Michael Petroni is understandably chuffed by the B.O. results of The Book Thief, his adaptation of the Marcus Zusak novel- particularly in Australia.
Yet he wonders how the WWII drama might have turned out if he hadn’t been asked to do multiple rewrites by the studio, Fox 2000, and the director, Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival.
“My major disappointment with the rewrites was that they took out most of the magic realism that features in the book,” said Petroni, who is editing the Aussie psychological thriller Backtrack, the first film he’s directed since 2002’s Till Human Voices Wake Us.
“Fox wanted a film that would appeal to families, not just adults, and Brian wanted to tell more of a straight, dramatic tale.”
He is quick to add, "I am very proud of the film, people come up to me and tell me how much they loved it. On the whole I'm very pleased with the way the studio has got behind the film in an environment that doesn't encourage these types of films to be made."
Petroni attributes the film’s success in Australia, where it’s raked in more than $13.5 million, to the popularity of the novel, word-of-mouth and the appeal of Geoffrey Rush.
Rush and Emily Watson play the foster parents of a young girl (Sophie Nélisse) who seeks refuge in the world of books while they hide a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) in the basement of their house.
In the US, where the film has grossed a fair $US21.2 million, Petroni said, “The reviews were mixed-to-good; you can’t expect more than that for a small drama.” The worldwide total is $US61.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
He wrote the first draft seven years ago, commissioned by Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. It sat there untouched until the producer, Karen Rosenfelt (whose credits include Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and the Twilight franchise), raised the finance.
He avoided contacting Zusak until after the film was completed but they have since become good mates.
“He had some comments on the script (before the shoot) but no massive changes,” said Petroni, whose screenwriting credits include The Rite, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Possession.
The saga of a psychologist who discovers his patients are the ghosts of people who died in an accident twenty years previously, Backtrack stars Adrien Brody, Sam Neill, Bruce Spence, Robin McLeavy and Anna Lise Phillips.
Jamie Hilton is producing with Petroni, his parter in See Pictures, and Antonia Barnard. Screen Australia, UK-based sales agent Bankside and Oz distributor Madman Entertainment came on board before Brody was attached.
The other backers are Screen NSW, Deluxe Australia, Bankside-affiliated Head Gear Films, which is providing the gap financing, and Star Gate which is cash flowing the producer offset.
Petroni got the idea for Backtrack while he was shooting Till Human Voices Wake Us, observing, “They tread the same terrain, dealing with memory, what’s real and what isn’t and confronting ghosts of the past.”