Bringing The Dressmaker To The Big Screen

A delightful film that transform you in many ways

If there is one film that is divinely unique in every possible way, it’s the quirky Australian charmer The Dressmaker, a film that transform you in many ways.


This enchanting creation was written by husband-and-wife team Jocelyn Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan, based on the novel “The Dressmaker” by Rosalie Ham, with Moorhouse in the director’s seat

It tells the story of the beautiful and talented Tilly Dunnage (Academy Award winner Kate Winslet). After years working as a dressmaker in exclusive Parisian fashion houses, Tilly returns home to a town in the Australian outback to reconcile with her eccentric mother Molly (Academy Award nominee Judy Davis). She also falls in love with the pure-hearted Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), and armed with her sewing machine and haute couture style, Tilly transforms the women of the town, exacting sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

Rosalie Ham

Rosalie Ham is a novelist who also teaches Literature at Trinity College (Pathways School), the University of Melbourne. She holds a Masters degree in Creative Writing (RMIT, 2007), and an Associate Diploma of Arts (Writing and Editing, RMIT, 2005) and Bachelor of Education (Drama and English, Victoria University, 1989). As well as numerous plays, short stories, blogs, reviews and articles in various newspapers and magazines, Rosalie has also published three novels; The Dressmaker (2000), Summer at Mount Hope (2005) and There Should be More Dancing (2011). Rosalie is currently working on her fourth novel.

When The Dressmaker was published in the year 2000, producer Sue Maslin saw the novel and recognised the name of the author, Rosalie Ham.

“I went to school with a Rosalie Ham – it turned out it was one in the same” Sue Maslin explains. “We both grew up in a little country town called Jerilderie, in the southern Riverina area of NSW, and we both were at boarding school in Melbourne which meant from a very early age catching a bus that took five and a half hours to travel up to Jerilderie and drop us off in the middle of the night to be picked up by our parents.”

Sue Maslin read and loved the book because it encapsulated, without being nostalgic or sentimental, something raw and honest and funny and tragic about what it’s like to grow up in a little country town – “the kind of place where everybody knows everyone else’s business and you can tolerate the worst evil and the greatest of excesses amongst each other just as long as you are not an outsider.”

The Dressmaker was Rosalie Ham’s first novel.

Rosalie Ham says: “I went to a writing course and they said ‘you’re going to write a novel, a practice novel, you probably won’t get this novel published because people don’t often get their first novel published’. And I thought, fine, well I’ll just put everything in. ‘Everything’ ended up being all the big themes – death, marriage, betrayal.”

And so Tilly Dunnage, her mother Molly and the fictional town of Dungatar were born.


Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth and Judy Davis in The Dressmaker

The character of Tilly seems drawn, at least in part, from Rosalie’s mother. “My mother was one of the dressmakers in Jerilderie. She happened to be divorced, and so there was a certain amount of scandal that was attached to that. She had to make a living as a seamstress. And I saw the difference in her role as the seamstress as opposed to the other ladies who were in the hierarchy of the town that wanted beautiful frocks made by her.

Having someone like Tilly return to the town as an inferior person but actually impossibly beautiful and superior, juxtaposed against the people of the town, that’s the point I wanted to make.”

Sue Maslin continues: “I fell in love with this idea of going back to your village after many years away and being the proverbial stone that’s dropped into the pond that creates the ripples going out – It captured something that I recognised.”

Sue’s securing of the option for the film rights would prove a little more difficult.

Sue says: “I got in touch with Rosalie because I was dying to see if there was some way that I could get rights, but sadly they’d already been assigned to another producer. We met up anyway and started to get to know each other again. We never discussed the making of the book into the film at that point because it was with another producer but we started playing golf.”

“We’re both very bad golfers, but there’s nothing better than being on a golf course with a novelist talking about life, death and the universe. Then one day Rosalie turned around to me and said, the rights to The Dressmaker are coming up, do you think you’d be interested, and it was like: ‘YES!’”

Rosalie Ham had to face the natural fear of a novelist in ‘handing over’ their work. Building up this renewed friendship and a mutual understanding with Sue Maslin helped.

“When someone comes to you and says I want to turn your book into a film, it’s very exciting but then there’s also some sort of fear that they’re going to change it.” Explains Rosalie. “But, Sue understood exactly what it was about. I had seen Road To Nhill (which Sue Maslin had produced in 1997), and loved that film because it understood the relationships between characters in a small community, and human nature. So once the option had expired and Sue told me what she wanted to do, it was a fait accompli.”


