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Books at MIFF: how The Dressmaker was adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet

The film of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel The Dressmaker will gain greater recognition for the author. EPA/TAL COHEN

Books at MIFF: how The Dressmaker was adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet

The Books at MIFF event - held yesterday in Melbourne – saw producers mingle with publishers in the never-ending search for the next book-to-screen adaptation. Although Hollywood is based on adaptation, the Australian film industry has always relied much more on original screenplays, and that is something that Books at MIFF – now in its ninth year – aims to redress.

The Dressmaker, to be shown for the first time at Toronto International Film Festival in September, could well be Australia’s next highly successful adaptation. Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth, the film was adapted from book to the screen by Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan.

The Dressmaker (2015) trailer – Jocelyn Moorhouse.

For those who don’t yet know, The Dressmaker (2000) is a Gothic novel, written by the Australian author Rosalie Ham.

It tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who returns to her childhood town of Dungatar to take care of her ailing mother Molly. While people in the town are blown away by Tilly’s dressmaking skills, learned in Paris, she plots and exacts revenge on those who have wronged her in the past.

So what did we learn about the book’s journey to screen adaptation at yesterday’s event?

The Books at MIFF panel featured the book’s author, Ham, alongside screen producer Sue Maslin, the film’s director Jocelyn Moorhouse and the book’s publisher Michael Duffy.

The Books at Miff panellists (L-R): MC Sandy George; panellists Rosalie Ham, Sue Maslin, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Michael Duffy. Photograph courtesy of the author

Ham – who studied Creative Writing and Editing at Melbourne’s RMIT – told us her lecturers advised students to write a marketable idea, and that she soon realised The Dressmaker wasn’t what they had in mind. It didn’t have a typical story arc, and it lacked the sort of happy ending publishers usually go for.

Undeterred, Ham decided to write it anyway, to get all those things “that got up my nose” out of her system, and then she could start her second novel, the one that would hopefully be marketable.

But the book was picked up by Australian publishers Duffy and Snellgrove. It “erupted from the pile”, according to Michael Duffy, who was also on yesterday’s panel:

We began our publishing business intending to do lots of fiction, but ended up publishing almost none […] It seemed that most of the manuscripts we received were written by bored public servants about their fairly uninteresting lives.

Duffy and Snellgrove published the book without making any stab at sales projections, but it sold steadily thanks to word of mouth and positive reviews. Anyone who has read it seems to love it, including film producer Sue Maslin.

Maslin was returning from a shoot in the Pilbara region (Western Australia), for the feature film Japanese Story (2003), when she saw The Dressmaker in a bookshop and was drawn to the author’s name. Wasn’t that the Rosalie Ham she went to school with, who had grown up in rural Jerilderie with Maslin? It was, and as soon as she read the novel she was hooked:

I just fell in love with it immediately. It captures brilliantly what it’s like to grow up in a small community, and what happens if an outsider comes to town.

Maslin got in touch with Ham, only to find out that the film rights had already gone. Ham explained:

I had ten offers on the table within weeks of the book coming out. I selected a producer who seemed passionate about the book and determined to make it happen.

But it was the producer’s first project, and over time Ham began doubting it would be realised in the way she had envisaged, if at all.

In the meantime, Maslin and Ham played golf. Maslin said:

We wanted to resume our childhood friendship and golf seemed an excellent way to do it, even though we both play terrible golf. We never discussed the book. Once a year I asked politely how it was going, and that was it.

Ham used the hours spent wielding golf clubs to find out more about the film industry, and eventually, when the option to the film rights expired, she turned to Maslin, who jumped at the chance.

Maslin approached US-based Australian director and writer Jocelyn Moorhouse, who had directed Proof (1991) – another drama with an ironic tinge. But Moorhouse wasn’t interested:

I didn’t even read it, as I was having a major personal drama at the time. My son had just been diagnosed with autism, and I wanted to focus on that.

So Maslin was patient. A year later she called Moorhouse and suggested a meeting as she was travelling to Los Angeles. Moorhouse said:

I’d read the back cover and it was interesting, but I didn’t want to read the whole book in case I really wanted to do it, and I couldn’t. I told Sue she seemed a great producer but I couldn’t do it, and she said just read the book, and so I did and I was hooked.

By then Moorhouse’s son was in a much better place than he had been previously, and reading the book made Moorhouse feel homesick for Australia. So she agreed to do it:

As soon as I met Tilly [the protagonist] in the book I fell in love with her, because she’s a femme fatale. And then I read about the cross-dressing policeman …

She didn’t know how she could adapt a novel with so many characters into a feature film. But she did know that, if she could manage it, the screenplay would have the power to attract actors of the calibre of Kate Winslet and Judy Davis – they would be attracted by the complex roles.

Maslin tracked down Winslet’s London agent and pitched the book to him. Winslet considered the role, and since Moorhouse and Maslin were sure she was their perfect lead, they waited for her decision, which was an eventual yes.

The film was financed with Winslet on board, but as they prepared for the shoot Winslet told them she was pregnant. That delayed the film for a year, which meant re-financing the project.

Ham jokingly told the audience that, since she had done a year on screenwriting at RMIT, she felt qualified to have a shot at adapting the book herself – but as soon as she realised she would have to cut out many of her beloved characters, she realised she couldn’t:

A lot of the film’s dialogue is from the book, but we had to make the story more of a three-act structure and focus on Tilly and her mother as the throughline.

For publisher Michael Duffy, the film will provide new readers for the book, especially overseas where it will now be published in more than 16 territories.

Has it been lucrative for the author, MC Sandy George wanted to know?

I get A$2 per book sale and that ticks over nicely and pays my credit card bill. But when I got the big cheque from Sue, that paid off my mortgage.

Books at MIFF is part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs until August 16. Details here.

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