Noyce’s OnAustralian New Waver in Hollywood
Written by Jim Emerson
To Philip Noyce, it doesn’t much matter if he’s making a little Australian road movie (Backroads, 1977) or an elegiac chronicle about the demise of the Aussie newsreel industry (Newsfront, ’78) or a political mystery about a real-estate scandal (Heatwave, ’81) or a Knife in the Water–style psychosexual thriller (Dead Calm, ’89) or a tongue-in-cheek martial arts movie about a blind modern-day samurai warrior (Blind Fury, ’89). Or even a $43-million Tom Clancy espionage thriller starring Harrison Ford: this summer’s Patriot Games. Noyce says he just wants to “reach out and grab” an audience. And with the release of this second film in what promises to be a franchise of Paramount pictures based on spy novelist Clancy’s CIA operative Jack Ryan (previously played by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October), Noyce will surely be grabbing his biggest movie audience yet.
The 42-year-old Sydney Film School grad may be the last of the Australian New Wavers of the Seventies to make a big splash in America. Most of his contemporaries from Down Under—Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society), Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark, The Russia House), George Miller (the Mad Maxes and Witches of Eastwick), Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Gillian Armstrong (Mrs. Soffel)—rode the wave to Hollywood and made pictures for big American studios during the Eighties.
Dead Calm, starring Sam Neill and a then-unknown sheila named Nicole Kidman, got Noyce some attention by demonstrating his bravura command of widescreen framespace and showing off ominous suspense techniques he used to create an ambience dripping with dread. But Noyce thinks it was his TV pilot for Wes Craven’s Nightmare Café horror-fantasy series that landed him the Patriot Games gig: “I assume that since the Nightmare Cafe pilot was the last thing Brandon Tartikoff looked at at NBC and Patriot Games was the first thing he put into production at Paramount, there had to be some connection.”
His recent films have been characterized by dense, multilayered sound mixes that expand and deepen the movies’ often sinister textures. In Patriot Games, that includes the almost subliminal use of both subsonic and high-pitched frequencies designed to set the audience’s bones thrumming and teeth on edge. In that sense and several others, Patriot Games gives summer moviegoers a bit more than they bargained for. It’s an apolitical thriller that tinkers provocatively with the ways in which the meanings of images are encoded and decoded—in movies as well as in CIA surveillance tapes. And it even manages to be thrilling without being mindless or incoherent.
Your first feature was a low-budget Australian road movie, and now you’ve done this big-budget thriller for Paramount. How do you think your films have changed over he years?
It’s very hard to be so self-aware. Also hard to make assessments of a body of work—I have to leave that to somebody else. Someone said the other day, “You started your career making political films but now the films seem to be apolitical.” This guy—he was an Australian—said, “Backroads was an American road movie disguised as a political message about Australian aborigines.” I said, “Hang on, that’s not what it was. It was a political message disguised as an American road movie!” When I look back, what I do see is that, whatever the content, the main preoccupation was not with genre but with trying to move the audience—perhaps in a megalomaniacal fashion.
Blind Fury was a quirky choice.
Essentially it was an anomaly. It was really an attempt to flee Australia! The script [virtually] arrived in the mail. I knew the party was over in Australia, it was going to become increasingly hard to make movies of any sort there. It had been hard enough anyway, with great hiatus periods due not to market forces but simply to government policies.
Dead Calm had not come out. I had just completed the editing, I came to America and started Blind Fury, and then I went back to Australia and competed the sound mixing on Dead Calm. I didn’t know whether Dead Calm would be well received, financially successful, or anything. But I felt the need to establish a beachhead somewhere else. The challenge was to apply your ability to a particular genre within another culture and see if you could make something of it. Blind Fury was a lot of fun, bit it didn’t come out of any thematic concerns or even filmic concerns I had.
Was Newsfront—still your international arthouse success—a way of combining your interest in politics with your love of the movies?
