Saturday, December 15, 2012

Phillip Noyce: The Hollywood Interview

Alex Simon

The following article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Venice Magazine.

Phillip Noyce was born April 29, 1950 in Griffith, New South Wales, Australia. The son of a country lawyer, he moved with his family to Sydney when he was 12. As a teenager, he began experimenting with an 8mm camera. He turned the hobby into a passion after viewing a program of American underground films, when he realized one didn't need much of a budget to capture exciting images on film. With tiny donations by friends, he made his first short, Better to Reign in Hell in 1968. He then enrolled as a law student at Sydney University, but after a year switched over to the arts.

Throughout his studies, he continued making short films with equipment owned by the university's film society. He also became the manager of a filmmakers' co-operative and worked briefly as an assistant on professional productions. In 1972, he was one of the first dozen students enrolled at the Australian Film and Television School, where he made two shorts and a 50 minute documentary, Castor and Pollux, which won the Rouben Mamoulian Award at the 1974 Sydney Film Festival and represented the school at the Grenoble (France) Festival.

The success of his first professional film, God Knows Why, But It Works (1975), a dramatized documentary about the work of a Greek-born doctor among the Aborigines, paved the way for Noyce's first feature, Backroads (1977), a powerful drama about race relations. He followed this immensely impressive though low-budgeted film with Newsfront (1978), a heart-felt valentine to newsreel filmmakers before the advent of television. After a couple of lesser dramas, Noyce returned strongly with the suspenseful thriller Dead Calm (1989). That film won him an invitation from Hollywood, where he went on to make big budget hits, most of which display Noyce's fascination with technology, such as the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), the Joe Eszterhas-scripted Sliver (1993), and The Saint (1997). Noyce's latest is The Bone Collector, a tense thriller starring Denzel Washington as a best-selling author and former member of New York's finest who is paralyzed from the neck down, and is reluctantly recruited to aid a rookie cop (Angelina Jolie, excellent as always) in her investigation of a series of brutal serial killings.

Phillip Noyce is a bear of a man in person: 6'4, with a frame that would make most NFL linebackers cringe. He recently sat down in his offices, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, to discuss his work.

When I first heard about this film, I thought 'Oh God, not another serial killer movie.' But you really made it about the characters, not the killings.
Phillip Noyce: Yeah, we've seen a lot of movies about serial killers, a couple of which have been special: Silence of the Lambs, and Seven. It's very hard to be original on that subject. To me, when I read the screenplay, the fact that there was a killer out there was the reason to bring these two people together. It's true, that the fact that the killings are brutal provides a tension outside the relationship between Denzel and Angelina that then sort of reflects back onto them. What happens to each of the characters individually and what happens to them together, fascinated me when I read the screenplay. I've always been drawn to brainy action heroes, like Jack Ryan, and Lincoln Rhyme, Denzel's character, also thinks with his brain as much as his brawn. They're almost cousins! (laughs) It's just that Lincoln Rhyme has this problem in that he's quardropalegic. And the fear that he has of losing the use of his brain, his most precious asset, I found very moving. It's a very uplifting story. When you go out and meet quardropalegics who, in spite of their handicap, lead full lives, Christopher Reeve is the most prominent example, it's very inspiring. It's funny, I kept getting the two characters confused during filming. Sometimes I'd say Lincoln Ryan instead of Rhyme! (laughs) I'm working on an adaptation for a new Clancy film now (The Sum of All Fears) and I've found myself calling the character Jack Rhyme! (laughs) So there you are.

I thought the relationship between Denzel and Angelina Jolie was very interesting.
Yes. In many ways it's a love affair that's 99% mental. I only realized why I felt that was interesting when I met a quadropalegic in England and I asked about his sex life. And he said 'Look, your genitals are your usual place where we feel sexual response. But, it's not where it originates. In spite of what many women may think, men's brains are not in their dicks, they're in their heads. When a woman turns me on, my head becomes a giant, swollen penis! (laughs) I experience orgasm up here just as strongly as I ever did when it was mainly centered in my loins. All the pleasure cells are still operating.' So the non-physical sexual relationship they share in the film, to me, defines the essence of a true relationship. There are some similarities to Rear Window (1954), but even more than that film, Denzel's character inhabits the mind and the body of Angelina's character. It's not just that she goes out because he's confined to the apartment. She walks for him. She brings him back to life. She sees for him, touches for him, smells for him. I just found the nature of that relationship fascinating, because he recognized at the beginning that she was him! Again, they don't have sex, but that's a wonderfully romantic and erotic relationship. In many ways, this is Pygmalion, with a twist, where Professor Higgins is a detective.

