In Random Reels, we talk to veteran directors about the projects that defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what we’ll ask them to talk about.
The director: It’s hard to think of a better candidate for the launch of this feature than Phillip Noyce. Best known as a director of blockbuster spy thrillers—Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, Salt—Noyce began his career as an underground filmmaker in Australia, coming into his own just as the country’s film industry started to take off. In 45 years of filmmaking, he has directed everything from documentaries to network pilots, from low-budget dramas to big-budget action movies. We spoke with Noyce about his eclectic filmography, upcoming adaptation of The Giver, and trying to find the perfect balance.
Phillip Noyce: I was aware of the novel from my two daughters, who are now in their 30s, having read it in high school in America. I’d seen it lying in both of their bedrooms, but never read it until I was approached by Harvey Weinstein.
So, I read the novel—a latecomer to Lois Lowry—and I was blown away. It had everything, in extremes, that had attracted me before. It was a story of ideas, it was a story of action, and it had wonderful, deeply etched characters. And in Jonas—who is selected as the receiver of memory, who will be the custodian of all past emotional experience in the community—I found a character who I’ve come back to throughout my career. Someone who is the ultimate insider, but rebels against the institution.
I was brought up in a loving, stable, middle-class household. Went to an all-boys Episcopalian school. I was in sports teams. And, yet, I found myself, throughout my life, turning on those values. I found myself challenging those values, particularly as a baby boomer. You see a character in a story or a novel and you just want to bring that character’s journey to life. If you can’t see what’s going on in that character, the audience is never going to see it.
The A.V. Club: You made your first film, Better To Reign In Hell, when you were 18. My understanding was that your first big exposure to film was through underground movies.
PN: Absolutely. It was the films of the American underground: Stan Brakhage, Report by Bruce Conner, Jonas Mekas’ movies, The Brig. Hand-drawn movies, drawing directly on to 16 mm stock, like Barry Spinello’s Sonata For Pen, Brush, And Ruler.
I was 18 years old. I was walking along in the city—I lived in the outer suburbs of Sydney—and I saw a poster with a psychedelic image, and it said “Underground Films.” Well, the word “underground” was exciting for an 18-year-old in 1968. [Laughs.] It meant “risqué” on one level, but it also meant “anti-authority” on another. So I found myself next Sunday at a theater at Sydney University watching a program of underground movies. And my life was changed, because I saw movies that were made for $10 to $500 that all represented the personal expression of the filmmaker.
The other thing was that, for a boy growing up in Australia, a country that had no film industry at that time… Suddenly I thought, oh my goodness, I can do this! I could make movies. I had never, ever in my life even considered it until that night. And then I met three guys who ran a group called Ubu Films. It was a film cooperative. I met them in the foyer, hung around, started talking to them. Their model was that anyone could make a movie.
Within four months, I was a movie director. I earned money digging sewage ditches and then I sold parts to my friends. For $300, you could be the lead in my movie! I learned my first big lesson then: It’s better to choose your actors than have them choose you. [Laughs.] A guy with $300 got the lead role, and he was a lousy actor.
Other than that job digging sewage ditches for six weeks, I never had another job in my life other than making movies.
AVC: Backroads was your first feature.
PN: Backroads was “feature length” because it was 60 minutes and 1 second long. [Laughs.] Newsfront was the next year. It ran for almost 50 weeks in Australian cinemas. We started making feature films, the whole group of us—Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, Paul Cox, myself. We started making films at a time when our audience were like babies in front of their first mirror. They couldn’t get enough of themselves. They were hungry to see their own experience on the silver screen in place of American and British characters. They wanted to see what they looked like.
AVC: I read an interview were you said that growing up, you never heard an Australian voice on screen.
PN: That’s true. Well, there were two films, Smiley Gets A Gun and Robbery Under Arms, but both of them were directed by non-Australian directors, so the Australianisms that I did hear didn’t sound true.
AVC: In the early part of the 1980s, you worked at Kennedy-Miller Studios.
PN: George Miller, Byron Kennedy, and myself were all part of that underground. We had a cinema that we ran above a book shop in Sydney, and we had a distribution company. We distributed our films, rented them out to schools. That expanded to a number of cinemas, in all capital cities, that were just screening collections of short films. Eventually we graduated to making features.
The biggest success out of all of those films was George Miller’s Mad Max, which returned $100 million on a budget of $400,000. So George decided to set up a studio in Sydney, at an old cinema in the inner city, modeled on Francis Ford Coppola’s studio. George was the big boss, but we worked collectively, and initially we started out doing TV dramas and miniseries.
AVC: Was that The Dismissal?
