LOS ANGELES — The comeback tale of “The Dressmaker” director Jocelyn Moorhouse is a Hollywood story in its own right.
Twenty-one years ago, Moorhouse was handed the keys to the kingdom — or at least that’s how it felt at the time. The young Australian director had one well-received film under her belt, “Proof,” and was producing “Muriel’s Wedding” for her husband, director P.J. Hogan, when she got a call from Steven Spielberg. He asked if she wanted to direct the generational drama “How to Make an American Quilt.” The answer, of course, was yes.
“It was like the great hand of cinema had reached down and gone ‘we’ll take you now,'” Moorhouse said.
Suddenly she was rubbing elbows with Anne Bancroft, Maya Angelou and the scores of other fierce female talents of all ages in that lovely ensemble film.
She was still editing “Quilt,” and seven months pregnant with her second child, by the time she was meeting with Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange about her next project, the “King Lear”-inspired drama “A Thousand Acres.” That went into production soon after.
It was a meteoric rise that few in Hollywood ever get. Then she left it all behind for nearly two decades. Her 2-year-old daughter, Lily, had been diagnosed with autism.
“That changed my life and nothing else mattered,” Moorhouse said. “The film industry seemed extremely trivial compared to trying to work out the mysteries of my daughter’s brain.”
Then, in 2005, just as she was thinking about coming back, her son, Jack, got the same diagnosis and she wasn’t sure she’d ever go back to directing. All of her energy, creative and otherwise, and money were focused on the kids.
As the years went by and the kids made strides, she started wondering if she could start up her directing career again. She had continued producing for Hogan and would direct little films for her children too. She also had a fourth child who was not autistic.
And then producer Sue Maslin called. A big fan of “Proof,” Maslin wanted to see if Moorhouse would be willing to direct an adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s “The Dressmaker ,” now playing in limited release, about a woman returning to the small town that wronged her years ago.
“Jocelyn has the rare gift to be able to successfully walk the tightrope between comedy and tragedy on screen and no matter how fantastical, make it truthful at all times,” Maslin said.
For Moorhouse, it was like another hand coming down saying “we want you back now.” And she was ready.
She likes to describe the story as “‘Unforgiven’ with a sewing machine.”
Moorhouse recruited Kate Winslet for the leading role and Judy Davis to play her estranged mother.
“(Davis and Winslet) both loved that it was very funny and very sad,” she said. “I would say ‘that’s kind of how I see my life. It’s a tragicomedy!’ Live long enough and most people’s lives are.”
She also got her “Proof” star Hugo Weaving to play a cop with a secret and cast Liam Hemsworth as a strapping local who becomes smitten with Winslet’s Tilly — a relationship with an age difference that she knows makes some men wince.
“Liam didn’t. He’s like ‘uh, she’s gorgeous. Of course, my character would go after her. She’s the best thing to happen to this town. Why would I not want that woman?’ And I said, ‘you’re absolutely right, young man.'”
“The Dressmaker” breaks all the rules of what one might expect, not least because it’s a story told from a female point of view.
“It a very female film and some men might find that alien. As women, we are so used to watching films from a male point of view it’s almost like we speak two languages. We’re bilingual and we don’t even know it. They’re not. And that has to change,” she said. “Eventually a man will be able to see a woman’s film and not call it a woman’s film.”
Moorhouse lights up speaking about being “back.”
“I was born to do this and not able to do it for a while. As soon as I got back into it, every day was a joy on set. I just kept smiling. Even if it was a terrible day, I thought ‘my god! Thank god I’m a director again!’
Moorhouse has a handful of independent projects in the works, including a script she just finished about the marriage of composers Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann — and how a 20-year-old Johannes Brahms fell in love with the 37-year-old Clara.
Moorhouse loves highlighting the quiet subversion of these romances, saying she knows a lot of older women and younger men in relationships. Even her grandmother was 10 years older than her grandfather.
“Though if you listen to most blokes, they act horrified,” she laughed.
She’d happily work inside the Hollywood system again too, as long as she had creative control.
“I want to be able to keep my voice now that I’ve found it again,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere after this.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr