A high-profile Australian movie that was supposed to boost the country's film industry has collapsed before the cameras started to roll, amid reports of a clash of egos between its two Oscar-winning leads, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.
Filming was due to start this week on Eucalyptus , a love story adapted from a novel by the Australian author, Murray Bail. But with the cast assembled at the set in Bellingen, a picturesque town in northern New South Wales, the producers abruptly announced that the £8.3m project had been postponed indefinitely.
A short statement by the US studio, Fox Searchlight, cited problems with the script but insiders told local media the decision to pull the plug followed weeks of tensions between the main protagonists.
With the domestic film industry in shock, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. One Sydney paper, The Daily Telegraph , reported that Eucalyptus was torpedoed by Crowe's insistence that his role be "beefed up" to give him more screen time and save him from being "outshone" by Kidman.
Other newspapers have speculated that the project was abandoned amid disputes about the script between Crowe and the writer-director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, who produced the international hit, Muriel's Wedding , and directed Crowe in another Australian film, Proof .
Crowe, who won an Oscar for his role in Gladiator , is said to have a monumental ego but sources on the set say he believed the script was not up to scratch. One of Hollywood's most bankable stars, he owns a ranch near Bellingen and had hired a helicopter to take him to work every day during the 10-week shoot.
The choice of Kidman, 37, to play the 19-year-old female lead had already required drastic rewriting. The novel - which won Bail an Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award - revolves around an impossible test set by the woman's father, who will only allow her to marry a man able to name each of hundreds of eucalyptus species on his farm.
The producers say work may resume on the film later this year but - given the problems to date, and the busy schedules of Crowe and Kidman - many in the industry believe it has been canned. Locals in Bellingen, who had been expecting a huge injection of cash as well as international publicity for their town, are dismayed.
Many had been hired as extras, and 20 families had moved out in order to rent their homes to the production company for up to £600 a week. Guesthouses, believing themselves full until Easter, had turned away lucrative bookings.
"To say we are disappointed is an understatement," Bellingen's mayor, Mark Troy, told The Daily Telegraph . "Everyone was excited at the prospect of having Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe arrive."
Eucalyptus was foreign-financed (Fox Searchlight is owned by Rupert Murdoch's Twentieth Century Fox), but was to be wholly Australian-made. The film, which has a distinctively Australian subject matter, would have been filmed in Bellingen and Sydney, and staffed almost entirely by locals.
A £2.7m set, including a replica of an old farmhouse, had been built in Bellingen, which lies in a scenic region called "The Promised Land" by early settlers. There were high hopes that the film would prove the saviour of the local film industry.