dressmaker-posterA deliciously glamorous dressmaker named Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to her small Australian hometown in 1951 to seek the truth behind her notorious reputation that stemmed from a traumatic event in her childhood. Tilly finds her eccentric mother, Molly (Judy Davis) in pretty bad shape and the two of them work hard to find common ground. Tilly also schemes with the town’s constable, Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who has a few secrets of his own, and she falls for local farmer Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). As she starts to unravel her scandalous past, she transforms the town’s drab women with her exquisite creations. Armed with only her sewing machine and her haute couture style, Tilly proves that she is a forced to be reckoned with…and that revenge never goes out of style. I’ve always enjoyed director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s films which include How to Make an American Quilt, A Thousand Acres, and Proof. Moorhouse wrote the script for The Dressmaker with her husband, filmmaker P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, Peter Pan, My Best Friend’s Wedding), based on the popular novel by Rosalie Ham. I sat down with Jocelyn Moorhouse at a hotel in New York.

Danny Miller: I loved this film so much and thought it was such a perfect part for the brilliant Kate Winslet. You know, I remember from the first second I saw her on screen at the age of 18 in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, I said to myself, “Oh, that’s someone who’s going to be an enormous star!”

jocelynJocelyn Moorhouse: Oh my God, I had exactly the same reaction watching that film! That was my thought about Kate as well — it was like a lightning bolt had just burst off the screen.

I can’t think of anyone who could play Tilly Dunnage better than her. Was she always in your mind for that part?

Oh, yes. I always wanted to make a movie like this and I always wanted to make a movie with Kate Winslet so I was just beyond excited when she said yes.

Apart from Winslet’s amazing acting, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking more gorgeous in a film, which is saying something! By the same token, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the wonderful Judy Davis looking so hideous — which I loved.

(Laughs.) I know, poor Judy, and she’s really so beautiful! But, of course, she was only too happy to roll around in dirt for this part.


Was she very involved in creating Molly’s look for this film?

We had an extraordinary makeup artist, Shane Thomas, who worked very closely with me — we talked endlessly about the characters and then he talked at length to the actors. Judy really trusted him and he was very loving about how he wanted Molly to look. They figured it out together.

I always think it’s the best actors who are the most willing to look horrible in a movie.

It was funny because people kept saying to me, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to get Judy Davis to agree to look like a homeless person?” And I said, “Of course I am!” The truth is she was always trying to have me make her look worse.

The biggest miracle about this film is how you are able to pull off such a radical shift in tone well into the movie. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it’s a pretty shocking moment for a story that up until then seemed to be fairly lighthearted, eccentric, and fun.

It was pretty wild and, to be honest, I actually was quite scared about that particular element. But it was in the book — and it worked in the book! I admit that I did contemplate briefly not doing what happened in the book, but then I realized, “Wait a minute, I have to do this! Tilly can’t have the right ending to her journey if I don’t!” I think the movie is not about what you first think it’s about. The movie is actually about Tilly’s healing and reconnection with her mother.


Do you ever get people who are angry about what happens at this point in the film?

Yes, I do! I remember there was this one woman at a screening who practically pinned me to wall screaming, “How could you do that?” I said, “I’m sorry — don’t blame me, blame Rosalie Ham, the author of the book!” (Laughs.)

We better stop talking about that plot point since I don’t want to give it away.

I know. I just say to people, “Don’t get too comfortable, there are some dark surprises ahead!”

Needless to say, the costumes in this film are extraordinary. And I did wonder about how you got Hugo Weaving to do that part. He was so amazing as Tick in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but was it hard to get him in a dress again after all these years?

Yes, it was very hard! Hugo and I have stayed very close friends since we did Proof. I remember talking to him about this film when he was doing “the Scottish play” so he had a full beard and was very angst-ridden. I called him up and asked, “So, have you read the script yet?” And he said, “Yes, but I can’t really get my head around it because I’m playing this murderous king.” And I said, “Well, don’t you think it might be nice for you to have a break from all that?” And he said, “Yes, but do I really have to wear a dress again?” And I said, “Yeah, of course!” But then I went to see him and showed him these pictures of Jacques Fath. I had done a lot of research and just loved Fath and how flamboyant he was. He was so gorgeous with his little pencil mustache. I showed him all these photos of Jacques that I’d been collecting where he’s sort of reveling in fabric and I said to Hugo, “You know, I think Farrat thinks he is the Jacques Fath of that town,” and he loved that.


I must say, no one can drape a piece of fabric around himself with more panache than Hugo Weaving.

He practiced that a lot! He finally said, “Well, I guess it’s different enough, I’ll do it for you.” And, of course, he was dying to work with Judy and Kate. He had such a good time and they became this hilarious trio of jokesters.

You’ve done some big studio films in your day. Is working on a film like this very different?

I felt much freer. I loved doing the films I did in Hollywood, but I felt like I was sharing a vision on those, I was basically a director for hire. Proof, of course was my baby, and this film felt like my baby, too, because P.J. and I wrote it together. It really felt like one of our children, we have real babies and film babies! This film is just more me — the kind of movie I like to watch.

It’s a very Australian film. Do you worry that there are things American audiences might not get?

Not really, other than the football game that was played with Australian rules. I’m not sure I even understood that, to be honest, but Liam is a natural footballer, he helped everyone with that scene. But, look, this is kind of a universal story: small-town bigotry, oppression, being bullied as a child because you’re different, and being able to come back and have power over those people who used to have power over you.

Did you feel a lot of pressure to be faithful to the book?

Not so much. Rosalie said, “It’s your movie, you can do what you want. My only condition is that I get to be an extra!”

Oh, wow, she’s in the film?

Yes, and what an extra she was! She had such a great look that I put her in scene after scene. We decided that because it’s such a small town, we wanted to see the same faces a lot, and Rosalie’s was one of those. She wears this insane feather at the wedding and she even got to dance with Hugo Weaving in the dance hall!

And despite your internationally famous stars, it still felt like a small independent film on set?

Oh, yes. Kate was laughing. She said, “I don’t think I’ve ever moved so quickly in a movie in my life!” But she loved it. It was a great atmosphere.