Philip Noyce
by Rob Blackwelder/SPLICEDwire
WHO: Philip Noyce
WHAT: director
WHEN: October 7, 2002
WHERE: Prescott Hotel, SF, CA
HOW (you might know him):
Noyce got noticed worldwide with the Aussie terror-thriller "Dead Calm," which also helped launch Nicole Kidman's career. In the '90s he directed two Jack Ryan political thrillers "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," plus "The Saint" and "The Bone Collector" before returning to independent films with these two pictures in 2002.

"The Quiet American"
"Rabbit-Proof Fence"


 LINKS for this film
"Quiet American" site
at Rotten Tomatoes
at Internet Movie Database
Watch the trailer

"Rabbit-Proof Fence" site
at Rotten Tomatoes
at Internet Movie Database
Watch the trailer
Director enjoyed working on acclaimed 'The Quiet American' and 'Rabbit-Proof Fence' simultaneously

By Rob Blackwelder

Director Philip Noyce should be exhausted. In the last two years he's shot two emotionally- and politically-charged historical dramas on independent film budgets, then spent nine months editing them both, and now he's in the middle of a U.S. press tour for both films -- which are being released within months of each other -- flying to a different major city almost every day, spending hours on end being interviewed over and over and over. He hasn't been home to Australia in two months.

I'm lucky enough to meet Noyce just after an hour-long lunch break, but he does seem a little tired (or maybe it's just his heavy eyelids) as he rubs his head with his large, meaty hands (he's large period -- at least 6'3" with the broad, square shoulders and the gait of a movie monster). But even if he doesn't seem to have much energy today, he's certainly not lacking in vitality or enthusiasm as his deep, country-twang of an Aussie accent frequently gives way to sonorous laugher and big smiles as he delights in telling stories of making "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "The Quiet American" with such vivid editorial detail that I think to myself, "No wonder these films are so good."

"Rabbit Proof-Fence" is an extraordinary true tale of perseverance set against the deplorable backdrop of government-sanctioned racism in 1931 Australia. It follows three Aboriginal girls, kidnapped by the government, who run away from a Christian indoctrination camp and walk 1,500 miles across the Outback to return to their native village.

"The Quiet American" (which at the time of the interview I had yet to see) is a politically intricate, emotionally complex, incredibly transportingly atmospheric thriller. Michael Caine stars as a London Times reporter living in 1952 Vietnam, just as the French are losing their grip on the country and the CIA is secretly laying groundwork for the disastrous U.S. involvement there. Brendan Fraser co-stars as an ostensibly guileless American aid worker who befriends Caine but proves to have darker motives.

Because these films are so dissimilar, my first question to Noyce was how and when he worked on each of them. Was one finished before the other began, and it's just a coincidence they're both being released at the end of 2002?

No, he replies. He worked on both films "totally back-to-back. One was shot, then the other was shot, and they were both edited side-by-side."

Q: That must have been confusing.

A: Confusing, yeah. But usually you're waiting around for these editors to do stuff and you get really bored. It was better for them to wait for me!

Q: Did you have some kind of a schedule? Was it Monday-Wednesday-Friday "Rabbit," Tuesday-Thursday "American"?

A: No, I would literally go from one room to the other. At Fox Studios in Sydney, they have one building that's editing rooms. It's on the top of a building that is a sound mixing facility, and it's linked by a walkway to Animal Lodging, which is a CGI (special effects) house. So I never had to walk -- for all stages of post-production -- more than 60 or 80 feet.

Q: And you never had to go outside!

A: No, I'd be in one room, and I'd literally go out that door and into the other editing room. Or I'd go down the corridor and across a connecting corridor and into the CGI house to look at "Quiet American" shots or "Rabbit-Proof" bits. Or I'd go down some stairs to the next floor where we were doing sound mixing for one or the other. It was very convenient. I'd just get there at 8 o'clock in the morning and go home at 9 o'clock at night for about nine months.

Q: Did you feel overworked with all that going on at once?

A: Well, no. (For) us directors, you know, work is holiday. Making movies is eating candy. It's a very expensive candy, so you value when you can do it. So when you can do it twice at once, it's like, you know, a kid in a candy store!

Q: In the '90s you did a series of big budget Hollywood films ("Patriot Games," "Sliver," "Clear and Present Danger," "The Saint," "The Bone Collector"). Now you're back doing smaller, independent films. How does it feel?

