Dress cir­cle

The re­mark­able come­back of film di­rec­tor Jocelyn Moor­house

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

When Jocelyn Moor­house put Kate Winslet and Judy Davis in a scene to­gether for the first time, things be­came heated, far more so than the di­rec­tor had an­tic­i­pated. As the cam­eras rolled on the set of Moor­house’s latest film, The Dressmaker, Academy Award win­ner Winslet and Davis, who has three Em­mys and two Golden Globes, started brawl­ing.

In the movie, Davis and Winslet play an es­tranged mother and daugh­ter who fight over the older woman’s re­fusal to have a bath — Davis’s char­ac­ter, known as Mad Molly, is a tea­cosy wear­ing recluse who doesn’t do baths, showers or per­sonal hy­giene of any sort. On the set, as their screen per­sonas tus­sled, Winslet de­cided to im­pro­vise: she forcibly picked up Davis, who struck the Bri­tish ac­tor on the face.

Sit­ting serenely on a leather sofa in the Syd­ney of­fices of Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures, Moor­house says she couldn’t have been hap­pier with her lead­ing ladies’ de­ci­sion to go the biff. “They were very ea­ger to do that,’’ she says, chortling away like an in­dul­gent mother de­scrib­ing her feral sons.

“That was so much fun to shoot. The crew were just gob­s­macked that these ba­si­cally world fa­mous ac­tresses were at­tack­ing each other.’’

The 55-year-old mother of four ac­knowl­edges she egged on the duo. When Winslet — who had had a baby just four months be­fore — de­cided to scoop up Davis, “I said, ‘That looks fan­tas­tic, yes, do that!’ ’’ And when Davis hit Winslet, “Judy’s like, ‘Is that OK?’ ’’ – here Moor­house mim­ics Davis’s deep, husky voice — “and Kate said, ‘Yeah, just hit me.’ ’’

The di­rec­tor, writer and pro­ducer laughs again, lustily. She laughs a lot dur­ing this in­ter­view as she talks about ev­ery­thing from her new film — which marks her di­rec­to­rial come­back af­ter an 18-year hia­tus — to the dis­as­trous can­cel­la­tion of her pre­vi­ous movie, Eu­ca­lyp­tus. She also speaks frankly and mov­ingly about how she was cat­a­pulted into Hol­ly­wood’s in­ner realm in her early 30s, but sub­se­quently wound back her ca­reer to be a hands-on ther­a­pist for two of her chil­dren, who have autism.

Her daugh­ter Lily, now 19, did not talk un­til she was four, while Jack, 11, at one stage en­dured up to 100 seizures a night, which would erase from his mem­ory the few words he had man­aged to ab­sorb. “You’d just spend all your time on the floor with them, try­ing to turn their play, if they have any play … The mother has to be­come the main ther­a­pist, re­ally, be­cause you’re the one they lis­ten to.’’

Given the giddy highs and dev­as­tat­ing lows of her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives, you start to won­der whether Moor­house’s wise­crack­ing is a dis­tanc­ing and sur­vival mech­a­nism; it’s as if she is stand­ing just out­side the frame of her life, hav­ing willed her­self to fo­cus on the funny side of ev­ery­thing even when it’s shaded by tragedy, even when it’s heart­break­ingly hard.

This woman with the same quirky, off-cen­tre hu­mour that in­fuses her screen work has not been dealt an easy hand, even though her rapid as­cen­sion to Hol­ly­wood was the sort of break most film­mak­ers can only fan­ta­sise about.

“It def­i­nitely shocked me,’’ she says of find­ing her­self in the ex­press lane, bound for the big US stu­dios, af­ter her de­but fea­ture Proof, a jet­black com­edy about trust and a blind man ob­sessed with pho­tog­ra­phy, be­came an in­ter­na­tional hit. Star­ring Rus­sell Crowe and Hugo Weav­ing, Proof was launched at the 1991 Cannes film fes­ti­val, where it re­ceived a Cam­era d’Or (Spe­cial Men­tion) , be­fore it went on to net a Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute prize and six Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute awards.

Soon af­ter, Steven Spiel­berg in­vited her to di­rect the fe­male bond­ing movie How to Make an Amer­i­can Quilt, which starred Wi­nona Ry­der and Anne Ban­croft. “I went from be­ing a pretty un­known di­rec­tor — I was just hop­ing to get another Aus­tralian film go­ing — to sud­denly be­ing of­fered stu­dio movies, which was mind­blow­ing, and Steven Spiel­berg of­fer­ing me a movie,’’ she re­calls. “I was just en­joy­ing ev­ery sec­ond of it. I knew how rare this was and how ut­terly against the odds it was, so I grabbed it with both hands. Of course PJ (Ho­gan, her hus­band) comes along with Muriel’s Wed­ding and to­tally eclipses me.’’

