Why The Dressmaker’s Jocelyn Moorhouse took 18 years to make a movie

Film director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker is getting rave reviews. Photo: Pat Scala Judy Davis, Sarah Snook and Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: ”I never stopped wanting to make movies.” Photo: Pat Scala

More on The DressmakerMovie session timesFull movies coverage

It’s been 18 years since Jocelyn Moorhouse directed a movie, and 24 since she burst onto the scene with her first feature, Proof, but The Dressmaker has quickly proved to be the sort of comeback most people can only dream of.

In seven weeks, Australians have bought almost $17 million of tickets to see The Dressmaker. It has enjoyed rave reviews and great word of mouth. And it won four of the 12 awards for which it was nominated at Australia’s Oscars, the AACTAs – plus the People’s Choice Award. .

With all that, Jocelyn Moorhouse could be excused a little George Costanza moment – a fist-pumping “I’m back, baby, I’m back”. But that’s not her way. Rather, as we sit down to lunch at what used to be Gill’s Diner but is now Trattoria Emilia (in honour of the gorgeous food of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy), she comes across as bashful, a little surprised and, above all, grateful.

“This has been really healing for me,” Moorhouse, 55, says. “People seemed to be really happy that I was directing a movie again; they said this to me every day. I felt very loved. Now that I’ve had an incredibly beautiful experience, I think I could handle making movies anywhere.”

Moorhouse lives in Sydney with her husband PJ Hogan, director of Muriel’s Wedding, and their children (they have four). She has made movies in Melbourne – where she was born and raised – and Los Angeles, where she was taken under Steven Spielberg’s wing after he saw Proof. There she directed How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and was embraced by its cast of “grand divas”, including Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn. “The grandest of them all was [the poet] Maya Angelou,” she says. “Very tall, very formidable, an intellectual giant – and here I am getting her to vacuum!”

She was teased constantly by these grand women, “but I felt very encouraged and very loved. It really was a Hollywood dream. Every mountaineer dreams of Everest, and for me that was Everest. I was terrified but I was thrilled.”

Her second Hollywood movie, A Thousand Acres, was more of a challenge, with the tyro director trying to marshal the combined star power and demands of her leads, Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer. “They were amazing, scary women,” she says. “I think the two of them were very much in character most of the time – intense, angry sisters.”

When they went to Hollywood, Moorhouse and Hogan had one child; he is now studying filmmaking and well on his way to joining what she calls “the family business”. On Quilt, Anne Bancroft took her aside and offered some motherly advice. “She said to me, ‘Don’t stop at one child. I stopped at one and I felt he was lonely. So have another child Jocelyn’. So I thought, ‘I must do what Anne Bancroft says’. I’m very obedient. And that’s how Lily came to be.”

Aged 2, Lily was diagnosed with autism. “I just didn’t believe it at first,” says Moorhouse, who had suspected her daughter’s lack of speech was due to deafness. “It was so shocking I tried to think of anything else she might have. I thought it’s my fault because I’m not a traditional mother, so I bought her all these pots and pans, kitchen sets, but she didn’t want to play with any of them.”

The therapist told Moorhouse she was the only person her daughter would respond to, and if she wanted to help her she would have to give up work.

“I said, ‘Fine, I’m prepared to do that’. And she said, ‘No, I mean for a very long time’.”

And that’s when Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Hollywood dream came to an end.

What followed at times felt more like a nightmare; Moorhouse cheerfully admits that the small country town to which Kate Winslet’s Tilly Dunnage returns in The Dressmaker is for her a stand-in for LA, where she spent 15 years.

Hugo Weaving and Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker.

“I can’t go there without remembering the pain,” she says. “I associate it with my darkest times. The streets are haunted for me – you’d think by film experiences, but they’re nothing compared with cold-hearted neurologists. Until I found the help I needed, it was a very isolating place.”

Moorhouse and Hogan did find help for Lily, but it was all-consuming – six hours of therapy, six days a week. Though Hogan was working and doing well – Muriel’s Wedding (on which Moorhouse was a producer and second unit director) was followed by My Best Friend’s Wedding and Peter Pan – everything they earned was gobbled up by Lily’s therapy.

“People think we must be loaded but we’re not,” she says, and there’s mirth rather than resentment in her voice. “But it was worth it because our children are so much better than they would have been without the intervention.”

That’s right. She said children. Their third child, Jack, also has autism.

When that diagnosis came, it was too much. “I went into a deep depression,” Moorhouse says. “I couldn’t get out of bed, I was crying. It was the loss of hope. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.”

