After 25 years, Tilly [Kate Winslet] returns from Paris to her grotty hometown and finds her mother immersed in squalor… Once-beautiful fabrics and silk lampshades now worn and bedraggled …and accompanied by possum droppings!
The squalor Molly has been living in had accumulated over the years as she became more derelict as well…
“We ended up resetting the ‘squalor’ quite a few times, in both the studio set and on location,” Set Decorator Lisa Thompson SDSA recalls. “It was more complicated to reset than the clean version, as there were so many details within the mess…”
“Tilly throws all the mess into a bonfire, which was shot quite a bit later in the schedule. So we needed to keep key continuity dressings for the bonfire scene, while re-using them to re-dress for squalor scenes,” Thompson smiles…
”The farmers near the location were lovely and we looked into lots of sheds full of cobweb-covered old furniture. The junk pile is made up of all the pieces that were too far gone for any other use but were perfect for this. We were happy to have it and they were happy to have us take it away. Nothing went to waste!”
”Our DP Donald McAlpine loved lots of practical lighting sources,” notes Thompson. ”And we were delighted to find a few vintage gems in our travels including a handpainted sea scene on a vellum drum with original trim…”
1951. Tilly Dunnage [Kate Winslet], a beautiful, talented misfit who had been working as a dressmaker in France for the great haute couture designers, returns home to Dungatar, a one-horse town deep in the wheat belt of south-east Australia.
After 25 years away – little has changed…
Writer/Director Jocelyn Moorhouse reveals, “I wanted to create a western feel, an archetypal, wasted, harsh landscape that these people have to survive in, but at the same time there’s a sense of humor to it all, and a sense of style. It was my intention for it to have a fable quality…a mean little town with a secret tries to ward off this avenging angel who descends on them.”
“Dungatar is a wicked amalgam, a small town that could be anywhere in the world, that despite its fantastical vision and eccentric occupants, is built around deep truths about human behavior. It’s the kind of home town you never want to go back to, full of nasty people and really frightening secrets.”
And yet Tilly, who had been banished from Dungatar as a child, returns to care for her ailing, unstable and oft booze-filled mother, Molly [Judy Davis], who has also been shunned by the townspeople but remains encamped in their house on a hill overlooking the town.
“As Jocelyn says, this is not any ordinary place, it’s from a fable and it needs to look like that,” notes Producer Sue Maslin. “The town saw better days a long time ago, it’s very worn at the edges, and this is where the art department—Production Designer Roger Ford, Set Decorator Lisa Thompson SDSA, Art Director Lucinda Thomson, Propmaster Jane Murphy and their teams—really came into play, because everything was built brand new, and had to be aged to look decrepit and windswept.”
“We didn’t try to make it 1950s, we actually went back before that because we wanted the impact of Tilly arriving back from Europe with her beautiful ‘50s dresses to be in huge contrast with the grotty little aging town,” Ford points out. “So we kept all the colors down, and the buildings very simple.”
He mentions in an interview, “I pushed for not filming the location until a few weeks into shooting, as this gave us a few more weeks to build. We shot many interior scenes of Mad Molly’s house within a studio at Docklands to start with—all the scenes between Winslet and Davis, two extraordinary, world-class actresses. 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.”
Thompson smiles, “Yes, we had to move our interior dressings from the stage to location on many occasions!! This was complicated by the fact that we were using antiques and vintage fabrics and therefore did not have doubles…not even for the curtains!”
Curious about myriad details, SET DECOR spoke further with the set decorator and the propmaster about the making of this unique, fabulist film!
SET DECOR: Tilly’s arrival! We so love the Golden Fleece iconography! We don’t have it here in the US…
Set Decorator Lisa Thompson SDSA:
Golden Fleece was a truly iconic Australian gas brand. Finding a 1950’s bowser was not easy. At the eleventh hour we found one, but the person who owned it had no intention of renting it for love nor money! Fortunately for us he finally succumbed, many cups of tea later…
The large sheep light on top was even harder to source, they are so very rare, so this had to be a prop make.
SET DECOR: The key set wasMolly Dunnage’s house, where Tilly comes home to find her mother immersed in squalor.There were several versions of the place, a progression. Please tell us about this!
