Dead Serious About Aussie Cinema : Australia’s Phillip Noyce directs an icy thriller with a resourceful heroine : Phillip Noyce
On screen, it looked so simple.
The scene showed a bridal party parading through a Nevada gambling casino. Off screen, an actor dubbing the groom’s dialogue leaned into the mike and bellowed: “Hey, everybody! I want you to meet my wife--we’re going to get married!”
Phillip Noyce groaned. “There’s only one problem,” he said to the actor. “You’re already married in this scene. You’re going to the reception.”
The bluff, rugged-looking 39-year-old Australian film director has been in a dark room full of actors all morning, dubbing lines for an upcoming film. “Let’s personalize it,” Noyce said, scribbling new dialogue on a yellow legal pad. “Why don’t you call your wife Charlene? Actually, that’s too close to our Colleen character. What’s a good just-got-married-in-Reno name. . . . How about Mindy?”
Welcome to the wonderful world of dubbing (known in industry parlance as looping dialogue), perhaps film land’s least glamorous pastime. If Noyce finds the work dreary, he never lets on. And if he’s wary about making his first big stateside splash, after years of labor far from the maddening Hollywood crowd, he’s keeping his nerves to himself.
Over the next few months, three Noyce-directed films will open here, starting with “Dead Calm,” a ferocious thriller starring Sam Neill, which Warner Bros. Films releases Friday. Later this month, art-house patrons can see Noyce’s “Echoes of Paradise,” a romantic drama starring John Lone and Wendy Hughes. And by August, Tri-Star will open “Blind Fury,” a comic thriller starring Rutger Hauer that Noyce was finishing here on the dubbing stage.
The projectionist rolled the casino scene again. When the groom appeared on screen, the actor dubbing his lines bellowed: “Here’s my wife . . . uh, Marg--no, uh . . . Mindy!”
The room echoed with laughter. “That’s OK,” Noyce said jovially. “You’re entitled to forget your wife’s name if you’ve only been married for four minutes.”
At 6-foot-4 and a solid 200 pounds, with piercing eyes and chiseled features, Noyce is a formidable man with the rugged, resolute gaze of a frontier sheriff. Born in a tiny hamlet in New South Wales where his father both farmed and practiced law, Noyce grew up with a love for Australia’s arid expanses and tumultuous history.
While still a teen, he was making experimental films such as “Better to Reign in Hell” (nicking the title from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”). He’s gone on to celebrate newsreel cameramen (“Newsfront”), skewer urban developers (“Heatwave”), critique Aussie treatment of Japanese prisoners of war (“The Cowra Breakout”) and dramatize the fall of Australia’s first Socialist government (“The Dismissal”).
Intense and eloquent, Noyce sees the rebirth of Aussie cinema--and its fascination with historical events--as a symbol of the nation’s cultural maturity. “When my generation of film makers grew up, all we saw were British and American characters--there was no indigenous film production,” he explained, relaxing at a house he and his wife keep in Hollywood. “Australia suffered from what we called the ‘cultural cringe.’ The major symptom was that any cultural expression was automatically inferior to anything imported from England and America.
“It’s something our generation has tried to change. When we began to make films it was only natural that we’d turn to Australian historical occurrences--and examine them from an Australian perspective. I think people really embraced them because it was their first chance to see their own culture.”
Noyce eyed one of his daughters, who was playing in a nearby room. “Now my children think nothing of it--they’ve grown up with all these films as their history lessons.”
An icy thriller, “Dead Calm” is a Hitchcockian tale in the best sense--it’s both a taut drama and a gripping lesson in love and personal loyalty. Written by Terry Hayes, who scripted the “Mad Max” films, it’s based on a book that has attracted movie makers before (Orson Welles filmed a never-completed version in 1968 with Jeanne Moreau and Laurence Harvey).
The story is about an Aussie couple who--eager to recover from a family tragedy--sail off to the Great Barrier Reef. One day they encounter a wild-eyed man frantically fleeing a sinking yacht. After offering a gory tale of his escape from death and depravity, he goes below and falls into a deep sleep. The husband (Sam Neill) rows off to investigate his story, but just as he makes an ominous discovery . . . the man wakes up.
Most of the critical kudos have gone to Nicole Kidman, the 22-year-old actress who plays the resourceful young wife who must survive a dangerous liaison with her captor (Billy Zane, a co-star of “The Hillside Stranglers” which airs tonight. See article on Page 18.).
