Orry Kelly in "Women He's Undressed"

Mere minutes into “Women He’s Undressed,” a biography of the groundbreaking Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, Ann Roth, a protégé to Kelly who has become a legend in her own right after finding the fashion for such films as “The English Patient,” “The Hours” and Todd Haynes’ adaptation of “Mildred Pierce” barks at the camera, “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is?”

Though she probably was smart not to admit it in front of Roth, Gillian Armstrong was one of those people, just up until she was asked to make a film about Kelly, something that surprised her as much as it will anyone who has followed the career of the meticulous filmmaker, who at one time toyed with becoming a costume designer herself before giving her attention to every aspect of production as the director of intricately realized period pieces including “My Brilliant Career,” “Little Women” and “Oscar and Lucinda.” In recent years, Armstrong has been doing exciting, innovative work in nonfiction, resuming her version of Michael Apted’s “Up” series with “Love, Lust & Lies,” which has followed a trio of girls into adulthood, and “Unfolding Florence,” which tells of the life of famed Australian fashionista Florence Broadhurst, and in discovering Kelly’s story, the tale of a young boy from the brush who at one time was dressing 60 productions a year including the likes of “42nd Street” and “Casablanca,” she uncovers a hidden history of Hollywood, both in terms of the rarely analyzed art of costumes and of what it meant to be gay during the height of homophobia in Tinseltown.

With incredible amounts of research, Armstrong and co-writer Katherine Thomson devise a way for Kelly to tell his own story in a format that, while casting an actor to play him, is too original to be dismissed as a recreation. Instead, “Women He’s Undressed” allows in the wit that made him the confidant of Bette Davis and Ann Warner, wife of studio boss Jack, and honors his ability to create illusions, like how every audience believed the dress he created for Davis in the black-and-white “Jezebel” was actually red, by blending interviews with actresses he worked with (Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda), film historians (Leonard Maltin) and contemporary designers who admire him (Colleen Atwood, Catherine Martin) with scenes of Kelly sharing tales out of school about skirting the production code with Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot” and his affair with Archie Leach (née Cary Grant) from the comfort of a dinghy in his native Kiama and his doting mother checking in on his travels to New York and eventually Hollywood.

After flying in to Toronto for the international premiere of “Women He’s Undressed,” Armstrong was equally candid about her bloody entertaining new film, the importance of costumes to building characters and the freedom she’s found in documentaries.

A scene from Gillian Armstrong's "Women He's Undressed"How did this come about?

Really, full credit should go to my producer, Damien Parer. His father Damien Parer Sr. was actually the first Australian to win an Academy Award in 1945 for a war documentary called “Kokoda,” and he then actually was killed in Korea, so Damien grew up never knowing his father. But he became a film and television producer and he was always fascinated by Australians who’d won Academy Awards. In his research, there was Orry-Kelly’s name who had won more Oscars than any Australian ever, for “Some Like it Hot,” “American in Paris” and “May Girls”[before being overtaken by Catherine Martin]. Damien was knocked over when he saw that he had worked on so many of the most iconic films of all time – “Casablanca,” “Maltese Falcon,” “Irma La Douce,” “Auntie Mame,” and “Oklahoma” – so he thought his story deserved a film.

He’d been playing around with that idea for a number of years until a friend of a friend said,”Why doesn’t he come to you?” Because I’d made that other documentary about a designer, Florence Broadhurst and my friend knew that I have quite an interest in the arts, Damien approached me. My first question was, “Orry-Kelly, who’s he?” When I read what he’d done, my reaction was exactly the same as Damien’s. It was unbelievable that this man is not well- known in the country of his birth, when he is literally one of the top three costume designers of all time. That’s when I came on board and we started the research. Of course, we found out so many more levels to his story than we ever expected.

Is it coincidence that there are actually so many great costume designers to have come out of Australia or is that in any way a part of his legacy?

That’s the thing that is amazing when you think about it. The very year that we started making the film, [of the] four people nominated for costume, two of them were Australian – Catherine Martin [for “Great Gatsby”] and Michael Wilkinson for “American Hustle,” [both of whom] we interview in the film. For such a small country is amazing. Janet Patterson, who was nominated for an Oscar for “The Piano,” and did “Oscar and Lucinda” and “The Last Days of Chez Nous” for me, and John Truscott, who did “Camelot” with young Vanessa Redgrave as well…I think there is one consistent thing in the recent number of designers, including Kim Barrett (“The Matrix”), who we interviewed as well, is that the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the drama school where Judy Davis, Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett studied also has a wonderful costume design course, and I do think some of it is the training.

A scene from "Women He's Undressed"Since your films have always had exquisite costume design, did having the experience of seeing what great designers can do firsthand help in conveying exactly what they contribute to a film?

It was a challenge to do it. That was part of the idea as well – not only did I want to try to find out about who Orry is, but I also wanted to help audiences understand the often misunderstood art of costume design. Costumer designers will often say, “My mom and dad don’t know what I do,” and half the time, the general public thinks the actors just turn up with some clothes on the day. Even in a contemporary film where the actor might just be wearing denim and a T-shirt, they would have tried on perhaps 20 makes of denim jeans before they decided which one looked the best. Then they would have been aged into whatever the right look was going to be.

