Interview: Phillip Noyce – Part Three

The final instalment of our exclusive interview covers Rabbit-Proof Fence, working with Harvey Weinstein, and new film Above Suspicion.

“I was making a film that literally would stand no chance of being financed on any sort of studio level, and in a way, that made all of us who were involved more and more determined to get it made. It was a story we needed to tell, not something we were doing for the paycheck.”

In this final instalment of a three-part interview (read Part Two HERE), We Are Cult’s Nick Clement spoke with director Phillip Noyce about his masterpiece Rabbit-Proof Fence, working with Harvey Weinstein, his artistic collaboration with cinematographer Robert Elswit on the Angelina Jolie thriller Salt, and some bits about his newest thriller, Above Suspicion, which is due in cinemas in 2018.

Phillip with Tianna Sansbury, Everlyn Sampi and script supervisor Kristen Witcombe. Photo by Matt Nettheim © 2000 Jabal Films.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is still one of the most galvanizing movies I’ve ever seen. I can remember feeling pinned to my seat when it was over – a very select group of films have left me with that particular sensation when the lights were coming up. Considering that this movie brought you back home, and it feels so personal, I’d love to know how it initially landed on your doorstep.

Noyce: One morning, a woman rang me at 2:00 am in Los Angeles. I don’t know how she got my number, and she was calling from Australia, and hadn’t taken into consideration the full time change difference. So I answered the phone and I was half-asleep, and she says, “I have the script you were born to direct.” And I said, “I’m sure you do, but it’s 2:00 am, so do you think you can call my office tomorrow and set something up?” So, the woman, it was Christine Olsen, she called the next day, and arranged to have the script sent to Los Angeles. All of my assistants read it and told me I had to drop what I was doing immediately and read it – the woman who called in the middle of the night wasn’t crazy!

And what was your reaction when you finally read it?

Noyce: I knew right away that I had to go home and make the picture, at all costs. Get in touch with my roots. So I left Los Angeles with a $6 million reward on my head, because that’s the offer I passed up on The Sum of All Fears to go and make Rabbit-Proof Fence. I knew in my heart that it was the film I had to make as a filmmaker, and that all of my experiences as an Australian had essentially been leading up to that project.

Noyce with Everlyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan and Gianna Sansbury. Photo by Matt Nettheim © 2000 Jabal Films.

What were some of the challenges with getting Rabbit-Proof Fence made?

Noyce: The biggest challenge was that I had to take all of the “Hollywood” out of my system. I was making a film that literally would stand no chance of being financed on any sort of studio level, and in a way, that made all of us who were involved more and more determined to get it made. It was a story we needed to tell, not something we were doing for the paycheck. And we ended up raising $6 million to get the film made, and one of the proudest things about the entire experience is that it’s the most profitable film I’ve ever been involved with in terms of how much it cost to make and how much it took in from sales. Not forgetting the hearts and minds that were changed all around the world.

You worked with one of the most extraordinary cinematographers on the planet – Christopher Doyle – on Rabbit-Proof Fence. There’s some absolutely soul-stirring and haunting imagery in that film. What was it like working with Doyle?

Noyce: Well, he’s of course a genius with light and with the camera, and he understands texture better than most people out there. We shot the end of that movie first, with the real women, all of that handy-cam footage. But yeah, Doyle is a true artist and it was fabulous collaborating with someone who is excited about trying new things, pushing their own boundaries, and yet still committed to the ultimate goal of the story.

With Kenneth Branagh. Photo by Matt Nettheim © 2000 Jabal Films.

How did Peter Gabriel get chose to do the score to Rabbit-Proof Fence? The music is phenomenal, and brings so much life, in so many dimensions, to the film.

Noyce: A good friend, George Acgogny, had worked with Peter at Real World. He arranged for me to meet Peter, who I offered both The Quiet American for a fee of $500,000, and Rabbit-Proof Fence for no fee. After hearing the story of each film, Peter rang to say he’d take the one that paid nothing.

How did Harvey Weinstein get involved with the film?