Noyce calls her character’s experience a “rite of passage,” saying “she goes from weakness to power, from girlhood to womanhood, from loss to re-growth.” Aussie films have often focused on women, but for American audiences, it’s a rare treat to see such a psychologically complex female character.
“In Australia we have many female directors--and lots of strong female producers who can get films made,” Noyce said. “But our history may have something to do with it too. We began as a penal colony. And it’s fair to say that women were very persecuted--the first women in Australia were virtually slaves, sold by ship captains and male convicts. So I think the Australian cinema has spent considerable time and spirit correcting the injustices of history--or at least re-examining it.”
On screen, “Dead Calm” lives up to its name--the ocean ripples with womb-like tranquility. Actually, the waters were choppy, making the film a logistical nightmare. The production spent nine weeks at sea, filming inside a large reef, which broke the huge ocean swells and bordered a nearby island, where the cast and crew spent each night.
“We shot some tests in Sydney harbor, but it was so rough that everyone got terribly sick,” said Noyce. “The actors and crew were all vomiting over the side of the boat.”
And the director? “Oh, I’m very sea-faring now,” he said with a grin. “But I wasn’t then.”
To cope with abrupt ocean weather changes, which could darken the water and sky in minutes, Noyce fed his shooting script into a computer system that allowed him to match his shots with the brooding scenery. Faced with a stormy day, he could instantly find appropriate scenes for cloudy weather.
Shooting on the water was more arduous. “Calm” features several sequences where you see three sets of boats at once--a large schooner, a smaller ketch and a tiny dinghy.
“Everything looked very simple when we’d storyboarded the scenes,” said Noyce. “But once we did it for real, on the water. Ughh! It was impossible. We needed all three boats lined up for each shot, but the currents would sweep them off. Just when we’d get them lined up, the camera boat would have moved 20 feet and everything was off again.
“You learn to be a real Buddhist directing a movie on the water. You have to find ways to stay calm. You could yell all you wanted, but the sea just wouldn’t do what it was told.”
It’s hard to imagine Noyce as a brusque set tyrant. In fact, Aussie film directors exhibit far more willingness to collaborate than their hot-shot Hollywood counterparts. For most of the ‘80s, Noyce has worked with George Miller’s Kennedy Miller Productions, which produced the “Mad Max” series, “Dead Calm” and many Aussie made-for-TV projects.
“I’ve found here in Hollywood that territory is keenly mapped out,” said Noyce. “One of the founding concepts of Kennedy Miller was to foster film making as an organic process in hopes of avoiding so many demarcation disputes. Sometimes (“Dead Calm” screenwriter) Terry Hayes will look at my storyboards and he’ll say, ‘Oh no, that’s not going to work--you’re giving away too much of the scene.’ It’s really a remarkable cross-fertilization process.”
This unique tradition emerged from pre-production work on “Dismissal,” an early Kennedy Miller TV project about the 1975 fall of Australia’s first Socialist government. Five directors, including Noyce and Miller, worked on the series.
“We split up the story into separate years, with each of us taking a different year,” Noyce said with a wry grin. “George did the opening segment, so it was all we could do to follow his distinctive style and set up the story for the next fellow.”
Eager to do justice to history, the production team went to great lengths to give the story a political symmetry. “We spent a week in an old mansion where we figured out a consistent approach to all the political issues. We not only studied all the government documents, but we brought in many of the real-life participants to hear their views.”
All did not go smoothly. “The upshot of our noble efforts was that a week before we started shooting, the actors all revolted,” Noyce explained. “They’d become the custodians of each character in the story. And they saw things a different way, so we had to spend two more weeks getting the story straight.”
After much tumult, a new Kennedy Miller philosophy emerged. “We decided everyone should be involved in the creation of the story. It’s become a tradition at our company that everyone approaches their job as a storyteller. Not just the writer, but the editor, the production designer, the actors and the director.”
To sharpen his storytelling skills here, Noyce makes frequent trips to his neighborhood Hollywood Boulevard movie theater. “You get a fascinating glimpse at how an audience really experiences a movie,” he said. “I went to see ‘Die Hard’ recently and the response to the killings in the film was just incredible. It was as if they saw the murders as therapy, because they’re so powerless to stop killings in real life. At first I was surprised by how bloodthirsty and vocal the audiences were in expressing their urge for retribution.”
Noyce flashed a thin smile. “I guess you’d have to say audiences today demand a faster pace of retribution than the ones I grew up with.”