Interview: Phillip Noyce – Part One

  The director of Patriot Games, Rabbit Proof Fence and Dead Calm chats about his career with Nick Clement in this three-part interview.

Phillip Noyce’s career has been filled with blockbuster hits (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Sliver, The Saint, Salt), cult classics (Dead Calm, Blind Fury), and personal projects that have resulted in masterpieces (Newsfront, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American). Able to play the big-budget studio game as well as shifting to smaller projects with total ease, he’s an eclectic filmmaker, one who has a tremendous visual eye and yet still appreciates character, motivation, and strong story elements. In the first part of a three part interview, We Are Cult’s Nick Clement spoke with Noyce about how his love for storytelling took root, the origins of the Australian Film Industry, how his debut film Backroads came about, his experiences on the classic thriller Dead Calm, and the oddball gem Blind Fury.

Phillip Noyce with Samuel L. Jackson. Photo by Merrick Morton. © Paramount Pictures

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Phillip. I’ve been a big fan of your work for so long, and your run of studio films in the 90’s really informed my love of the action-adventure genre, and I’m just so honored to get this opportunity to speak with you. I mean, Rabbit-Proof Fence is one of the best films of my lifetime!

Noyce: It’s my pleasure, thanks for the invitation. It’s been quite the experience making pictures for so long and I love doing it.

I think it makes sense to start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? Did you see many movies as a child?

Noyce: I grew up on a small farm in the Australian town of Griffith (population 5,000), famous today for Yellowtail wine, and famous in 1970s for the best reefer madness dope in Australia. My dad was a lawyer, mum an ex-nurse. Every Saturday was spent at the local movie house, watching mainly American movies, with a good few westerns.

‘Castor and Pollux’ won the award for best Australian short film of 1974.

Was there one particular film that you viewed during your formative years that sparked an interest in filmmaking? Who are some of your personal favorite filmmakers?

Noyce: The film that changed everything for me was Hitchcock’s Psycho in the early 60’s but the filmmakers that got me started making movies were the American underground film artists of the mid to late 60s- guys like Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, The Kuchar Brothers, Jonas Mekas, and the Australian experimental filmmaker Albie Thoms.

If I’m not mistaken, you were part of that initial crew of Australian filmmakers who took control of a non-existent industry in your home country. Can you talk about how the Australian New Wave got started?

Noyce: I started with a group that ran an unregistered cinema called The Filmmakers Cinema, and it was on the third floor of a downtown bookshop. We screened shorts by amongst others Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Peter Weir, and Bruce Beresford. Pretty soon, we realized that the Australian audience was hungry and eager to see their own stories on the big screen. For years, as I was growing up, all Australians could watch were American films. There was a ravenous audience for home-grown stories made by home-grown filmmakers.

Noyce with Henry Szeps who played Dr. Archie Kalokerinos and the doctor himself, on the set of God Knows Why But It Works (1975). Photo by John Delacour.

And there was nothing in Australia like the MPAA, or a board who governed all of the releases?

Noyce: When I was 18 I went to a screening of some shorts from the American underground and after the screening I got talking to the three bearded gentlemen who organized the event. Their motto was, “Anyone can make a film.” So, I immediately grew a beard and started dreaming up my first movie, which was made over the holiday by selling parts to my friends, which was easy because it was about a teenagers’ sexual fantasies. Of course they’d all want to participate. It was between $25 and $400 for each part, depending on the role, and how many girls they’d get to kiss! I quickly learned that it’s better to rain in hell than offer up parts to your friends! It’s better for you to select the actors than having them select you. The lead was a local doctor’s son, and he was terrible, but in a few months I had a film in the can. A small film collective was born, and for the next few years, I was a part of that group.

And what about censorship?

Noyce: In order to import films into Australia and export films to other countries, all motion pictures had to go through a censorship process. If you made a local film and screened it for the public, it was up to the local cops to show up and deem whether or not it was suitable to be shown, and if any of the material was objectionable. My first film was banned for export when I tried to send it to a festival. It was only 18 minutes long, and I’d screen it at Sydney University, and the showings were always full! Everyone wanted to see the banned movie.

