Phillip Noyce Leaves Hollywood Behind to Produce Two of Season's Best Movies
Noyce's early Aussie indies Backroads (1977) and Heatwave (1982) showed soft-touch promise, while his 1989 Stateside breakthrough Dead Calm suggested a transpacific Alfred Hitchcock. But he soon gave up the vision thing for Hollywood's filthy lucre, grinding out proficient action baubles (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) and anonymous thrillers (The Bone Collector, Sliver). He was making a bundle, but wasn't thrilled at his place in the Hollywood hierarchy. "I was a cog on the conveyor belt," he says now, "interchangeable with 20 other directors who could yell 'Action!' or 'Cut!'"
The scraggly-bearded 6-foot-something Noyce received his artistic wake-up call in 1999 while prepping the Tom Clancy nü-war fantasy The Sum of All Fears. "It's the middle of the night, and the phone number only studio executives and my immediate family have rings at about 3 in the morning," he says. "So I figure it must be trouble of some sort. It is--it's a script writer!"
The writer was producer Christine Olsen, confused about time zones but determined to sell Noyce on her script version of Doris Pilkington's book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, about the Australian government's heinous past practice of stealing Aboriginal children to train as domestic help for Australia's white residents. "Here I was trying to adapt a best seller by one of America's most successful authors," Noyce rumbles in amusement like an Antipodean Gandalf. "I was happy, I thought. But it's not the make-believe story that's pretending to be about reality that I keep thinking about, it's the fantastic story that happens to be true. Not just because it's so emotionally compelling but because it's subversively political."
Noyce's revelation and the smaller-scale pleasures of Down Under indie filmmaking--state sponsorship, no studio interference or "pre-masticated" scripts--led to the culmination of Noyce's seven-year dream: adapting Greene's far more subversive The Quiet American, which started with a 1995 trip to Vietnam. "I was accompanied by Americans, a mix of OSS [intelligence] operatives and old soldiers obsessed with regrets, with the question of how so many millions died," he recalls. "I thought their story might make the basis for a movie."
Instead, Noyce stumbled on a book he thought to be a collection of Ho Chi Minh's prison poetry but that turned out to be a tale American political adventurism. "I thought, This is the answer to those old soldiers' obsessions! We've had all these films about fighting the war; the real question was how the hell did we get into it. Why did we prosecute with such vehemence?"
Noyce's film of The Quiet American (see sidebar review) includes a terrorist attack (based on the real Jan. 9, 1952, bombing of Saigon) marked by the slaughter and maiming of Vietnamese women and children. Not wanting to become a sort of cinematic Ugly Australian, Noyce felt it more appropriate to confer the staging of the sensitive sequence to his second unit director, Dang Nhat Minh. Noyce says Dang is "a man who, several years prior, had commented to me that he well knew the quiet American--'He was the one flying silently above the clouds who pressed the button and released the bomb that killed my father.'
"Dang cast all these Vietnamese extras and actors and choreographed the special effects and makeup. We stepped onto a ready-made set that had been prepared by a team of Vietnamese. It was a representation of their pain."
Timing turned out not to be one of the film's attributes. A rough cut was screened for a test audience in New Jersey--on Sept. 10, 2001. After Noyce finished the film in May 2002, rumors of censorship began to fly when its distributor, Miramax, wouldn't announce a release date for fall 2002. "That's when we started to think, They're not going to release it," he says. And so, Noyce arranged to have it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it drew raves. Then star Michael Caine lent his clout to the cause. "He spoke to [Miramax head] Harvey Weinstein as a friend and said, 'Give us a chance. See what the wind is like.
"I just disbelieve the movie is anti-American," Noyce insists. "The strength of this nation is that it's large enough in population to have many potential responses to any particular question."
Still, he thinks the film may encounter further resistance because of what it suggests, especially on the eve of the Bush administration's attack on Iraq. "Graham Greene defines the American evangelist, American political personality of the early 1950s--and perhaps to this day--as someone with a sense of responsibility for mankind and [who] just wants to do good," Noyce says. "But perhaps sometimes is so eager to extend the kindness, that the kindness kills."
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