Phillip Noyce: Bringing it Home

December 19, 2018
The legendary Australian storyteller is excited to return to Australia for Rats of Tobruk.

His last Australian film was 2002’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, a timely drama about three Stolen Generation girls who escape servitude in 1931, setting out on a 1,500-mile journey home across the Outback. Rabbit-Proof Fence was released a few years before Kevin Rudd’s well overdue apology to this country’s Indigenous people, and no doubt played some part in this historic event.

Since 2002, Noyce, 68, has been busy in the US where he has lived since 1991 following the commercial and critical success of his early movies, especially 1989’s Dead Calm, paving the way to a successful Hollywood career directing The Bone Collector, Clear and Present Danger and The Quiet American among others.

But when we meet with Noyce at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao this week, he can barely contain his enthusiasm for an all-Australian film, Rats of Tobruk which will go into production in 2020.

Filming in NSW, he plans to hire a largely all-Australian crew and cast to tell the true story of a squadron of Australian soldiers and how they held off Rommel’s German-Italian army during the 1941 Siege of Tobruk in World War II.

“I’m working on the script right now,” says the director who served on the Local View Power jury at IFFAM, and is fully aware of Charles Chauvel’s 1944 classic film of the same name.

Rats of Tobruk is familiar territory for the director who has long been drawn to tales of warfare and espionage, having grown up in the small town of Griffith, NSW, listening to his father’s stories about serving in the Australian Commando unit, Z Force, in WWII.

“The siege of Tobruk lasted nine months,” he says. “The Australians, New Zealanders, British and Poles – but mainly Australians – were surrounded by Rommel’s Africa core before this thing steamrolled through Europe, practicing the military tactic known as blitzkrieg. They had rolled everyone before them including most of the British army, some of whom had escaped, of course, at Dunkirk.”

Based on his father’s own experiences, he says, “This is the story of 4,000 Australians – of whom my dad was one – who ran across Libya, pursued by the Africa core and their 800 tanks and made a last-ditch attempt to defend this tiny little town of Tobruk. They all expected to die but instead they won, defeating the Germans. It was the first defeat in WWII and the beginning of a series of defeats that ended in total defeat. So, it’s a story of men at war and also love story,” he says of the drama which will see NSW double for Libya.

Changing topic, what excites Noyce the most about the current Australian film industry, he says, are the Indigenous directors. “That’s where most of the great filmmakers are emerging, for one very good reason – they have a story to tell and an urgency to express that story and to get it out now that they’ve mastered cinema.

“Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country was such a success all around the world and he’s just won a bunch of AACTAs. There’s a whole host of Indigenous directors who have just made or about to make new feature films.”

Noyce with his wife Vuyo Dyasi at International Film Festival & Awards Macao  

In terms of Australian actors, he’s keeping a keen eye on Jacob Elordi (Swinging Safari).

“There’s so many emerging actors, but Jacob Elordi is someone who I’d love to work with; he was the star of Kissing Booth [available on Netflix] and has such leading man qualities. He’s the next Chris Hemsworth. I wish he had two brothers like Chris, so he could farm them all out. Brenton Thwaites is interesting too, but Jacob Elordi is the one to watch,” says Noyce who is currently filming Netflix thriller What/If with Renee Zellweger, while his next film, Above Suspicion, releases in the US summer of 2019.

Based on a true story, Above Suspicion sees Emilia Clarke portray FBI informant Susan Smith, desperate to escape her dreary life in an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky during the 1980s.

“Susan falls in love with an FBI agent posted to that area, played by Jack Huston as the FBI agent. It’s a love story but a tragedy at the same time,” says Noyce.

Based on Joe Sharkey’s non-fiction book, he says, “the female character was what attracted me. I grew up in a small country town and saw many people just like Susan Smith; young women who wanted to get out.”

Visiting Kentucky prior to shooting, he recorded about 15 women to get the correct vocal intonations.

“I sent it to Emilia and she turned up at my house about two weeks later and, honestly when I opened the door, I thought someone from Kentucky had come to visit; she was dressed for it and speaking the part. She did it really well. She went over there three weeks before we started shooting and she was just hanging around as a local, none of whom suspected for one minute that she was from Game of Thrones.”

Having twice directed Angelina Jolie – in The Bone Collector and Salt – he is, however, forever synonymous with another leading lady, Nicole Kidman.

Having put her on the path to stardom with his 1989 thriller, Dead Calm, he was blown away to see her career rapidly ascend. “She went from making that film to the A-List of Hollywood and she has stayed there ever since.

“Maybe it was lucky that one of the first people in America who came to see the film was Tom Cruise,” he laughs. “I remember Nicole coming back to the Chateau Marmont after having lunch with him and announcing that he’d asked her to star opposite him in Days of Thunder. So, maybe if it wasn’t for him showing up at the cinema in Westwood and seeing her on the screen; her trajectory may have been different – although it would have ended up in the same place.

“No-one could have ever predicted that she would have such an instantaneous rise to the A-List; and that she would stay there and even that she would get better and better and better as she got older; that the complexity of the character and roles would increase and that she would expand into producing. She’s surprised everyone I think.”

Asked if he has plans to collaborate with his early leading lady, he says. “Well we’re always talking about it. But we’ve been talking about it since the day we stopped filming Dead Calm. It’s definitely an ongoing topic of conversation.” Maybe a small part in Rats of Tobruk, Mr Noyce!

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