PJ saw the warning signs and got her to a doctor; she was prescribed anti-depressants, which “reset my brain again”, and she saw a counsellor who helped her find a way out of the darkness. “He said, ‘This is a major life trauma for you. Yes, you have reason to be sad but you don’t need to let it destroy and defeat you’.”

They took a less-intensive approach to Jack’s therapy because, she says, “we couldn’t as a family go through it again, being a lab for five years”.

Moorhouse talks about all this with the same mix of high drama and dark comedy that infuses her movies (and, it must be said, those of her husband). But there’s a coda that takes things into a realm some might consider just plain insane: despite the fact they had produced two children with severe autism, they went there again.

“Yeah, well that was a happy accident,” she explains of child No. 4, Maddy. “When we found out at the grand age of 45 – when I thought I was starting menopause but I wasn’t, I was actually pregnant, which shocked the hell out of both of us – we saw it as a gift.

“Yes, we were terrified but by that point, we loved our two autistic kids so much we thought, ‘Eh, if we get another one, we know what to do’.”

As it turns out, Maddy wasn’t born with autism.

“What if we’d said no, let’s not do it? She’s been the greatest gift to our family. She’s one of the most loving kids you could ever meet and she loves all her siblings, but especially her special ones.”

By this stage of the conversation we’ve picked our way through half a dozen dishes served as part of a shared antipasto platter (all very good, but the grilled polenta with gorgonzola is the standout) and are about to set about the mains – a wonderfully light lasagne with asparagus, speck and scamorza cheese for her (a dish I’ve eaten and loved here before) and a cheese and spinach ravioli topped with duck ragu for me (unbelievably rich, utterly delicious).

Between mouthfuls I ask her if she’s ever been tempted to mine this material for her work.

The lasagne with asparagus, speck and scamorza cheese at Emilia Romagna.

“I have actually,” she says. “I tried to write a script a few years ago but the children were too young. I didn’t know how it was going to end. I still don’t know how it’s going to end – but I know they won’t be cured, and I’ve come to terms with that.

“I realised I had to change,” she continues. “My expectation of them was unfair. It’s better not to have real expectations of any child. Just watch them grow and guide them. I want them to be happy, safe, not to be lonely, to be loved and to feel like they belong somewhere. As long as I can do my best to create that sort of world for them when I’m not here to protect them any more – that’s my goal.”

She is thinking about writing a book about all this, a guide for parents of autistic children. “I didn’t have that when I was starting out, and I felt very isolated and terrified. It would have been nice to read a book that said, ‘There is hope, it’s going to be OK, it gets better’. All I was reading was, ‘It’s so hard’ – which it is – and ‘I nearly killed myself’.”

In truth, even in the darkest years Jocelyn Moorhouse was never quite as far from our screens as it seemed. She and Hogan collaborated – “We do everything together”, she says – and he directed a movie she had written for herself, Unconditional Love (it starred Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett, it had a dwarf, a gay pop star and a serial killer and was, she says, just too much for the distributor, which sent it straight to DVD). In 2005, she came within a whisker of filming an adaptation of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus; the collapse of that project – and the role of her former good friend Russell Crowe in it – is a topic still a little too raw to dwell on.

Throughout the fallow years, she says, “I never stopped wanting to make movies”. She did, however, wonder if she would ever get the chance. Did you ever lose your nerve?

“No, I always knew I could direct,” she says. “I was losing hope.”

The call from producer Sue Maslin offering her The Dressmaker – because she remembered and loved Proof – still seems “slightly miraculous”, Moorhouse says, but now she’s back she is bursting with ideas for what comes next.

Moorhouse, left, with producer Sue Maslin.

First up is a romantic triangle featuring the 19th-century composers Clara Schumann, her husband Robert Schumann and their mutual love interest Johannes Brahms. “I do like the idea of unusual relationships,” she says, “and I do like triangles”.

She’s also open to the idea of trying to resuscitate Eucalyptus, though Bail is more interested in her looking at his latest book. She’s fascinated with the idea of bringing a fresh eye to the period of early white settlement, too.

Like PJ, she is drawn to stories of outsiders, because “that’s the story of our lives – trying to find acceptance for outsiders”.

Above all, she says, “I’m really drawn to the kind of storytelling that shows life can be hilarious and dark and incredibly sad all at the same time.”

Judging by Australia’s response to The Dressmaker, the feeling is mutual. Welcome home, Jocelyn Moorhouse. We’re so glad you could make it.

Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on twitter @karlkwin

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲美睫培训学校.

Posted in: 苏州美甲美睫培训学校