There’s social commentary and history and all sorts of things in that, sure. It was coming to terms with the Australian experience, what it meant to live in Australia—which was so much a concern of the early new wave of Australian films. Having been denied an opportunity to examine our past on screen, we spent almost ten tears doing that before we made any significant contemporary films, if you noticed. Now all the films coming out of there are contemporary. Which is a mark of real maturity, that we’ve [put aside] the past—which we almost had to reclaim, having been brought up on Westerns and English historical movies and being fed other people’s history. We claimed the screens back for ourselves and said, “Okay, let’s go back and see what happened in the First World War and so on.” Now Jane Campion (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) are making almost exclusively contemporary films. They’re probably also able to do that because us guys have shifted aside and allowed them an opportunity to spend what little funds are available there!
That first wave of Australian films and filmmakers was so exciting in the mid to late Seventies. But then it kind of dried up…
There is starting to be another wave. There was a first wave and then a long hiatus when the first-wavers sort of migrated over here, and there didn’t seem to be anything [coming out of Australia]. We used to look over our shoulders often and say, “Where the fuck are the second wave? What happened?”
It struck me that Patriot Games, like Newsfront, is partly about images and the ways you collect, interpret, and manipulate them. Like the first shot, a deliberately disorienting helicopter shot over a forest of bare trees, not unlike the mysterious, discombobulating opening images of Dead Calm, where it takes awhile to figure out: what is that? Was that a visual strategy you were working on?
Yeah, it was. The titles, of course, try to be a theme shot, and to set up that idea for the audience, so that they are placed in Jack Ryan’s shoes and have to try and work out where this is leading, what it means, what it is. And they’re led to Jack Ryan’s house. Which, in a sense, is the temple of patriarchy—not patriots. It’s the house of a family, because the movie is about family. And I don’t just mean Ryan’s family—I mean [Irish terrorist nemesis] Sean Miller’s family as well. That’s essentially what it’s about: patriarchy. But of course the patriarchy entwines with this search for meaning behind images. Or, as [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto expressed it, the hunter and the hunted.
You’ve got those cameras and TV monitors everywhere, recoding and monitoring events. Everybody’s got CNN on all the time. And of course, that’s basically what spies do: collect, interpret, manipulate images and information…
Yeah. [I visited the Central Intelligence Agency and] it was a strange image of Big Brother, to see these CNN images on these television all over the place. And in the network management room there was this great big screen running C-SPAN constantly—maybe just to see if there was a mention of the CIA. Weird.
This network management center is a huge room, like a baseball stadium, where there were just teams of computer operators in front of their screens. And what they’re doing is collecting all the information that’s gathered, whether it’s secret, whether it’s in the public domain, whether it comes from operatives in the field, other intelligence organizations in America or overseas—and then programming it into relevant files. They’re like computer traffic cops—information as traffic. Their information storage and retrieval capacity is astounding. And equally astounding was the technology of their spying apparatus, their satellite spying capacity. They use the computer to identify patterns that are meaningless to the human eye or any lens of magnifications. Based on information that’s fed into it, [the computer can] identify that this [blurry image] was, say, a woman’s breast or whatever.
Of course the film doesn’t overtly condemn the CIA. I suppose some people will criticize the movie for that; they’ll say it doesn’t take a position. It’s not the concern of the story to get into any of the more controversial aspects of their activities: destabilization, assassination, covert military operations…It invites the audience to consider the ramifications of the technology they have, the spying capability that that gives them, and what that means, for good or bad.
In that sequence of CIA people watching the satellite images of the raid on the terrorist camp in North Africa, it’s not a gung-ho thing where you have the audience cheering the wiping-out of the terrorists—it’s chilling. Like the way we experienced the Persian Gulf War on TV. It’s terrifying that these guys are sitting in this room watching this thing happening so far away, and all you see are these fuzzy little shapes on the screen. But you also see Ryan’s response to this, and in that reaction shot of Harrison Ford you see that he realizes the full implications of what’s really going on.
He’s faced a very important question with trepidation: to act or not to act, essentially. He faced it [in an earlier scene] with his back turned to the questioner, when he nodded reluctantly [identifying a suspected terrorist]. He’s been told that an SAS team could wipe out that camp in under three minutes and be gone before the echo fades. He knows that there’s a distinct possibility of that, and he has chosen to nod. And he’s now being forced to face up to the implications of choosing to act.
