The Dressmaker is an upcoming Australian revenge comedy drama film, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, based on the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham. It has a star-studded cast which includes Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth among others.
What drew me into this movie was not just the actors but the set design. The scenes reminded me of the road trips I’ve taken; that five-hour journey from Melbourne to Adelaide or up to New South Wales during which there is that inevitable pit stop in some dusty, remote town which boasts just its two pubs, a post office and nothing else.
Sitting in an exclusive pre-screening of the much awaited movie by Jocelyn Moorhouse, The Dressmaker, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu as I took in the set, absorbing the trademarks of a rural Victorian town and trying to work out where I’d seen that general store before.
Only that I hadn’t.
I was provided an opportunity to chat with Roger Ford, the film’s production designer, right after the screening. Ford, an Academy Award nominated designer who has worked on films such as Babe, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Peter Pan, chose to work on The Dressmaker solely based on its script. He shared with me how he and his team created the set in the movie and how the desired effect of a Western town with an Australian characteristic was achieved.
Thanks for taking the time off to chat with us. Tell us, how was the overall experience of working on The Dressmaker? What were the challenges that came with working on this film?
The hardest thing about the film was the specific requirements of the book. The fictional town of Dungatar, and Mad Molly’s house, was set on a hill where she is required to hit golf balls down into the town. All that became very specific requirements in the design of the set; where the shop, the school and the pub was. We looked all around New South Wales for weeks initially as we hadn’t decided whether to shoot in there or in Victoria. In the end Victoria came up with a good deal.
So you built the town from scratch?
In the end we had to, but the budget didn’t really include the building of a town. Due to this we had to keep looking earnestly for a location. We came close a few times, but usually the towns in Victoria would be made of bricks and mortar, and I pointed out that it wouldn’t burn the way the film needed it to burn. It didn’t have to be an attractive town; it needed to be a rather ugly little place so the audience wouldn’t be upset when we burnt it in the film. It would have been awful if it were a pretty little town. So, in the end we built the place.
I thought the town reflected the exaggerated characters within the film; was this a factor within the set design?
The characters and the revenge that permeates the script gave us lots of room to move in the town design. Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan kept referring to a Spagetti western when we were talking about the design – a sort of town built out in the Nevada desert, seen in films like Unbroken. I think they wanted it to be a sort of gun-slinger feel where Kate Winslet’s character was wronged in her childhood, and returns to exact her revenge on the townspeople. That Western feel is there I think, but with an Australian characteristic to it.
So how many buildings did you end up constructing? Did you rely on Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) at all?
A dozen buildings, probably, not that many. There was an idea to supplement the build with CGI; at the end of the film I put together a huge file for the CGI/special effects people could use to make the town seem bigger. But in the end, they didn’t supplement the town at all, they thought Dungatar survived without the expensive CGI work. The grain silos within the film are CGI, which I think was really successful, and scenes such as the town burning were created with CGI. There was no way we could actually burn the town due to bushfire risk, and we were filming in December.
Tell us a little more about the location. Where was it actually filmed?
It was filmed In Mount Rothwell, in the You Yangs. Beautiful area, much painted by Fred Willliams. I said we should look at the You Yangs, where Heath Ledger filmed Ned Kelly. We were looking around and found a gully full of dead trees. It was a private property, actually, a fenced-in wildlife sanctuary. It was very secure and looked very remote on camera. It was absolutely perfect, and a short drive from Melbourne.
Where did you build the set? In workshops or on location? Did it take long to construct Dungatar?
We did some pre-fabrication of the buildings in Melbourne workshops, but most of it was built on location. We had an eight-week pre-production for a town that needed 12 weeks. For my own peace of mind, I worked on it way before pre-production started, with sketches and designs of the buildings. Time and money were tight, but there are no excuses for this in the movie, once you put it up on screen.
How long did the filming take, and did this factor into the time pressures around building the set?
I pushed for not filming the location until a few weeks into shooting, as this gave us a few more weeks to build the location. We shot many interior scenes of Mad Molly’s house within a studio to start with, all the scenes between Winslet and Davis. They were two extraordinary, world-class actresses, and it was a pleasure to watch them work. We then took it out to location to shoot day scenes, and then bought it back again to shoot the night scenes. It was too emotional and too difficult to shoot these night shots on a windy location shoot, so it had to be done in studio. We used a little CGI, using green screens, to achieve this.
Your role covers all aspects of the film’s physical appearance. With whom do you collaborate with on this?
There’s a huge collaboration within the art department.
Lisa Thompson (set decorator), Jane Murphy (props master) and Lucinda Thompson (Art Director) are all Melbourne people, and you really rely on the quality of your crew. Ben Corless was the construction manager, and pulled off an amazing feat in such a short period of time.
In sourcing the materials, did you source authentic equipment or ‘age’ the set yourselves?
We had to age the buildings ourselves. It was just too time consuming to go through the recycled stuff; little features like doors and windows we could recycle, but the bulk was done from scratch. We had a very good scenic art team to make sets appear to be something that they’re not.
You’ve been a pioneer in the production design industry for the better part of 40 years; how did you become involved in this field of work?
I went to art college, the Leicester College of Art in the UK, in the 60’s where I studied interior design. I then went to work for an architect in Finland and decided that it wasn’t for me. I was designing door handles that wouldn’t see the light of day for 5 years, until the building was completed. So I thought about film and television and went to the BBC, before moving to the ABC.
Considering your background in interior design, do you prefer being on location or within a studio environment when you work on your films?
Every movie is quite different; often a different crew and a different set of requirements. I mean, as long as the idea and people you work with are good I don’t mind whether the film is a period or fantasy or any genre, as long as the basic things like a great script and a director that you like and can work with are there. Who you work with on your own crew is up to you, largely.
Do you have any upcoming projects or films that we can expect to see in future?
No, not at the moment. I do pick and choose a bit more these days, sometimes there is a year or so between films because I don’t need to work so consistently. I do it because I enjoy it and I wait out for great scripts.
The Dressmaker will be in theaters from 29 October. Do take note of that dusty Dungatar town when you see it on the big screens.