house, and I took all my fashion photos, and I took, in particular, a book about the French designer Jacques Vert who was this fabulous, flamboyant designer. I had all these photographs of him with his model wife and also his creative collaborator. They were just so gorgeous because there was Jacques Vert. You’ve got to look up pictures of him because basically, Hugo stole his look. He’s got a little pencil mustache. There’re all these shots of him draping fabric against himself. He went, “Oh, I see it now. I know what I’m going to do.” I pretty much let him do it because I trust Hugo. He’s really brilliant.

Hugo Weaving in The Dressmaker

Hugo Weaving in The Dressmaker

He didn’t tell us until a few days later that he was wearing a corset under his police uniform. When he walked onto the set, and we saw him, we were just all nearly crying because it’s like oh my God, it’s really Sergeant Farrat. We have an amazing makeup artist, Shane Thomas, who really helped all the actors except Kate who had her own makeup artist, lovely lady, Ivana Primorac. But they all worked closely together. I think a lot of credit needs to go to the makeup team because they did a beautiful job working with the costume team to come up with these amazing looks. So Shane Thomas helped come up with this fantastic look for Sergeant Farrat.

I went into this film not knowing what to expect, and I have blown away. It had something for everyone. It’s well made, well directed, beautiful costumes, great performances. I think The Dressmaker is the best performance by Kate Winslet since Eternal Sunshine.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Oh, really? Thank you. Well, she put her heart and soul into it, I know. She loved this character, and she loved just the whole making of this film. She was just such a champion for the whole movie and for everybody else as well, loved all the other actors, loved me. It was a fabulous experience.

What is the process from premiering at TIFF to a year later it finally comes out?

Jocelyn Moorhouse: I’m kind of its mother. I’ve been accompanying it all around the world. [Laughs] When I can. I am an actual mother so I can’t be away all the time from my children, but if a distributor, like in South Korea or South Africa or wherever, if they feel it would benefit the film to have me there to talk to the press or do Q&As then I’ll go because I want people to see it. I’m not blase’ about this. This is my baby. I waited 18 years to make another movie, and I worked on this movie for years so I’m going to do everything I can to get people to see it because I’m really proud of it. You just keep talking about it. It’s always really interesting though because people have different reactions to it. I never get bored. I love talking about it.

How do you feel about all the new ways of distribution with streaming?

The Dressmaker

This dress ain’t gonna make itself.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: I think it’s absolutely wonderful because independent films have been struggling for a long time. The market and the possibility of really interesting films being seen by audiences was getting harder and harder because it just wasn’t viable for a lot of exhibitors to put them on or do a marketing campaign. So it was getting very frightening for the filmmakers who wanted to make films that weren’t tentpole movies or giant explosion movies. The idea of having an online distribution, that’s really exciting because at least your movies still get an audience. Independent films are now getting way more discovered because of the streaming availabilities. Amazon, in particular, I’m very excited by because they did a partnership with Broad Green which means they really believe this film is beautiful enough to deserve a big screen life for a while. As a filmmaker, that’s crucial to me. Don McAlpine, he’s one of the world’s best cinematographers. I’m so happy that his work is going to be seen the way it’s supposed to be which is on the big screen before it starts its online downloadable life. So I think it’s a positive thing. I think it’s a really, really exciting thing that cable channels and these online exhibitors, it’s brilliant.

As someone who loves independent film, a movie fan since I was ten years old…

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Me too!

The critic sometimes goes out the window because it sparks my imagination, even if it’s not good but it’s different like Yoga Hosers. People hate it, but I go at least it’s different, at least it’s weird, it’s trying someone new.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Well, you’ve got to applaud it when they’re trying something new, don’t you.

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