There’s that ir­rev­er­ent hu­mour again and a rum­bling belly laugh. She and Ho­gan — di­rec­tor of Muriel, that hymn to date­less dags, and the hugely suc­cess­ful Ju­lia Roberts ve­hi­cle My Best Friend’s Wed­ding — are the only Aus­tralian cou­ple to have each di­rected Hol­ly­wood films.

Even so, Moor­house has a lot rid­ing on The Dressmaker, which she has chris­tened “Un­for­given with a sewing ma­chine’’. It marks her re­turn to film­mak­ing af­ter a long and con­spic­u­ous ab­sence, and it is her first di­rec­to­rial pro­ject since Eu­ca­lyp­tus was aban­doned in the ham­mer­ing glare of the public spotlight in 2005.

Set in 1951 in a coun­try town called Dun­gatar, The Dressmaker is adapted from the best­selling novel by Ros­alie Ham. It fo­cuses on a glam­orous fash­ion de­signer, Tilly Dun­nage (Winslet), who re­turns to the dust-blan­keted, one-street ex­cuse for a town — which was built from scratch for the film — that ex­iled her as a child. Nail­ing her Aus­tralian ac­cent, Winslet (who also sported one in Jane Cam­pion’s Holy Smoke) plays the chain-smok­ing, cou­ture-wear­ing Tilly with a steely edge; she ar­rives back in Dun­gatar with a Singer sewing ma­chine in­stead of a gun, and de­clares: “I’m back, you bas­tards.’’ Tilly has a long mem­ory and a tal­ent for bias cut­ting — she uses this skill to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect, to ex­act her re­venge and piece to­gether the mys­tery of how she came to be sent away.

Moor­house de­scribes The Dressmaker as a case of “the ar­che­typal out­sider re­turn­ing to a town that did her wrong. She’s out to pun­ish the evil­do­ers and solve the mys­tery.’’ With its cast of just-this-side-of-grotesque, small-town archetypes, the film some­what fran­ti­cally crosses gen­res — it’s a com­edy, love story and moth­er­daugh­ter rec­on­cil­i­a­tion saga, yet it has the gritty, for­lorn feel of a western.

“I wanted to have a very def­i­nite look,’’ Moor­house says, “a sort of mix­ture be­tween Drys­dale paint­ings and the spaghetti west­erns of Ser­gio Leone. It’s not a nat­u­ral­is­tic story. While it’s truth­ful and emo­tion­ally au­then­tic, I hope it’s within the pa­ram­e­ters of a fa­ble, which a lot of those west­erns are.’’ (Early re­views out of the US have been mixed. The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter de­scribes the film as a flawed, guilty plea­sure, while Va­ri­ety calls it “ap­pre­cia­bly de­ranged’’ but “lively and propul­sive’’.)

The Dressmaker boasts a glam­orous, A-list cast (Winslet, Davis, Weav­ing, Liam Hemsworth), and Moor­house says she “went all out to get the best of the Aus­tralian ac­tors that I pos­si­bly could. I wanted Kate, of course.’’ She says of Winslet, who won an Os­car for her por­trayal of a woman haunted by her Nazi past in The Reader: “Her body of work is just in­tim­i­dat­ing. Of course it was a long shot, be­cause she gets of­fered ev­ery­thing. When she agreed to do it, I was pretty much over­joyed.’’

Davis, mean­while, gives a scene-steal­ing turn as Tilly’s mother Molly, who may be built like a spar­row but is as fierce as a rap­tor; at one point she calls her daugh­ter a mur­derer, and a les­bian. At the start of the film she is caked in filth and lives in a hovel — an origami of spi­der webs and dead leaves, a pos­sum liv­ing in the cup­boards, wall­pa­per peel­ing off the walls like dead skin. She even­tu­ally soft­ens into ir­rev­er­ence and ma­ter­nal con­cern when Tilly is brought low by un­ex­pected tragedy.

In­ter­est­ingly, Winslet’s Tilly falls for a younger, AFL-play­ing Ado­nis, por­trayed by Hemsworth (who was re­cently en­gaged to Mi­ley Cyrus), though no one al­ludes to the age dif­fer­ence. “No! We don’t talk about it,’’ jokes Moor­house in a stern, school­teacher-like voice. She says that Tilly’s lover in the novel “was younger as well, and [the au­thor] Ros­alie doesn’t make a big deal of it’’.

