Celebrity Interview: Director Jocelyn Moorhouse Talks On Making The Dressmaker, Kate Winslet, Her Sixteen Year Autism Imposed Hiatus

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After a sixteen-year hiatus for deeply personal reasons, Jocelyn Moorhouse, the director of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful dark comedy, The Dressmaker, has triumphantly returned and sat down for a surprisingly forthcoming and real interview. 


The Dressmaker, the newest release from Amazon Studios and Broad Green Pictures, pairs glamorous Kate Winslet and hunky Liam Hemsworth along with legend Judy Davis as the trio of outcasts in a pretentious little town filled with deep secrets.

Of course, The Dressmaker is every bit its name as Winslet appears on the scene as Tilly armed with a Singer Sewing machine, enough haute-styling to scorch the barren Australian earth and a plan. Molly, played by Judy Davis, driven mad over the circumstances that tore mother and daughter apart has been cared for all these years by the handsome and all around good guy, Teddy McSwiney.

Having the opportunity to speak with Jocelyn Moorhouse, the director of The Dressmaker, during the recent media day, she was surprisingly real and forthcoming with her personal journey that led back to this wonderful moment, the making of the film, the future and life. Below is an excerpt.

Janet Walker: Congratulations on the film! What a great film! I loved it! I saw it twice and was fortunate enough to see it again and from the beginning from when the long shot, pull back, and the barren, blank countryside consume the frame. Just amazing.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: Thank you. I loved that.

JW: So tell me how you became involved with this project?

JM: Sue Maslin, the producer, had wanted the rights for the book for a while and had personally known Rosalie Ham, the writer, because they had grown up in the country together. And Rosalie Ham had written the characters in the book based loosely on the people she knew growing up because her mother was a dressmaker.

A lot of the stories because it is heightened has a magic realism to it. She had taken the characters and run with it and she loved the book and said '"The option is coming up and I'm thinking of not renewing with this other producer. How about you?"' And Sue said, '"Are you kidding me I'd love to do that."'

So the next thing she did was to look for a director and she had always loved my first film, Proof, from a thousand years ago, not really twenty-film years ago, and she had to find out where I was and I was living in L.A. at the time because I had come over here and actually had a bit of a Hollywood career for a while until Autism struck my children.

JW: I'm so sorry.

The Real World and Autism

JM: Yes. I have two children with Autism. I have four beautiful children and two of them have these very severe problems so that kind of took over my life, as it would to any mother. Well to any family, honestly but often it's the mother the child relates to the most.

The therapist says to you, "It's you. You have no choice because you're the only one they are connected to at least for the first few years you have to do intense therapy with them."

Of course, I love them so much, I was very willing to do that.

I was lucky, I was married to a very successful director (PJ Hogan) who could make movies that would pay for the therapy. But them as the years went by they did not get cured. They were not one of these children that get cured. They still have severe issues and so we were having to keep looking after them.

So 18 years went by, no at this point it was 16 years went by and she comes to me and I was like, "Oh. I would love to do this. But my little guy, had just been diagnosed, in addition to autism, we realized he was epileptic as well. This is breaking my heart but I can't do it."

But bless her heart she came back a year later and said, you know I thought about these other directors I had given her a list of other Australian female directors that I loved and thought she could approach but for various reason they all said no, or it didn't work out or they were busy and she came back to me.

And she said, I can't get Proof out of my head. I honestly think you're a good match for this because of the sort of tragic comedy of that film this needs to be both. By this point, Jacky, that's my boy, was doing well, the medication was working, he was having a happy sort of normal life.

I thought this is my chance to take my life back, my creative life back and I went for it. And I loved the book and it did take a few years to write as I don't have a traditional life.

Also, we had to stop while PJ Hogan, (the famous husband/Director) made a movie and I directed a play and we kept going back and writing it together because I needed his help because he is so smart when it comes to structure and we just kind of had fun adapting it together it was really it was so much fun because we felt we really connected with the material, it had similar DNA to ours.

JW: Firstly, that's an amazing story Thank you for sharing your life. Not a lot of people do that. That's very kind of you to do that.

JM: Well I think it is important even film directors can have autistic kids. All the mothers out there hopefully they may have a little hope that I could go back to work.

Finding the Right Location

JM: Moving on. So that's how I ended doing it and I really thank sue for waiting for me and persisting because she's changed my life because I'm a filmmaker again and its beautiful.

JW: It's a beautiful film there are so many elements to it, from the long shot in the beginning to where did you come up with a town like that was it location.

JM: No, we built the town, we were searching for it while we were in financing and we kept going "we've got to find this town." And I had this town in my head because there had been a painting my mother had on the wall in our house for years. I grew up with this painting and had almost those tones and it was a famous painting I realized later of outback South Wales called "Sofala" by Russell Drysdale, one of our most famous painters.

I eventually said to our investors why don't we just go and look at Sofala? I just want to see it. I know it is in the wrong landscape because I know it is golden fields, and hilly. And they said "'this is what you're looking for, okay now I get it, you're trying to make a sort of western."'

It's like I wanted it to have a fable feel. And I wanted it to have earth tones and wanted it all dried out when the gorgeous haute couture reactions arrive they pop almost like a fashion shoot. You see those in the pages of Marie Claire or Vogue that look. And so we searched for that and we couldn't find it. Everything's been modernized and if you do find downtown, it doesn't have the right landscape. It was supposed to have wheat, plains as far as the eye could see, except one hill so I finally said to author.

I finally said to the author, what town did you have in mind when you wrote this? And she said, "'I just made it up it's a fairy tale."' And I though why didn't I ask you earlier, so in that case we are creating it.