A: It feels...It feels...[laying down on the couch and propping one arm under his head] I'm just going to lay back here. It feels.... The ideal way to do this would be to paid as much as the studios pay you, but to make films like "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "The Quiet American." [Chuckles.] That's the way! Unfortunately, they pay you in order to push you around. Unfortunately, you can't get the money and the independence.

So as a toss up between the two -- and having to admit that I did make a lot of money making those Hollywood movies -- I would say the creative independence of making these two movies far outweighs anything that I felt, and I felt a lot, during the 10 years that I spent in Hollywood. It's like the story of "Rabbit-Proof Fence" -- it's like going home again. I started out in independent films, I started out making films in Australia, and I've done a complete circle.

Q: So it's nice to be back making a film for the joy of film?

A: For the joy of film and for joy the statement that's in the films.

(click here to skip ahead to "Quiet American" questions)

Q: Yes, especially with "Rabbit-Proof Fence." That's quite a story.

A: An amazing story.

Q: I understand that the way the Aborigine Act was executed didn't really come to light until the 1990s, is that right?

A: Well, if you go into the history books you'll find records of debates in Parliament and articles in newspapers throughout the whole of the 20th Century. It was known and debated, but in a very marginal way. Most Australians live in the cities on the east coast, where contact between black and white occurred as much as 200 years earlier than on the west coast -- and where 95 percent of Australians are able to live 95 percent of their lives without ever seeing an Aboriginal face. So most people could ignore the issues, could ignore the history, and live their lives without ever thinking twice about it.

So the answer is, these facts weren't known. They weren't. And that's also because history is written by the winners. Whites were the winners, blacks were the losers, we wrote the history books, and they didn't feature. Generations of Australians grew up without the slightest official history of the civilization that had predated the arrival of the Europeans by 50,000 years. There was no recognition of it, other than to say, "yeah, the aborigines were here, but we killed them all," or rather "they died out."

Q: Or they're living off in some remote area we don't feel like colonizing anyway.

A: [Laughs.]

Q: Do you remember at what age you started to become aware of the discrimination and the inequities?

A: Well, I grew up in a small country town. Outside the town there was an Australian equivalent of an American Indian reservation, called a reserve. A collection of huts surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and in the huts lived 500 of the original inhabitants of our area. And so it went with many country towns around Australia.

Q: Was there much interaction?

A: There wasn't much interaction at all. There were a couple Aborigines in my primary school, but we never spoke to them. They kept to themselves, and we never really even locked eyes. They weren't acknowledged officially either. They didn't exist, according to the census. Aborigines didn't have the right to vote until 1967 and weren't counted in the census as part of the population of Australia.

I didn't become aware of the discrimination until the mid-'60s, when following the Civil Rights movement in the United States, there was a series of Aboriginal awareness marches. A coalition of whites and black toured through rural New South Wales, exposing the segregation that was occurring in schools, in clubs, in hotels, in public places, in shops, in movie theaters, and so on -- just like in the Deep South. It was only then that I was really aware of what had been going on and what I had been a part of without realizing it was happening. So when I read this story, it unlocked a volcano of unanswered questions, because the questions had never been asked. It was an opportunity to come to terms with the lot of repressed history -- and history of repression.

Q: How did you first become aware of this film project?

A: [Laughs] I was in Hollywood. It was the middle of the night. The phone rings, and it was this ridiculous woman with a ridiculous proposition. She tells me she's written the perfect script and that I'm the perfect director for it. And I said to her, "Lady, I hear that every day in this town -- but usually in the middle of the day."

Q: [Laughing too] She was calling from Australia, I take it.

A: She was calling from Australia. She'd gotten the time difference completely wrong. And how did she get my private number, for a start? It's private so I can keep myself locked away -- cocooned from crazies like you! Now you've got my number and I'm going to have to go through the trouble of having to change it to get rid of you.

So I convinced her to ring me tomorrow. Then I immediately phoned my assistant to make sure she never got through to me again [laughing], and to accept this manuscript so she wouldn't keep ringing me in the middle of the night.

Q: Was this Christine Olsen, the screenwriter?

A: This was the screenwriter herself. So she rings my office (the next day), and she gets on to an African-American woman we've recently employed, and she starts to talk about the story. So Collette, of course, responds to the story -- and encourages her! [Chuckling.]

Q: Oh, that's funny! [Chuckling as well.]