“I love that and I de­cided I wouldn’t make a big deal of it ei­ther, be­cause at­trac­tion is at­trac­tion and we all know that while peo­ple might say there are so-called rules, there aren’t re­ally any,’’ Moor­house adds. It’s the op­po­site of the Hol­ly­wood norm, though. “It is, and I like that,’’ she says, quicker than you can say Madonna and toy boy. “I’m proud of that ac­tu­ally. I’m happy to say that younger men do get at­tracted to older women. It’s not just the other way around, es­pe­cially if they look like Kate.”

This back­blocks tale of re­venge and high fash­ion is Moor­house’s first film since Eu­ca­lyp­tus, based on the award-win­ning novel by Mur-

ray Bail, was aborted in 2005, even as the high­pro­file cast (Ni­cole Kid­man, Crowe, Weav­ing) had started read-throughs of the script. The can­cel­la­tion, which oc­curred af­ter a re­port­edly bit­ter stand-off be­tween Crowe and Moor­house, was un­doubt­edly the nadir of her ca­reer.

It had been hoped the $20 mil­lion film and its Hol­ly­wood stars would breathe new life into a list­less lo­cal in­dus­try. But the clash­ing vi­sions of Crowe (backed by a stu­dio ex­ec­u­tive) and Moor­house saw the pro­ject be­ing called off by Fox Search­light Pic­tures. It was widely re­ported that Crowe, cast in a mi­nor role but in­vok­ing his ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer’s credit, de­manded changes to an al­ready re­worked script, co-writ­ten by Moor­house. Ac­cord­ing to media re­ports, the ac­tor, then a highly bank­able star, was dom­i­neer­ing, while Moor­house tried to re­sign within four days of the first read-through.

Crowe com­plained he was de­monised in the sat­u­ra­tion media cov­er­age that fol­lowed; he claimed the movie was “un­fo­cused’’ and that “strange growths’’ had ap­peared in the script, in­clud­ing one that re­quired his char­ac­ter to ex­pose him­self to a young Queen El­iz­a­beth. Sup­port­ers of Moor­house coun­tered that the script she had spent years jointly writ­ing was “a gem’’.

A decade on, and with­out once los­ing her com­po­sure, Moor­house gives her ver­sion of what hap­pened (though she doesn’t men­tion Crowe). “It was very dis­ap­point­ing at the time. Dev­as­tat­ing would not be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion,’’ she says qui­etly.

“I was re­ally look­ing for­ward to mak­ing the film, but you go into a film know­ing that some­times things fall apart. It’s a high-risk ven­ture, film­mak­ing, be­cause you have to pull so many peo­ple in same di­rec­tion. As the di­rec­tor, you have to lead, lit­er­ally, hun­dreds of peo­ple. But the key peo­ple have to agree with you. You have to be mak­ing the same film, and if you’re not, then that’s when things start to fall apart. It’s a sad fact about film­mak­ing.

“I did mourn the film. And I did get very de­pressed about it for a long time. It’s got per­spec­tive now.’’ She musters a wan, half-smile as she re­flects: “That’s the thing about liv­ing longer and get­ting older; you look back and you think, ‘Yeah that was aw­ful, but there’ve been other aw­ful things too. Two chil­dren with autism, that’s pretty aw­ful too.’ ’’

Soon af­ter Eu­ca­lyp­tus was called off, Moor­house re­alised with a sick, sink­ing feel­ing that her third child, Jack, then aged one, was show­ing the same signs of se­ri­ous autism his sis­ter Lily had demon­strated. She watched as baby Jack ob­sessed over tin lids, or would “go from one vent in the floor to the other re­peat­edly over and over again — like cross the lounge in front of me 10 times. I’m like, ‘ Oh­hhkay, that’s not nor­mal.’ ’’

One can only imag­ine the feel­ings of grief, of be­ing cheated, or per­haps picked on by God, that Moor­house must have ex­pe­ri­enced in 2005, when pro­fes­sional calamity was fol­lowed by the re­al­i­sa­tion a sec­ond mem­ber of her pre­cious brood had autism. The news about her son “was what re­ally dev­as­tated me. But I mostly felt re­spon­si­ble that I brought him into the world, so I have to help him as much as I can — so I have, and he’s do­ing very well. He’s come leaps and bounds, ac­tu­ally. He can talk now. They (Jack and Lily) can both talk. They couldn’t in the be­gin­ning.’’

Af­ter spend­ing 15 years in Los An­ge­les, the Moor­house-Ho­gan mob are now set­tled back in Syd­ney, and Jack and Lily at­tend a “bril­liant’’ spe­cial­ist school for autis­tic kids, though they will need some kind of help pos­si­bly for life. “It weighs on me. It does,’’ says their mother, and you know there is a world of parental anx­i­ety and fear be­hind those two short sen­tences.

