Phillip Noyce for “Salt”

Aussie director Phillip Noyce has done it all, from acclaimed thrillers like “Dead Calm” and “Patriot Games” to dramas such as “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “Catch a Fire”. Now he’s back in the chair for the much anticipated spy thriller “Salt”, which reunites him with his “The Bone Collector” co-star Angelina Jolie.

In this exclusive interview for Dark Horizons with fellow Aussie Paul Fischer, Noyce takes time out from filming in New York City to talk at length about the film, how it changed from a Tom Cruise movie to a Angelina Jolie film, working with the acclaimed actress, and his post-“Salt” filmmaking plans.

Question: The gestation of this movie has been a little bit strange. I mean, it went from a male lead character, segue into a female lead character. And it went through a whole sort of casting process. At which point were you involved, and at which point did it make that switch?

Noyce: I first became involved in 2006, when I discussed the project with folks over at Sony. But, and after that discussion, Terry George worked on the script. Not with me attached. But, it wasn’t until a year later that I went back to see the executives at Sony, and talk about the project again. In fact, in May of last year – let’s see which year are we talking about now? What year is it now?

Question: Two-thousand-nine. [LAUGHTER]

Noyce: Okay, 2007 is when I first discussed it. But in May 2008, I went back to discuss it with them. And then we approached Tom Cruise. In the script by Kurt Wimmer, the part, which was later, played by Angelina Jolie – the character was called, at that time, Edwin A. Salt. We discussed the film with Tom, we had a table read with various actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, who kindly played one of the parts, just so we could hear the script read.

After that table read, Amy Pascal and Ned Tullman decided they definitely wanted to make the film. It was then that – you know, they just couldn’t get Tom to commit. He had many projects on the boil. Around the time that Tom wasn’t prepared to commit to the script as it was – I mean, his main fears were that the character was too close to Ethan Hunt, being a rogue spy, with extraordinary abilities. So over many months, we tried to twist and turn the story to differentiate the character of Edwin Salt from Ethan Hunt. But, you know, he had a valid point. It was kind of returning to an offshoot of a character that he’d already played. It’s like playing the brother, or the cousin, of somebody that you played in another movie.

Then the project was in hiatus for a couple of weeks. Amy Pascal had been talking over the years and had often spoken to Angelina Jolie. They’d expressed their mutual respect for each other and also, their mutual desire to try and create a female spy franchise, so we sent the script to Angelina. Then in September last year, Kurt Wimmer, myself, and the producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, went to the South of France to visit Angelina at her home there, where she lives with her kids and Brad.

Over several days, three or four days, we discussed our mutual visions for what the film could be, and how, if a male character was to be turned into a female character, how that would be achieved. In that process, that process involved producing a script based on those discussions. Then that script being revised again by Brian Helgeland, who basically did a character pass, or dialogue pass on the film. But based on the script that came out of those discussions, Angelina committed.

Question: Is the basic script you’re shooting now the same as the Cruise script, in terms of plot structure, and that kind of thing?

Noyce: The script has been in development for many years, and there were many changes made before I became involved. I think that it’s just been a continual process, obviously accelerating by changing the central character. But the ideas – the locomotive of ideas that drive the movie are the same. An undercover CIA operative is accused of being a Russian mole, and has to go on the run to defend themselves. That’s been the same since day one. The tone of the film has changed in this evolution. In the same way, I guess, as – you know – action thrillers have changed along the lines of the Bond films and the Bourne films. Bond used to be almost cartoonish but now, you can take those Bond stories very seriously, on a dramatic and emotional level.

Question: So, this has a more realistic edge to it?

Noyce: Yeah. So, this is like that, following the trend in action-adventure spy movies. It has evolved into a story where we hope at all times that the audience take seriously the emotional interplay between the characters, and are very, very involved on an emotional level with the story. As well as getting enormous thrills and spills, and all the other popcorn elements that you’d hope to see in a summer movie.

Question: Are you in your element making this kind of movie?

Noyce: Well, here’s the thing. Look. This movie is sort of a combination of every movie I’ve ever made, in a weird way. So, I was in my element, yeah. I mean, you know, this is a little bit of “The Quiet American”, in its complex morality. It’s a little bit of “Clear and Present Danger”, in its study of the CIA. It’s a little bit of “The Bone Collector”, just because it has Angelina Jolie as the star. It’s a little bit, even, of “Newsfront”, in as much as there’s a realistic or documentary edge to some parts of the movie.

However, the major thing the audience is going to find is that the movie’s a showcase for the incredibly diverse talents of Angelina Jolie. When I say “incredibly”, that’s not an understatement. Incredibly diverse. I mean, as we know, she’s a brilliant dramatic actress. Without a doubt. That’s been proven. But – you know, she’s also, in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, and the “Tomb Raider” films, she’s shown that she can kick ass as good as any man. In this film, she gets to do both and she does both in a way that I think will startle audiences. It’s highly dramatic, it’s highly emotional. It’s a thrill a minute. People are going to be very, very surprised by what they see, and by what they see her do. As I have been.

So, when you say, ” Are you in your element?” You know, this has been such a ride with her. Coming back to work with an actress who was in her early twenties when I first worked with her, and is now in her early thirties. You know, to see the maturity is extraordinary, you know? She’s a relative newcomer when she was in “The Bone Collector”, which was her first film where she’s above the title, I might add. Alongside Denzel Washington, but still a relative newcomer. You know, she was just finding her feet. Now, ten years later, she’s absolutely in her prime as an actress, and as a film actress. Totally understanding the process of making movies, of telling stories, of reaching out to an audience, in a way that the greats do. You know.

Harrison Ford is probably the greatest entertainer that I’ve ever worked with, as much as he had an innate understanding of his relationship to his audience, and his character’s relationship with the material. That was a marvel, to watch him work. So, making this film was a marvel to watch Angelina work. A woman with six children, often brought along to visit, and would be hanging out in the caravan. She has a multiplicity of causes that she really does care about. Plus a movie that required her absolute unbinding attention, physically and mentally. She never seemed to falter and that was quite remarkable, just to be around that kind of dedication and precision.

You see a person, a great athlete, who’s at the top of their game. I remember, I was a friend of Cathy Freeman [Australian runner] when she won the gold medal, you know? I mean, just to be around that kind of dedication, that kind of precision, that kind of honed to perfection kind of approach to what they’re doing – is exciting and marveling as well. You’re in awe. So, I had a great time.

Question: You’ve been attached to some interesting things, and I don’t know if any of these things are ever going to happen. It was interesting to me that at one point you were going to be directing “Mary, Queen of Scots”.

Noyce: With Scarlett Johansson. Well, that film was being financed by a company that essentially went broke. Notorious – what were they called? They were doing David Russell’s film. Anyway, the finances went bankrupt early last year.

Question: What about “American Pastoral”? In fact, I was talking to Evan Rachel Wood on Monday who was once cast in that movie.

Noyce: She’s too old now, but – yeah. She was cast in it, years ago.

Question: Will it happen?

Noyce: We could never find the right actor to play the lead, who could get the film made. I remain attached to it, and hope to make it. So, you know, that’s one like “The Quiet American”, which was in development with me for seven years. It’s one that I’ll come back to. The next film I am trying to make is “Dirt Music”. “Dirt Music” is the Tim Winton novel set in western Australia.