Young star transitions from Hollywood to Adelaide

After starring in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, Gulliver McGrath is playing his first co-lead role in an Australian feature.

Not bad for the Aussie actor who turned 17 last month.

In Boys in the Trees McGrath and Toby Wallace (Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS, Parer’s War) are playing teenagers who embark on a surreal journey on Halloween night in 1997.

The feature debut of writer-director Nicholas Verso, it starts a five-week shoot in Adelaide on Monday, funded by the South Australian Film Corp., Mushroom Pictures and private investors.

The producer is Mushroom Pictures’ John Molloy with Hedone Productions’ Kate Croser and Sandy Cameron as co-producers.

Verso wrote the feature in 2011 and then went through the AFC’s Springboard, which funded his short The Last Time I Saw Richard, which was named best short fiction film at the AACTA Awards.

Verso tells IF, “I was inspired by great science-fiction writers like Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman, whose work combines nostalgia and fantasy. I wanted to look at my own culture including skateboarding, life on the streets and coming-of-age, through their kind of lens.”

The short followed one of the boys, Jonah (played by Wallace), as a loner in a teenage mental health clinic in 1995. The feature takes up the story two years later with Wallace as Corey, a skater who’s unable to communicate with his widowed father and sets off on that surreal journey with McGrath’s Jonah.

Verso says of McGrath, “He has a real presence and emotional maturity. He’s very excited and passionate about Boys in the Trees. The film rests on his and Toby’s shoulders.”

Mitzi Ruhlman (Hiding, The Code, Home and Away) plays Romany, whom the director wryly describes as “not quite the love interest.”

Verso had followed Mitzi’s career since spotting her in the 2012 short Yardbird, which was directed by Michael Spiccia and written by Julius Avery. He was in Beijing earlier this year on an arts fellowship from the University of Melbourne's Asialink, researching robot labs for an upcoming film project,  when they began a conversation via Skype.

“She sent me an audition which stopped me in my tracks,” he said. "She brings real guts and a strong feminine presence.”

The cast includes Justin Holborow, Tom Russell, Henry Meaney, Jayden Lugg, Patrick Gilbert and Terry Crawford.

The key crew are DoP Marden Dean (Fell, The Infinite Man), production designer Robert Webb (A Month of Sundays, both Wolf Creeks) and costume designer Erin Roche (The Beautiful Lie).

Mark Morrissey and Michael Gudinski are the EPs. Mushroom Pictures is retaining the Australian distribution rights, aiming for a Halloween 2016 launch, and world sales rights.

Molloy is fulsome in his praise of the SAFC, telling IF, “When the SAFC got on board that gave us critical momentum. It’s a total joy the way they are supporting us.”

SAFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan said, “Boys in the Trees is a great example of how South Australia can benefit from interstate and local co-productions. It’s one of five feature films supported by SAFC in various stages of production in South Australia and has created work for the 75 local cast and crew.”

Hedone’s Cameron said, “This will be a film that combines beautiful, dream-like visuals with an entertaining and powerful story of friendship.”