Phillip Noyce: The Reinventor

He established himself as a skilled director of small Australian films and went on to make big extravaganzas like Patriot Games. Now that he has turned out the impressive indies Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American, is Hollywood telling Phillip Noyce he can do whatever he pleases?


Most directors spend their entire careers executing one signature look--think Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese or even John Hughes. But not Phillip Noyce. By comparison, he's a virtual shape-shifter.

After catching Hollywood's eye with his tight, gripping Aussie thriller Dead Calm, which helped Nicole Kidman win a role opposite Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, Noyce took on a behemoth project--the film version of Tom Clancy's Patriot Games, which starred Harrison Ford and James Earl Jones. He went on to direct Sharon Stone in Sliver, Ford again in Clear and Present Danger, Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue in The Saint, and Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector. Though these films made Noyce very rich and powerful in Hollywood, he itched to do something greater, so he chose to return to the kinds of smaller, more intimate films that put him on the map.

First, he went back to his homeland to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, a wrenching true-life saga about three aboriginal children who flee a government-sponsored containment and reeducation camp. The movie generated strong word of mouth at early screenings last year. Yet its release was delayed for nearly eight months as Miramax tinkered with their marketing strategy.

Then Noyce made a movie version of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, which centers on a love triangle set against the political quagmire and emotional betrayals of the war in Indochina in the 1950s. But Miramax wanted to postpone the film's release date, fearing the public's post-September 11 mood might not mesh well with the movie's underlying theme--America's aggressive intervention into the political and economic destinies of other countries.

Noyce admits to having been troubled by the studio's initial decision to indefinitely shelve The Quiet American. "If ever there was a movie that collided disadvantageously with history, it is this one," he says. "Greene's themes have remained relevant today--America's extreme sense of responsibility for the rest of the world, how that responsibility is exercised and, by extension, how making decisions for other nations might sometimes produce extreme resentment from other people. Having been violated in the wake of the heinous crime of 9/11, people did not want to contemplate the hard questions, particularly not those posed by a smart-assed filmmaker making a film called The Quiet American based on a book by an avowedly anti-American left wing British writer. But in the last year I have been amazed over the degree of unwillingness in many Americans, even so-called liberals, to contemplate any self-criticism, even though self-criticism is the hallmark of the American ideal."

Only when the film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and an Oscar buzz began percolating about Michael Caine's immaculately understated performance as the dissolute British journalist did the prospects for a release brighten.

The punch line? Despite studio trepidations, both of Noyce's films hit theaters at about the same time. And they both generated some of 2002's best reviews and several of the top national awards.

Is Noyce overjoyed with his newfound status? "The press has written about these movies as being a story of a director who has reclaimed his soul and identity," says Noyce. "But my Sharon Stone film, Sliver, has as much value for me as Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American. I value equally the ones that turned out well and the ones that turned out not so well. They just occupy different fronts of the moviemaking spectrum."

Even so, it must have been a shock to go from working with big budgets and Oscar-winning stars like Denzel Washingon to making do with little money and inexperienced cast members like the Aboriginal girls who starred in Rabbit-Proof Fence. "We had to apply principles of documentary filmmaking to these movies. Casting real Aboriginal children who had never acted before meant everything had to be organized around their blood sugar levels. Even [cinematographer] Chris Doyle was chosen because of his mastery of the spontaneous creative impulse. I knew he wouldn't restrain those children, he'd release them."

Noyce lets out a laugh and says, "The only times I longed for the world of big, commercial Hollywood filmmaking was when I wanted to be more physically comfortable. We made Rabbit-Proof Fence in the middle of the Australian outback and there was no one to carry the director's chair except me. I remember thinking, 'For 10 years I had to sit on a little box borrowed from the grips department. Then when I went to America I finally earned a chair. I've still got the chair, but now I have to carry it myself!'"

Having done two powerful movies back to back, what will his next career move be? "I have a lot of different kinds of screenplays sitting on my desk, from action-adventure escapist movies to serial killer movies to documentary, issue-of-the-month movies. I'm grateful I have choices."

The industry trades have been more specific, reporting that Noyce may direct the tentatively titled drama Mazar E Sharif, which is based on the true tale of several U.S. 12-man Special Forces alpha teams that worked with the Northern Alliance just prior to their attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. "I haven't even read that yet," he says. So what has he read? "I'm developing American Pastoral, which has been adapted from Philip Roth's novel about a family confronting the '60s in America. It's an independent film, but is partly financed by a studio." Does that mean he'll still have to carry his own chair around? "Probably, but I don't know if the American unions will allow me to."


Stephen Rebello