Q: What do Audrey Hepburn and Australian writer Tim Winton have to do with Florence and Artviva?

A: Lisa Clifford, Artviva Festival presenter and Australian-turned-Tuscan-local author.

Lisa recently interviewed Audrey Hepburn’s son in relation to his current work with Australian author Tim Winton.

Below we have enclosed a copy of the article.

Special thanks must be given to both Lisa Clifford and to Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper for this article:

Sean Hepburn Ferrer is sitting in the dining room table of his Tuscan villa near Florence which he shares with his Italian wife and three children. Softly spoken, Ferrer’s accent is predominantly American, but with a European tinge from years spent growing up in Switzerland. He is also fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. So it seems unusual, to say the least, that with his European residence and famous American parentage — iconic mother Audrey Hepburn and father Mel Ferrer — that Ferrer is the executive producer of the quintessentially Australian Cloudstreet miniseries.

Ferrer draws breath slowly and contemplates his answers very seriously. He has a steady gaze and a rock solid presence and, despite 30 years in the international film business, is clearly not your stereotypical fast-talking Hollywood producer.

So how did he get caught up in Cloudstreet — hailed as a sacred novel, an Australian classic, required secondary school reading in several states, consistently voted one of Australia’s most favourite books of all time and written by Tim Winton, named a Living Treasure by the National Trust?

Cloudstreet is quite simply the Australian Grapes of Wrath, according to Ferrer.

“For me the book is a classic on a global level, not just on an Australian level. It touched me deeply,” he explains.

“Taking Cloudstreet from the page to the screen was a wildly uncommercial movie-making decision. It was a love project. It’s the kind of project that I always hoped to do when I originally decided to embark on a career in production.

“The story of those two families in Perth is really the arc of humanity. Of hope, of despair and how you delicately and elegantly balance both. In there is a tremendous look into how an instinctive faith plays an important role, if not the major role in how you get through life. In how you learn how to love and how you learn how to die. And those are the two most important things we can learn in a lifetime.”

Looking at him, one would never guess that his mother was a woman described as gamine and waif-like. Ferrer is a big man — 6ft 4in tall, with his film producer/actor father’s boyish, open looks instead of his mother’s fine-boned exquisiteness. However, there’s a softness and deep thinking wisdom in his voice that confirms his heritage. And when he commits to something, he sees it through.

Cloudstreet has certainly been an enduring labour of love for Fuller, a project which began when a pair of Los Angeles producers, Ellen Fontana and Kirk Hallam, first showed the book to Ferrer.

“Ellen had read it shortly after its publication in 1991 and they had already optioned it for four years,” he says. “They needed further investment and as soon as I read it, I loved it and agreed to take it on.”

Ellen Fontana’s laugh bounces gleefully down the phone line from LA.

“I’d never been involved in anything Australian before and never considered making it in America or making it American,” she says. “Though I did appreciate that the story itself transcended any particular location in terms of what it was saying. The characters and the story line could play anywhere, at any time. It was always in my mind to honour where it was set.”

She says that once the idea was planted, she became obsessed with turning Cloudstreet’s words into moving pictures. A letter-writing campaign to Tim Winton followed, explaining why she thought she’d be a good person to make the film.

“It came from my heart. I understood it on so many levels. I really wanted to do it.”

Winton was not difficult to convince as, according to Fontana, they connected immediately on a personal and creative level.

So Winton guided her hand through the project over the internet and in person during her many visits to Western Australia.

It was the beginning of a long and arduous journey to adapt the book into a screenplay for what was supposed to be a feature film.

Fontana breaks into gales of laughter. “The process started 16 years ago. I bought the option when my daughter was six years old — she’s just graduated from university!”

She says that often if a movie is not made, even after two years, you cut “the thing” lose and move on. “But these guys stuck with it – insanely,” she says with admiration.

Ferrer reaches for a pen and twiddles it between his fingers. He nods and grins.

