Leah Purcell wrote, directs and stars in this period Western about a determined mother protecting her children – a searing reimagining of Henry Lawson’s classic with an Indigenous female gaze.
It’s 1893 in the alpine country of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. On an isolated farm, the heavily pregnant Molly Johnson (Purcell) and her young children struggle to survive in the absence of her drover husband. When a fugitive Aboriginal man, Yadaka (Rob Collins), arrives on her property, Molly initially treats him with extreme caution. But gradually, Yadaka proves helpful in a difficult situation, and just might provide a link to Molly’s past. Meanwhile, the continuing absence of Molly’s husband starts to draw the attention of lawman Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), leading to devastating consequences.
Purcell has explored this material before, to great impact, in both novel and play form. With this vibrant cinematic adaptation, she brings a radical and strikingly contemporary vision to the story. As Purcell says: “I was brought up by storytellers, within a culture where the tradition of storytelling is passed down and histories are heard from the Black experience, not from white-washed history books.”
Interview with Tess Schofield APDG
Costume designer Tess Schofield APDG talks about her work on The Drover’s Wife, showing November 2021 at the Sydney Film Festival.
Can you tell us a bit about your design process for The Drover’s Wife?
I always start with the script. Good old fashioned reading, reading, reading. It can be quite forensic breaking it all down. I track the broad narrative tweezing themes, keywords, symbolism and imagery, with a focus on character and all of the story worlds. How characters speak, what they do, who they are, their purpose and interactions and their story ‘arcs’.
Having designed costume’s for Belvoir Street’s theatrical production of The Drover’s Wife in 2016, I was acquainted with Leah’s spin on Lawson’s original story. The film script reflected a much wider physical & historical world, where landscape had an epic presence and the story was inhabited with numerous characters.
I dived deep into researching the period, location & historical frameworks, compiling a library of old photographs, paintings and illustrations that spoke to me both literally & conceptually. This process is really ongoing, and is interwoven with the creation of individual character reference boards, group reference boards and the illustration of characters in their clothes including costume changes, which ultimately track their journeys across story time.
Solving Molly’s clothes involved extensive design work, fittings & toiles. She’s pregnant at the beginning of the story, so getting that swollen belly correct under petticoat and drawers was essential to the flow of her clothes. We tested horse riding seating rigs with clothes to be sure her skirts were broad enough astride.
Did you travel anywhere in particular, and what was that experience like?
I travelled to the ‘high country’ on our tech recce with the creative & production team months ahead of pre-production. This was a really inspiring trip. I had not visited the Monaro before & was blown away by the stunning landscape: massive skies, moody mountains, stunted snow gums, swirling clouds, the crispest light, the isolation, harshness and extremity of that place really punched into my comprehension of what Molly Johnson was up against.
There were terrific little regional museums and old pubs ‘on the road’ where I found fabulous historical images that were particular to time & place, real research treasure! And of course, shooting on location is always a real treat in this gypsy life!
Can you tell us about your discussions / interactions with the broader design or creative team?
I absolutely adored working on The Drover’s Wife. Leah is an incredibly engaged director, an excellent communicator and brilliant collaborator. Perhaps her theatrical background gives her a respect for absolutely every aspect of production. Leah would visit my home where all the draft renders were plastered up and down my hall walls, running chronologically across story, so we could discuss characters within scenes, the moods & the meaning, the characters’ trajectories, etc. As leading lady, writer & director of The Drover’s Wife, Leah’s astounding connectedness to the work meant that for me, she really was my number one collaborator.
Can you describe your workspace?
Building period clothes is complex and requires lots of specialised craftspeople. My excellent team included cobblers, knitters, dyers, cutters, tailors, milliners, buyers and art finishers all of whom I work closely with. Yarns were spun for the kids’ jumpers and other knitwear, possum boots were handmade by a wonderful specialist cobbler, art finishers dipped and dyed and sanded and stained the visceral world, hammered Molly’s hat into submission & blow torched oilskins while milliners tweaked ribbons & bows. Contemporary stories require a different approach and it’s exciting to be involved in a big build where our great ‘Aussie makers’ get to ply their skills.
We were based at Canal Road Film Centre in Leichardt, where loads of local content is created. It’s brilliant to have all departments working in close proximity; we keep conversations flowing as we crosscheck our work with each other as it’s evolving, and as new drafts of the script continue to emerge.
The release & distribution of this film has been consistently stalled over the last few years. I really look forward to seeing Leah’s story hit the big screen.
Tess Schofield APDG is an award winning costume designer, working across film, television, opera and theatre.
Tess has won three APDG Awards including the 2015 Cameron Creswell Award for Outstanding Contribution to Design. She has won five AACTA Awards for Best Costume Design in a Feature Film and been nominated and won, Green Room, Helpmann and Sydney Theatre Critics Awards for her costume design in opera and theatre.
Tess’s recent work includes the upcoming Ron Howard film, Thirteen Lives, feature film The Drover’s Wife and Rams starring Sam Neill, Michael Caton and Miranda Richardson. Tess designed costumes for television programs including Tidelands, Harrow, ABC’s The Letdown and The Kettering Incident.
Tess won the 2015 APDG Award for Costume Design on a Feature Film and the 2015 AACTA award for Best Costume Design for The Water Diviner, directed by Russell Crowe. Tess designed costumes on the feature film Dance Academy – The Movie and received a 2016 AACTA nomination for Best Costume Design for this work. Tess designed the costumes for The Sapphires which had its world premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and won the 2013 AACTA Award for Best Costume Design for her work on the film.
Tess’s opera costume design includes, La Traviata staged on Sydney Harbour by Opera Australia; Sweeney Todd for the Lyric Opera Chicago and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Peter Grimes for Opera Australia and Houston Grand Opera.
Tess won the 2017 APDG Award for Costume Design for Live Performance for the Belvoir Street Theatre stage production of The Drover’s Wife. Tess’s theatre credits are numerous and include A Streetcar Named Desire, The Diary Of A Madman, The Secret River, Namatjira, The Wild Duck, The Adventures Of Snugglepot And Cuddlepie, Little Ragged Blossom and Cloudstreet. Her musical theatre credits include Shane Warne The Musical, Spring Awakening and Chess.Earlier film work includes the AFI award winning Best Costume Design films Spotswood, Dirty Deeds and Bootmen and she received a further nomination for Mr Reliable. Tess costume designed feature films Cosi, Radiance, Diana And Me, Subterano and Greenkeeping and feature documentary Unfolding Florence.
The Drover’s Wife at the Sydney Film Festival
Sydney Film Festival is back! The Festival is screening more than 200 highly anticipated films in nine iconic cinemas across Sydney this 3–14 November. See huge award winners, famous faces, exciting new Australian cinema and so much more!
Highlights include Wes Anderson’s highly anticipated comedy-drama The French Dispatch, Penélope Cruz’s award-winning turn in Parallel Mothers and of course, Leah Purcell’s searing period Western The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson.
For those who don’t live in Sydney or can’t get to a cinema, you can stream films On Demand from your own home this 12–21 November. Book now and travel the world via cinema for three weeks!
The Sydney Film Festival is offering a free double pass to see The Drover’s Wife, at either the State Theatre (6pm Saturday Nov 6 or 12pm Sunday Nov 7) or The Ritz in Randwick (6:15pm Tuesday November 9). Enter below with your name, phone number and preferred session time. The winner will be selected on Wednesday November 3, 2021.
Sydney Film Festival Industry Discount
APDG members can purchase concession priced tickets as an Industry Member to any session, either online or by calling the box office via 1300 733 733. Please ensure your booking email address matches the email address on your APDG Membership Account.