PN: The Dismissal, The Cowra Breakout… Various directors who’d been making the miniseries branched out within studios to make feature films. It was a golden era of production and independence.
I’ve always seen TV as the ultimate training ground. There’s a very good reason for that. When people go to the cinema, once they purchase a ticket, unless you really piss them off, they’re going to stay in the cinema. When people are watching television, they’ve got many reasons not to stay there. They can change the channel! In television, as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, you’ve got to reach out of the screen, you’ve got to put your arms on to the shoulders of the viewer, and you’ve got to say, “Watch this! Don’t move!”
Working in the Kennedy-Miller studio, we would make 10-hour miniseries, to be shown in one week, over four nights. Can you imagine the task of storytelling, to tell three hours one night, two hours the next, and then two hours again? And then, on Thursday night, a finale of three hours? That was the most glorious film school I could have ever gone to, and every time I return to television to do a pilot, I’m reminded of what a perfect school it is for trying new ideas to connect with audiences, for maintaining your sense of story and character, for honing your skills, and for honing the ways in which you can hold that audience in your grip.
It’s, in many ways, a lot harder than cinema. As a proving and training ground, it can’t be surpassed. I would always want to be working in television.
AVC: 1989 was a big year for you. You did Blind Fury and Dead Calm, and Echoes Of Paradise got its theatrical release that year.
PN: Echoes Of Paradise I actually shot in 1987. Then, while we were editing Dead Calm in 1988, I went across to America to make a low budget film, Blind Fury, with Rutger Hauer, and then I came back to Australia to finish Dead Calm. Echoes Of Paradise’s American release was delayed until I completed both of those films.
AVC: Out of the films you made around that time, that’s the most overlooked one. And you were working with John Lone, one of the great overlooked actors of the era.
PN: We had some real difficulties during the production of that movie. It never quite achieved what I had in mind. The film was set in Bali, and it told the story of a Balinese dancer who has a love affair with an Australian housewife, who is running away from the pain of her troubled marriage.
And just as we were about to shoot, there was a political fracas between Australia and Indonesia. It was over accusations that had been made in The Sydney Morning Herald about corruption within the Suharto regime, which ran Indonesia at the time. As a result, all Australian media were banned in Indonesia, and the permits we had been issued to film there were canceled.
So, a week or two before filming—with John Lone already trained as a Balinese dancer, and the costumes built—I found myself on the way to Thailand, rewriting the script on the plane. Instead of a Balinese dancer who lived in Bali, it had to become the story of a Balinese dancer who ran away from Bali, and he set up a bar in Phuket, Thailand, where he dances for tourists. So he became this lonely, displaced human, alienated, caught in a no man’s land of cultural isolation.
That’s an interesting idea, but, coming at the last moment, it was impossible to embrace that idea fully. John Lone’s great in it, but we never had the time to get the script to the point where we could do justice to this new interpretation.
AVC: And it was Dead Calm that got you in the door in Hollywood.
PN: Dead Calm was a novel that previously Orson Welles had tried to film [as The Deep].
AVC: He worked on it for three years in the ’60s, off the coast of Yugoslavia.
PN: That’s right. Laurence Harvey, who was the star, died while he was still shooting.
Tony Bill gave me Charles Williams’ novel. He had befriended me after Newsfront came out in America, and whenever I came over to America, I’d always pop in to see him. And one of those occasions, as I was going out the door, he said, “Hey, you’ve got a lot of water in Australia, take a look at this.” I read the book on the flight back, and the next person I saw was George Miller. I told him the story and he said, “Let’s make it into a movie.”
Tony had tried to get the rights from Oja Kodar, who was Welles’ de facto wife, and had been one of the stars of his film. [Though Welles and Kodar lived together for over two decades, he never divorced his third wife, Paola Mori. —ed.] What Tony had found was that Oja was reluctant to release the rights to a person that she felt was part of the Hollywood establishment, having felt that that establishment had persecuted Orson. She was right to feel that one of the great film artists did not have a smooth ride in Hollywood. So George approached Oja. He had trained and practiced as a doctor, and he had a great manner about him.
We ended up casting Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman. Her first big role, though she’d been in a few small movies down in Australia. She came in and did a screen test of one of the scenes toward the end of the movie. I thought, just, “wow.” Lightning in a bottle. You could tell that she had that strength and charisma. The camera just loved her.