“I could do university lectures around the world on how difficult it was to get this book made into a movie,” he says. “I came on board 12 years ago and was heavily involved in the screenplay. In the first 10 years Tim Winton trusted Ellen and I was her main bouncing board.”

He taps the pen on the table and says that he came to Australia about eight times to get Cloudstreet off the ground.

Ferrer’s sincere fondness of the project is evident but he is rueful when describing the two main stumbling blocks that obstructed his vision for this film. Ironically the first was just how deeply we love the Pickleses, the Lambs, their joys, sorrows and their broken down, shared house of former glories on Cloud Street.

“We spent a tonne of money wanting to make this film,” he says. “We had a fantastic cast of actors — Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Judy Davis and Rachel Griffiths all ready to go. And we had the funding. But we could not find a director.

“There was this psychosis, this great fear that they would always be known as the person who screwed up Cloudstreet, rather than the one who got the opportunity to direct it. Everybody was terrorised. They only saw pitfalls along the way. So we couldn’t get directors for the longest time.”

The other barrier was that the owners of this saga about working class Australians were American. “We were foreigners. We found resistance. It’s a great Australian piece. We tried to explain that the greatest Americana films in the Golden Era were made by German and foreign directors. Even modern-day Americana films like Paris, Texas were made by foreigners because they can see something that when you’re inside it, you can’t.”

After 10 years of travelling “to the other side of the planet”, Ferrer and his team knew that their actors had aged and that audiences had changed. They came to terms with the fact that the adult film market had shrunk to the point that it was no longer feasible to compete with Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie and the kind of films that they make.

“Adults today don’t have the time to go to the movies as much as they’d like to. We knew if we made it into a mini-series it would have a much wider audience and the right audience for us. So after 10 years we gave up the film idea and went with the mini-series, at which point Showtime and Screentime were the perfect partners.”

When peace had been made with the idea of morphing the film into TV, Fontana and Winton went into lock-down together.

“Tim supervised because we had to change the framework,” Ferrer says. “It’s one thing to adapt to a film and another to a six hour mini-series.”

Rush, Griffiths, Davis and Neill were gone from the cast. In their place came a younger Aussie group of talent starring Kerry Fox, Geoff Morrell, Essie Davis, Stephen Curry, Kelton Pell and Perth model turned actress Emma Booth.

With a cast and a director — in the form of multi-award winning Matthew Saville — finally onboard, a virtual Cloudstreet began taking shape. Filming began in February around Perth, including the old Sunset Hospital in Dalkeith, turning our streets into a time-warp back to the years around World War II. The house itself had to be built from scratch in a car park so it looked exactly the right age. Filming wound up in June. Ferrer looks content and says that in the end the Australians and Americans pulled together and the 400-page classic was beautifully adapted.

“Bravo! We are all happy with it.”

Fontana is thrilled too because every character has their time with a very well-defined arc, something they would not necessarily have had in a two hour movie. “The story deserves it,” she says.

As far as working with Winton goes they are both surprised to hear Aussie industry gossip that Winton is difficult to deal with. For years rumours have circulated that the celebrated author is tricky because he notoriously clings to his privacy.

Ferrer raises his eyebrows in astonishment.

“There is not a tricky bone in Tim Winton’s body. We became close; he even came to California to meet with us. He is a gentle, modern-day Hemmingway trying to survive in a chewing gum business. “He is trying to live the life that he needs to live to be able to continue to be Tim Winton. You cannot have his kind of perspective and make the space and the echo necessary to come up with Cloudstreet, or that kind of universal story, unless you push back society and retreat and make your own path.” Fontana is just as emphatic: “No way. Tim is open and warm and welcoming. He is an amazingly generous artist. He’s very private but more than that, he is very humble.”