Noyce: Harvey picked up Rabbit-Proof Fence at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. He saw the trailer with everyone else, and he basically started acquiring The Quiet American just before Cannes.

That’s right. Those two films both came out one on top of another.

Noyce: Yes. I did them back to back, with only six weeks in between. Then I spent eight months cutting both of those pictures in side by side editing rooms, which we did because they were both being distributed by the same company – Miramax. And then, 9/11 happened.

Where were you on 9/11?

Noyce: I was in Manhattan. There had been a test screening of The Quiet American in New Jersey on September 10th, and I was on my way to Harvey’s office to review the results. We decided on a 10am meeting. We were also trying to arrange a morning screening of Rabbit-Proof Fence for Harvey, and while I was walking down the street, I looked up, and a plane was sticking out of the World Trade Center. I was six blocks from ground zero. And for the next five or six days, it was me, and Harvey, and Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella all locked up in the Miramax Books uptown offices trying to keep ourselves pre-occupied while everything was falling apart in the city.

Did you have any disagreements with Weinstein over any aspects of Rabbit-Proof Fence or The Quiet American? Before the rape scandals emerged, he was primarily known by the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands,” because of the re-cutting he often supervised on films he bought.

Noyce: Yes, we certainly had some disagreements about marketing and distribution. By his nature, he’s a combative guy, but he liked it if people resisted him, and he was always ready to put up a fight. Sometimes he was right, often times he wasn’t. He was naturally worried how a story like the one that’s presented in The Quiet American would be viewed so close to the events of 9/11 considering that it depicted Americans as the bad guys, as terrorists.

Considering the climate we’re currently living in with regards to the high-profile Hollywood groping and raping scandals, I think we should just get this question out there and answered – did you see anything or experience anything while working with Harvey Weinstein that you found objectionable?

Noyce: It’s a fair question to ask, obviously, but no, I never saw anything. I have no stories about Harvey Weinstein upstairs in hotel rooms or on casting couches. I didn’t travel with him, or socialize with him, and we didn’t hang out for fun. He was always tough but well-behaved in front of me. And he was impossibly generous. I never saw this monster that we’re all hearing about now, and who many people apparently knew all about throughout the years.

How was he generous?

Noyce: The Weinstein Company had given me a per diem when I was in New York working on The Giver for Harvey, and I really needed an apartment for my family. I’d been living in a hotel and I needed my family to be with me. And so I said to Harvey, is there anything you can do. And this is on a Friday. It’s 3pm, and he gets Lizzie Grubman on the phone and within a matter of an hour, we were presented with a list of apartments in the area that I could choose from. It was crazy. He paid $65,000 for a two-month rental for my family, $15K in cash on the spot to get the people out of the unit that day so I could move in. And this apartment, it was insane! It was an entire floor of an old factory. That’s the Harvey I remember.

How did you get involved with Catch A Fire? This one, on paper, plays like an in-betweener for you – a political thriller which allowed you back into a familiar genre, but tackling a topical story that’s more intimate by its nature.

Noyce: It was a script by Shawn Slovo, offered to me by Bruna Papandrena who at the time was working for Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack.

You directed the hit espionage thriller Salt, with Angelina Jolie. I’m surprised they never made a sequel considering how well it did financially, and how it’s essentially a riff on Bourne but with a female protagonist.

Noyce: They want to make one. Angelina didn’t want to get immediately involved with a sequel after the film came out. She wanted to focus on her directing career, and she’s made some strong pictures, and while I think that they’re back at work on a new script, I’m not involved with the sequel, if it ever comes to pass.

You had the chance to work with director of photography Robert Elswit on Salt. He’s one of my favorite cinematographers. What was it like working with him?

Noyce: He’s got such a great eye. There are many different kinds of directors of photography out there, and Bob is from the old school. He likes to do as much as he can on set and in a practical manner. He’s got a great sense of choreography. He also brings a level of intelligence to all of his decisions, so it’s never just flashy for the sake of being flashy. The style serves a purpose and has a sense of its own being without being overly manipulative. He’s also very thorough with his choice of lenses, and I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with the same type of cameraman as Bob on any other picture.