Jocelyn Moorhouse was born in Melbourne and graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 1984. She wrote and directed for numerous television shows prior to writing and directing her feature film debut Proof, which starred Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe. Proof had its world premiere in Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. The film screened at numerous international film festivals, wining many awards including the Sutherland Trophy by the British Film Institute, Critic’s Choice Award at Sao Paulo International Film Festival and Bronze Award at Tokyo International Film Festival. In 1994, Moorhouse moved to Los Angeles to direct How To Make An American Quilt, which starred Winona Ryder and Anne Bancroft, and A Thousand Acres, which starred Michele Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Colin Firth. She works closely with her husband PJ Hogan and was producer on his films Muriel’s Wedding, Unconditional Love, Peter Pan and Mental. She directed her first play, Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, at the Sydney Theatre Company in August 2012.

How did JOCELYN MOORHOUSE come into the story?

Sue explains: “I needed somebody that could capture that edge between comedy and tragedy that’s so essential to the story, and the person that I kept going back to was Jocelyn Moorhouse, mostly on the basis of her beautiful, funny, sad film Proof which was the film that really announced her as the extraordinary director that she is. I flew to Los Angeles to meet Jocelyn and we had a really great conversation about it but she was not ready to make the film at that time.”

However, as with many elements of this story, persistence was key.

Jocelyn Moorhouse recalls: “I suggested other people she could go to, but Sue wouldn’t take no for answer. She kept coming back to me every couple of months – ‘are you still too busy?’ – so I finally read the book, immediately fell in love with it and was completely obsessed with turning it into a movie.”

Jocelyn came on board, not only as director but as writer of the screenplay.

Rosalie Ham says: “I knew that once I signed the option, I had to let it go. It was no longer my project. When Sue mentioned that she would like to get Jocelyn to write the screenplay, I knew that Jocelyn would do a wonderful job because of PROOF. It’s a film I’ve never forgotten.”

The natural fears remained, but when Sue and Rosalie drove down to Warragul in rural Victoria and met Jocelyn at her parents’ home, Rosalie took a stack of books that she’d referenced to write The Dressmaker. In that general enthusiasm of looking through the books, and saying “Oh my goodness, look at that frock”, or “That’s wonderful and this is a twill, this is how they do this”, Rosalie knew that Jocelyn was just as enthusiastic and her ideas about the palette, the designs, the story, were aligned with the spirit of the book.

“Once we drove away from Warragul on our way back to Melbourne,” recalls Rosalie “I remember thinking ‘It’s all going to be fine, it will be good’.”

Sue Maslin says, “Rosalie’s been our touch stone. Rosalie told Jocelyn her thoughts about the characters, but they were offered, they were never forced or pushed onto us at all, she was completely and utterly trusting of what we’re doing.”

Jocelyn Moorhouse says there were many things that drew her to want to adapt the book. “The story itself is really irresistible. I love revenge, the concept of what drives a person to want to punish evil doers for what they did in the past. I loved the character of Tilly, this incredibly strong woman who has a mysterious quality and a tragic past. I also loved the mother-daughter relationship and the possibility of bringing two extraordinary actresses together to fire off each other. The love story is very beautiful, it’s also very dark and funny and it has an epic quality on the emotional level.”

Jocelyn continues: “I wanted to create, in the script and onscreen, a western feel, an archetypal, wasted, harsh landscape that these people have to survive in, but at the same time there’s a sense of humour to it all, and a sense of style. It was my intention for it to have a fable quality – a mean little town with a secret tries to ward off this avenging angel who descends on them.”

As the writing began, Sue Maslin loved where Jocelyn took the script.

Sue says: “It was clear to me that if you just played it for the comedy, you could very quickly descend into caricature. At all times, sitting under the comedy, you have to have an equal measure of pathos, so that you appreciate what is emotionally driving these characters at any given time. Jocelyn understood all of that. The level of detail that’s in the script is quite extraordinary, it works on many, many levels.”

Sue waited until the script was advanced before asking Rosalie to read it.

“The screenplay arrived and it sat on my coffee table” Rosalie recalls. “I picked it up every now and again and flicked through it, to make sure that the key scenes that I deeply wanted to remain in the screenplay were there.

Sue Maslin phoned me after 24 hours and said ‘I feel sick, I haven’t heard from you. You’ve got to tell me what you think.’ I said “It’s wonderful, you go ahead and make it!” but I didn’t confess to Sue that I hadn’t really read the screenplay. It’s not my thing – it’s their project. I wanted to be surprised. I was perfectly comfortable that they could do whatever they needed to do. I was concerned about the big things remaining in, and once I knew they were still there, I was perfectly happy.”