Angelina Jolie is a fascinating actress, and obviously Denzel is one of the great actors of his generation. What was it like working with them? How are they alike, and how do their techniques differ?
Denzel combines the best of two distinguished traditions: the English and American traditions of acting. The American modern tradition is called "method," where the actor immerses him or herself into the character totally. Denzel trained in the theater where you've got to do that every night. Obviously he could never truly realize the pain that a real quadropalegic goes through, so he immersed himself in the technical aspects of being a quardopalegic. Much of the decision to cast him was based on the belief that if this movie, which is basically a piece of escapist entertainment, if it was seen to be belittling the experience of being a quardropalegic, the audience would reject it and it would fail miserably. By casting Denzel, I felt that I had a man of great dignity, of great prowess as an actor, of great humanity, and someone who would never belittle the predicament of his character. Regarding Angelina, when I saw her in Gia (1998) I thought 'This is some spice that I've never tasted before, and it's hot!' (laughs) When you part come along calling for an actress in her early to mid-20's and one of such extraordinary talent comes along, it's very difficult to ever again think of anyone else, and we never did. She is gifted with her father's (Jon Voight) thespian skills. She is gifted with both parents' beauty. The camera loves her. She's charismatic. She's absolutely dedicated, constantly telling her stand-in not to worry about standing in for complicated as we might think she is, but when it comes to acting, she's very uncomplicated, but is not afraid so much that she denies possibilities. She was fresh, hungry, eager, willing and unafraid. It was one of the best experiences I've had working with an actor.

Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up in a town called Griffith, 500 miles to the south of Sydney. It was an irrigation area in the middle of the desert, an oasis. It was a citrus growing area, the fruit bowl of New South Wales, and it was 60% Italian. My father had a lot of Italian clients who paid him in kind: fresh bread, cheese, salami, wine, which I became addicted to at a very early age. There was always an Italian wedding to go to every month. So it was a strange place. Later the area became notorious not as the fruit bowl, but as the marijuana bowl. (laughs)

How did you fall in love with movies in an environment like that?
There were two picture theaters. One screened Italian movies, subtitled. But the picture theater that I frequented was the Lyceum theater. I loved movies because I could escape into the stories, but I never imagined that I would make them. An even more important influence was traveling vaudeville shows that would come to our town. That was the main attraction for kids at these agricultural shows, the sideshows. I used to love these shows. I loved the life that I imagined the people that ran them lived. My parents used to give me and my two brothers one pound each over the three days of the show to spend. There was two ways to get in: sneak under the tent, or offer yourself as the stooge. They'd always ask for volunteers. I always did, because I got in for free. (laughs) I remember this guy took a piece of paper, stuck it on the end of my tongue. Then his wife, who was about 5 feet 2, took a sword that must've been 4 foot 6, raised it in the air, and cut the paper in half! So close to my tongue, that it wasn't funny. But I wasn't thinking of that. All I could hear was the roar of the crowd. (laughs) I just wanted to be part of the show. My earliest memorable experience seeing a film was when Psycho came to town in the early 60's. Big event. By the time it got to our 10,000 population town, it was notorious for scaring the wits out of people. I don't know why my parents allowed me to see this movie, because it wasn't on the usual Saturday matinee that I went to. That was an event, seeing people so scared by this thing. Also the shower scene was good for a young boy because it was! (laughs)

Noyce during his filmmaking salad days Down Under.