I think there are wider ramifications. It’s a question America has had to face up to in this century—the First World War, the Second World War, and each of the “conflicts”—and has had to reexamine afterwards whether it did the right thing. The public consciousness has changed according to the time and the place, usually pending the result. Except Grenada, where everyone know that it was ridiculous.
For me, in one way, that [satellite scene] is the finale of the film. From then on, I feel that the film, intellectually, moves on a tangent. It doesn’t viscerally, because if you’ve been gripped emotionally by primal urges—particularly of retribution and confrontation—then the fact that these men [Ryan and Miller] are going to have to meet in the flesh is part of the sort of primitive urge you have.
For me, the most satisfying emotional moment in the film is the look on Harrison’s face. I suppose that’s not completely true, because allied to that looks is the companion look when he finally achieves the in-the-flesh solution to this struggle between the two men, which is sort of the same feeling of regret and remorse…Actually, you see, I’m talking myself out of what I am saying.
When Harrison looks at Sean Miller [Sean Bean] at the end—I think his looks are marvelous because you can read anything you want into them—I read into that look that he understands why it has ended here, why he is here, what has motivated this man, and why it was eventually going to end either with him like that or with Harrison like that [i.e., dead]. He understands the man and feels pity for him and also remorse for his own actions. In that sense, [the ending] is not tangential at all.
There’s another closeup reaction shot at the very beginning, where Ryan is locked face to face with Sean Miller and his brother, and he realizes whom he’s killed. So there are three such moments—at the beginning, middle, and end—and the movie’s structured around them.
Yes. I guess these two had to repeat that moment from the beginning. They just had to. I mean structurally.
You’ve been responsible for two of the most terrifying car accidents I’ve ever seen in films, in Dead Calm and now in Patriot Games.
It’s the same trick. I saw it in some New South Wales Road Safety Council test footage. They were testing what happens to the human body on impact, using dummies. They placed the camera in many different positions: one totally objective, out to the side—you saw the “body” going forward—and another at the front, so that you felt what it was like to be in there. It was both subjective and objective simultaneously: you were in the car and you could see the car imploding and your impending doom coming toward you.
And that’s where I got the idea. It’s a key shot. You’re always trying to make any situation as experiential for the audience as possible. Of course, there’s a buildup and everything, but the one that makes you shudder is the one where you think it’s going to happen to you.
Is the shot going through the traffic barrier speeded up?
It has a zoom built into it. The car is moving towards the barrier and the camera is zooming towards the car, so you feel you want to get out of the way but you can’t!
And right after that, the sound…
Immediately after that is silence.
You see the wrecked cars on the freeway but you can’t hear anything.
Right. You hear only one thing, a low note that started just before the car crashed—it’s the equivalent of silence. And then Sean Miller says, “They’re gone.” Then you look back and see the same shot and hear the other cars.
It was just experimentation in the mixing stage. It was an accident to tell you the truth. The guy forgot to press the button. [Laughs.] I said, “Let’s see it again,” and there were certain tracks open to the point of implosion and he had not opened the tracks that came immediately afterwards. So it went BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-CRASH…and I said, “What?! Wait! Hang on!” It was quite funny. Because you took the sounds away, you still feel the reverberations. You felt it more.
Like Dead Calm, Patriot Games was shot in a widescreen, anamorphic ratio. Hardly anybody uses that anymore. Is there a reason why not?
Video. I had to argue [for anamorphic]. They said so many theaters in American don’t have CinemaScope lenses or something, and anyway when it goes to video you’re gonna lose it. But I think that if you’re gonna make a film, make a film! Why make a video? You can’t have your eye set on the video release. [When it comes time for that,] you can pan and scan it, work it out. It becomes something else. If you supervise it yourself, you can actually make the film again. Because you can work in “camera moves” on the pan-and-scan machine, and all sorts of tricks. Of course, when you cut a shot in half, when two people are talking on ether side of the screen and you between them, it sometimes becomes not so hot. I guess we’re going to have a bit of that problem here…
Movies have a longer shelf life on video, but that’s not really the point.
It’s not. I often wonder why they can’t just bring out [more] letterboxed versions on home video. Why does the audience have to think they’re watching television?
