Australian author Rosalie Ham always knew her first book The Dressmaker would resonate with people. She had a feeling everyone would identify with the characters from a small country town, the landscape of her childhood, and feel empathy for them. But she never really believed it would ever be published.
Fifteen years later The Dressmaker is not only a best seller but now it is also a hit movie, starring Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Judy Davis and Sarah Snook. The Jocelyn Moorhouse film had an opening weekend box office of $3.1 million on 384 screens, as well as 12 nominations for the AACTA awards.
“My book became a word of mouth success. Some reviews were good, but the fact that it started to sell was a surprise to me. It still is. It’s still selling after 15 years. I also thought it would sink in the first week. I never visualised it as a movie. I ‘saw’ what I wrote as it was a way to get through the structure and to define the characters and the humour,” Ham said.
“But the film makers tell me it’s the juxtaposition of the couture against the rural setting that’s filmic, and the characters in the setting, the dramatic elements of the story played out on that landscape.”
There’s an early scene in the book that describes Tilly (Kate Winslet) stepping off a bus, back in her childhood hometown. This scene is replicated beautifully in the film version.
The door of the bus swung open and the glow from the interior beam struggled out. A slim young woman stepped lightly into the fog . Her hair was lush about her shoulders and she wore a beret with an unusually cut overcoat.
“When I was a kid, the bus would pull away, leaving passengers in the dust in my small town. There was always a story attached to those strangers, and they are either still there in Jerilderie, or were run out of town on the next bus, depending on their story. It’s a classic scene, and I think Kate Winslet knew that when she stepped off the bus into Dungatar. But it was even more surreal when I stepped off the bus into Dungatar as an extra,” Ham said.
“I met Tilly and all those other characters from my imagination. That was truly surreal. Some of them spoke to me in character and others spoke to me as themselves - rather, as people I’d been watching on TV for a long time. I had a physical reaction when I saw Kate Winslet, Liam Hemswotth and Judy Davis acting out the subtext of a scene I’d written years prior. It was amazing to me that they had gleaned what my imagination implied, and I understood then, what readers felt when they read scenes in one of my books. It was the most truthful thing I’ve experienced.”
Ham said she's very pleased with the film -- and an added bonus was that she was able to be an extra on set, giving her an insight to the film making process most authors are denied.
"I was even more pleased to be an extra and see it all happen before me. It was a once in a lifetime event and I learned a lot about adaptations and filming and life as an extra. I think it’s a fine adaptation that plays well to a cinema audience who are settled in their cushiony seats waiting to be transported, surprised, shocked, saddened, amused, awed and excited. The beautiful costumes are made for the characters that presented themselves to Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson and their fabulous team, and they are wonderful. Audiences sometimes see the film again just to look at the costumes!"
Ham has some wise advice for writers who might suspect they have a masterpiece in their hands but are lacking in confidence. It's all about being able to take rejection.
“Rejection is part of the publishing process. There a loads of anecdotes from writers citing their rejection letters. But you should never assume that just because you’ve written something it should be published - it might not be publishable, it might not be a product that will sell, or it might be brilliant. It’s a matter of your manuscript landing on the desk of a sympathetic reader or publisher at the right time."