There was a period in the career of Australian director Phillip Noyce, that politics and cinema, were not necessarily entangled. While he may argue that the likes of Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games were set amidst political turmoil, these films were still mainstream Hollywood thrillers.
Then suddenly, his career took on a different slant, as he became more impassioned as a filmmaker, and with The Quiet American and Rabbit proof Fence solidified his position as a political artist. Noyce’s latest film, Catch a Fire, is a political drama set in the world of South Africa’s apartheid, and some 30 years after he made Backroads, a dark look at Australia’s aboriginal community, one has the feeling that the director has come full circle.
Sitting in a hotel room in Toronto on the eve of the film’s premiere, Noyce believes that after having proven himself in Hollywood, he “reached a point where I decided that I wanted to make films that told stories that I felt were really important as opposed to the stories that the ‘system’ wanted to make,” says Noyce, who had literally arrived in Toronto from Australia. “You still have to go through that system, and it is like running the gauntlet, but of course the lower the budget the more freedom you have. I just made a decision with Rabbit-Proof Fence that I was going to try and make films not that were bigger and therefore better but were as small as they needed to be in order to get made,” says Noyce, laughingly.
So he made Rabbit Proof Fence at a cost of some $7m, Quiet American cost about 20, and now Catch a Fire was made for around $14m, nothing by Hollywood standards. “But I would have made this film for the amount of money that I could find to bring that story to the screen, because I thought it was a really important story to tell, being the story of an ordinary person who does something extraordinary, and through their story we’re also told the recent story of South Africa.”
The film’s protagonist is Patrick Chamusso [Derek Luke], a charming and loving husband to his wife Precious, and a caring father to his two young daughters. He works as a foreman at the centrally located Secunda oil refinery, which is a symbol of South Africa’s self-sufficiency at a time when the world was protesting the country’s oppressive apartheid system. In his spare time, Patrick coaches a local boys’ soccer team. Carefully toeing the hard line imposed on blacks by apartheid, Patrick is completely apolitical until he is arrested by Nic Vos, who’ll stop at nothing to impose security to his country and family. Patrick, meanwhile, is suddenly forced into action, risking his own life and future.
While Noyce’s film is not the first to deal with South Africa’s political turmoil, Noyce sees that these events still feel relevant to contemporary audiences. “Well, you know, the world is divided by religious, political and ethnic differences as was South Africa at that time. I’m not saying that you can draw any comparisons between what happened then and what’s happening now in the world but, but we do know that South Africa went through that bitter divide and has emerged on the other side. In other words, they’ve resolved conflict successfully, and that’s something that the rest of us are struggling daily to achieve,” Noyce explains. “But the South Africans are a beacon to the rest of us; they are the light at the end of the tunnel that we never seem to see an end to – the tunnel of seemingly irresolvable differences between us all.”
Noyce adds that American audiences have found themselves identifying in the story of Patrick, “as the All-American hero even though he’s a South African; determined to fight for his family, determined to fight back, and determined to fight for freedom. All of these could be descriptions of their own fight for independence from the British, so the character is a classic American hero in a way.”
Noyce’s early work in Australia was certainly defined by a degree of political relevance, whether he was exploring Aboriginal conflict in Backroads, the effect of communism in Australia in Newsfront, or the reshaping of the Australian political landscape in The Dismissal. Now, his recent films continue to take on relevant political and social issues, and the director begrudgingly admits that he has indeed come full circle ” in as much as I’m determined to make the stories that mean something to me, that speak to me and that I think will move other people.”
He says that that it’s not difficult to find those scripts, “because there are plenty of stories out there. And I think while I can get these stories on the screen I may as well take advantage of the opportunity because it’s a gift and particularly to be able to get these kinds of movies distributed, and in this case the ultimate gift, is that Catch a Fire will be going out on 1200 screens across America.”
While Noyce constantly struggles with a need of artistic vision, balanced with commercial realities, Noyce remains an impassioned filmmaker, a necessity given what he went through with the aftermath of The Quiet American. Noyce says that his intense passion as an artist, comes from “growing up in a country that had no film industry and no voice in the cinema. Everything that’s happened to me has been an extremely appreciated gift, and no more than the position I’m in now where I can make a film like Catch A Fire and have it distributed by a company like Focus who are right behind it in thick or in thin, so the passion comes from knowing that you’ve got to seize the moment, because soon enough, they’ll say sorry you’re too old or you’ve lost touch or your movies aren’t making money or whatever other reason causes you to go on to the reserve bench. It’ll happen – we all know it, we all fear it, and right now, I’m in the game so I want to keep playing.” Noyce laughingly adds that “if I don’t go to training I ain’t going to keep playing.”
The director, who turned 56 this year, will continue to divide his time working in Hollywood and Australia, and confirmed that he hopes his next film will be Australian. “I hope next to make Dirt Music, a love story adapted from Tim Winton’s novel.” Noyce hopes to begin production later next year in Western Australia. He is still attached to adapt Phillip Roth’s novel American Pastoral “In as much as Catch-A-Fire is a companion piece to Rabbit-Proof Fence, I’d say that American Pastoral was the absolute companion piece to Newsfront,” Noyce explains. “It continues the same journey; where Newsfront leaves off, picking up almost in the mid ’50s and takes that story through to the early ’70s.”
Noyce has emerged as one of Australia’s most successful directors, a success that began with the low-budget Newsfront, that would lead his way to Dead Calm and Hollywood glory. Looking back at those days when success must have seemed so elusive to the then naïve young filmmaker, Noyce remains surprised at that initial burst of success, “because it was so unexpected but so extreme as well. Newsfront returned its money in Australia alone; and at a time when Australian movies didn’t sell overseas it sold. We never expected any of that to happen. It spoke to people and I wasn’t even expecting that would happen. So, I remember making that film in minute detail – unfortunately,” he says laughingly. “Even Alzheimer’s won’t rob me of some of some of the agony and the ecstasy of that movie.”
If you look at it, in a career spanning some three decades, there is agony and ecstasy throughout his extraordinary life and career