A: [Still chucking] And so the script arrives -- as we knew it would -- but with this fanfare! Collette reads it. She loves it. She passed it on to someone else. And eventually I have three people who are pestering me to read this script! And I said, "What script? The script from the crazy woman who called me in the middle of the night? No, I'm not going to read it! If I read it, she will never leave me alone! I told you what to do with her. Just do it!"

Q: So how long did it take them to get you to read it?

A: Three months.

[At this point, we're both struggling to talk through our laughter]

Q: Then you read it...

A: ...and thought, "Oh, my God! I'm the crazy one. Why didn't I read this?" It was an incredible story. A first-time screenplay, but very well written. Great restraint, but vividly described and passionately written. And I'd just become caught up in Hollywood, so I thought the only good scripts could come through agents or studios, where as the truth is, you're more likely to get a great script from...

Q: ...out of nowhere!

A: From the homeless person who sleeps outside the office!

Q: But you're also likely to get a lot of crap that way.

A: You are! That's the problem! But (in Hollywood) the homeless guy who sleeps outside the office has got a script for me. He told me so the other day! [Laughing] And now I'm more inclined to accept his than I am from my own agent!

Q: [Laughing.] Well, I'll be interested to see that movie when it gets made!

A: [Another burst of laughter.] The problem is, everything that comes to you officially has probably gone through the filtering process -- the homogenizing process that basically says nothing can be good unless it's been done before, you know? There are certain rules of content and style that have proven to be the key to success, and (people in the business) don't want to break out of that. Just turn in what already works, or another version of that, and everyone will be happy. And I was happy -- I thought!

[Chuckles again, noticing he's still laying down on the couch] You're a great shrink. You've got such a good bedside manner.

Q: [Laughing] Glad to be of service! So did you do a lot of interviews with the people the film is about?

A: I interviewed everyone I could, asked as many questions as I could. I spent a lot of time with Doris (the real-life daughter of the film's main character), who wrote the book on her mother's adventure. She took me to the Moore River native settlement, which is the institution where those three kids were taken -- and later when Doris was taken from her mother, where she grew up. So the portrait of life there was based on mainly Doris's recollection. But also, after visiting Moore River native settlement, I traveled by four-wheel drive up the remnants of the rabbit-proof fence, through the farmlands, across the plains, through the desert to Jigalong, where the two survivors -- Molly Craig and her sister Daisy -- both live.

One's 86, one's 79. I met them twice before filming started, mainly about the emotional truth of their journey -- what they were feeling at any time. Why they didn't want to stay -- or why Molly didn't want to stay -- at Moore River? Those conversations were really important because they really influenced the emphasis that was placed in the film, and also they're important because after meeting those two women, I went out to find kids to play them that I thought would be like them.

Q: Was casting a special challenge?

A: Well, it was a special challenge because there's no such thing as an aboriginal child actor. There aren't parts for them. But on the other hand, every aboriginal is an actor, because their traditional culture is about song and dance. The history of the world is passed on in dance and in song, with each person being the custodian of a particular part of the story of creation. That goes on for generation after generation. So I knew there were great performers out there, and it was just a matter of finding them. But in finding them, we realized we had to get kids from more remote areas who were more in touch with nature and traditional lifestyle, because the city kids have become homogenized by popular culture.

We're talking about (a story revolving around) attempts to eradicate a race and a culture. With the children, I was trying to find kids who exemplified that culture, particularly the spirituality. I was trying to find kids that were a gift from the past. In some ways, I didn't want them to act. I just wanted them to be themselves. By being themselves, they could not only create a character, but could take us back into the past. So there were strange criteria for casting. It wasn't a case of giving them a script and saying, "Read this."

Q: Not the standard audition process.

A: No, it was not at all an audition process. And the final process of choosing took a whole weekend. It was like a workshop, with the children not acting -- just being. And the ones who could be in the most unselfish way were the ones who got chosen. But they were never judged by their acting ability -- (more by) their imagination. If they had a combination of imagination and concentration, you could take them anywhere, because children are so willing to be transported in their imaginations. As long as they're free, they can invent any world and imagine they're there.


(Because I had not yet seen "The Quiet American," and because time was limited, our conversation about that film seems quite incomplete now that I look at it in print. But what Noyce did have to say about the movie was interesting, so I'm including it here, even though it's just a few tangential questions.)

Q: Well, before we run out of time, let me ask you about "The Quiet American," although I haven't had a chance to see it yet. How did that one come to you?