Hav­ing scaled back her ca­reer to get down on the liv­ing room rug and help her kids when help was most needed, the di­rec­tor is keen to an­nounce that she is back in busi­ness. As well as com­plet­ing The Dressmaker, she is half­way through writ­ing the screen­play for another film, a story about love and art set in the 19th cen­tury. “I re­ally, re­ally wanted to get back to di­rect­ing. It’s one of my great­est loves, film­mak­ing. I love movies. I love to make them; I’m re­ally, re­ally happy that I’ve ac­tu­ally got to do this. It’s a bit of a mir­a­cle, re­ally.’’

She stresses, though, that she “never com­pletely opted out’’ of the film world be­cause she con­tin­ued to write scripts and to help pro­duce Ho­gan’s films, among them the big-bud­get fan­tasy Peter Pan. The cou­ple have al­ways col­lab­o­rated and The Dressmaker is no ex­cep­tion: Ho­gan crafted the screen­play with Moor­house. “Thank heav­ens, he’s won­der­ful to work with,’’ she says in that light, amused tone of hers.

Does work­ing and liv­ing to­gether cre­ate ten­sions? “Oh of course!’’ comes the re­ply. “We fight all the time. But we’re both very opin­ion­ated, feisty peo­ple. It means what­ever de­ci­sion I go with, I have to be very sure, be­cause he’ll ar­gue with me about the de­ci­sions I make.’’

The Dressmaker shoot, it turns out, was some­thing of a fam­ily af­fair. Moor­house’s el­der son Spike, 25, worked on it as an in­tern and ex­tra. “He wants to fol­low us, bizarrely, into the film in­dus­try,’’ she says. And Winslet brought along her four-month-old baby, named Bear (yes, re­ally). A far cry from the time when Moor­house was lo­ca­tion-scout­ing for a Hol­ly­wood film and a male pro­ducer de­manded that she wean the baby she was then breast­feed­ing.

Asked whether things have im­proved for women di­rec­tors in Hol­ly­wood since she first worked there, Moor­house replies: “There are a few more of us and I’m aware of more Aus­tralian fe­male di­rec­tors too, which is great. But in terms of whether their movies are get­ting made, it’s still very much an un­fair sit­u­a­tion. I think men are still trust­ing men more than they trust women, es­pe­cially with the big-bud­get projects. Women are more likely to trust women and so you’ll find women pro­duc­ers are more likely to hire women di­rec­tors than men are. So there’s a dis­par­ity. It needs to be ad­dressed.’’

She and Ho­gan worked in Hol­ly­wood for more than a decade. Did it ever feel un­real? “Yeah. Def­i­nitely,’’ she an­swers, with a know­ing chuckle. “There was def­i­nitely a sense that this was a movie town and it was hard to get away from talk­ing about movies and peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of you [in terms of] whether you were suc­cess­ful or not, depend­ing on how your last movie did. I thought, ‘ Well, the value sys­tem is re­ally weird.’ ’’ The last film Moor­house com­pleted be­fore

The Dressmaker was A Thou­sand Acres (1997). An adap­ta­tion of a Pulitzer prize-win­ning novel that starred Michele Pfeif­fer and Jes­sica Lange, it was dis­missed by crit­ics as overly melo­dra­matic. She has flirted with theatre, di­rect­ing her first play, Sex with Strangers, about love and lust in the dig­i­tal age, for the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany in 2012. That pro­duc­tion was well re­ceived, though she avoids read­ing re­views be­cause “like most sen­si­tive artis­tic types’’ — she says this archly — “I could read six re­ally pos­i­tive things, but I would fo­cus on the one neg­a­tive. It’s just not good for your mind.’’

To main­tain her equi­lib­rium in a roller­coaster busi­ness, she usu­ally fo­cuses on whether “I am happy with the film. Is it what I want it to be?’’ In the case of The Dressmaker, she is “ab­so­lutely happy’’ with the fin­ished movie. In a rare, philo­soph­i­cal mo­ment, she says: “I al­ways do my darnedest to try and make a great film, and if it doesn’t click with peo­ple, it’s re­ally out of my hands. All I can do is my best.’’

The Dressmaker opens on Oc­to­ber 29.

Kate Winslet as Tilly Dun­nage in The Dressmaker, right; di­rec­tor Jocelyn Moor­house, be­low

Scenes from The Dressmaker fea­tur­ing Judy Davis, above left, and Liam Hemsworth with Winslet, above right; Moor­house’s hus­band PJ Ho­gan, left; be­low, Moor­house in 1991 af­ter win­ning AFI awards for Proof with pro­ducer Lynda House and ac­tors Hugo Weav­ing and Rus­sell Crowe

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.