Film project no thorny issue for duo

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SYDNEY -- It has been 24 years since their on-and-off-screen love affair helped turn "The Thorn Birds" into a blockbuster TV miniseries, and now Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward are set to reunite on their first major project since then, the independent feature "Beautiful Kate."

Now, however, their roles have changed: Ward is the writer and director, while Brown is producing alongside Leah Churchill Brown ("Suburban Mayhem"). Brown will also take one of the lead roles -- marking the first time the husband-and-wife team have worked on both sides of the camera together.

Ten years in the making, "Beautiful Kate" is based on American writer Newton Thornburgh's novel of the same name. It tells a story of awakening teenage sexuality and forbidden passion and what happens when a man revisits his isolated childhood home to say good-bye to his dying father, but tender memories of his beautiful twin sister haunt his return.

Ward describes the film as one of tragedy, recrimination, guilt and finally salvation that "breaks new ground in its subject matter."

The novel is set in Ohio but Ward has chosen to set her film in the Australian Outback, a decision she says provides the film with a desolate and exotic landscape that emphasizes feelings of isolation.

The $4.5 million feature marks the directorial debut for Ward, who has tasted critical success for her first short film, "The Big House," and subsequent 50-minute film, "Martha's New Coat," both of which won the Australian Film Critics Circle Awards and received nominations for all of Australia's major film awards.

"Beautiful Kate" will receive financing from the Film Finance Corp. once an international distributor or sales agent is attached. Roadshow Films is the local distributor.

"We'll also have to look at how the new tax offsets work," says Brown of the federal government's new film financing plan, which gives them several options to finish financing the feature.

Ward laments the current climate in Australia, where, in order to get a project financed, you generally need to have a "name" actor attached. "There are some fabulous scripts that transcend having to have a Geoffrey Rush or a Toni Collette in (them) that aren't getting noticed. It's a real paradox," she says.

Choosing to make independent films means a greater commitment bordering on the obsessive about a project, both say. Ward is grateful that her early success as an actress has meant she can subsidize the development process as a writer and director.

The pair's production company, New Town Films, is finding some success, and Brown has been prolific as a producer alongside his acting career, producing 26 hours of TV drama for the Nine Network, the feature "Dirty Deeds" and a series of animated shorts as well as Ward's short films.

But the thespian in them still beckons. Ward recently finished filming the lead in "Rain Shadow," an Australian Broadcasting Corp. miniseries that will air later this year, while Brown is in production with Baz Luhrmann's epic "Australia," playing cattle baron King Carney, the single greatest landholder in the country's north and the nemesis of Lady Sarah Ashley, played by Nicole Kidman.

While Ward describes her recent turn in front of the camera as "a bit rusty," she says she is grateful for "a good role for a woman of my age," and Brown says he's "having great fun" as an actor.

Still to be tested is how Ward and Brown's relationship will transcend her directing him.

So far they have nothing but praise for each other's work.
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