The Tree is a lament on love, loss and family. It’s a movie about trying to find a way through your grief to see some light on the other side. One of the stars of the film is this gigantic Moreton Bay fig tree which becomes the place where the young Simone (played by the unbelievable Morgana Davies) goes to talk with her dad. The tree becomes her refuge where she feels connected to him. And her relationship to the tree spreads out to the other members of the family including the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and they cling to the tree as it spreads its roots dangerously threatening their house. The Tree is one of those movies where you don’t know how much you are moved until the end, when you say wow I really liked that. Film opens in NY this week and LA next week.
The Tree was the closing film at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The year when there were no women in competition. Director Julie Bertuccelli answered some questions by email about the film.
Women and Hollywood: Your film is so sad at times yet also feels full of hope. How did you manage that balance?
Julie Bertuccelli: I wanted to use different points of view and the balance between sadness and hope developed thanks to the different characters in this family. I also wanted to find a balance between the real and the imaginary, to always be walking a thin line between a realistic interpretation and the imaginary but without falling into surrealism. 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.
We worked a lot on the sound effect of the tree to keep the subtlety of the doubt always in mind and to let the viewer decide. 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. I did not want to make a sad story about the death of a loved one, I wanted to show the life that goes on after and the strength of children’s imagination and freedom that help them cope with the grieving process.
WaH: Why did you decide to make this film your second feature?
JB: 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.
WaH: How did you make the decision to adapt the book yourself?
JB: I received a first draft from an Australian writer and since it was a good first draft, I thought it was going to be easy to change a few things by myself. I also wanted to see if I was able to write an adaptation of a book by myself. But, while I was working on the adaptation, I lost someone who was very dear to me, and I became extremely close to the story and decided to add more personal things to it. So in the end, it was absolutely not easy as I changed a lot of things! In addition, I wanted to do this process alone which was at the same time very difficult but a great pleasure to be able to find the right emotions and ideas from deep inside you. From a personal angle, it was very important that I did it myself.
At the end of the process, I asked several writers as well as my French and Australian producers and the writer of the book, Judy Pascoe to have a look at it and they all gave me suggestions. I also tried not to have too many dialogues written in the script as I wanted to work more with images and situations which helped me greatly as a director of the film.
WaH: As a director who has worked on documentaries and features what do you do differently to shoot on one of the other?
JB: 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.
WaH: It’s such a challenge to create a family on film that people can believe is a family especially with young actors who have never acted before. How did you accomplish this task?
JB: It’s true it is a real challenge to manage this big jigsaw puzzle that is a family. But first, I want to say that I did not care about a possible physical resemblance with the family. I did not mind that they did not look alike as it was much more important for the film to find the right actor for each character.
Another big challenge was that the young actors and Charlotte Gainsbourg did not have a lot of preparation before the beginning of the shooting which would have helped them to know each other better and to appear as if they belonged to the same family. Two days before the shooting, I organized a photo shoot with the whole family to recreate birthday parties, happy events, etc., and during these two days, the kids started to play together and became quickly good friends and close to each other. At the beginning, Morgana was very shy with Charlotte, but Charlotte gave her a lot of attention and tenderness, which quickly helped to break the ice between them. I had never made a film with children before but 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. The children brought real happiness on set: my children were there, Charlotte’s, the crew’s, the actors’, the producer’s…
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
JB: Finding the right tree was the most important thing and it was a very substantial challenge. 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! 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.
Working with children was another one – somebody told me that the most difficult thing for a director was to work with animals or kids and I had to work with both in this film! Working with special effects was not easy either but this was extremely exciting, in fact I think I like working with challenges, it is much more rewarding.
I find shooting particularly difficult and I much prefer working on the editing and the sound. However, the fact that I was so far away from my home was actually not very hard at all, it helped to be feel free.
WaH: I noticed that you have a variety of women in leadership positions on the film. How common is that experience?
JB: The women who worked in the film were mostly my two producers and the actress, but the crew was mostly men. I was actually quite by myself in front of this all-male Australian crew and you could see that they were not used to be directed by a woman. I had to find my own way for dealing with them, without pretending to be someone stronger than I really was. I did not want to play a role with them and I always tried to be myself and to show my doubts. I think they accepted the way I was.
WaH: Your film was the closing night film at the 2010 Cannes Festival that will be remembered for having no female directed films in competition. Did you notice the lack of female filmmakers when you were there and do you have any comment on how it felt to basically represent women directors at that festival.
JB: It’s true, I was the only woman but I don’t think we should ask for a minimum quota of women to be represented at the festival, there is no reason to do that. At some point in their career, it is very hard for women to reach the same position as men in this industry. Jane Campion is the only one to have received The Palme D’Or but she had to share it with another director! In France, there are more and more young women filmmakers, but it is still difficult for them to be recognized on the international level and to go beyond their first film.
I am confident that it will get better with time, that women will be as recognized as men. I also think that there aren’t enough women in jury committees in general which doesn’t help us. We know how far we are in the equality game not only in the film industry but everywhere in our society.
I think it is a very important issue but at the same time, I don’t think that we can say that there is a particular way for women to make films. I don’t think people can make the difference between a film directed by a man and one directed by a woman. Look at some of Bergman’s films, one could think that a woman directed them.
WaH: What’s next for you?
JB: I had a baby 4 months ago so my next step is to play “mother.” I also have an idea for a new project which I will start writing this winter. I think I will shoot this next film in Brazil or South America. Right now, I am just at the beginning of this long and perilous process, which is already something. I am confident but I am not in a rush because right now I want to live, rest and take my time.