From Proof to Muriel's Wedding: Jocelyn Moorhouse on the films that broke Russell Crowe and Toni Collette

The Australian director’s book Unconditional Love stresses a fabulous career is never as important as being a good human

What do a blind photographer and a bad-arse seamstress have in common? They are both unforgettable protagonists of Australian films played by A-list actors – Hugo Weaving in 1991’s Proof and Kate Winslet in 2015’s The Dressmaker respectively – and titanic figures in the oeuvre of the director Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Critics raved about Proof – a beautifully constructed character study with an impressive early supporting performance from Russell Crowe – and audiences lapped up The Dressmaker, turning the director’s madcap adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel into the 13th most successful Australian film of all time at the local box office.

Sandwiched between those two classics in Moorhouse’s body of work are two Hollywood movies: 1995’s How to Make an American Quilt and 1997’s A Thousand Acres. She reflects on the production of all these films in her touching new memoir, Unconditional Love.

The filmmaking side of things is only one aspect of the book. A significant element explores Moorhouse’s family life including the lives of her four children, two of whom are autistic. Through deeply personal ruminations about herself and her family, the director makes the point that being a great artist is never as important as being a good human being.

Unconditional Love nevertheless presents plenty of insightful tidbits into the making of her four features. Here’s a selection of them separated into each film – plus one more that Moorhouse produced rather than directed. Something about the wedding of a woman called Muriel.


Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe in 1991’s Proof
Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe in 1991’s Proof. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

The idea for a story about a blind photographer (Hugo Weaving) who has deep-seated trust issues and a nefarious housekeeeper (Genevieve Picot) arose from real life. The director explains that she “came across a few lines in a newspaper about a photographer who had been blind since birth”, which caused her to mull over the question: “Why would a person without sight want to take photographs?”

Conducting research for the film, Moorhouse visited a primary school class for vision-impaired children. There she was “intrigued to see them all handling 3D cardboard landscapes”, feeling a picture that was “perfectly in perspective, so the children could understand that when sighted people see mountains in the distance the mountains look small, even though we know that they are very high”.

This lesson was about communicating the meaning of the words “in the distance”. Moorhouse says this moment “planted itself deep in my heart” and “changed my way of thinking about disability”.

How to Make an American Quilt

Maya Angelou, Winona Ryder and Ellen Burstyn in the 1995 film How to Make An American Quilt
Maya Angelou, Winona Ryder and Ellen Burstyn in the 1995 film How to Make An American Quilt. Photograph: SNAP/REX

In the wake of Proof’s success, Steven Spielberg called Moorhouse to offer her the script for How to Make an American Quilt, an adaptation of the 1991 novel by Whitney Otto.

The film boasts a dream cast including Winona Ryder, Jared Leto, Claire Danes, Jean Simmons, Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn. It follows a masters’ student (Ryder) who spends a summer in a large old house with her grandmother (Burstyn), her great-aunt (Bancroft) and their quilting enthusiast friends.

Moorhouse auditioned the younger actors but, as she explains, “you do not audition movie legends. You meet them and chat over coffee or lunch. In that case, you are the one being auditioned by them”. According to Simmons, veteran Hollywood star, scenes from How to Make an American Quilt took place on the same sound stage where director Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 historical epic Spartacus was shot.

Moorhouse says “armies of quilters were required” to make five key quilts needed for the film, with three copies of each quilt to show them at various stages of completion. At the wrap party, the director was given a quilt with the signatures of the cast and crew sewn into it, including Spielberg’s.

A Thousand Acres

Moorhouse’s 1997 drama A Thousand Acres also has a top-notch cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth and Jason Robards. A modern retelling of King Lear, the story revolves around the family of Larry Cook (Robards) and explores confronting themes including child sexual abuse.

But the film, which was savaged by critics, is the black sheep of Moorhouse’s oeuvre. Following bad results from audience test screenings, the studio insisted on recutting it and the director was in effect removed from her own production.

The film’s new editor, writes Moorhouse, “seemed like a stranger who had come to kidnap my movie”. He had “total authority over me” and “after a week or so of watching my scenes being undone, recut and reshaped, I realised I had no role on the film anymore”.

The director says that in spite of everything she is still proud of A Thousand Acres, the highlight being receiving letters from people who suffered childhood abuse and were inspired by the film. Says Moorhouse: “This is reason enough to make me happy I directed the movie.”

The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker
Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker. Photograph: Allstar/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

With a tone pitched somewhere between an outback period piece and a Wile E Coyote cartoon, The Dressmaker is a strange revenge story led by a seamstress (Winslet) who returns to her hometown and declares, while sucking on a ciggie: “I’m back, you bastards.” One of the key shooting locations for The Dressmaker was nearby the town of Little River in regional Victoria. In this area, scenes from several other famous productions have been filmed, including the original Mad Max and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Recounting her first visit there, Moorhouse writes that “as we came over the crest of a hill I saw a magical landscape full of oversized boulders, dead trees and miles of grassy plains. There was Dungatar (the township where the film is set) the way I imagined it.”

There was just one problem: there was no town. So the film’s production designer, Roger Ford, decided then and there, according to the director, that “we were going to have to build one”.

On the day that the film was presented for the first time to test audiences, Moorhouse was “so terrified I was shaking”. But the enthusiastic crowd rated it highly. Afterwards an executive from Universal told her: “These numbers mean that The Dressmaker is going to be a huge hit.”

Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel in a wedding dress with her bridesmaids
Toni Collette (l) in Muriel’s Wedding. Photograph: Alamy

Moorhouse’s husband, PJ Hogan, got the idea for his Australian classic about a terrible love-hungry sad sack from a local Melbourne video store the couple used to frequent. A clerk at this store “was always talking about her imminent wedding to customers”, says Moorhouse. Her planning “seemed to be getting more and more elaborate”, so much so that “we began to wonder if she was making it all up”.

The idea to make the protagonist an ABBA fan came when the couple visited Hogan’s family in the Gold Coast, and drove around in his mum’s car, which contained an ABBA cassette tape.

Many young women were auditioned for the role of Muriel. The very first person who read for the character was a young and little-known actor by the name of Toni Collette. Watching her audition tape, Moorhouse turned to her husband and said: “You know it’s her.”

• Unconditional Love: A Memoir of Filmmaking and Motherhood by Jocelyn Moorhouse is out now through Text Publishing


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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