What was it like working on the short-lived HBO series Luck? I loved that show.

Noyce: Working with Michael Mann and Dustin Hoffman on Luck was a career highlight. Two icons of America cinema and one of my favorite writers of all-time, David Milch.

How did you get involved with The Giver? That was a book I can remember reading when I was younger – that was such an important novel for a certain age group of kids.

Noyce: We made several mistakes on that film. It might have been a better movie had we approached various aspects in a different manner, but then again, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. We had very popular source material, which Harvey Weinstein wanted to change – making the characters older so that the film might appeal more to the YA crowd. That may have been commercially correct, but it altered the architecture of the beloved source material, I think we alienated a lot of fans of the book. The Giver was Harvey’s attempt at a Hunger Games type film, but on nowhere near the scale.

You had a great cast to work with on the film.

Noyce: We were shooting in South Africa, and I remember Harvey saying he could get Meryl Steep, but only for four days! Her part, as written, was scheduled for 17 days! She was starring in Into the Woods, so we could get her while she was on a break but it just made no sense, it didn’t seem possible! So I then get a call from Harvey, “We gotta make her a hologram!” which was bizarre, because here I am, working with the most awarded actor that I’ve ever collaborated with, and we’re on a green screen acting against poles with photos attached to them of the other actors in the cast. I must be honest – there were times where I lost track of who I was looking at. I’d never done such extensive green screen and CGI work before.

What was it like working with Weinstein during production? On the other films where you worked with him, it was after the fact, as he’d purchased the rights to distribute – he hadn’t funded those other films.

Noyce: Yes, and we were very careful in our contracts with Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American that I had final creative control over the films, and that he wasn’t able to touch them from a creative standpoint. That didn’t stop him from trying, though! He’s both combative and collaborative by nature, and he’d entrust his directors with absolute freedom and control, but once the filming was over. He’d come in thinking that he had all the answers and he wasn’t afraid to vocalize his thoughts. I can remember literally being dazed and fatigued about one week before we were set to open, and Harvey calls and says that we had even at the 11th hour, to do a test screening for Christian Fundamentalists in Colorado Springs!

Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in Above Suspicion (2017).

Let’s talk about your newest motion picture, the thriller Above Suspicion. What’s this one about?

Noyce: It was a totally independent production, which was nice, because I was able to make the film I really wanted to make. We started with a great script by Chris Gerolmo, who wrote Mississippi Burning. It’s the true story of a young woman living in the Appalachian Mountains with her drug dealing husband who she gets recruited to become an informant for the FBI. It’s a shocking true story so I don’t want to say too much more than that!

Wow! This sounds excellent, and right up my alley!

Noyce: It’s a throwback thriller, the kind that doesn’t really get made too often anymore. And I think people are going to love Emilia Clarke in the role, she’s terrific. And because it was done independently, we made the film we wanted to make. You have to go outside of the studio system now to find financing for anything that doesn’t involve a superhero or massive special effects components.

Phillip Noyce now.

Are there any films that you worked on that ended up getting stuck in development hell that you really wish had been made? A dream project perhaps that never came to fruition?

Noyce: So many, but perhaps the one that hurts was an adaptation of Australian author Tim Winton’s novel, Dirt Music. Heath Ledger was to star in that movie, which I abandoned after his death.

Do you have anything else on the horizon?

Noyce: Right now, I’m just enjoying waking up every day and not knowing exactly what’s next. The beauty of my career is that I was able to work steadily for so long – I’ve literally never not been working. But in many ways, it’s the uncertainty that drives you as a storyteller. Anyone can grab a camera nowadays and make a movie, so I’m just waiting to find the stories that I want to tell, and when the next story comes along that I feel compelled to tell, I’ll find the way to get that movie made. But for the first time in my life, I love the idea of not having an exact set plan for the immediate future. It could be one of three different projects.

❉ 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, 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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