On the set of Backroads. L-R: Phillip Noyce holding boom, 1st Assistant Director Elizabeth Knight, Script Supervisor Jan Chapman, DOP Russell Boyd, Bill Hunter. © 1976 Backroads Productions, courtesy Gary Foley.

How did the Australian government figure into helping to establish an Australian film industry?

Noyce: 1968 was a very significant year in Australia. Some smart people were able to convince the conservative Prime Minister John Gorton that it was a good idea to establish a state sponsored film industry, one modeled on what had been done in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Three stages of film funding were created: an experimental division, a film school, and a film development corporation which focused on investing in feature films. And this has continued from 1970 to the present, and this movement was essentially responsible for creating the Australian New Wave, with filmmakers like George Miller charging through the gates. State funding is and was necessary because there was no economic rationale for an Australian film industry. We’d all been brought up on American movies, and because Australians speak English, we were sold the dreams of another country.

How did your first film, Backroads, come about?

Noyce: In the early 70’s, our aim was to make one film per week. We just wanted to have something ready to screen on Sunday night at our filmmakers cinema, even if it wasn’t 100% finished. The experimental film fund financed a lot of these early efforts. Then, I got $25,000 of government investment to make a 61 minute feature film called Backroads, inspired by the work of Monte Hellman and Wim Wenders. Making this film was a big learning experience for me, and one of the biggest lessons was when your actors are doing 80 mph in a stolen car with the director tied to the bonnet of the vehicle and the sound guy lying inside the trunk, you don’t need people drinking! I learned about the good fortune of prop wine!

Director Phillip Noyce (centre), with Bill Hunter and Zac Martin during the shoot, 1977. Photo by John Delacour © Backroads Productions.

How do you feel about Backroads all these years later?

Noyce: Watching Backroads now it’s a bit jarring. The film was a B-grade exploitation piece mixed with a doc-style aesthetic; I wanted to make an A-grade agitprop film. It feels conflicted in its style, even if that was deliberate on my part. It was also highly improvised, with a narrative that centered on a young black radical and a white guy, and they team up and steal a 1962 Pontiac, and head across the Outback on a crime spree, towards the coast. Growing up in Australia in the 50’s and 60’s, it was impossible to think about directing movies. There were no Australian filmmakers and there was no industry to speak of.

How did you get the job directing Newsfront, which essentially catapulted your career?

Noyce: Newsfront was a story that was conceived by producer David Elfick and written by Bob Ellis. This was pre-Zelig, the idea of combining archival newsreel footage of real events with a fictional story. Elfick had seen Backroads at the Sydney Film Festival and was interested in working with me, so Newsfront was a project that I was handed. I saw the film as a portrait of my parent’s generation and sensibilities. As a baby boomer, making Newsfront allowed me to come to terms with the mores of my parents time – the 20’s, the depression, the emergency of WWII, and the values and hopes they held for the future. Newsfront defined the cultural imperialism we lived under in Australia, where there was very little Australian content. Australian kids were watching The Mickey Mouse Club.

Newsfront: Drew Forsyth and Bryan Brown. Photo by Mike Giddens. 1977 © Palm Beach Pictures.

What happened when you were done with Newsfront?

Noyce: After I finished Newsfront, I spent two years on the festival circuit with the film, being feted as the next big thing by everyone. I went out to Los Angeles and I met several filmmakers, including Tony Bill. And all the while, back home, you had George Miller and Byron Kennedy, and they wanted to make the Australian version of Zoetrope. That was their ultimate dream. George had of course made Mad Max, 100% self-financed and a smash all around the world. He came back to Australia flush with success, bought an old theater as a studio and put about 10 directors and writers on salary. I was one, and we got paid to come up with ideas and develop them. We set out first to make a miniseries about the rise and fall of the short-lived socialist government in Australia.

Newsfront: With Sandy Beach on the Redex Dance set, October 1977. Photo by Mike Giddens © Palm Beach Pictures.

So this little filmmaking club was essentially born?

