“The key to a good thriller is to keep the audience off balance,” director Phillip Noyce – a huge, hulking presence of a man with a voice that commands equal notice – once told FilmInk. “It’s about what you don’t know as much as what you do know, and hopefully you’ll still be asking yourself the next day what happened, even though you have the answer in your head.”
A master of on-screen thrills and action, Phillip Noyce’s career began thousands of miles away from international movie stars hanging off towering apartment buildings and slamming cars through busy city streets. He was born in 1950 in the small inland NSW town of Griffith, and though this was miles away from even the hub of the Australian film industry, this is where Noyce was first inspired to take on his current profession. “The reason that I got into showbusiness was because when I was a little kid growing up in Griffith, there were all sorts of shows from Ma and Pa magic shows right through to The Worth Family Circus, who went from town to town on a train,” the director told FilmInk in 2002. “It was all on a train, and I’d look into the windows, and that whole world fascinated me; the way that they’d pull up stakes and go from town to town. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing ever since: taking these movie sets all around the world.”
Noyce moved to Sydney with his family at the age of twelve, and was first turned on to film as a teenager, when he feverishly viewed both low budget underground films and mainstream American studio movies. Noyce was eighteen when he made his first film, a fifteen-minute short called Better To Reign In Hell, on which he industriously “sold” roles to his family and friends. In 1973, Noyce was selected to be one of the inaugural students at the newly constructed Australian National Film School. While there, Noyce made Castor And Pollux, a 44-minute documentary about two very different brothers. He followed that with the 1975 50-minute docu-drama God Knows Why, But It Works, which used a mix of staged and documentary footage to depict the life and work of Dr. Archie Kalokarinos, a radical champion of the use of Vitamin C to treat Aboriginal health problems in remote rural areas.
This unusual mix of drama and documentary helped pave the way for Noyce’s first feature. That movie was 1977’s Backroads, a tough, uncompromising road movie which starred local legend Bill Hunter and Aboriginal activist Gary Foley. Though barely feature-length at just 60 minutes, the film is packed with incident and rich characterisation, and is distinctly Australian in tone. It’s also shot through with social comment, something that Noyce would do for the rest of his career. “I don’t think that entertainment, escapism and challenging themes are mutually exclusive,” he told FilmInk in 2006. “They can feed of each other.”
While Backroads was rough, rugged and aggressive, Noyce’s next film was a far more polished affair. In 1978, he directed and co-wrote Newsfront, which tracked the lives of Australia’s pioneering newsreel cameramen of the forties and fifties. An intelligent mix of fiction and fact, the film won a clutch of major gongs at the AFI Awards, and was also a big commercial hit. In addition to opening The London Film Festival, Newsfront was the first Australian film to screen at The New York Film Festival. Like Backroads before it, Newsfront was also a striking amalgam of entertainment and social comment, and starred a handful of what would become Australia’s most important actors, including Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown, Chris Haywood, Wendy Hughes and Tony Barry. “Newsfront was an unexpected success,” Noyce told FilmInk in 2007. “It sold well because Australians were indulging themselves in reliving the past. Many of the successful Australian films of the seventies were set in the past because of that, and that’s what enabled me to make my next film, Heatwave.”
The 1982 thriller Heatwave centred on the intertwined lives of an idealistic building designer (Richard Moir) and a trust-fund radical (Judy Davis) in Sydney’s heat drenched Kings Cross in the late seventies. Their relationship develops following the murder of a mutual friend – a nod to real-life disappeared anti-development publisher Juanita Nielsen. “I lived in Kings Cross, and the film was very contemporary,” Noyce remembers. “Many of the characters who were involved in our story were walking the streets of Kings Cross. It was a volatile period, and everyone worked on the film looking over their shoulders.”
