October 24, 2002|2002 is a banner year for director Phillip Noyce, who, after years toiling in the Hollywood dream factory, has returned home to his native Australia to helm a pair of spectacular and disparate films: The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Both played at the 25th Annual Denver International Film Festival, with Noyce also honoured as a tribute guest at a special screening of his marvellous "locked room" thriller Dead Calm (1989). I met Noyce at the historic Tivoli Brewery's hospitality suite on the coldest morning in Colorado since probably last March, resulting in the imposing Noyce (6'4", easy) bulking up even more in a down jacket.
Already an intimidating physical presence, his voice reminds a great deal of Terence Stamp's, and this combination is enough to make one forget that Noyce's latest films are marked more by delicacy and quiet storytelling than the bombast of his more famous works (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, The Saint). I had the great pleasure of speaking with Mr. Noyce (a generous and thoughtful interview subject) about his career so far, starting with the use of a Milton quote (Better to Reign in Hell) as the title of his first student film, of Castor and Pollux as the title of his first feature, and of "The Orpheus" as the boat's name in Dead Calm:
PHILLIP NOYCE: (laughs) ...Just accidental. I mean, uh, Castor and Pollux were two brothers and the story of the film is of two men--one a hippie, the other a biker--who seem to have nothing in common but are actually identical. Milton's quote from "Paradise Lost"--it was just something I was studying at the time so in looking for a title...
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: And yet it speaks to your recurring theme of rebirth and resurrection...
Oh yes, it does, it certainly does. As to "The Orpheus," that was an inherited name taken from Charles Williams' book Dead Calm--so I can't claim any credit for that either, though it works (laughs).
Rabbit-Proof Fence is a beautiful, visually lyrical film as is The Quiet American--but visually, they're quite different (the one spare, the other opulent). Can you trace the source for your visual styles?
Well, I have two influences. One was classic cinema of the sixties and early seventies, and by that I mean Alfred Hitchcock, who I adored and was mightily entertained by and thrilled to the bone to attend. It started with Psycho through The Birds and all of his late period at Universal. I also loved the films of David Lean like Dr. Zhivago and Bridge on the River Kwai--combined with the films of the American underground which were the movies that got me into making cinema. Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Bruce Connor and so forth, and these films were inspiring not only for their form and content, but for how they were being made outside of the factory with very little money and as very personal expressions of artists working in their medium. They empowered me actually to try to make a movie, me a young boy in a country that didn't have a film industry.
Watching Hitchcock and Lean, the movies they made seem to belong to a culture and a form of expression way beyond my experience and potential. But because "no industry" was the motto of the underground and experimental movement in America of the late-sixties, all you needed was your handheld, wind-up Bollix camera...if that. I saw that within two days you could take film stock, scratch it, and suddenly become an animator.
One of my favourite films of several years ago was Blind Fury--how did you come to make that the same year as Dead Calm and what brought you to the Japanese Zatoichi series?
I had finished Dead Calm, we hadn't yet sold it to Warner Bros., and post-production was dragging on and I got offered this script for a six-million dollar movie to be made independently and quickly in Texas and Reno, Nevada--and in a way [I took it] just to earn money during the lull and the extended and difficult post-production on Dead Calm. I hadn't seen Zatoichi before reading the screenplay--I was a fan of Japanese cinema but the more official Japanese cinema like Kurosawa and so on.
Were you ever daunted taking over a film (Dead Calm) that Orson Welles had shot a good portion of before his leading man (Laurence Harvey) died?
No. I was given Charles Williams' novel by American producer Tony Bill and I read it not knowing that Welles had wanted to make it into a movie and had, in fact, completed a quarter of the shooting before Harvey died--so I was inspired to make the movie simply from the source material. When I got back to Tony with, "Hey, this would make a great movie here"--that was when Tony told me that Orson had wanted to do it and had, in fact, tried.
You didn't see the trailer until after the film?
No, no--the Welles was called Dead Reckoning by the way.
There's a shot in Dead Calm taken from the top of the mast that recalls a similar moment in Polanski's Knife in the Water--were you inspired directly by that film?