[‘Scope was] the cheapest [aspect of the production]. I mean, if we added up all the things that contribute to making it look like it might be worth 43 million bucks, the cheapest value for the money is the simple hiring of a lens to produce an image like that! It was maybe $50,000 extra for the whole movie, and it’s the biggest contributor—more than the star, more than all the sets, all the extras. If we had shot it in 1:1.85 I think people would have said, “Gee, you mean he spent $43 million on that?” [Laughs.]
Was your experience of making a big, expensive, high-profile studio movie that much different from other movies you’ve made?
I’m sure there were hordes of people second-guessing me, but I just had to dismiss it. When Clancy started [criticizing the movie] in the newspapers, people would bring me the paper and say, “have you read this?” And I’d say, “I don’t care, take it away. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to know about it. It’s got nothing to do with what we’re doing here. Our answer is to make the film. Let’s just do that.”
Just how faithful to a book do you think a movie needs to be? Some very interesting movies have been made that are completely different from the books…
I absolutely agree. It all depends on the type of novel you’re adapting. If you’re adapting a very obscure novel, you may have more license. Here you had a very particular case, an enormously [popular] novel. And you’re making a mainstream movie for a major studio, and there is a certain obligation to be true to the spirit of the novel as much as you possibly can, to be true to the elements that made it a bestseller. But I also felt an obligation to depart from it where I felt that that would enhance what was already there, amplify [Clancy’s] idea.
A perfect example is the freeway chase. In the novel, Jack has no inkling that his wife is going to be attacked, and he doesn’t take part in the chase to try and prevent it. There is a policeman, Trooper Waverly, who is on the highway, and he really takes Jack’s part, although we’ve never met him and never will again. He is the one we think may be able to prevent this; Jack finds out about it later. It just seemed so logical that Harrison Ford, as the audience’s primary representative in the piece, should suspect that this is going on and try to prevent it. And that Trooper Waverly should be eliminated. Now, I don’t think that’s a huge change. And there were a number of [cases] like that.
In the beginning of the novel, Sean Miller was knocked out by Jack Ryan. So he was unconscious and unaware until later that his brother had been killed. So the two men did not exchange looks at the scene of the crime. We changed it so that he is momentarily stunned, the brother is killed, and then as death is pronounced [Sean] immediately turns and sees the man with the smoking gun. It just seems more potent. But it wasn’t untrue to the novel.
You reshot the ending. What was the other ending and why did you decide to use this one—or who decided to use this one?
Well, if you read the L.A. Times or The New York Times, some fat kids in the Valley decided. [Laughs.] There’s a big focus on this whole [market] research profession as a result of Robert Altman’s fantastic film [The Player]—a work of fiction that’s 90 percent true! But it’s not as simple as that.
Basically, the ending is exactly the same as it always was. It’s true that the film was shown to the [test screening] audience, but they liked the ending. If in their comments they indicated anything, it was that they wanted a more violent ending—which we were determined not to give them. [Some of them] wanted Jack Ryan to have personal revenge and kill this guy. But that seemed inconsistent with his character.
The [real problem with the ending], I felt, was that the moment where the two men make contact with each other has to be defined for the audience: they have to be able to feel and see it. And what we unfortunately had was this water, in the middle of the night, dark, and it was like sunglasses. You couldn’t feel what Harrison was feeling because you couldn’t see it. There was a film, an aquafilter [between the actors and the camera]. It took place about ten feet from where the [current ending] takes [place, which is two feet above the water—originally it was eight feet underwater. If Criterion ever makes a laser version, I’ll get them to [include the original]. It was similar even it its shots.
[In the original,] Sean Miller was so determined to kill Ryan that he drowned himself; Ryan was seen to be drowning, they were locked in a death grip, and Miller was the first to go; Ryan, only seconds after him, would have gone. We came back, reshot it in less than one day’s work. It may be that the bloodthirsty crowd out there will complain, that some kid in the Valley is going to appear in the L.A. Times saying, “I told them to make him [Ryan] kill him and kill him good, and they didn’t!” But we didn’t. [The outcome of the fight] is almost accidental.