Nowhere man

Toronto

When Phillip Noyce bounded into a restaurant one morning during the film festival here this September, his shirttail hanging out and shoes untied, the Australian director had the air of a man in celluloid nirvana. Balled up in his fist, like a $100 bill, was a rave Variety review of his new film, "The Quiet American," an adaptation of Graham Greene's 1955 novel about the early days of U.S. covert operations in Vietnam.

The review not only praised the film's "power and sensitivity," but laid out a case for giving "Quiet American" a speedy release. Miramax had been reluctant, believing it wouldn't play well in the post-Sept. 11 political environment.

Every time Noyce's cell phone rang during our interview, the bear-like director would bellow, "Look at Variety -- it's amazing!" When Michael Caine, the film's star, strolled in, Noyce greeted him with glee, reading him the glowing assessment of his performance. "That's great," Caine replied dryly. "But where are we having dinner tonight?"

Bolstered by positive reaction and quiet lobbying from Caine, the film has a new lease on life; it opens Friday in Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run. But "The Quiet American," which took Noyce years to get made, isn't the only movie close to his heart at the moment. On Nov. 29, Miramax will also release the director's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which is based on the true-life saga of three aboriginal girls who, in 1931, escaped from a government internment camp and made the 1,500-mile trek back to their home. The warm critical reception to the two films has buoyed Noyce's spirits.

Noyce spoke candidly of his fears about "The Quiet American's" fate. "Frankly, before Toronto, the film was dead, it just hadn't been buried. Even I'd come to believe that the film was no good." He unleashed a booming laugh. "Then suddenly we were exhumed!"

Until he went off to make these two new films, you could have said the same of Noyce's career. After making a name for himself in Australia directing a string of politically and historically minded films and TV miniseries, he had an international hit in 1989 with the thriller "Dead Calm." Noyce moved to Los Angeles, where he became the consummate Hollywood action director, making such films as "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Saint."

By 1999, Noyce had a reputation as a once-gifted storyteller spoiled by studio largess. As David Thomson put it in his "New Biographical Dictionary of Film," Noyce was "a truly promising director who has acted out the ease of transition from real material to movie bombast." From Noyce's perspective, life inside Hollywood's velvet cocoon was sweet. In Australia, where film financing was erratic at best, he'd been lucky to make three features in 12 years.

"But here, as soon as I finished one movie, they'd have another one lined up with lots of stars attached," he said over lunch, sipping red wine. "My life was complete. I had a private phone number that only [Paramount Chairman] Sherry Lansing and [Universal Chairman] Stacey Snider had. I had a big car that could practically drive itself. I had a house that Barbara Stanwyck had supposedly lived in that overlooked the Hollywood sign, just in case I forgot where I was. And I had a big wall around my house, because everyone in L.A. needs a big wall.

"The A-list scripts came into my office, pre-masticated by CAA. So for 10 years I made one movie after another. And the beauty of the system was that they sold the bad ones as well as the good ones. The whole machine purred."

Pandering to the A-list

But not all was well. At one point, Noyce was smoking six packs of cigarettes a day. When he went back home to Australia, he found himself increasingly alienated from his old friends. "I became a nowhere man," he says softly. "I wasn't an Australian, I wasn't an American. I was living in a country where I was a migrant guest worker -- the only political organization I was a member of was the Directors Guild."

Matters came to a head when Noyce was in New York in May 2000, cajoling Harrison Ford to return as Jack Ryan in "The Sum of All Fears." The actor had genuine concerns about playing the character again and was vacillating, optimistic on a Monday, pessimistic on a Wednesday. Noyce remembers being in a taxi in midtown Manhattan when he snapped. "I'd become a waiter, waiting on a star," he recalls.

"The whole of Hollywood is set up for the convenience of people whose foreheads are stamped with an A. The rest of us just sit by the phone waiting for their handlers to say they like a script. I'd call up the studio and say, 'Harrison doesn't like this or that,' and they'd say, 'For God's sake, fix it. Just get him to commit!' "

As it happened, there was a very different sort of movie he wanted to do. Noyce had been awoken in the middle of the night by a call from Christine Olsen, an Australian writer who'd obtained the film rights to "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence," a book about the aboriginal girls' epic journey. Completed in 1907, the fence to which the title refers was built as a barrier stretching between Australia's north and south coasts to stop hordes of rabbits from eating their way across the country. Around the same time, the Australian government began to sanction the forcible removal of mixed-race aboriginal children from their families, believing they could be absorbed into white society. The victims became known as the Stolen Generation.

Olsen sent Noyce the script, but he was too focused on his Hollywood blockbuster to pay any attention. "I was so out of touch that when she said the story was about the Stolen Generation, I thought it was a rock group." Noyce's production partner, Kathleen McLaughlin, kept putting the script at the top of his stack until he read it. Once he started, he couldn't stop.

"I was moved beyond words by these girls finding their way across miles of inhospitable country, and that what leads them home is this fence built by their white fathers to keep rabbits out of the country," he says. "Within five pages, these black children were my children. I realized that as an Australian this was my story to tell as well. This was our shared history."

For Noyce, the country's exploitation of its aboriginal population is as shameful as America's treatment of African Americans and native Americans. "It's a horrible black mark," he says. "We've never wanted to admit it because it's so completely at odds with our national persona that we've sold to the rest of the world. We've always pretended we were a cross between Mick Dundee and Michael Moore, that we're a country of political radicals and social renegades."

Making "Rabbit-Proof Fence" in the wilds of south Australia was a radically different experience than filming a Hollywood thriller. Noyce had a skimpy $6-million budget, the equivalent of what he alone would have been paid if he'd directed "Sum of All Fears." Half came from the Australian government, the rest from various investors, including Noyce, his friend Peter Gabriel (who did the film's score), families of the film's real-life aboriginal heroes and Kenneth Branagh, who plays the autocratic administrator of reeducation policy. Noyce cast three aboriginal girls in the leads, with Everlyn Sampi playing the key role of Molly Craig, who is seen today -- at age 85 -- in a clip at the film's end.

The girls weren't just non-actors, they'd never seen a movie in a theater. Noyce took them to see "Shanghai Noon," an education effort that backfired. Everlyn ran away twice before filming began, convinced that she could never live up to portraying the gigantic images she'd seen.

"Everlyn is very proud, and she hates to fail," Noyce recalls. "After I calmed down, I realized that she was just like the real character, someone whose self-respect told her to run away. And very quickly I became the Kenneth Branagh character, mouthing the same platitudes he does in the movie as I tried to corral her into coming back."

As soon as he finished "Rabbit-Proof Fence," Noyce threw himself into making "The Quiet American," which he'd wanted to film ever since he read the novel while vacationing in Vietnam. The project remained in limbo until Caine and Brendan Fraser agreed to play the leads.

For the past few months, Noyce has been traveling the world, promoting both movies. He feels rejuvenated by his journey of self-discovery. It hardly seems coincidental that his most anticipated new project involves another epic trek, an adaptation of Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon-Tiki." Yet Noyce has no illusions about completely leaving Hollywood behind. "Escaping Hollywood is impossible," he says. "The issue is, are you going to be a director for hire or are you going to tell your own stories? And having rediscovered my Australian voice, I want to use it again."

"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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