A: It came to be by accident -- again! I was in Vietnam, and I went to the Ho Chi Mihn Museum in Hanoi. Very boring place. Built by the Soviets as a gift to the people of Vietnam, it has the usual Soviet, sort of monumental architecture. I sort of got halfway through and I turned around, and thought I'd just buy some Ho Chi Mihn poetry translations at the bookshop and leave.

Anyway, I'm on a train a couple days later -- a slow train, slower than you could ever imagine -- and I had nothing to read. So I pulled out Ho Chi Mihn's poetry to have a look at it -- and they'd sold me the wrong book! They'd sold me the other book with a green cover -- Graham Green's "The Quiet American" -- which I'd already read when I was at university. But there was nothing else to read, so I read it and I was bowled over by Green's prescience, which hadn't hit me when I read it the first time. Now being there, I was just struck by the way he had seen into the future and was able to predict the causes of that conflict (the Vietnam War) that would kill so many millions of people.

But also, I thought at the time, it's weird how his portrait of the American political evangelist of the early '50s contained the same zeal that has guided American foreign policy through to the present -- a zeal born out of the best intentions, almost like the zeal of the Chief Protector of Aborigines in "Rabbit-Proof Fence," someone who literally killed with kindness.

Q: Someone whose zeal reaches the point where they begin to believe the ends justify the means.

A: Yeah, whatever they are. So that's how I came to the project. I got to Saigon -- the train finally arrived -- and as it happened, I was booked into the Graham Green suite, the room where he used to stay, at the Hotel Continental. So from Graham Green's actual room, I phoned my office in Los Angeles and said, "Find out who owns (the rights to) this book by Graham Green, 'The Quiet American.'" As it turns out, it was Sydney Pollack, who had an office just a couple hundred yards away on the lot at Paramount Pictures. Sydney had been trying to make the film for years without success and had recently given up feeling that he was going to direct it. So I waltzed in the door at the right moment, just when they were beginning to think about a new director. I said, "I'm the perfect person for you," and they agreed. That's how it happened.

Q: I wish I'd seen the film and had more specific questions, but before our time is up, I would like to ask about the Mr. Hinh character -- who was a major alteration from the book. He's a composite of an Indian assistant to the reporter (played by Michael Caine) and...

A: ...and Mr. Hing, the Communist who arranges for (the) assassination of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser's character, the zeal-filled American agent laying groundwork for the U.S. in Vietnam). We just combined the two after I met a guy named General An. He wasn't a general until the day after Saigon fell, when he could come out of the closet and reveal that he had been a double agent since 1949. During his time as a double agent, he had worked as a censor for the French at the Saigon post office, where foreign correspondents would come in and present their copy that they were asking to be telegraphed (to their newspapers) overseas. They warned him to be very careful of this Graham Green character and read his communiques very carefully.

He went on to work for the notorious CIA agent who many people have speculated Graham Green based the character of Pyle on, although Green denies that. Then Mr. An went to work for Reuters for many years. He later worked for Time Magazine [chuckling], which was, of course, the best place for him to get information about troop movements and everything. Finally in 1975, his major reports were about the pre-occupation lives of wives of generals of the South Vietnamese army, so he was able to report that they were sending money out of the country, and buying airline tickets and apartments in Paris.

Q: That's one hell of a successful double agent.

A: Yep. Then Saigon fell, and on May 1, 1975, he became a general. And he also -- on the day that those two bombs exploded (a terrorist attack depicted in the movie), January 9, 1952 --came into the square on his bicycle, just like the Mr. Hinh, Fowler's assistant in the movie.

Q: I can see how that would inspire a composite character. When did you meet An? Was that before Hampton took a pass at the script?

A: No, no. It was done quite late. Just a couple months before we started shooting.

Q: And you shot in Vietnam, which is unusual.

A: We certainly did. We shot in Saigon, where we shot the scenes outside the Continental Hotel and shot the climactic terrorist attack. Then we shot in Hoi An (a town) in central Vietnam on the coast, where we shot the scenes that take place in Cho Lon, the Chinese quarter of old Saigon. Then we shot in Hanoi, which (stood in for) Saigon because Hanoi has a lot of intact French colonial buildings. Having existed for many years in a time warp because of being the capital of North Vietnam during an energy-sapping war against America and her allies, it didn't really have any time or money to tear down buildings and build new ones. After the war (the people) were preoccupied with putting their country back together. In the South, Saigon quickly changed, even before the country opened up again. It's always been the economic powerhouse of Vietnam. Now it's sort of like Bangkok -- so many old buildings have been torn town and replaced with high-rises.


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