The remarkable comeback of film director Jocelyn Moorhouse
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