After this expertly woven mix of suspense and local politics, Noyce worked under the umbrella of the Kennedy-Miller production company as one of a pool of directors on the seminal Australian mini-series The Dismissal (about the sacking of the Whitlam government in the seventies) and The Cowra Breakout (about the titular escape of Australian-held Japanese POWs) before helming the underwhelming romance Echoes Of Paradise, starring Wendy Hughes and US import John Lone. While that low key film failed to inspire much excitement, Noyce’s next work would prove to be a breakout hit of mammoth proportions. 1989’s Dead Calm was a crackling thriller of the first order, with Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman unforgettably menaced by a deranged Billy Zane on a yacht in the middle of the ocean. Imaginatively directed and hectically paced, the film was just as good as anything turned out by Hollywood, and was all done on a fraction of the budget afforded most US productions. The film was a massive hit in Australia, and not surprisingly functioned as a gilt-edged calling card for Noyce internationally.
He debuted in the US with 1989’s Blind Fury, a formulaic but highly entertaining actioner starring Rutger Hauer as a blind, sword-wielding Vietnam veteran who becomes involved in a series of unlikely adventures. Though hardly an auspicious bow, it certainly didn’t hurt Noyce’s ascent in Hollywood. He was next tapped to direct Patriot Games, a big studio thriller based on Tom Clancy’s bestseller, and starring Harrison Ford as CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Complex in its plotting and characterisation, the film saw Noyce haul his facility for mixing intelligence and action into his biggest arena yet. The film was a major hit, and instantly placed Noyce in the upper echelons of Hollywood directors.
When FilmInk interviewed Noyce in 2002, he offered a fascinating insight into his experiences working in Hollywood. “You might think that the studios have suits on set all the time, and that they’re constantly making decisions about how a film should be made,” he begins. “But it’s actually the opposite. Everyone’s so scared about taking responsibility. Most studio executives don’t come from the ranks of movie making – they used to be agents or lawyers – and they don’t know how to make movies; they know how to put deals together. Once you’ve made one film that works, generally you don’t hear from the studio from the time you start shooting until the first preview, and that’s when you hear from them. If you’re successful on your first public preview, you don’t hear from them either, except to send you flowers and champagne. But if you’re unsuccessful, then they’re all over you like a rash! But in the process of actually shooting the film, you’re left to your own devices. They don’t try and tell you what to do. Hollywood has managed to be the most successful coloniser in the world. It’s been even more successful than Rome, which you could equate with Hollywood: two city-states that have colonised most of the known world. Hollywood has done it without the sword; with a lot of the Roman subjects, you couldn’t get their hearts and minds, even if they pretended to be subservient, whereas Hollywood has conquered the hearts and minds of its subjects all over the world. They’ve done it through expertise in marketing, and by convincing people all over the world that their product is better than anyone else’s. The interesting thing about working over there was that on some films, the suits would come onto the set after six weeks with a video, and they’d say, ‘Here’s the trailer.’ With Patriot Games – my first big Hollywood film – they came and showed me the trailer when we were still shooting the first scene, and I thought, ‘My God, that’s what the film’s about!’”
Noyce would work within the grinding gears of The Hollywood Machine for close to the next ten years, returning to direct the Patriot Games follow up Clear And Present Danger after finishing work on the salacious thriller Sliver, which was opportunistically marketed as a Basic Instinct-type thriller because of its leading lady, Sharon Stone, and its sex-fuelled script by Joe Eszterhas. Noyce also directed the straightforward thrillers The Saint and The Bone Collector, applying his rigorous sense of style and pacing to what were little more than popcorn entertainments, largely lacking in the director’s previously front-and-centre interest in social and political themes. Far inferior to the blue ribbon Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, they were strongly made, but are far from Noyce’s finest work.
From here, Noyce was all set to move onto The Sum Of All Fears, the next Tom Clancy adaptation to star Harrison Ford as CIA analyst Jack Ryan. “Harrison Ford and I had been working on the screenplay together for several months,” Noyce told FilmInk in 2002. “The problem was that Harrison was never sure that he wanted to do it. I was holed up in a Wall Street hotel with a writer, and on alternate days, I was travelling uptown to meet with Harrison to rework the story. On a Monday, Harrison would be enthusiastic; on a Wednesday, he’d be doubtful; and on a Friday, he’d be enthusiastic again. Then he’d come back with more changes, and he’d be pessimistic about the film. After ten days of this, it just made me think of the machine that I found myself in…The Hollywood Machine. Harrison was concerned about the story, and whether it was going to advance the character. The studio, on the other hand, didn’t care what the story was, as long as Harrison committed. They kept reminding me that they had a release date, so they just wanted him to commit. I couldn’t get Harrison to commit, and I started to have doubts about the whole process. It seemed as though we were churning out sausages, and not movies, which of course is what you are doing in Hollywood, even when you’re making high art. It’s an industry that has branches all over the world, and the monster has to be fed by movies, or the whole thing comes crashing down.”
