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Acclaimed director Jocelyn Moorhouse returned from the US because family was more important than the Hollywood machine.

By Steve Dow.

Jocelyn Moorhouse and ’The Dressmaker’

Jocelyn Moorhouse
Credit: Film Art Media

It is 1951, and a femme fatale blonde is about to set ablaze the narrow Australian country town mindset that rejected her as a child. British actor Kate Winslet plays Tilly Dunnage, an Australian returned from Paris, with a perfect, upwardly inflected accent, slowly letting show her soft heart and lifelong hurt in the film adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel The Dressmaker. Her only immediate ally is a cross-dressing police sergeant, doe-eyed at her Dior ensemble.

Tilly finds her half-crazed mother, Molly, played hilariously by Judy Davis, living in squalor in their fictional home town of Dungatar. The woman threatens to give her daughter a good whack if she gets too close. The stakes are high, and there is a mystery, as Tilly asks her mother: “Am I a murderer? Is that why I’m cursed?” The policeman, played by Hugo Weaving, wearing a thin, pencilled moustache and prancing in Tilly’s gowns to the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé, suspects not.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, too, has returned to her roots. The Dressmaker is her first film in 18 years, though she’s been producing, co-writing and adapting screenplays in that time. Designer Marion Boyce sourced the gorgeous fabrics in the film, although Moorhouse did a self-taught crash course in designers, coughing up $1500 for an annual subscription to look through the Vogue archives, which date to the 1930s. Winslet’s atelier-trained Tilly, equal parts Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall, wreaks revenge on her tormentors, who come crawling for her skills crossing the Madame Vionnet bias cut with Jacques Fath’s flamboyance.

Moorhouse’s warmth and high chuckle make her terrific company as we work our way through champagne and high tea at Melbourne’s worn but old-world chic Hotel Windsor. This was a favourite spot for her and her husband, fellow film director and writer P. J. Hogan, before Hollywood called.

When they met as students at Sydney’s Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early ’80s, Moorhouse was going on 21, and he going on 18. Hogan’s self-described “gauche, vulgar, big mouth” and her Ingmar Bergman-loving angst brought out the other’s humour and sensitivity respectively.

The Dressmaker is Moorhouse’s first Australian-based film as director in 24 years, with a screenplay she co-wrote with Hogan. It shares that camp, slightly surreal touch that marked Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding (co-produced by Moorhouse), which in 1994 catapulted Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths to fame. Dungatar could be Porpoise Spit’s rural analogue.

Moorhouse explains that when she and Hogan left for Los Angeles it was only meant to be for six months. But life intervened: they ended up staying 15 years, finally returning in 2010, to be closer to her ailing parents; to put two of their four children into special needs schooling that California was unable to provide; and to make the more personal films for which Hollywood studio executives shared little passion.

Before all that, Moorhouse’s psychological drama Proof – starring Russell Crowe as a kitchen hand who starts an affair with a housekeeper (Geneviève Picot) under the nose of her employer, a blind photographer (Weaving) – had its world premiere during the Directors’ Fortnight at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Its screening there prompted Steven Spielberg to contact Moorhouse, offering her a movie to direct: How to Make an American Quilt, starring Winona Ryder and Anne Bancroft.

It was then, in 1994, with Muriel’s Wedding and Proof both critical and commercial hits, that Moorhouse and Hogan packed up their young son, Dowie, and moved to LA. Money was and still is tight, but further success was forthcoming. Moorhouse made A Thousand Acres, released in 1997, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Colin Firth. The same year, Hogan released My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett. In 2003, he made his big-budget Peter Pan. Dowie, now 25, is a budding film director who calls himself Spike.

When I previously interviewed Moorhouse, in 2012, she had moved back to Australia and was preparing to direct her first play, Sex with Strangers, for Sydney Theatre Company. She was still patiently waiting for Winslet to say yes to The Dressmaker, and was diplomatic as she reminisced about those American years, saying she looked back “with great fondness” on a “dream come true”.

Today, however, Moorhouse is more candid about the Hollywood machine, about how tough it was to balance her life in the United States when the couple’s second and third children – Lily, now 19, and Jack, 11 – were born with autism. Their fourth and youngest is daughter Madeleine, now 8.

“LA started to feel to me in the way that Tilly felt about Dungatar,” says Moorhouse. “It was full of ghosts… Every street I walked down would bring back memories of days where I had been weeping outside a psychiatrist’s office, or getting the bad news from UCLA about my kids, or getting a terrible phone call from some crazy studio executive who didn’t care about what I was going through.” She laughs. “Just things like that.”

Moorhouse related to the physical struggles of Tilly and Molly in Rosalie Ham’s story, except, in her case, the roles were reversed. If her daughter Lily doesn’t want her hair brushed, she’ll sometimes give her mother a whack. “Lily will always need a carer,” says her mother. “She’s too innocent to know how to cross the road.”

Moorhouse spent time making videos to help Lily and Jack learn word associations. She became their therapist, as well as their mother, but finally relented and recognised she could allow others to help her two children reach their full potential.

