Maleficent’s Elle Fanning will play the teenage Mary Shelley in A Storm in the Stars, a romantic drama scripted by Australian writer Emma Jensen, with Haifaa Al-Mansour attached to direct.

With a bit of luck, another of Jensen’s screenplays, Em, a comedic take on Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, will shoot in Australia next year.

Those will be the Brisbane-based writer’s first works to be filmed. Romantic comedy Sex on the First Date, which she co-wrote with Los Angeles-based Aussie Sal Grover, was optioned by Gold Circle Films two years ago and Walt Becker (Wild Hogs) is attached to direct.

The prolific Jensen is pitching another project, the saga of actress Ava Gardner’s long-time friendship with her African-American personal assistant, which pre-dated the Civil Rights movement, at the MIFF 37ºSouth Market.

Development of A Storm in the Stars was funded by Screen NSW and Screen Australia, with Matthew Dabner as the producer, and Jensen hoped it could be a UK-Australian co-production. Instead, her UTA agent sold the script to US producer Amy Baer, who produced Last Vegas. Baer hired Al-Mansour, the first female director from Saudi Arabia whose breakthrough film was Wadjda.

The plot follows Mary Wollstonecraft (as she was then) from the ages of 16, when she met and began a tumultuous affair with the charismatic, married poet Percy Shelley, to 19. “We look at how she found her voice and wrote Frankenstein as Mary Shelley when she was 18,” Emma told IF.

The roles of Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron are yet to be cast and the plan is to shoot in 2015, probably in the US or the UK.

Jensen is relishing the chance to work with Al-Mansour, observing, “She is the perfect choice. Her film Wadjda is bold and courageous and in the spirit of Mary Shelley.”

Em is set in the summer of 1950s rural Australia where the heroine is the tomboyish daughter of a wealthy sheep farmer. Em sets out to make a match with a young school teacher as a way of keeping her father off her back and stop meddling in the farm. “She's a girl who was ahead of her time, like Mary,” says the writer.

Dabner is producing with Karen Radzyner (Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, Being Venice) and Anna Vincent, who is in post on Jim Loach's movie shot in South Australia.

The film will be directed by Kate Riedl, an AFTRS graduate who directed several award-winning shorts and an episode of Too Twisted, which starred Melissa George.

Dabner came up with the concept and wrote the first two drafts before passing the baton to Jensen, figuring he needed a female voice. Screen NSW and Screen Australia are funding development and the script is about to go out to cast and financiers. Nikki Barrett is casting.

“Emma is a great example of the kind of professionals the Australian industry keeps developing and delivering to the world stage,” Dabner said. "We're aiming to be financed for a spring/summer shoot in 2015."

Sex on the First Date explores the age-old question of whether a solid relationship can result from sex on the first date, the rules of dating and double-standards.

The Gardner project is based on Living With Miss G, a memoir by the star’s personal assistant Mearene Jordan, who is 92 and lives in Florida.

Those two had a “bond of sisterhood unheard of in the upper echelons of the film industry, and rarely anywhere else in an era when the ‘n’ word was used harshly, freely and frequently, “according to Gardner’s biographer Doris Rollins Cannon.

Jensen bought the film rights and is developing the project alone, thus far without a producer or director.


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