Julie Bertuccelli started her film career as an assistant director, working with such internationally acclaimed filmmakers such as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Bertrand Tavernier, Otar Iosseliani, Rithy Panh and Emmanuel Finkiel. She has also directed several highly regarded documentaries. Her feature debut, Since Otar Left, which she wrote and directed, won several major awards including the Grand Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival International Critcs’ Week, and a Cesar Award (French Oscar) for Best First Feature. This interview about her new film The Tree was provided by Zeitgeist Films.
How did you come to adapt Judy Pascoe’s bestselling novel?
I had always wanted to adapt Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Tree, but since it wasn’t possible, I went looking for another story with a tree — it became an obsession. A cousin of mine gave me Our Father Who Art in the Tree, by Judy Pascoe. It was a revelation. The story’s central figure of the tree sparked off my desire; and its themes strongly inspired me, to the point of imagining my second film. An Australian producer, Sue Taylor, had already acquired the rights. My producer, Yael Fogiel, and I contacted her. She watched my first film, Since Otar Left, and we started working together. The book was written from the point-of-view of the child, but I chose to include that of the mother. I wanted to make a movie for grown-ups, with tenderness and humor. It flirts with the possibility of a supernatural world while being deeply rooted in realism and simplicity.
Why did you choose to shoot in Australia?
Not only because the story was written and set in Australia. The film uses the primeval power of beings and elements, and Nature as a mirror of feelings. This is why shooting in Australia, where Nature and its excesses are central and stunning, seemed momentous. As a French director looking at this country from a distance, I found several advantages to setting this story in the Antipodes (as it is in the book) — in this environment far away from France, from home, from me. The southern hemisphere, on the opposite side of the world, a different culture, vegetation, climate, habitat — so many differences which enrich the tale and highlight its universality. The process of mourning is akin to going into exile, to tearing oneself away from the other, from a part of oneself. It is a journey one must undertake to willingly part from the other while keeping him within, as an exile trying to maintain internal contact with his or her roots. Therefore I found it was important to me to go and tell this story far away from home. As far as possible. On the other side of the world.
What fascinated you the most about the story?
Two things: how death is dealt with, and how sadness pushes the characters to another place, to find comfort in their imagination. Simone, the young daughter, refuses to feel sad, so she tries to find another way to accept her father’s death. In a way, it’s similar to my first film — except then, it was a lie, it was about hiding death. In The Tree, it’s the unstoppable power of life asserting itself over sadness. The voice of the father is never heard; it remains a whisper, a blend of rustling leaves, animal noises and wind, akin to an inaudible murmur, which stirs up doubts but never turns unreal. The tree’s roots do seem to grow at a remarkable pace but then again, it is realistic because of the drought in the region. As in life, there is a balance between poetry and sensitivity, doubt and mystery, imagination and realism, emotion and humor, lightness and sadness. When terrible things happen around you, you know that you have to live with your sadness. But you can transform it and use this emotion creatively.
The tree is the central, founding character. How did you find the tree for the film?
We had always envisaged a Moreton Bay fig tree. The book is set on the outskirts of Brisbane, so it seemed a good place to start. But there are hundreds of Moreton Bay fig trees out there! Finding the right tree was the most important thing and it was a very substantial challenge. It had to not be surrounded by other trees, in a place with space around it, so we could build the family house — because the connection between the house and the tree is crucial to the story. It also had to be big: the story is about nature, how nature is always stronger than humans, a feeling that is particularly stark in Australia. However, it wasn’t just a massive tree I was seeking, but an expressive tree, conveying mystery, fear, as well as beauty. We could have built a fake tree to fit exactly what we needed. But from the beginning I wanted the tree to be natural, alive, organic, real. So I insisted. The tree we finally chose was amazing, for all these reasons, and because it was also very inviting — a tree that children could climb and would want to climb. Sometimes there were 20 people up in the tree, and it remained safe. As we came over the hill, the tree revealed itself to us — and beyond the tree was this awe-inspiring landscape.
How does your background as a documentary filmmaker influence your methods?
In documentary filmmaking, unpredictable things happen. In fiction, it’s similar and different at the same time, because everything has to be created from scratch. For example, we were shooting on the beach, and the weather report suddenly announced a big dust storm for the next day. So we decided to speed up the shoot there and to run back to the tree — which was far away — to capture this storm around the tree, to integrate it at the end of the film. With the wind machine, it’s never quite the same. Maybe because I come from documentary filmmaking, I believe reality is much stronger than anything artificially created.
How did you find Morgana Davies, the young girl who plays Simone?
It was difficult to find the right girl, to be sure she could carry the role, every day, for nine weeks. With Morgana, it was obvious: she was amazing, really moving, beautiful, and strong. Yet decisions aren’t always made with your intellect. It was the same thing with the tree: suddenly, we knew we’d found the one. But it took a lot of time and I saw more than 200 girls and about 1000 trees! It’s impossible to define all the reasons; it’s instinctive.
And Charlotte Gainsbourg?
At the beginning I did not think about Charlotte because she was too young in my mind . . . I had forgotten that she had become a mother. She was perfect for Dawn — a mother, a girl and a woman at the same time. Charlotte is one of the most amazing actresses I’ve ever seen. She has such a strong presence, she’s charming, graceful. You simply have to tell her a few words, and she completely inhabits her character. She illuminates every scene. She was the perfect gift for this film!
I hear that you had a very family-orientated shoot . . .
The children brought real happiness on set: my children were there, Charlotte’s, the crew’s, the actors’, the producer . . . Of course there are challenges with working with children — I had never made a film with children before. As a director it pushes you to be inventive, to find the best way to ask a 3-year-old boy to stay in one place for two minutes. I had to find lots of little tricks. But to be surrounded by so many children was really inspiring.