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Couture in a country town: The Dressmaker

The art of the seamstress requires perfectionism and patience – qualities also required in a film producer.

Sue Maslin never dropped a stitch while waiting years for the rights to Rosalie Ham’s novel The Dressmaker to become available.

Initially published to modest fanfare in 2000, The Dressmaker gradually drew a devoted following among readers who fell for its gothic mix of love, hate and fab frocks, set in a mythical country town in the 1950’s. Peopled with a rich cast of eccentric characters and a plot full of unexpected twists, it had obvious potential to reach a far wider audience in another medium.

Hugo Weaving is Sergeant Farrat in <em>The Dressmaker</em> Hugo Weaving is Sergeant Farrat in The Dressmaker

“It works on so many levels” says producer Sue Maslin, who, as a country girl herself, related to the story immediately. “The small town concept travels universally. And Tilly, the central character, who comes back to Dungatar seeking revenge after years working in the world of Parisian haute couture, is such a complex and an intriguing character: watching her is like dropping a stone in a pond and watching the ripples spread as her presence begins to take effect on the town.”

“The big advantage of the book is that it is so visual. The costumes and the irony of the middle-of-nowhere setting enhance the element of transformation that is so essential in a great film.”

Maslin doesn’t feel that being faithful serves a novel’s best interests when it comes to screen adaptation.

“The problem with most great literature is that so much of it is interior. So the challenge in adaptation is how much of the story can be externalised. You look for material that you can show and hear. In The Dressmaker, the entire story is told through the actions of the townsfolk and what happens when Tilly arrives. We see her power to transform the dowdy frumps through couture (thanks to stunning designs by Marion Boyce, best known for her beaded flapper dresses for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on the ABC) . We see everyone’s flaws, and how Tilly knows exactly how to expose and cover those up. And we see the development of her relationship with her mother which moves towards reconciliation.”

Just as a great couture dress is constructed from a flawless pattern, Maslin set about finding a writer who could cut and shape an elegant, well-fitted script.

“I thought of Jocelyn Moorhouse immediately because of Proof, which demonstrated her ability to see the comic and tragic dimensions in any given scene. Balancing on that knife edge is very tricky. But the timing was not good for her, so I had to wait a year, and went back to her at which point she said ‘Thank God, I’m ready now!’”

Scripting took two years. Moorhouse, then based in LA with her four children, worked closely with husband PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding).

“There were in excess of a dozen drafts” remembers Maslin. “One of the challenges was trimming from the original cast, which has so many characters and story lines – it was too crowded for a film.”

Judy Davis stars as Molly Dunnage Judy Davis stars as Molly Dunnage

A crucial advantage in casting was that Moorhouse was represented in LA by CAA, the same agency as Kate Winslet, making it easier to get the script to her.

“We waited eight months, because she’s so busy and gets so many offers," says Maslin, "and during that time we got a lot of pressure to consider re-casting. Then one day, out of the blue, she sent Joss an email saying ‘I’m in’! We could not believe it, so I put Joss on a plane to London immediately to meet with Kate and make sure.”

Then came another setback: Winslet fell pregnant and the shoot date had to be postponed for a year. In the meantime another piece of crucial casting was underway: the search for an authentic location that could become the remote town of Dungatar.

“Rosalie is definite about it being in a wheatbelt but on a hill. We drove around Victoria, NSW and into South Australia for three years looking but never found all the elements. Then one day the location department at Film Victoria rang up and suggested the back of the You Yangs near Geelong , where Heath Ledger had filmed Ned Kelly. It had a granite outcrop and a landscape of dead trees. Our DOP Don McAlpine took one look and said ‘We have to shoot here’.”

So Dungatar was built at Mount Rothwell, its verandahs and streets inspired by the lines and tones of Russell Drysdale’s paintings of Hill End. Two hundred and twenty locals were cast as extras for scenes shot at Mt Rothwell and in Horsham, with extras casting director Charlotte Seymour appealing for authentic country types to match the period. Locals also supplied  vintage vehicles and a local bakery provided period cakes.

At Mt Rothwell, the location fee meant that the biodiversity centre, which has breeding programs for rare and endangered wildlife, was able to employ another manager and significantly expand their conservation program.  Further boosting the local economy, a third of the crew stayed nearby at Little River. When production moved to Horsham, there were up to two hundred and fifty people on set, which meant that the production booked out every available motel room in the town and the crew were also regulars at the pub. "This community engagement had an ongoing effect; we’ve noticed that 800 of our nearly 4000 Facebook followers come from the Horsham region," says Maslin. Rosalie Ham has contributed a jaunty blog to the film’s website, as both author and extra.

The Dressmaker had niche appeal as a novel but as a film, Universal are aiming for a commercial hit on a broader scale, helped by a stellar cast (including Judy Davis, Liam Helmsworth, Hugo Weaving, together with rising Australian star Sarah Snook).

“It’s got that ability to cross over to a broader market looking for that blend of  sophisticated quality storytelling and pure entertainment that they are calling ‘smarthouse’,” says Maslin. Sounds like she has it all sewn up.