100 Women In Film: An interview with Gillian Armstrong

Here, revered Australian film director Gillian Armstrong talks about being amongst the “chosen few” at film school; her amazement at learning of unsung Australian cinema hero Orry-Kelly; and the importance of costume design on any director’s work.

Gillian Armstrong is talking about her dislike for documentaries. It’s not, er, entirely what I was expecting, given that she has forged an internationally acclaimed, award-winning path in the genre and she is in fact talking to me on the eve of premiering a new one.

“I absolutely abhor re-enactments in documentaries,” she shudders. “Bad drama re-enactments reinforcing what often you’re already being told (on screen).” It harks back to her early days at AFTRS, where Armstrong was one of just 12 students selected into the prestigious Australian filmmaking school’s very first year (alongside future Australian directing greats Phillip Noyce and Chris Noonan, no less). Armstrong was strongly opposed to completing the documentary component of the course. “I said ‘I only want to learn about drama, I know I’ve got so much to learn – do I have to do a documentary?’ ” Eventually they sort of “compromised” she admits, with Armstrong settling on a semi-dramatised doco about a gay guy’s Saturday night out (Satdee Night) where she followed her gay best friend for a weekend and blew the lid on gay dance culture in Sydney.

She couldn’t have known it then, but this short would become a cornerstone of her documentary-making style, echoed now, some four decades later, with her latest film Women He’s Undressed. Armstrong is largely considered to be Australia’s “first” female director (an accolade that isn’t strictly accurate, given the feat had been accomplished at least some 40 years prior) but nevertheless recognises the significance of her debut feature My Brilliant Career in 1979, for which she was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes as a mere 20-something.

Since then Armstrong has served up an eclectic career bubbling with box office hits (Little Women), masterful features (Oscar and Lucinda, The Last Days of Chez Nous) and the rare fizzer (Fires Within). But it is her documentaries that have really set her apart, such as the Sundance-nominated Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst and the five-part (and counting) Adelaide girls series.

Right at the end of her new film Women He’s Undressed – a documentary chronicling the life of Oscar-winning 1950s Australian costume designer to the stars, Orry-Kelly, who until now has been all but unknown in this country despite costuming 300 Hollywood films and winning three Oscars – there is a final dedication when the credits roll. ‘For Stu’, it says. It’s an endearing tribute to her “oldest best friend” Stuart Campbell, the same man who inspired that very first documentary short Satdee Night, who passed away four years ago and whom Armstrong says was a big presence on this latest work too.

I was thrilled to sit down with Armstrong last month on the eve of the Sydney Film Festival 2015, where her new film Women He’s Undressed made its world premiere – and opens in cinemas across Australia this week. To hear more from the filmmaker herself, read our full chat below.

Les Girls - Gene Kelly - Loews Copyright 1957
Les Girls (1958), one of Orry-Kelly’s three Oscar wins for Best Costume Design (Image: Loews Copyright 1957)

This is a bit random I know, but I actually met the head of AFTRS, Sandra Levy last night in a change room of all places. She seems very nice! Was she there when you studied at the school?

No, I mean I went there many years ago. I was actually in the very first year of Australian Film Television Radio School. I originally went to Swinburne in Melbourne, straight out of high school. Then I was in my, I suppose I was in my early 20s, when they announced they were going to have a national film school. There was no film school in Sydney (at the time), none anywhere in Australia.

After I’d been working for a year (in the real world) as an assistant editor I thought, Oh my God, how much time I’ve wasted. In the real world you don’t get a chance to make your own films or be creative. And even though I was working as a junior assistant editor and it looked like I could go on to be an editor, I just thought, there’s so much I still need to learn.

So I saw the ad for the first year of the national film school (AFTRS) and they interviewed people from all over Australia. You had to be under 25 but have made some films, so it was basically a postgrad course. A one year course. They only selected 12 people and in my year was Phillip Noyce, who went on to do Newsfront and so on (most recently Salt and The Giver) and Chris Noonan, who went on to do Babe.

How amazing!