In script development for The Dressmaker – finally filmed in Victoria’s Horsham and Melbourne’s Docklands Studios in 2014 – Moorhouse told Screen Australia she couldn’t wait to set fire to Dungatar. Wasn’t that a bit extreme, they asked? “Not at all,” she joked. “Fire is purifying, it’s cathartic. In fact, there’s a place I could think of right now I wouldn’t mind burning.”

She recognised that, despite many years in LA, she and Hogan still felt like outsiders, in a town that expected them to be part of a machine.

“I was feeling pretty isolated,” she says. “The whole experience of having kids with autism is pretty emotionally traumatic. It shakes everything you believe about yourself as a parent, makes you re-evaluate love and what life is about.

“All those deep questions, you are very much forced to face them head on. What is happiness? What do I want for my child? It was a pretty intense experience for me.”

 

Moorhouse has always been attracted to the darkness in films. Hogan is trying to persuade her next to direct a horror film he has written, but what she’d really like to make is a film about a creative couple, perhaps musicians, with autistic children, inspired by her and Hogan’s own lives. She would have liked to call such a film Changeling, referencing the unusual beings of Celtic folklore she says exhibited autistic symptoms, were it not for the title having been snapped up for a Clint Eastwood film on a different topic.

Moorhouse recognises kindred dark sensibilities in writers such as Rosalie Ham and Hogan, even when their humour is overt: there’s a sadness in Tilly underlying The Dressmaker, for instance, and in Muriel’s depressed mother, who committed suicide in Muriel’s Wedding.

A sudden darkness? Well, life is that way, she explains, keen not to come across as dour. “To me that is actually just a normal way of living,” she says, with a shrug, “because I’ve had a very fascinating life, full of ups and downs, and sudden moments of horror. Stuff happens and you just keep going. You have to laugh. You have to have gallows humour.”

Born in Melbourne in 1960, Moorhouse was one of three children to bank manager Jack Moorhouse and high school English teacher Denice. Her school, Vermont High, offered a film studies course. One of Moorhouse’s heroes, Gillian Armstrong, went to the same school.

Jack and Denice relocated some years ago to Warragul in West Gippsland, in a tree change. They decided to keep donkeys on the property adjoining the home they’d bought.

Moorhouse is grateful she and Hogan had come back to Australia, settling in Sydney, because Jack had been diagnosed with dementia. “Dad was afraid, and my mother was very afraid, because he was the love of her life. I just knew I had to get back to be close to her, so
I could zip down at a moment’s notice.”

Denice was full-time carer to Jack, and she was too proud to accept help in the home, which may explain why Jocelyn was uncomfortable at first with letting others help her with her own children.

Her mother, she says, was a “pretty extraordinary woman. She was trying to pretend my father’s life was not changing. She was 80, and we kept saying: ‘Mum, you need to accept help.’ And she would go, ‘No, no, no, your father is a dignified man.’ It was pride. She just couldn’t keep up.

“At one point, the house was covered in vines, and she’s always been a proud, beautiful gardener, but she didn’t have the strength anymore. Her bones were aching. She was like a little bird. She’d say, ‘I know, I know, it looks like no one lives here.’ I’d say, ‘No, it’s not true’, even though it was.

“She found me chopping all the vines. I couldn’t get anything past her. ‘No, Mum, it doesn’t look like Grey Gardens at all,’ ” she says, laughing.

 

When The Dressmaker was in pre-production, Moorhouse’s mother had an unexpected stroke and died. “I ended up losing the one I thought would live for a long time,” she says.

Then, while filming, Moorhouse got a call to say her father, nearing 90, was dying. He’d had a heart attack in the care facility at Warragul. Jack survived, but Moorhouse had to momentarily get Hogan to take over directing her comeback film. Here again was a stark reminder of their own mortality.

Moorhouse naturally worries what will happen to her family when she and Hogan, too, are gone. She remains optimistic that the National Disability Insurance Scheme will coalesce into long-term strategies for children such as hers as they become adults.

“I am hoping that Lily and Jack will be able to get to a point where they can make people understand their needs and be able to communicate if there’s something wrong. They can’t really, yet. So I do feel a tremendous protective role. Even though Lily is a young adult now, she’s always going to be like a little girl. I do have a lot of fears for her future, after I’m gone.

“I know that her siblings will do what they can to love her and make her safe. But that makes me feel worried for them, too, because that means they’re going to inherit the care of their siblings. So I want to make sure I’ve set up a situation where the government is doing most of the care, and all the siblings have to do is just turn up and love them.”

Youngest child Madeleine wants to be a writer, and discusses characters with her mother. Moorhouse and Hogan want to keep being role models for their children, and that ethos guides their career choices.

“We realised we chose to work in a very risky industry. We are always hoping we are going to be well paid for the next job, and certainly money is becoming more of a drawcard,” she says.

“But we could never do something just for the money, because to create a film without having the joy of making something that we’re proud of would just feel really empty.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Burning passion". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.