These are decisions that people don’t realize. There are screen tests – does the blue T-shirt look better than the green or the red? And what is that saying to the audience? There’s a whole subliminal side. It’s like film music – the best costumes shouldn’t be noticed, but they come together to be part of the film. They have to be right and true especially to the character. And people can just tell if something feels phony – there’s so many details. That’s one of the key things that I discovered once I started looking at Orry’s work because I never actually sat down and just looked at the costumes [in those films]. He really cared about character and what the character was saying to the narrative.

You have an actor playing Orry to essentially serve as the narrator of his own story. How did the structure of this come about?

It took some time. I worked with Katherine Thomson, the screenwriter who did the Florence Broadhurst documentary with me, and the one thing I remember saying when the producers offered me the Florence story was, “A documentary still has to have a narrative structure, especially if it’s going to sustain to be a feature length, so I need a drama writer.”

Katherine is also a brilliant researcher. She dives in and won’t give up, and there were all sorts of bits and pieces [out there] as it turned out – many of them incorrect – but you’d read something, one line like, “He was fired from Warner Bros. for his drinking and [being] a loud mouth. Then you think what was Warner’s life then? How many other people were drinking? I read a couple biographies on Jack Warner, and I found out that Jack fired 20 people a day sometimes. He was obsessive and he fired people so often that half the time they just walked out of the room and then went back to their desk, so being fired by Jack actually wasn’t an slur against Orry’s character. Then we found out he was very good friends with Jack and that, despite the drinking, he lasted there for really a long time.

Once we’d gotten a sense of the man, the one thing that came through was that he had this wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, and you can have a narrator [communicate that] to people over a photo. We thought we found enough quotes in articles and letters – there were a lot of letters in the New York Public Library, to Cole Porter, Hedda Hopper and Marion Davies – and he had such distinctive voice, we felt he’s got to speak, so we started thinking about a voice over with an actor reading some of these things. There were a lot of emotional ups and downs on his journey, so we wanted you to engage with him and we also had very little footage – no one films a costume designer and there were only the press stills that the studio would take, so we finally just thought we’d bite the bullet and have him speak to you.

In the end, we also thought whatever device we used to tell his story, it should also have the sense of Orry in the fact that this film was about design – this bold, simple use of color. We started off at the Kiama Historical Society, which is the town where he was born and they’ve got a wonderful historian there who’s been researching Orry’s life for years. There was this photo of Orry as a small boy that was one of the first things that we found – he’s standing by the boat because it’s a tourist town, the boat has the name of the town on it, so everyone gets their picture taken there, and there was so much poetry in the fact he’s in a sailor suit that his father, who was a tailor, obviously made. Then for an Australian, the story is so much about leaving and crossing oceans to go across the world. It was clear this image with the boat that that should be the way that we go.

In the beginning, we were going to try and find a boat that matched that matched that old wooden boat. My production designer was out sourcing boats and he came back and said, “Look at these boats. They’re in the river not too far from Sydney.” Looking at it, we both said “Red! It’s great, let’s have a red boat.” And that’s how we came to have the man in the red boat [as the film’s backbone].

A scene from Gillian Armstrong's "Women He's Undressed"You actually haven’t seemed to have this much fun with color since “Starstruck.” Was that an influence of Orry’s?

We did the boat last and all the interviews first, so I had spent months of looking at the film and noting what I thought were my favorite clips, and I knew that there would either be black-and-white clips or some of the really strong color in and out of those scenes. You never really know until it all comes together.

The biggest surprise was really like in all documentary filmmaking when you finally go out and interview people. Katherine often does the first chat, so we have a general idea what they know and what they’re going to talk about. Most people say “I hardly know anything” and then they end up talking to you for an hour-and-a-half. When I first talked to Ann Roth, she said, “Well, I knew him, but I can’t tell you everything… I don’t really know how long he was in rehab.” He was in rehab? I didn’t know that. He was sober the last ten years of his life and he talked about giving up the bottle [before that], but none of us knew how bad it was until we met with Ann. She was this young assistant and he’d just got that job [on “Oklahoma”] straight out of rehab and all of Hollywood turned against him. That was one of those details that was fantastic. We found some people who were around, who knew him, and who could tell us some of those things. Even in his letters and even in his memoir, he wasn’t going to [say those things] …We’re not that honest about ourselves. It’s good to have people who knew him.

You’ve said before that these documentaries have allowed you a place to experiment. Has this been an exciting arena to work in these last few years?

Yes, even though the budget is quite low, I have absolute creative freedom and I felt [that wasn’t the case with] the last couple of films that I did with studios, and actually the one where I hadn’t, [“Death Defying Acts”] where I had six producers all fighting each other. To have one producer sensitive to the story who’s willing to let me take risks, it was all about our imaginations – Katherine and I – and trying to tell the story knowing at the same time we had budget restrictions. Sometimes that’s actually not bad because you have to come up with, “Well, okay, we can’t build the whole set. Alright, we’ll have the boat on empty old cinema stage.” Then [with] production design, we all suddenly thought of the idea [of having] the projections [behind Orry on the boat], which half my crew were laughing at because they just finished “Mad Max: Fury Road.” They said, “We’re back to basics here.” The first time we took the video projector into the room to project it on the wall, we realized it was great the way [the light] bends on the floor. One of my favorite images is just that red boat with the Warner Brothers logo in black-and-white behind him and Orry’s in the white suit. We cracked through those things. It was fantastic. We did have great fun.

“Women He’s Undressed” opens on July 29 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema and will be available on VOD on August 9th.