Ferrer settles more comfortably in his chair and looks absently at his computer screen. He is relieved Cloudstreet is finished and for now there are no new film projects in the pipeline. But that does not mean Ferrer is not busy. He works full-time as the chairman of the Audrey Hepburn’s Children Fund, which he created and founded together with his younger brother Luca Dotti, Audrey Hepburn’s son from her marriage to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti and Robert Wolders, Audrey’s companion till her death. The fund raises money to educate children in five sub-Saharan countries, as well as finances and contributes to children’s foundations, societies, aid groups, abuse centres, carers teams, hospitals and medical units. The money comes from the use of Audrey Hepburn’s images, likenesses and trademarks which he owns along with Luca.

“When our mother passed away she left behind her body of work — her legacy — which we believe to be mostly her work for children. She wanted to be remembered for her UNICEF work and soon after she passed away I was faced with the decision of what to do with her legacy. “We treat the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, as a third brother or sister. So basically at the end of the year the AHCF has earnt as much as I have or my brother has. It seemed like the fairest thing to do. She left three kids, we decided, not just two boys, but two boys and the children (charity).”

Since their decision to protect their mother’s likeness and share the profits of its use with the fund, Ferrer says it’s extraordinary how Audrey Hepburn’s imagery has risen in popularity. It’s difficult to shop in Italy without seeing her on a T-shirt or smiling at you from a handbag. “We’re very happy about that and we try to mobilise that energy. As far as her fan base is concerned she has completely transitioned. When she passed away we started off with fans in their forties or fifties or older, but the majority of the base today is teenagers. It’s extraordinary. We didn’t plan that and I can’t tell you how that happened.”

Ferrer attributes much of the rise and rise of Hepburn’s posthumous popularity to “the human being herself”.

He says there’s not much you can say about many of today’s young Hollywood stars. “They’re very nice, making $25 million to $30 million dollars a film, then the next thing you know one of them is getting drunk or it turns out he did something bad, hits a photographer or didn’t pay his taxes. “There were no scandals surrounding my mother. So the picture is clean and can survive the test of time. “People are asking themselves who they can really rely upon. It’s the person who is crisp and modern, yet honest and reliable and there’s not that many around.”

Surely it must be hard to see your mother’s face popping up everywhere, to be constantly reminded that someone you love and miss is no longer there? “It gives me joy to know that this affection is at least going towards a person who is worthy of receiving it,” he says.

Ferrer stands and walks towards the dining room’s glass doors. He opens them and looks at the lush Italian garden that surrounds his terrace.

“My mother loved living in the country. She found solace and safety in it. I wanted to give that to my kids, too.”

He waves his hand dismissively at the suggestion that Audrey would be very proud of her son. “I have no idea. We decided that we couldn’t drop the ball on her image or her likeness. Then you can’t just take the money and not help other people with it. It can be an example and kids today are being inspired by what we’re doing.

“The film thing is not a profession or a money-making thing. They’re love projects, like with Cloudstreet. What we are doing with the fund is a grain of salt but it is a necessary grain of salt because it sets an example — if we can do it, everybody can.

“Don’t sit there and be judgmental that we are the sons of Audrey Hepburn and think we must be millionaires or whatever. That’s not the point. It’s not so much about what she left us in finances. It’s what she left us as far as a legacy that really counts.”

Around the room, discreetly placed photos of Ferrer’s mother smile up at us from tabletops. In one of the shots Audrey Hepburn can be seen tenderly cradling one of her sons. She always said her boys were “her two greatest creations.”

It’s a sure bet that she would have been enormously proud of what they have created. And that would certainly include Cloudstreet.

* The six-part Cloudstreet miniseries is due to screen on Australian Foxtel’s Showtime channel in early January.

Lisa Clifford is part of our Artviva Festival, currently taking a winter hiatus, but returning again in 2011. In the meantime, you can still enjoy plenty of Artviva tours and activities! See: www.italy.artviva.com for more information or email us on staff@artviva.com.


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  1. Hi Lisa, great article. I’m a freelance journo from western australia, and well versed in the cloudstreet story/series. thanks

  2. I wanted to thanks for your time for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you blog post

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