They interviewed 2500 people from around Australia. There were just so many people to choose from that they narrowed it down into 12. And that year we got to make three films each and work with professional crews and professional actors and it was absolutely fantastic.

Little Women Winona Ryder Kirsten Dunst Susan Sarandon
Gillian Armstrong directed 1994’s Little Women starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder

I can’t even imagine how exciting that must have been at the time, to be in the very first class of that school. So cutting edge.

The 12 of us felt like we were the selected few, the chosen few.

How many women were there?

Two women and 10 men.

Who was the other woman?

Robin Murphy, she was a passionate social documentary director, I think she ended up going and working out of the media but more for social change and women’s issues and things.

When you were at school, had you toyed with the idea of documentaries?

Oh me? No!

Actually, in my year at the film school… (which was just, by the way, in a little office building out in Chatswood)… we were meant to do one short drama, then a short documentary and then a final short drama. And I actually protested and said ‘I only want to learn about drama, I know I’ve got so much to learn – do I have to do a documentary?’

They sort of compromised. I did a semi-dramatised documentary in the end called Satdee Night. Which was about a gay guy’s Saturday night out, and so we sort of re-enacted the lead-up to the big Saturday night, then we shot in a real gay dance. It was kind of break through (at the time) when it was still like a hidden thing; we were the first crew ever to shoot in a gay dance, you know. So I didn’t want to do documentaries, my interest was always in drama and actors.

Gillian Armstrong
Gillian Armstrong with cinematographer Anna Howard

Wow. And now to think as well with Women He’s Undressed, it’s another documentary chronicling the life of an outspoken gay man (which was difficult in those times). It’s like you feel a responsibility to make sure certain stories are getting told.

I have to say, my oldest friend Stuart Campbell, he and I were at Swinburne together doing film and tv, he then got into NIDA and we both came to Sydney. It was actually his story, because Stuart’s life was just… the whole premise of Satdee Night was about the build up. There was one gay dance a month in Sydney at that time. It was what I saw in our share house: Stuart getting ready for this big night out.

We all went to a friend’s first for dinner because it didn’t start ’til late and he was so nervous he kept drinking and drinking. And then the next day when he finally staggered home at midday or something I said ‘How’d it go? How’d it go?’ and he was like ‘Well… I arrived… and I just saw all these guys…. And then… the next thing, I woke up and I was on the floor, in an empty Town Hall, under all these streamers.” And that was it. So he told me that story, it’s true, that he got so drunk, so nervous, he walked in there and passed out, and he woke up and he was locked in the hall. That’s Satdee Night.

Anyway, to tie the two together… At the end of Women He’s Undressed and all the final credits there’s a dedication which says: ‘For Stu’. Coz he’s my oldest best friend, and he was incredibly talented and he came from a country town, Ballarat. And I think growing up gay in a country town anywhere is a very, very hard thing to do.

So there was something, as we started to explore and find out about who was Orry-Kelly, he kept reminding me so much of my oldest best friend. We met at Swinburne in the dark room when we were both learning photography, when we were both 18…. He died too young, four years ago. He was a wonderful photographer, an exhibition of his work was at the National Portrait Gallery. (See Gillian’s own portrait in the exhibition here.)

Orry Kelly costume sketch
An Orry-Kelly design sketch

Let’s talk about costume design. You’ve made feature films, you obviously understand the great importance it can play in a film.

Absolutely. And I’ve worked with brilliant, brilliant costume designers.

Yes! I did a quick notetaking before I came in, and you really have.

And right from the beginning too. Anna was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design for (my first film) My Brilliant Career.

Right? You also interviewed Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood on camera for Women He’s Undressed

She did Little Women.

… someone you’ve worked with before.

Hmm, I probably should have put that up. Now I’m thinking I was being a bit humble!

Director Gillian Armstrong on set with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce in Death Defying Acts
Director Gillian Armstrong on set with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce in Death Defying Acts

As a director, how can costume design impact a film?

I really am very passionate about the role of costume in film. Actually I’m really… on all my own films, the decision about who’s doing the costume design has been a huge one.