Did you go to film school?
Yeah, I got into movies when there was no movie industry in Australia to speak of, there hadn't been since the late 30's, the beginning of the second world war. There was a thriving film industry during the depression years, largely due to one man named Ken G. Hall. He made up to four features a year, seventeen in all between 1930-1941. When I grew up, we suffered from a peculiar disease later diagnosed as "the cultural cringe," which basically told us we shouldn't bother doing anything (artistic), because the English, particularly the Americans could do it better, so why should we bother? Economically, it was true, because the picture theaters were owned by British and American concerns. When I was 17, I saw an advertisement for some American underground movies being shown by a group called Ubu Films in Sydney. I was struck by the fact that these were movies made cheaply where personal expression was the key. They basically said that anyone could make a movie. So I thought 'I'm anyone,' and I raised some money, sold parts to my friends, and shot a movie for about $600-$700 about the sex fantasies of a teenager. (laughs) I sent it to a film festival in Holland. At that time there was an anomaly in the Australian censorship laws. They seized my film when I put it in the post, and banned it, which was perfect! It was only banned for export, not screening in the country itself. It became quite notorious and did very well! (laughs)

You initially studied law, right?
Yeah, then I studied fine art at Sydney University. During that time I became manager of the Sydney Filmmakers' Co-op. It was short filmmakers pulling their films together, renting them out to theaters and showing them. We also started a number of cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne, and other cities, screening the short films of many Australian filmmakers who are well-known now: George Miller (Mad Max trilogy), Peter Weir (The Truman Show), Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), Fred Schepisi (Roxanne), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), and screening them to a very appreciative audience. They were thrilled that the images reflected their faces, rather than American faces. I then went to the National Film School, as one of the first students chosen, for a one year in an accelerated course in directing. I spent about a year showing the films, and living off the films that I made at film school, one of which was a documentary called Castor and Pollux, which contrasted a gang of bikers and a gang of hippies. It became quite a success, which led to my making my first short feature, Backroads, which was inspired by Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road (1976). The film was largely improvised by the actors, even though the action part of the story was scripted.

Dead Calm is the film that brought you to Hollywood. Tell us about the genesis of that.
It was quite a departure for me in that it came out of working in television. George Miller bought an old picture theater in Sydney with his partner Byron Kennedy. They founded a director's studio that was like Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, and a number of us were under contract there, and did television work. I did two miniseries there, one about a breakout at a Japanese POW camp during WW II. I did an episode on this series about a Japanese and an Australian pinned down in the jungle fighting each other. It was about the tension between the two of them. The result of that one hour was that I realized that I seemed to have a talent for what we call "thrillers." At this time, Tony Bill who I had met when I first came to America with Newsfront, had given me a novel by the American writer Charles Williams, and this was Dead Calm. Orson Welles had been trying to make it before he died. I brought it back and showed it to George, who expressed desire to make it. Tony was kind enough to let George approach Ojda Kadar, Orson Welles' last girlfriend, who had appeared in Orson's unfinished version of Dead Calm, because Tony had not been able to convince Ojda to sell the rights to him, for him to direct. George, who is a doctor, has a marvelous bedside manner, approached Ojda and convinced her that we didn't want to make a Hollywood version of the story, and that the adaptation would be done in the spirit of what we imagined would please Orson. She agreed, then Tony very generously allowed us to make the film without his participation. And that's the film that brought me to America.

You've always been fascinated by technology in your films. Where does this come from?
It goes back to those experimental films that were my first inspiration. One of those films from that period that I most fondly remember was called Burning Off, which was a silent movie that had a smell track. Burning off was something my father did every Sunday, which was burning the eucalyptus leaves, and this thick smoke would gather round the house. For Burning Off the movie, they brought in film canisters full of leaves which we burned while people were watching! (laughs) We also did things like have people leap out of the screen while people were watching, so the movie would become real. There was a term for this called "expanded cinema." I also had a light show company for a while that would do light shows at rock concerts.

Any advice for first-time directors?
The important thing I'd say is to try and look at your story for the elements that are not necessarily apparent, but which are going to connect with an audience. For example, with The Bone Collector, the story is apparently about hunting for a serial killer, but really the movie connects with audience on a deeper level because it's about resurrection, a story that, like the story of Christ, has been connecting with human beings for centuries. There's always something in every successful story that operates on a spiritual or gut level, far apart from what's apparently on the page or the screen, and you really have to find out what that one element is, and structure the whole movie around exploiting that. Secondly, nothing is more important than the characters in the story. Unless the audience finds someone to connect with, someone who engages them, it doesn't matter how many fancy shots you have, it's all for naught.

Phillip Noyce portrait by Kerrie Lester, winner of the 2006 Archibald Prize.

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