She was, however, not even 20, and Sam Neill, who had already been cast as her husband, was almost 40. To make that match look realistic, Nicole worked with a voice coach for four months and with a movement coach. She was just a kid, just a teenager. She changed the pitch of her voice and she spent a lot of time with young mothers, and changed the way she walked. It was a dramatic transformation. In the movie, you see a husband and wife who are, in real life, 20 years apart, but they seem matched. He seems like he’s in his early 30s, she seems like she’s in her late 20s—but she was in her late teens.
RN: During post-production, I’d gone to America to shoot a film, a low-budget film called Blind Fury with Rutger Hauer. And then Dead Calm came out and suddenly I was being courted by the studios. The one project that really caught my attention was Patriot Games, an adaptation of one of the novels by Tom Clancy, featuring his CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
He had been played in the first film, The Hunt For Red October, by Alec Baldwin. When I came aboard, Paramount was determined to make the film, but they were having trouble reaching an agreement with Alec. He wanted certain approvals over the script that they weren’t willing to give. Harrison Ford wasn’t waiting in the wings, but he was in the wings, because the film he was just about to shoot at Paramount had fallen through. I flew up to Wyoming, spent the weekend at his beautiful ranch up there. Within two weeks, he was the new Jack Ryan.
AVC: How did it feel, making a big Hollywood production?
RN: I brought with me an Australian cinematographer, Don McAlpine, who was an enormous help because he’d already made a few films within the studio system in America. He spoke studio language, but also spoke Australian. [Laughs.] He was the go-between. We would always travel to the set together. He was a great partner, and he went on to shoot Clear And Present Danger as well.
The studio system in some ways was easier than working in Australia, because in Australia, you couldn’t have the studio advance you any more funds. The producer raises the money, and that’s it, so whatever’s in the bank at the start of the movie, you’ve got to make the movie with. There’s no leeway. You learn to be very frugal. You learn to plan. To storyboard everything. In the Australian situation, you could only shoot what you absolutely needed.
And usually, as a director, your fee was tied to the completion guarantee rebate, meaning if the film was made on time and on budget, there was usually an insurance rebate that would come. Half of the director’s fee would come from that. If you went over budget, you were cutting your salary in half!
AVC: There was one pilot you worked on that never got aired—The Repair Shop. It was a show created by Mark Frost, who did Twin Peaks and On The Air.
PN: Anthony Lapaglia played an operative working for a division of the CIA that was off the map. They had turned on him, and killed his family, and the story was about him tracking down all of the members of this clandestine CIA operation and seeking revenge.
The problem with it is that they decided to make the second episode the pilot. For whatever reason. So when it test-screened, [the audience] hadn’t seen the set-up. I don’t think they’ve repeated that experiment since. It’s hard to get someone excited about a guy who’s seeking revenge when you don’t what’s motivating him.
PN: We shot the two films back-to-back. [Cinematographer] Chris Doyle and I went from the outback of Australia, hopped on a plane, and the next morning, we flew to Saigon, Vietnam. And then the two films were edited simultaneously in editing rooms side by side. The soundtracks were mixed simultaneously. They were both sold to The Weinstein Company and previewed in America back to back—in New York City, the night before and the day after 9/11. And then both films were released within six weeks of each other.
AVC: How do you handle something like that?
PN: I felt I was ready. I’d spent 10 years in Hollywood. I’d been developing The Quiet American for most of that 10 years. I was contracted to shoot another Tom Clancy adaptation, The Sum Of All Fears. I got a call from someone in Australia saying they had the perfect script for me to direct. They got the time wrong—it was the middle of the night, I just wanted to get rid of them—so I said, “Ring my office tomorrow.” Someone in my office got the manuscript, read it, and kept pestering me about it. So I finally read it.
It was the story of a girl who had lost contact with her true self, this Aboriginal kid who’d been taken away from her parents as part of a program in Australia where half-caste kids would be taken away from their full-blood families and taught to be white and encouraged to assimilate into white society.
And at that time, I felt like I wasn’t really an American, I wasn’t really an insider. I was a director-for-hire who had made a string of financially successful films, but I wasn’t content as a filmmaker. I felt like a migrant worker, stuck in the Arabian desert, earning, but not happy. And I said, like this girl, “I’ve got to go on a journey, I’ve got to find myself. I’m not going to make this $80 million film—I’m going to make this $3 million film. I need to get back to my roots as a filmmaker, as a storyteller.” I left Hollywood for about six years. I went back and lived in Australia. I went to South Africa and made Catch A Fire. Divorced. Remarried. Had a child. And then I decided to come back, and that was Salt. I thought maybe it was time to come back and play in that big pool again.
Now with The Giver, I’m having it every which way. I’m getting to make a film that I think will be highly entertaining to a large audience, but it’s also a film of passion and ideas. This one might be the perfect combination within the system.