I think people really have no idea how much time and effort goes into the smallest, smallest thing. We test everything, and look at it, (even) whether or not it’s the colour of the ribbon on the hat that Cate Blanchett’s wearing in Oscar and Lucinda because it’s the absolute blue that matched her eyes – which was a stroke of genius of costume designer Janet Patterson’s. Because in the end, so often that* (uses her hands to frame her face) ends up the size of the poor costume half the time.

I know the costume designers I talk to say, their own family don’t even realize what they do. They still think it’s like, ‘Oh you make people look pretty’. All the costume designers (I interviewed for this film) did wonderful long interviews about details of things, and Ann Roth was telling us about finding the actual costume that helped Dustin Hoffman create his award-winning character in Midnight Cowboy – she said she’d been out combing old secondhand shops, looking for things that could help, trying all different things. She said she found these shoes that didn’t quite fit and that was the whole thing that gave him the inspiration for his lopsided walk.

Cate Blanchett Oscar Lucinda
Cate Blanchett in Oscar and Lucinda

We all read so much about people’s characters in real life, as well as on the screen, so if somebody comes in, the way they wear their clothes, their choice of their clothes and everything, has got a whole subliminal subtext to us.

There are times when of course you are trying to say, How can we make this person look like the most beautiful person in the world? If that’s what their character is meant to be. If everyone’s meant to go ‘Wow, look at that dress’.

But so often it’s more… quite often you transform. People get a shock when they see the real actor, they come in and they’re like some sort of (in real life) hippie, and then you want them to (play) a corporate killer. And so it’s hair, makeup, the right suit, the cut. And then of course that’s part of the actor’s role as well; they’re not playing themselves, so the costume helps them find and be that character.

And I think when it’s false, people can tell.

How open were all these people when you said ‘I’m doing a documentary’, were any reluctant to talk on camera?

I think most costume designers and actually the academics – except for Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who’s now very used to public speaking – the rest are not used to being on camera. They were thrilled there was going to be a film on Orry, but they were a bit shy about being on camera. Even Jane Fonda was like, ‘I haven’t got that much to say’, same with Angela Lansbury. And then once they relaxed and warmed up, you can see we got wonderful things from them all.

Orry Kelly designed costumes for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot
Orry Kelly designed costumes for Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot

I loved hearing those stories. Even when you start the documentary… costume designer Ann Roth is quite vocal in asking “What do you mean you don’t know who Orry-Kelly is?” She’s quite a character!

I thought we should leave that in. She came in with that attitude, like ‘What is this all about, why?’ And I thought, people should know this is what happens in a documentary interview.

How did you come to hear about Orry-Kelly?

When my producer Damian Parer first told me, my reaction was… I mean, had you heard of Orry-Kelly?

Had I?

Yeah.

Casablanca costumes designed by Orry Kelly
Casablanca costumes designed by Orry Kelly

Well yes, but only because I had actually been looking into him a bit before I learned you were making a film.

You’re rare. Because I have to say, in the three years I’ve been involved in making the film, the only person who’d ever heard of Orry-Kelly was Catherine Martin. They edited a Vogue issue, after Strictly Ballroom came out, and they did a little piece on Orry which we found. I had never heard of him. No one has.

Damien my producer, is Damien Parer Jnr. Damien’s father was a war correspondent, cinematographer, and he made a (documentary) film called Kokoda Front Line and he won the Academy Award for that.

So Damien happened to be looking up other Australians who’d won Academy Awards and came across Orry’s name and then saw the names of his films… And then it was just through a fluke (through a historical society website for Kiama)… that he spoke with author Lee Tulloch, who had also been researching Orry – they got together and he said how he thought it would make a great documentary and she said, ‘Why don’t you ask Gill?’

An American in Paris colour still
Orry-Kelly shared the Best Costume Design Oscar win for An American in Paris with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff

I did the documentary on Florence Broadhurst years ago, so Damian sent me this outline and I read this thing: “Orry-Kelly, born in Australia” and then I saw the names of these films and I was like, what?! He did Casablanca? 42nd Street? Les Girls? Irma la Douce? And he’s Australian??