Noyce: This was a collective but we were all paid by George, and that’s when I met Chris Noonan, who of course directed Babe. We set out to remake Australian television with a bunch of 10 hour mini-series, which would run over four conservative nights. It was an enormous audience commitment but it’s not unlike what people do nowadays with binge watching shows that are on Netflix or Amazon. We did shows like The Dismissal, Cowra Breakout, Bodyline, and a Vietnam mini-series which starred a then-17-year-old Nicole Kidman. A great television show has to reach out of the screen and grab you, because at home, there are tons of potential distractions. But if you program 10 hours of content in one week, you really become immersed in the subject. That was the ultimate film school for me.

Shooting the SBS TV documentary Vietnam Stories, 1980.

And then you got your first taste of Hollywood, with Dead Calm.

Noyce: In 1986 in LA, I went out to see Tony Bill at his Venice Beach studio and as I was leaving our meeting, he said, “You got a lot of water down there in Australia, don’t you?” That’s when he slipped me the manuscript for the novel Dead Reckoning, which would become Dead Calm. He told me that Orson Welles had tried to make it in the early 60s but abandoned the project when his leading man died of cancer. Dead Calm was produced independently by George Miller for $6 million and later sold to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers wasn’t involved in the shoot. Kidman had done two mini-series’ and was clearly emerging as the star of the Kennedy Miller Studio. Warner wasn’t involved in the shoot on a creative level, but when they did test screenings, the audience responded strongly that our original ending wasn’t working.

What was the problem?

Noyce: They wanted more closure. Originally, Billy Zane had been overpowered by Kidman, and set adrift in a raft out in the Pacific, and she goes on to save her husband. But the audience felt as if Billy’s character was “still out there” and they expected him to come back. They thought they’d been robbed of a finale, so we went back a year later and shot a new ending which was much more conventional. And looking back on it, I think if we made the film now, we’d have an easier time with a more ambiguous ending. This was my first experience with the test screening process, which of course has been around since the 1930’s. That process can either destroy you or turn the film into an even bigger success. Dead Calm was a critical success, and while it didn’t break any box-office records, it catapulted Nicole onto the A-list in the US, where Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott would cast her in Days of Thunder, which is where she met Tom Cruise. And Sam Neil of course got the big job on Jurassic Park.

Graham Shirley, Ken G. Hall, Noyce and George Miller, 1983. Photo by Hans C. Blumenberg.

How did you get involved with the cult classic Blind Fury? That film is so much fun, and a prime example of the sort of movie that would be nearly impossible to get made today. There’s a great Blu-ray release of it, too.

Noyce: I actually shot that in the year long period in between finishing Dead Calm and then going back to re-shoot the finale. I snuck that one in there!

What was it about “Australian Phillip Noyce” that made the producers of Blind Fury think that you were the perfect choice to direct a fish out of water samurai film?

Noyce: (laughing) I don’t know, I can’t answer that! I understood the values of American cinema, but saw things through South Pacific sunglasses. That’s one of the great virtues of Hollywood – it’s a town that imports talent from all over the world. If you can make money for people, and do something new on a creative level, you’re taking steps in the proper direction. So the producers of Blind Fury hadn’t yet seen Dead Calm, but producer Tim Matheson had seen my TV work.

Is there anything special about the shoot that comes to mind?

Noyce: The most indelible moment on Blind Fury was likely when we were out in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and one day, four cars showed up on set, and these beautiful women poured out of the vehicles. They were there looking for Rutger Hauer, who, of course, is just an insanely good-looking man, a beautiful man, and still is to this day. Let’s just say that he had his “fans” and they weren’t afraid of showing Rutger how much he meant to them. An Australian directing a Samurai movie in Texas with a Dutch lead actor – it doesn’t get much more “Hollywood” than that! But when the movie was done, the film got caught up in regime changes at the studio, and they didn’t want to do anything substantial with it. So I told the producers, give the film to me, and I’ll take it to Queensland and screen it there, and based on the response, if it was positive, it would show them that the film could be a hit. So we organized elaborate publicity stunts and the film became a big hit in Australia. Columbia/Tri Star later opened it in Germany, but the film never repeated that initial success.


❉ We Are Cult would like to thank Phillip Noyce for providing the images used in this interview from his own personal archive.

 Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

 He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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