It was clear to Sue Maslin from early on that this was not going to be a low budget film. The setting and costumes were going to be period – not only that, but couture period design. “That coupled with the fact that we were setting the film in a country location with a cast of thousands, big ensemble pieces, this was going to mean for an Australian budget, it was going to be on the higher side.”

To access such a budget, casting was key. From the outset, Sue and Jocelyn needed to start thinking about actresses with sufficient calibre and box office clout, as well as the talent and extraordinary range to embody Tilly.

Jocelyn says: “I have loved and wanted to work with KATE WINSLET ever since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures. When I was writing the screenplay, as I thought about who could play Tilly, Kate was at the top of my list. It’s her strength, her beauty, her sensuality and also the fact that she can become such a complex character.”

When Sue Maslin sent the script to Kate Winslet, Jocelyn remembers saying to Sue: “What’s the harm, she can only say no, or she might say yes.”

Sue Maslin continues: “We didn’t quite realise at the time how long these processes take but we were very happy to wait and we didn’t offer it to anyone else in that time.”

Jocelyn Moorhouse remembers: “We kept wondering if we should just give up, but I couldn’t get the idea of Kate Winslet playing Tilly out of my head, so I said let’s just keep waiting, and finally one day I received the most beautiful, effusive email from Kate saying ‘I love this character, I know how to play her, I know her, yes I’m doing it.’”

the-dressmaker-movieKate Winslet remembers: “When I first read the script I was very taken by how different she was as a woman to anything I’d read for quite a while. There’s a strength in her that is unflinching and almost aggressive at times because she has had to overcome so many challenges in order to stay strong and to be the person that she is.”

“She’s an Australian and I always love playing characters that come from somewhere else. I was taken with Tilly being surrounded by the Dungatarians, as we ended up calling the locals during the shoot – her story is set against such a hilarious backdrop, the irony in that really struck me. It’s a risky, fun, comedic, dark, sometimes strange story with a very strong mother-daughter relationship at its heart ultimately. So, it was a combination of all of those things really that grabbed me.”

Like Sue Maslin, Rosalie Ham and Jocelyn Moorhouse, Oscar™ nominated Director of Photography DON MCALPINE also grew up in rural Australia. For Don, coming to know the script and form the visual execution of the film was a process of absorption that began years before the first day of shooting.

“I knew Jocelyn was writing the script two or three years ago before production started” says Don McAlpine. “On most films I arrive three weeks before shooting starts, but this wasn’t the case. I enjoy the way she and P.J. Hogan (Jocelyn’s husband and a film director) make films. I’ve reached a stage in my career where I pick jobs where I’m going to get something back out and I think this is one of them.”


Crew and cast share their thoughts on the riches THE DRESSMAKER will offer audiences.

Jocelyn Moorhouse: “The audience can expect to have a lot of fun. I’ve had a lot of fun making it, and I know the actors have. It’s got some beautiful scenes, some hilarious scenes, and it’s visually really fun. People will be surprised because it’s not going to be like a lot of other movies. Once they’re in our world, they’re going to have a great time.”

Sue Maslin: “I want audiences to have uninhibited pleasure in this film. Pleasure with costuming, with the performances, with the story and to have a big fat movie experience where they can laugh, cry, and then come away having a real sense of triumph in Tilly’s journey.”

Rosalie Ham: “I think audiences are going to laugh, to cry, to be aghast. And I think they’re ultimately going to come away thinking about these big themes; hypocrisy, bigotry, the dramatization of all those big themes in life. With those elements, and the fun and the fashion, it’s going to be a very vibrant experience and I think that that’s what cinema should be about.”

James Mackay: “Audiences have got a lot to look forward to with this one. There are so many big universal themes and so many things that just slip straight through your defences and hit you right in the gut or in the heart. and they’re going to have a lot of laughs along the way.”

Sacha Horler: “I think it’s going to be funny and quite mad and a really great journey. There are some extraordinary actors in this film. Judy Davis, Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, I’d buy the ticket just for those four.”

Caroline Goodall: “It’s going to be so much fun, I really think that audiences are going to be roaring with laughter. It’s also got all the depth that you could possibly want, a really beautiful love story, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I really think it’s a movie for everyone.”

Barry Otto: “The journey is so absolutely unpredictable. There’s nothing like being just ahead of the audience, and once they catch up to you, the shocks that come. Just go for this ride that will make you cry and laugh, it’s just got all the elements of life.”

Rebecca Gibney: “I think it’s going to be a visual feast, an assault on the senses.

So many films don’t do that, or they use tricks to do that, CGI and this is art on display – incredible costumes, incredible makeup, a beautiful love story, extraordinary performances, beautiful writing and extraordinary direction and amazing cinematography. It runs the gamut.”