Studiocanal, Goalpost develop Vienna Boys’ Choir wartime drama

Elizabeth Trotman.

Studiocanal Australia and Goalpost Pictures are developing a feature based on the true story of members of the Vienna Mozart Boys’ Choir and their choirmaster who were trapped in Australia during World War II.

Keith Thompson (The Sapphires, Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You, Hoges) is writing the first draft and Goalpost’s Rosemary Bright will produce.

It’s the second project backed by the Studiocanal Australia Cultivator Fund which launched in March 2017, but has only just been announced following Screen Australia’s decision to provide development funding.

The 20-strong choir, aged 8 to 14, arrived in Australia in 1939. When war broke out they were declared enemy aliens after their final concert in Perth. The choristers were “adopted” by Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix, who made them the choir of his cathedral and arranged for their education and board and lodging with local families.

The choirmaster, Dr Georg Gruber, moved into the home of the visit’s sponsor, Henrietta Marsh. That changed abruptly in 1941 when military police went to Marsh’s Brighton home and arrested Gruber, who was charged with having Nazi links and sent to Tatura internment camp in Victoria.

Gruber was deported to Austria in November 1947, where he was reunited with his wife and children and cleared by a de-Nazification tribunal. All but one of the choristers remained in Australia.

Thompson said: “I first heard the story of the Vienna Boys almost 30 years ago but it’s one of those stories that’s impossible to forget since it’s the stuff of a great movie drama.”

Blight added: “This is an incredible and enduring story about resilience and hope in the face of some of the turbulent events of the last century and a timely insight into the contribution so many people from afar have made to Australia.”

Studiocanal Australia CEO Elizabeth Trotman tells IF she responded to the story of the challenges faced by the boys so far from their homes and their resilience.

When the producers and distributor are happy with the draft, Trotman said she will take the project to Studiocanal’s Paris-based international sales team. Depending on their feedback, she will decide whether to co-produce the film with Goalpost or just to distribute in Australia/New Zealand.

“Through the Cultivator Fund we aim to develop and produce strong local films which we can deliver to our international sales team and our international offices,” she said.

Trotman is aware of a rival project on the same subject, Stranded, which producer Lance Reynolds is developing with Icon Films’ Bruce Davey.

“It is disappointing, but we initiated the co-development deal with Goalpost in August 2016,” she said, adding that films on the same subjects, such as Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill, are not unusual.

The US-based Reynolds, who is in Melbourne and has been scouting for directors for Stranded, tells IF he and Davey have been working on their project for five years. He says he has the life rights to some of the key players and families involved and a lot of unique material. “We are full steam ahead and committed to making the best film possible,” he says.

The first project backed by the fund is Helena, a biopic about the Polish-Australian-American cosmetics businesswoman, art collector and philanthropist Helena Rubinstein. Set in 1928, the film follows Rubinstein as she faces a dilemma: Give up control of her empire or lose her marriage with Edward Titus and her children.

Katherine Thomson (A Place to Call Home, Women He’s Undressed, House of Hancock) is writing the first draft for producers Antony Waddington (The Eye of the Storm) and Marcus Gillezeau (Living Universe, Storm Surfers 3D).