Thompson: In terms of shooting schedule, we began with squalor then transitioned to clean. Initially the schedule didn’t require multiple resets of the mess, but this changed throughout the shoot. We ended up resetting the ‘squalor’ quite a few times, in both the studio set and on location! It was more complicated to reset than the clean version, as there were so many details within the mess.
Molly had been a seamstress, with not just the skill, but also the taste and sensibility that goes along with that. Amongst the squalor and neglect of her present circumstance were elements of this past. The once tasteful lampshades are dirty, worn and missing tassels…faded glory.
That is possum-dropping on the top of the dresser, that we made ourselves. Let me know if you ever need the recipe!
SET DECOR: Thanks, so very! And then Tilly’s cleaning process…
The majority of the cleaning process takes place just after Tilly arrives, and was shot quite early in the schedule. She throws all the mess into the bonfire, which, of course, we shot quite a bit later in the schedule! So we needed to keep key continuity dressings for the bonfire scene, while re-using them to re-dress for squalor scenes.
SET DECOR: The “After”… Tilly has made her sojourn to the dump-hill and gathered some possible treasures…
We did not have a big budget on this film. We sourced dressings from museums, thrift stores, e-bay, auctions and through word-of mouth-contacts. We found 1920s linoleum from old abandoned farm cottages and carpet from demolition companies. The farmers near the location were lovely and we looked into lots of sheds full of cobweb-covered old furniture. The junk pile is made up of all the pieces that were too far gone for any other use but were perfect for this. We were happy to have it and they were happy to have us take it away. Nothing went to waste!
Among Tilly’s finds from the junk pile is the mirror that became a key dressing element, both for the tree of mirrors and in the house. Sergeant Farrat uses that mirror to model some of his finds from one of Tilly’s tea chest deliveries. Keeping on top of mirror continuity was key!
SET DECOR: The palette is initially subdued, earthy except for wee pops of color…
Thompson: While the film is set in the 1950s, Molly’s palette is of the ‘20s, when the home was last cared for. The house in squalid disrepair features the odd pop of color, symbolic of happier times and of hope that once existed. The life, the color, arrives again with Tilly. It heralds a world far away, a life of glamour and excitement—Paris! A far cry from this narrow minded incestuous little town of Dungatar.
A lot of the fabric, story-wise, came from tea chest deliveries that Tilly received from Europe, so we worked within the timeline of the story to make sure the correct fabrics appeared at the right moment. It needed to coincide with each of the outfits that Tilly was sewing for the townsfolk, so set dec and props worked quite closely with costume for this. Often the fabric used by costume was in short supply, so we needed to source similar fabrics that we could access in larger quantities, so that it could be draped around the room, and also so that it could be cut, pinned and sewn by Tilly.
It was great fun sourcing the fabric for this film. We hounded vintage collectors, online stores and antique markets. It was not easy to find the volume of original fabrics but we used everything found…if not long enough for curtains, it became pillows or part of Tilly’s fabric collection.
Propmaster Jane Murphy: Thankfully, our extras costume supervisor had an extraordinary hoard of vintage fabric and she kindly allowed us to use it! Most of the trims/beading/feathers and sewing threads were hired from Vintage Fabrics in Sydney, or purchased at thrift stores and country markets. Everything was collected over a period of months, bearing our color palette in mind, of course!
We researched all the technical aspects of sewing/patternmaking and prep for each scene, according to what outfit was being ‘created’. Sometimes this meant that it was necessary to pre-make multiple versions of a garment (in several progressive stages), so that it could advance with time through a scene.
We acquired basic knowledge of the arts of: bias cutting, beading, fabric draping and millinery, and liaised regularly with the costume department on other techniques pertinent to each ‘commissioned’ outfit that Tilly created.
The Standby Props team did a magnificent job of keeping the continuity of the garment manufacture progression throughout the scenes at the table in Molly’s kitchen!
SET DECOR: And the sewing machine?
Producer Sue Maslin purchased the restored Singer 201K2 from Judy and Carl Bailey who have a business called “Singer Sewing Machine Info” in the UK.
Judy gave Kate Winslet some lessons on the machine before she left the UK to come to Australia. They covered some of the sewing techniques that are mentioned in the script, and by the time Kate arrived in Melbourne, she was very proficient, and had developed quite a special relationship with her Singer!
We purchased some other Singers in Australia, and cobbled them together to create background doubles for the rare 201K2, but it was very nerve-racking only having one hero Singer, as it had so many idiosyncrasies, and proved to be quite temperamental. Luckily, Kate was very determined, and was always able to tame the beast in time for the take!