Casting The Lead

JW: Speaking of talent, describe some of your conversations around casting?

JM: I wanted a fierce but vulnerable woman to play Tilly. Like those old movie stars of the film noir movies, she must be like Bacall, or Barbara Stanwyck or Betty Davis.

This, sort of absolutely, formidable women who can just melt and crumple and become vulnerable and sensual because to me that is real woman actually. And Kate is the realist, to me she is the most beautiful expression of womanhood in an actress.

She is very strong, when she needs to be and she is also very warm and sensual, she is very giving and she can be very formidable if she needs to be. I find that so inspiring and beautiful in a woman. She has survived a great deal and survived through her creativity and I kind of related to that as a woman who had had a lot of challenges in her life and my life has been sort of a tragic comedy and continues to be, so I sort of related to Tilly as well.

I wanted to show this amazing character on screen so that is why I wanted Kate. I've loved her since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures at the age of 17, I just went OMG who are you? You're just amazing. You are a heavenly creature. And one day I want to work with you. Well find the right movie and here it was and it was perfect.

JW: So, was it instantaneous 'Yes I want to do it?'

JM: No. We had the usual problems. We had to go to the investors and say, "look for an indie film, its actually kind of expensive. Its period, it has a cast of hundreds, it has costumes, it's very ambitious.'"

In order to get the $15 million Australian we needed we actually had to get a movie star and that's hard because you have to get home to do it for less and come all the way to Australia and for a movie that stars a woman there are only a handful that the investors will go with." So, I knew it was terrifying that there are only a handful that they are going to go for so I might as well go for my favorite. I may as well go for the one I want most and let's see what happiness. So, we went to Kate first and we heard nothing. Nothing for months and months.

JW: Really?

It's Kate Winslet or Bust

JM: Yes. Nothing for months. Her agent would say, please be patient, she gets hundreds of scripts and still only do around two a year so don't get your hopes up but we do like your scripts so we're going to keep urging her to read it.

We had the agents on side but the investors, the potential investors kept saying maybe it's time to move on, and I said to who? Move on to who, "Why would I do that? Unless I hear a definite "No" there is still hope and I am an optimist.

So, after nine months she finally, and I kept writing love letters to her via her agent, please I think you're the most extraordinary actress and I've seen all your movies, and I love you in these movies, I wanted her to understand I wanted her and I wanted her for specific reasons, I thought she was the only one who could play this role. S

he finally read it and said, '"Jocee"' (Jo-cee), she calls me Jocee, '"I'm so sorry it took me so long to read it. I want to say yes, yes, yes I want to do this movie. I love Tilly. I get her. I understand her. In fact, I think I am her."' And then she said, '"Let's figure out how to make this work."' And that was one of the happiest days of my life to get that email.

JW: Did you say here's the script and here's the budget?

JW: No. Just here's the script and we don't have much money.  We're a little Aussie film and we don't have much money. And her agent knew that. She was willing to do it for less because she loved it and she loved Australia she has a lot of Australian friends.

She liked her time in Australia and had good feelings about it. And she did ask, "who were you thinking of approaching as my mother?" And I said, "'I was thinking about asking Judy Davis." And she said, "OMG, If you could get her that would be heaven" and luckily we got Judy as well.

The thing I remember when I got her email is that I thought, "'I've got to look her in the eyes and know this is real."'

So, I cashed in all my frequent flyer points and I flew over to London. And she said '"No, I'm going to do it."' And I said, "No I have to see you say that to me." I didn't want to hear it over the phone and we had a really long talk, about everything, for a few hours, and then I hopped on the train and went to the airport and came back. I just needed to see her. And that was great. And the we finally got the greenlight and she found out she was pregnant with Bear and we had to wait another nine months.

Life, Life

That's life and it was worth it. Because it meant I could just devote more time to casting a perfectly getting all the right costumes, I became pretty obsessed with learning about the 1950's Golden Age of couture which it really was. Christian Dior arrived on the scene, right after World War II, and then the 1950's suddenly "Hello, beauty is back." Let's celebrate the feminine form and he was quickly joined by many greats. So, I just began collecting images of the stuff.

JW: Did you have ideas of what she would wear?

JM: Oh, yes! I took my inspiration from film noir, the Hollywood beauty, like Kim Novak, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn. I was into Katherine Hepburn. If I was making a movie, then those are the girls I'd be looking at so I looked at what they were wearing in the movie and even the great designers were then and it took months and moths and hundreds of pictures up on the walls and we would go what about something like this so it was really fun so in a way were auditioning looks.

JW: So describe some of the challenges you faced during filming.

JM: Flies, scorching heat and gale force winds. The normal. Also when we were filming the kiss scene with Kate and Liam we had men holding the door shut because the gale force winds were just so string. We thought we were going to get blown off the hill. The scorching heat. It is really very hot and Kate had to dress in those very heavy fashions and the flies. Australia is the land of the flies. We left a few in the scenes. And we were filming on a animal refugee so every so often we would have to stop as a Emu would walk into the filming, like a stupid extra and we have to usher him off.

The Dressmaker has the golden touch of Jocelyn Moorhouse. Kate Winslet resurrects the golden age of Haute Couture and Judy Davis, who plays Molly, finally exacts the revenge she never anticipated for a lifetime.

Moorhouse is experiencing a renewed cycle of creativity as her creative life returns and she finds herself in demand again with three projects in development, a Mini-series, a film and she is writing a script. Husband and family are well. They remain a writing team each with their own properties and devoted parents.

The Dressmaker is in box offices everywhere. The film continues to rack up nomination and awards throughout the world.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios, Broad Green Pictures and The Toronto International Film Festival.


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