Aussie director Phillip Noyce can relax – literally. After having shot two films back to back in his native Australia, hey are both about to open in the US and a week apart. No wonder when we meet in a West Hollywood hotel room, he would prefer to lie down on a nearby sofa.
At the height of Noyce’s Hollywood career, as director of such big-budget studio films as Clear and Present Danger and The Saint, Noyce would always maintain that it was preferable to make films in Hollywood with a ton of money at his disposal, rather than return to Australia to the world of low budget filmmaking he left behind.
Returning home for the first time since Dead Calm, Noyce settled on making not one, but two films simultaneously: Rabbit Proof Fence and his politically courageous Quiet American. “Mate, I was turning 50, time to take stock and slow down.” He was hardly slowing down though making both of these politically conscious films back to back. “I never do things in half measure”, says Noyce, laughingly. “When I was smoking it was 6 packs a day while a reasonable addict would have had only three, so when I decided to take a break from Hollywood and work in Australia, I decided to make two films instead of one, which seemed reasonable.” Despite the hard work it took to shoot both films, Noyce doesn’t rule out doing that again. “It came in handy. You spend most of your time in post-production waiting for a lot of people to make the changes and so on or you’re always waiting for people. Doing two at once means you don’t have to wait but rather they’re waiting on YOU. Now I’m doing promotion here inn the US and am doing Rabbit Proof and Quiet American at the same time since they’re coming out a week apart.”
While Fence has already garnered praise and awards in Australia, focus here in the US is on The Quiet American, which Miramax is finally releasing this weekend for a two-week pre-Oscar qualifying period. Based on the Graham Greene novel set in 1950s Vietnam, the film revolves around drug-addicted reporter Fowler [Michael Caine] and his relationships with a beautiful young Vietnamese woman and a CIA operative [Brendan Fraser]. From the moment Noyce had picked up Greene’s novel while in Vietnam, the award-winning Australian director was determined to eventually bring it to the screen, having instilled in him such a ferocious passion. “It’s the multi-faceted nature of the story that appealed to me”, explains Noyce. “If it were just the murder mystery, it’d be great, if were just a complicated love triangle romance, it would be great, if it were just a political thriller it would be great, but it’s all three all rolled into one. There’s also something weird about what Greene wrote about.”
Weird, Noyce elucidates, “in the way it was so prescient in the mid-1950s, providing clues to answers to questions that had not yet been asked about the American Vietnam conflict. And there was also something about it that was prescient and TIMELESS, even with relevance TODAY. It seemed to me that here was a movie that existed as a good story and as a cautionary tale.” Noyce’s Quiet American is the second film version of the Green novel, and insists that his is far more timely than the original fifties version, a film known to have been hated by the author. “When the first film version came out, America was not yet embroiled, officially in Vietnam. Now, that misadventure is over, but there are other misadventures on the horizon, so suddenly, the evangelical zeal of the Brendan Fraser character, his passion to fight the ‘ism’ of the time, suddenly becomes a potential comment about another time and another ‘ism’.”
The timeliness for the release of the film, given current political events, is eerie, to say the least, but Noyce jokingly insists, “That it’s all planned, mate. You survive in this game, you’ve got to have your ear to the ground and instincts honed and see it all.” But all joking aside, the film’s stark comments on American intrusiveness in international affairs, didn’t fare so well in the post 9/11 climate of American culture and politics. Delayed for a year, there was a real chance that the film’s US distributor, Miramax, would never release the film. “I was told privately it was as good as dead. The film never had a release date and privately I was told it was not going to get one.”
None of that came as a major surprise to the director, however, “Because the movie tested abysmally in America in the months after 9/11, though at the same time we were screening it in Australia to very good results. It was unfortunate that we were testing it on the East Coast in the New York area in the months after 9/11. I mean there were people watching the movie who had lost family members to a terrorist attack that they were being reminded of directly in the movie. Then there were other people who were feeling EXTREMELY violated who were asked to be self-critical of Americans. So that was not the time and certainly not the place for any of that.” Noyce admits, “We were butting our heads against a brick wall, as it was scoring well to worse; it just kept going down.”
Michael Caine, who has since received the best reviews of his career, was the film’s consistent champion, and insisted that Miramax give the movie a go. With reluctance, the studio agreed to take The Quiet American to the Toronto Film Festival. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Noyce felt finally vindicated. “I was amazed at what happened in Toronto, having accepted by that point that I had probably made a turkey.” Which is why he remains genuinely surprised at the film’s positive critical response, not only to Caine’s performance, but also to Noyce’s direction. “Everything surprises me in this game,” says a laughing Noyce. “It’s showbusiness, you know, with no right or wrong. It’s just a rollercoaster.” A rollercoaster that had its ups and downs for the director, who has been making films now for over 20 years. Not all as successfully as Quiet American. One remembers the critical backlash he received over The Saint, for instance, but Noyce remains philosophical. “You never know what’s going to happen in this game. When you start out, you do your work then something nice or terrible happens and that can change things.”
Noyce is also riding high on the international critical success he is receiving for Rabbit Proof Fence, already a big hit in his native Australia. Already scheduled to open here a week after Quiet American, he agrees that there are some parallels between the two films. “They both feature evangelists. In a sense the catalyst for each story is a man who kills with kindness. The Brendan Fraser and Kenneth Branagh characters in both films are convinced that they’re doing the right thing, in that what each of them wants to do is rescue.” While Rabbit Proof is such an Australian story, in its depiction of the tragic relationship between black and white Australia that marred its history, Noyce hopes that American audiences “will respond to the commonality in the story, how this story of that young Aboriginal girl reminds us that we’re all the same. While on the surface the story might be about a 14-year old Aboriginal girl, in outback Western Australia in 1931, in fact what we’re finding here in America is that audiences get caught up very heavily in the story on an emotional level. I hope Americans will join in the celebration of common human feelings.”
Having return to his more low-budget roots as a filmmaker, Noyce says that he hasn’t turned his back on mainstream Hollywood by any means. “The great thing about Hollywood is there ability to finance movies. The difference is, you can either tell your own stories or somebody else’s. It would be silly to say: You’ll never go back to Hollywood, because Hollywood is a mechanism that allows people to make movies; you’ve just got to make sure you make the right ones.”