Unlikely co-production brings 'The Tree' to life

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What started as two women reading the same novel on different sides of the world more than five years ago has become the Festival de Canne's closing-night film and a rare co-production between France and Australia.

"The Tree," starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and directed by French filmmaker Julie Bertucelli, centers on 8-year-old Simone who, after the death of her father, is convinced that he whispers to her through the leaves of her favorite tree and he's come back to protect her family.

For Australian producer Sue Taylor, making "Tree" with Bertucelli proved less of a co-production for financing but a "rare example of cross-cultural filmmaking".

For film agency Screen Australia, "Tree" also spotlights the co-production opportunities that partnering with Australia offers, including the ability to access the 40% tax rebate known as the producer offset. The film will form a case study for a Screen Australia forum that will take place at Cannes on Monday.

Indeed, official and unofficial co-productions, despite their complexities, will become more commonplace, as private financing continues to remain difficult, Australian producers predict.

Taylor had held the rights to Australian author Judy Pascoe's "Our Father Who Art in the Tree" since 2004, "always assuming I'd be doing this an as Australian film."

Bertucelli also had tried to get the rights after having read the novel and tracked down Taylor.

"Having a French director tell an Australian story was not something I'd given much thought to, but from our first conversation, it was clear we wanted to make the same film," Taylor says. "We might speak a different language, but the emotional connection was identical. So we agreed to work together."

As a result, the film was produced by Taylor through her production company Taylor Media and Yael Fogiel from French production company Les Films du Poisson. Rosemary Blight of Goalpost Pictures Australia, came on board last year as executive producer to wrap up the final pieces of financing for the film, which included funding from Screen Australia, Screen NSW and Screen Queensland.

Blight says the complexities of making a co-production are immense, from legal nuances to changes affecting the points allocation that determine co-productions.

"Distance and cultural differences made it a bit harder to navigate, but everyone's intent was to get it through," she says. "We just had to keep going back to the core vision -- to make as beautiful, cinematic and audience-engaging film as possible."

Although the film is an official co-production, it's unusual for a French film to be shot in English, so it was unable to get direct funding from French agency CNC. However, with Bertucelli directing and Gainsbourg starring, French broadcasters Canal Plus and Arte provided early presales. Le Pacte is distributing the film in France and Kojo and Transmission are distributing in Australia.

During the five years the film was in development, the filmmakers had to overcome almost every hurdle that could have been put in their way.

The structure of the Australian industry and the way producers did business changed with the producer offset, the onset of the global financial crisis and constantly fluctuating currencies.

Added to that, Bertucelli suffered a personal tragedy when her husband died during the film's development, and art become life in a way.

Says Taylor: "It's a very female story about embracing life and how people move on in the face of hardship and distress. That, in turn, became Julie's story.

"I don't believe we'd have gotten through it if we didn't have the purpose, desire or commitment we had."

-- Pip Bulbeck
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