phillip noyce

by Mark Chipperfield
Sydney Morning Herald: 27th October 2004

Award-winning director and sometime Australian resident Phillip Noyce talks to Mark Chipperfield about revolution, the film industry and living on two continents.

"The one thing I always want to do when I get off the plane in Sydney is dive into the sea. There's nothing like the mental stimulation of bodysurfing at Bondi. Those waves have the perfect strength to knock you around. And there's that moment just before you catch a wave, when you look along and see 300 other people with their left arms lifted doing the same thing. There's nowhere else like that. The waves on the west coast of America are hopeless. I love all of Sydney's water culture, beaches and sailing.

"Before my film career I played rugby [in the second row] for Gordon. But I should point out I was in the second grade and there was no money in those days. And I only played until I was 19. Then I had to make a choice between my underground film club or football training. The film club won out.

"I later swapped from law to fine arts, but not for any reason other than that it was 1969 [Noyce later graduated from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School]. The University of Sydney campus was on fire: '69 was a year of revolution - the Vietnam War, the women's movement, Black Power and the Moratorium were all going on. It seemed that anyone under 30 worth their salt was trying to undo the system.

"Although I was born in Griffith my parents had moved to Sydney's North Shore. So I was coming to all this [student unrest] from Wahroonga. I went to Barker College, Hornsby - a middle-class boys' school where we were taught to lead. Not many leaders emerged, mainly a lot of dentists, lawyers and doctors - although [rock singer] Peter Garrett went to Barker. I coached Peter at rugby. He was a winger with beautiful locks of blond hair. The problem was no one could hold the ball long enough to get it out to him - and I'm sure this is going to dog him in his new career. I think it's very difficult to be an honest person in politics and he is an honest person. The big shock for me was moving from Barker to the inner-city, with its underground movies and university life - as it has been for many kids from the suburbs - but only more so then because revolution was in the air.

"My world in those days was the inner-west - Glebe and Annandale. A lot of coffee shops - not pubs - and vegetarian restaurants. In some ways this part of Sydney hasn't changed that much. These days terrace houses in Glebe fetch $1.5 million but there's still a lot of students, alternative culture types and workers. I'm an expat who keeps up with what's going on at home. I read all the Australian papers online. Thanks to affordable air travel and the internet, the umbilical cord is unbroken.

"Until recently it really helped to be an Australian. There used to be a novelty element about being an Australian overseas and Paul Hogan created a myth of this magical Australia. And you do become adept at fitting in anywhere. That was OK for an adult, but I really think my children suffered enormously. I grew up in a small country town. There was a routine; it was the foundation of your values and gave you the strength to maintain your identity wherever you are. I thought, 'This is great; my children can grow up in Britain, on the east and west coast of America', but my youngest daughter Lucia, who is now 23, needed to go home to university to find out who she was. Lucia and my stepdaughter Alice were both born in Australia, but Alice [now 30] left when she was 13, Lucia when she was seven. I still live half the time in Australia so I'm not a genuine expat.

I have a flat in Double Bay and an office at Fox Studios. But I suppose you could call me an expat: I moved to America [permanently] in 1991 when I was 40. By then I'd already been working in Canada and the States for several years. Now it seems quite normal to have two bases - in Los Angeles and Sydney. I use the Qantas plane like a taxi; I don't even blink about going to Australia for a week or even a weekend. And, of course, there's the Australian diaspora; unfortunately there's hardly an Australian film industry, and so if you're working in America you can always get a big party of Australians together. In fact, Jason Clark from Rabbit-Proof Fence is the star of the project I'm working on now, which is a TV pilot for Showtime [an American cable network]. This one is by a very young scriptwriter. It's a story of politics and crime in Rhode Island.

"Nowadays the better scripts and dramas are produced for television, especially cable. Movies increasingly have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, while the more mature audiences subscribe to cable television. You have much more freedom [working in television] and there isn't the same opportunity for people to meddle. TV is great.

"I'm also trying to get together a movie called Hot Stuff, written by Shawn Slovo, a South African writer. It's a thriller set in the apartheid era. There are a number of other projects back in Australia, including Dirt Music, an adaptation of Tim Winton's novel which I hope to shoot in 2006. And there are several other projects which I'm producing.

"Given the size of the American entertainment machine it is usually easier to finance projects that are set in America, but the Australian stories are more compelling to me personally. I'm using the American projects to finance the Australian ones. When I first went to America I was like a kid in a candy store. I went from one project to another. Now it's a case of looking for things that really interest you.

"The Quiet American [2002] and Rabbit-Proof Fence [2002] were part of a bigger evolution for me as a filmmaker, I guess. I was only able to make them because I'd served my time in Hollywood, proving that I could make commercial films. So when I wanted to make two unconventional films I was able to raise the money. For me it felt like coming back to where I started, because I began making political films [Newsfront, 1978, and The Dismissal, 1983] in Australia in the 1970s.

"With the homogenisation of the world, attitudes in Sydney, London, New York and Los Angeles have started to merge. But you've only got to travel 20 miles out of a metropolis and you'll find a whole other world, with a whole lot of different values. Big cities tend to obliterate the minutiae of people's dreams because we're all on the same treadmill. But my latest venture is purely personal. With my brother I've planted a vineyard at Wollombi. It's a 300-acre property my father bought back in the 1960s. Our first vintage - 100 cases of semillon - has just been released. Noyce Brothers Wine. It has a nice ring to it."

Phillip Noyce: Backroads to Hollywood by Ingo Petzke is published by Macmillan Australia.