So I spent the last two years, when I’ve been working on it, and I say to people ‘I’m working on a film about Orry-Kelly’ and I see their faces… nothing. I say, ‘You don’t know who he is, do you?’ And I go ‘Well, Orry-Kelly won the Academy Award three times for costume (‘Oh?’) , Les Girls, Some Like It Hot, An American in Paris… He also did Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, 42nd Street… (and by now they’re going ‘Wow!’) and I go ‘And guess where he was born? Kiama, NSW.’

So that’s my party trick I’ve been doing for two years. And as I said, nobody but Catherine and Baz had heard of him.

23_Director-Gillian-Armstrong--Writer-Katherine-Thomson--Production-Designer
Director Gillian Armstrong on location with writer Katherine Thomson for Women He’s Undressed

The way you approach documentaries, with Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst and now Women He’s Undressed, there’s a similar style there – it’s not a straight documentary, there’s a theatrical style there. How would you describe it?

No, it’s not just a straight documentary… the challenge was doing a documentary when the person is no longer alive. And there’s not lots of archival footage of them being interviewed, because people don’t interview costume designers.

Katherine Thomson (the writer) and I got together and said, Florence Broadhurst was equally as challenging, but this one we went, we don’t want to do the same thing, but we’ve got to first of all find out who he was. What was his character? Because you’re telling a story, even though it’s a documentary and we were as careful as we could be about all facts that we could have in it.

You want to take the audience on a journey and it’s entertaining and you want them to be emotionally involved. I personally believe documentaries can be very dry and distancing. Once we found out as much as we could about the story and him, we wanted something that captured his personality.

The thing that came through was he had this dry wit. He was outspoken but aware of that, so that was the way in the end. Also by the way, there weren’t many stills of him when he was young, so we decided to try to find a thematic way to do it. I also absolutely abhor re-enactments in documentaries. Bad drama re-enactments, also reinforcing what you’re often (already) being told… that was the challenge to find something that felt like it was Orry, so you could get some of his inner thoughts.

And then you found his long lost memoir.

We’d already written a script to raise the money, we’d given up trying to find the book because we couldn’t find it. But we found letters and interviews and from that, we took quotes from some things he directly said and then we found the manuscript, and finally read it. And the thing that was interesting was we went: We got him… In the end we revamped the script before we started shooting.

Love Lust and Lies Gillian Armstrong
Undated photo of director Gillian Armstrong on set with the interviewees of her Adelaide girls series (Image: SA Film Corp)

Just before we have to go, I want to mention Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. If we look at your work with documentaries, with the Adelaide girls series which you started in 1976 with Smokes and Lollies and is now a five-part series where you followed their lives over so many decades – I mean, we could argue you were already doing that before he was! You were following people throughout the course of their lives, but for a much longer period.

Yeah yeah, I know! (Laughs.) I felt that as well. I said, there’s all this… half the accolades are because of the concept of following people in their life… I’ve been doing this for years!

Is there another chapter to the Adelaide girls series, do you think?

I’d really like to… Maybe that’s why I was brave about showing Women He’s Undressed to my interviewees because I’ve had to always show the girls in Adelaide and sit there and wait for their reaction. And they said they were ok about me coming back.

Women He’s Undressed opens in cinemas across Australia on July 16.

NEW! A retrospective of Orry-Kelly’s work will be on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from August 18 to January 17 featuring original costumes, Oscar statues, sketches and more. Visit ACMI official website to learn more details.

100 women in film down underThis has been part of our 100 Women in Film Down Under series. You might also enjoy reading about:

the author

Marie C

Feature writer by trade, movie maniac by night, Marie-Christine grew up watching films from the projection booth at the local drive-in and now she's lucky enough to write about them.

One comment

  1. I have an 11 year old grand-daughter who is interested in being a film director, she has actually entered Tropfest Junior for the first time this year and I would really like a contact with M/s Gillian Armstrong via email to request that she contact my grand-daughter as a source of inspiration. Can you help with the email contact??
    Regards,
    (M/s) Norma Alexander jp

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