Depressed by the continually byzantine machinations of Hollywood, Noyce turned his back on that soul destroying machine, and returned to Australia for what would become one of his most important and affirming works. Using his prodigious gifts as a creator of highly accomplished commercial successes, Noyce made the explosive Rabbit-Proof Fence as exciting and accessible as it was timely. Following the extraordinary journey undertaken by three young Aboriginal girls caught up in the horrors of The Stolen Generation, the film was instantly engrossing, and worked from an emotional, rather than polemic, base. Tightly made and richly rewarding, Rabbit-Proof Fence speaks in universal terms about an important issue, while also going straight for the heart. “It was great to be free of the star system, and having to negotiate every scene based on the whims of the star,” Noyce told FilmInk of working in Australia for the first time in many years.
Rabbit-Proof Fence was an artistic and commercial success, and saw Noyce returning to the mix of political probing and entertainment on which he’d built his career. He stayed on that course with his next films. Adapted from Graham Greene’s novel, 2002’s The Quiet American starred Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, and questioned US encroachment in Vietnam within its traditional romantic thriller structure. 2006’s Catch A Fire, meanwhile, told the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a decent, unassuming black South African who becomes a rebel fighter with the African National Congress (ANC). Though made under the auspices of Hollywood studios, both films were shot off-site, and allowed Noyce to work free of the kind of constraints that he’d experienced in the nineties. “I would only go there for discussions on budget, and then for test screenings afterwards, and then for marketing decisions,” Noyce told FilmInk in 2002. “I don’t need to avoid it. It’s just an email address. Mostly it’s a case of using that machine to sell the movie. That’s what they’re best at: selling and brand names.”
With his next film, Salt, Phillip Noyce scrupulously avoided Hollywood again, with much of the film’s shoot taking place in New York City and its immediate surrounds. Salt is a taut, winding thriller that unravels at an alarming pace against the backdrop of world politics and international subterfuge. Noyce’s Bone Collector star, Angelina Jolie, plays Evelyn Salt, a seasoned, highly accomplished CIA operative with years of experience in the field. When a Russian defector accuses her of being a “sleeper” agent planted in the CIA by his own prior bosses, Salt makes a run for it, using every ounce of trickery and cunning that she has accumulated while in the employ of the agency to clear her name and expose her betrayers.
It’s a clever, crafty thriller that rides just as much on plot and characterisation as it does on action and suspense. Its path to the big screen, meanwhile, was nearly as labyrinthine as its plot. At one time or another, Terry George, Michael Mann and Peter Berg were all in line to direct, and Tom Cruise was at one stage noisily announced as the film’s star. “There were a lot of directors on this,” Noyce told FilmInk in 2010 upon the film’s release. “In fact, I first came onto it a year before I joined officially. We were discussing it with various actors because the title of the story was then Edwin A. Salt, and that’s when we were speculating about who could play the lead, when we would start, and when it would come out. [Producer] Amy Pascal said, ‘Why don’t we reconsider this and think about Angelina Jolie?’ We all said that was impossible. She’d just had twins and she wouldn’t be ready. We’d have to delay the film for a long time. We sent the script though, and discussed it with her. We chewed the fat and discussed how it could be refitted for a female character. We considered all the pluses and all the minuses, and it seemed as though there were many more pluses. The story and the relationships became more complex and more emotional. The action scenes, in a way, become more exciting if it’s a woman against a lot of tough men. The character’s vulnerability is more exposed too. In terms of the burden that she’s carrying, you can feel that more in a female character than a male one. So we went ahead.”