Oh yeah--I watched Knife in the Water, saw the shot, and repeated it. But even if I hadn't seen that film, inevitably the camera would've ended up on top of that mast, I mean if you think of it there are only so many dynamic shots on a boat. I used to play with a model of that yacht and sort of look at it from side to side and there are two obvious primary angles: one from the mast and one from the bow. They're the most dynamic shots you can get and we got them both--I don't remember a shot from the bow in Knife in the Water. (laughs)
Tell me about the balsa-wood version of "The Orpheus" and what it was used for.
There were two "Orpheus" boats, and one "Saracen." "The Saracen" was a real yacht called "Storm Vogel" but the interiors of "The Saracen" were sets built in a studio that we constructed on an island in the Great Barrier Reef afloat in the Whit Sunday Passage off the Queensland Coast in Northeastern Australia. The exterior of both boats were real, but inevitably we ended up shooting most of the "Orpheus" interiors on the replica.
To control the environment?
There's that, and also because we didn't have to keep hiring the real boat. (laughs) Once they realized we were going to exceed the original contract suddenly the price multiplied, but we were able to say, "Well, we don't care, we'll just use our fake version of your boat."
There are always horror stories about shooting on water.
Well, like in the restaurant business, the key to shooting on water is "location, location, location." So you really have to do your homework. There are two films that are notorious for the difficulties that water gave them--one is Jaws, and the other is that Kevin Costner film...
Right. Now, I was once on holiday in Hawaii and I was sitting in a lodge and looking out at a particular stretch of water where the prevailing winds were always changing and it had three different tidal patterns crashing into each other, and I thought to myself, Wow, that would be the worst place in the world to shoot a movie set on the water. And later I was having dinner with my wife and a waiter said, "Hey, this is where they shot Waterworld!" I mean, we spent months surveying water all around the world. We finally found in the Whit Sunday Passage this ideal stretch of water because the Great Barrier Reef provides this breakwater just below the surface. The problem is that the water can look calm but it's what goes on underneath that can pose a problem. If you have a strong drag underneath you can put three objects in the water and take two days to get them into the right position--it's not what you see but what you can't see. The barrier creates this huge natural tank where there's this relative calm just beneath the surface.
What was it like working with non-professional actors in Rabbit-Proof Fence?
(laughs) After working for years in Hollywood where the actors have taken over, it was a real relief to get down there and not only have some children, but also have some actors that had no attitude. (laughs) These kids are being, they were chosen because they are a gift from the past--they have a body language that their children probably won't have because they've been homogenized by the great homogenizing influences.
What an interesting parallel that draws between the idea of the picture and the Hollywood philosophy again.
Yes, right, right. The children, each of those kids is in touch with nature and traditional aboriginal culture so a very important part of getting performances from them was just letting them be and trying to capture the unique spirituality that was in each of them.
Let's talk about your time in Hollywood, a little about your creative process. Do you feel straitjacketed?
Well you do--and then you don't. You always try to work for your audience, to entertain them, but that being said, obviously, within the studio system you feel the sense of responsibility to the bank. There's so much money invested that maybe you're trying too hard to second-guess the audience within that system. And always like the Sword of Damocles, you realize that your "used by" date is stamped somewhere and they'd like nothing better than to stamp you with the dread "no commercial value" label. So when you make a film with a much lower budget you still want to commit to the audience, but your first obligation can be to your story and to your characters. Rabbit-Proof Fence was six million and Quiet American was twenty-two million.
What's next for you, are you staying home or going back to Hollywood?
Well, I don't know what they'll turn out to be, but I'm working on a film of Kon Tiki.
Yes, it's a story of Heyerdahl's epic journey across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft in 1946, and also I'm working on an adaptation of an Australian novel called Dirt-Music by an Australian author named Tim Winton, who is the leading contemporary Aussie novelist. It's currently short-listed for the Booker Prize and it's the film that I hope will reunite me with Nicole Kidman.
I mentioned a recurring resurrection theme in your film--do you know where that comes from?
My grandfather was a Church of England, an Episcopalian minister and every Christmas my family and I would journey four-hundred miles from my country town to spend the holidays with my grandparents in Sydney. While my parents went shopping, my grandfather would baby-sit me on his rounds and the rounds inevitably involved dealing with death and sickness and suffering--with loss of hope. I'd watch him help these families deal with loss, to renew them in extreme times, and sometimes these would be very extreme times, indeed--the loved one dying, or the child. So, naturally, a minister like that you're watching him work and he's dealing with the known and the unknown and it goes beyond the Christian God and into something that is universal. That's the source of it, that's where it comes from.