We cast some duplicates of the hero Singer for the scene where Tilly throws the machine out the window of her bedroom. We had to make sure we had ‘weighted’ it correctly, so that the impact was convincing, but it could still be hurled a fair way by Kate.
Our location was on a wildlife reserve, and there was a very inquisitive wild emu, nicknamed Elvis, which used to hang around the set. He got the fright of his life as the machine flew out the window and landed a bit too close to him for comfort.
SET DECOR: Before we leave Molly’s/Tilly’s house, we do want to know about Tilly’s tea chests and tins! And the exquisite teapot!
The items enclosed in the chests were created with great attention to detail, as Jocelyn had said she wished to feature each one as Sgt. Farrat unpacked the tea chest. It was our big opportunity to give a complete backstory for Tilly, showing her life in Europe as it contrasted to life in Dungatar.
It included novels in French, a copy of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS by Gertrude Stein, and a tin of French chocolate powder, which was actually crumbed hashish. In the storyline, this was later baked into hash brownies, and given to the pharmacist’s wife Mrs. Almanac to relieve her arthritis…a nod to the recipe in the Alice B. Toklas cookbook and to bohemian Paris.
It also included precious fabrics and trimmings, exotic feathers and the fabulous length of pink silk which Sgt. Farrat hyperventilates over.
And yes, the teapot was beautiful—ceramic 1940s with a blue and gold tortoise-shell glaze. The teapot held pride-of-place in any Australian kitchen. We figured that Molly had once made tea for clients, but it had been sitting unused for many years until Tilly came through in her cleaning frenzy and reinstated it to its proper place on the kitchen shelf. Likewise for the butter keeper—it was Art Deco bone china, of Molly’s era, with a delicate yellow glaze and a beautiful shape.
We wanted to show that Molly had once been proud, but over the years the town had worn her down. These neglected objects told her backstory perfectly.
SET DECOR: And for the opposite look, please tell us about the colorful but OCD-perfect Pettymanhouse!
Thompson: Great fun to dress, but it was an empty Victorian house, which means large rooms and high ceilings. ie: lots of wallpaper and carpet! The wallpaper all came from Astek Inc in LA, who were fabulous. This was better for our budget than sourcing it here! They are always so helpful and I have used them on many projects.
The carpet was difficult, as we required so much of it. For the bedrooms, we used second-hand period carpet, but had to purchase the rest new. Luckily, we found a lovely retailer who kindly did us a great deal. The furniture was found at auction and the couch was a great e-bay buy. Not comfortable, but $100 for the set!
SET DECOR: There are classic town settings, a general store and a pharmacy, depicted in both eras…
We spent many hours of scanning and researching to create graphics for the products for the general store and the pharmacy. The products were a combination of real labels, from the 1920s for the flashbacks and from the ‘50s, that we cleared through the brands. We accessed digital copies of the labels from archives or the companies themselves. We also generated graphics from scratch, based on research from the time.
A great discovery was a mad ephemera collector who had 5 vintage caravans in his yard crammed full of period pharmaceutical bottles and packaging! Thank goodness for all those obsessive collectors!
SET DECOR: You mentioned “caravans” – do tell us about the McSwiney compound!
We sourced old canvas from a carnival tent and collected all sorts of old pieces of hessian and sacking as we travelled the country farms, and then, as they would have had to do, piecemealed it together. We found simple Depression era pieces made from packing cases and tin cans…old, ruined Victorian pieces that they would have found at the rubbish dump and repurposed. We collected many images as inspiration including those by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
SET DECOR: And Lisa, we heard that Elvis-the-emu became your shadow, following you everywhere! Other than that, what was the best thing about making this film?
The stars aligned, the team was amazing…we worked hard and laughed a lot, too.
Roger Ford is a true maestro! His knowledge of all things design and period is encyclopedic. Working with him is always a rewarding experience. The process starts from his drawings—from a blank piece of paper, Roger’s design evokes the whole tone and atmosphere that will be established well before any dialogue is spoken or an actor has walked onto the set. From the drawings, the final vision is realized from a process of a collaboration, discussion and teamwork.
And everybody went way above and beyond. No stone (museum, antique market, shed, contact, family member!) was left unturned.
All in all, a great shoot!