Despite the film’s glossy sense of prestige and obvious tilt at box office success, the subject matter was actually something close to Noyce’s heart. “My father was a spy,” the director told FilmInk matter-of-factly in his characteristically no-nonsense tones. “He was a military spy during WW2, so I grew up on stories of espionage, trickery and chicanery. As a kid, I would spy on people in my little country town. I fixed myself on somebody that was walking in the street, and just followed them at a distance and tried to work out their secret lives. It’s always been my fascination. When I first read Kurt Wimmer’s script for Salt, it seemed like a great fantasy. But then when I thought about it again, I realised that of course there are deep cover agents working for other countries.”
When did Noyce first learn that his father was spy? Did he share his experiences with him? “His experience being a spy was actually a respite from the war,” the director replied. “He was going off to Borneo to join in the useless war against the Japanese. The war had moved towards the Japanese islands, and the allies were cleaning up. Somebody stopped him as he was getting on the boat, and asked him to join this special unit called Z Special Force, who were training clandestine operatives to go behind Japanese lines. They did a number of raids, for example, into Singapore Harbour, where they disguised themselves as Indonesians in a boat. Not my father though…he was too big to ever be disguised as Indonesian! They blew up a lot of Japanese shipping. His main job was training people in sabotage, and organising fifth columns to work against the Japanese in the occupied areas of Southeast Asia. He enjoyed all the privileges of being a spy. He had a pass that virtually said, ‘You’ll do whatever I say.’ He could show it to anyone below General MacArthur. When he was dying, much later, he told me a lot of grisly stories about what they were doing, but I won’t share those with you.”
Did his father’s work during WW2 in any way inspire him to become a director? “It didn’t inspire me to make movies,” Noyce replies. “It’s just that when I was given an opportunity to tell these kinds of stories – like The Quiet American and Salt and Clear And Present Danger, and so on – I loved that milieu and those people. I loved talking to those people within that world; it was furthering a relationship with my dad, and the kind of obsessions that he developed.”
Many of his films are political. Is politics a passion for Noyce? “Politics is what we play with each other in our families and in our work,” the director replies. “Every single day, decisions are made according to who has the power. We decide where to go on holiday based on not where we want to go, but on how many people we’ve got to please. It’s all about lobbying and who’s pushing you and what’s best in the short term, the long term, and the longer term. Everything is up for negotiation in the modern world. Maybe once upon a time, politicians used to tell the truth, and you could leave your door open, and you could believe in a man’s handshake, and it wasn’t even necessary to shake hands. You could believe in things, but it’s no longer like that. You can’t trust anybody, can you? My movies about spies are just an extension of my own paranoia, which I believe is merely a microscope on the reality of modern life. We all wear masks, and we all lie to each other.”
After Salt, Noyce moved sideways into the world of episodic television, helming installments of Revenge, Luck, Roots, and Crisis, as well as the television movies, Americana, Warrior, and Mary And Martha. His most recent feature film, however, is 2014’s The Giver, an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Young Adult sci-fi thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Aussie actor, Brenton Thwaites. “The novel touched me in a weird way,” Noyce told Deadline upon the film’s release. “To me, it’s a cautionary tale about how our friend technology maybe is stealing from us. That’s a feeling I’ve had increasingly over the years. I’ve embraced technology, but I also realize I am spending a lot less time in personal contact with my family and friends, replaced by the partial contact of texts, with short messaging taking the place of personal interaction.”
Though cerebral in tone, The Giver also featured some of Noyce’s trademark action. With a resume dotted with fine action films – films that never lazily rely just on action to keep them moving, but that work from a strong narrative framework – FilmInk can’t resist finishing up by asking Phillip Noyce for his take on the best way to work in his most favoured genre. “What makes a good action film?” the big man muses, running his fingers through his thick grey beard. “You have to care about the people in the action. If you don’t care about them, then you’re in big trouble.”
Phillip Noyce will be appearing in The Artist’s Room at Event Cinemas George Street in Sydney on December 13. Mr. Noyce will be live and in person for a one-hour conversation in the cinema followed by a screening of the director’s acclaimed Australian drama, Rabbit-Proof Fence. To buy tickets, click through to the official website.