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PHILLIP NOYCE: Director of The Quiet American
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

Australian-born Phillip Noyce began his career back in the ‘70s as a director of little-seen but widely acclaimed films. Then came 1989’s DEAD CALM, which made a star out of someone named Nicole Kidman and earned Noyce a ticket to Hollywood. He spent the next decade grinding out big-budget films, including the Tom Clancy adaptations PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER—movies widely seen but little-acclaimed.

But with the release of Rabbit-Proof Fence and now The Quiet American, Noyce is suddenly back in critical favor. Due to his work on those films, he was recently named 2002's Best Director by the National Board of Review, and his Quiet American star Michael Caine has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his turn as a world-weary expatriate stationed in Vietnam.

I spoke with Noyce about helming The Quiet American, an excellent adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, which opens nationwide in the U.S. on February 7 and in Australia on January 16.

Q: This was the first Western feature shot in Vietnam...

A: Well, no. Not really true. I mean, it was the first big Hollywood film, I guess you could say, though not really a Hollywood film. No, there’s been other feature films there, French films. The one with Catherine Deneuve, Indochine. The Lover. So there have been other films shot there. Three Seasons, the Tony Bui film. It was the first bigger-budget, partly American film to shoot there.

Q: Was there any pressure from the Vietnamese authorities to make the film ideologically correct?

A: There was a constant need to submit the various screenplays and all the rewrites to the authorities in Vietnam. But they never said a word about any of it. It was all approved. The process was nothing like the process of censorship that you would go through in Hollywood, on any project—even a throwaway comedy—in terms of the amount of interference, notes, directives (chuckles), and committees that one would have to work with.

There was a necessity as per their regulations for the material to be submitted. But they never tried to advise us in any way on the content.

Q: Were they closely monitoring the production during filming?

A: Yes, they were closely monitoring to make sure that everything went smoothly for us. That we got the locations we needed and the cooperation from local authorities in every area. They weren’t monitoring us in order to censor us. Or if they were, they never made that apparent. If they were, they did a bad job! (Laughs.) They never told us not to do anything.

Q: They have to learn a few things from Hollywood.

A: Yeah.

Q: We’ve all heard that there have been worries behind the scenes about the possibly anti-American content of the film. Are there still concerns about the reception of the film?

A: No, I don’t think there are any more. I think originally...the film was previewed, not finished, in the month after 9/11 in the New York area. The images of the carnage resulting from a terrorist bombing in a public place were not an easy thing for many people in the New York area to respond positively to at that time. And in addition, the sense of violation was so great that I think people were a little offended by the criticism of American foreign policy, even though it’s a policy that was being enacted back in the 1950s. It was just an unfortunate confrontation between history and a movie.

But as time has passed, the wounds have healed. And also, in the preparations for war, the issues that, subtextually, the movie deals with have become very relevant. The need for good intelligence, for intelligent decision-making, before America takes military action, or any action, that might infringe on the sovereignty of another nation. That’s a very relevant issue to us right now and will be in the future. So as time has passed, the initial reticence of the audience I think has passed, too. What was a negative about the movie has arguably become a positive.

Q: Did you really use real amputees for the bombing scene?

A: Yes, yes, we did. Of course, we needed to show the devastation of those bombs. So obviously, in a situation like that, people would lose limbs, so we needed to have people who were limbless. And there are a lot of them in Vietnam. Not only people who lost their limbs as a result of war, but also who were born with deformities as a result of defoliation policies practiced during the war years. The defoliants entering the food chain and causing—continuing to cause—deformities among children.

Q: I think that’s just a great scene.

A: Yeah, it’s a wonderful scene. I’m very thankful to the Vietnamese who worked on the film who were given the scene as their particular project. The second unit director, Dang Nhat Minh, was asked to cast all of those Vietnamese. Some of them were extras; some of them were actors doing little parts like the family, the mother with the baby that she covers with her conical hat. And Dang Nhat Minh cast them and prepared them all and directed them on the day so that, essentially, the agony of the aftermath, the terrorist bombing, all the details were prepared by the Vietnamese themselves under the supervision of someone who had lived through warfare himself and had been personally touched by it. His father was a doctor who was killed in the war.

So I think that gave it an extra—I don’t know—feeling of reality, perhaps, of urgency, of agony, that’s essential for the film, because the audience has to identify with the rather extreme actions taken by Michael Caine’s character. So they have to be outraged. And I think the Vietnamese who had so much experience in real life of those kind of events really contributed a lot to the scene.

Q: Tzi Ma (who plays Hinh, Thomas Fowler’s assistant) told me you changed the conception of his character because you met a certain General An.

A: Yes, yes.

Q: How did you find this guy?

A: Well, someone from Reuters, a Reuters cameraman...a Vietnamese cameraman told us about him. And we made inquiries and were able to meet General An. It was remarkable to hear his story, which at the time was still considered to be a state secret. Now, since then, a book has been published about him, so he’s quite famous in Vietnam. It was such an overwhelmingly compelling story that seemed also, conveniently, to solve some dramatic problems that we were having with our screenplay. In the novel, Fowler, Michael Caine’s character, has a Goan Indian assistant called Dominguez who has an important part in the beginning of the story and then disappears. Then there is a communist operative called—his name escapes me—who appears towards the end out of nowhere. So we had one character with a good beginning and no ending and one with no beginning and a big ending.

Meeting General An, I suddenly realized, of course...he being a correspondent for Reuters and Time while all the time working for the North Vietnamese as a double agent. The real life inspiration of his story seemed too good to resist. So we made Tzi Ma’s character more like him than the two men in the novel that he was playing.

Q: Did Brendan Fraser have to learn Vietnamese or was he just talking phonetically?

A: He learned Vietnamese but only as much as was necessary to get through the scene.

Q: A lot of people are saying, what with the success of THE QUIET AMERICAN and RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, that we’re witnessing the rebirth of Phillip Noyce. Do you think you’re heading in a new direction or do you just take it one movie at a time?

A: No, I think that’s probably true. I was seduced by Hollywood—very willingly, as seductions are. (Chuckles.) I came here for the opportunity to make movies in a meritocracy. I, in some ways, got caught up in the treadmill, in the Hollywood machine. But I was always proud of the experience.

But for many years I wanted to make The Quiet American. Rabbit-Proof Fence came out of the blue in the middle of the night, one night. The screenwriter rang me up, tried to get me to read the screenplay. But in a sense I was serving my time on the last few pitches while at the same time trying to mount The Quiet American, to find the actors and to find the money. Now that I’ve done that, I have the opportunity to make more interesting films, more personal films, more stimulating films. I could never have done it if I hadn’t a little bit of a reputation for making commercial movies. I certainly wouldn’t have got the money for The Quiet American if InterMedia, who were the financiers, hadn’t been convinced that maybe, despite the subject matter, there was a chance the movie could make money.

And now, I’ve got a number of projects which I suppose you could say are like The Quiet American or Rabbit-Proof Fence. One of them is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, set in New York state in the 60s and early 70s. Another is Kon-Tiki, the story of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s epic raft journey across the Pacific in 1947.

Q: Oh, he just died.

A: Yeah. And another one is Dirt Music, which is a love story that hopefully will star Nicole Kidman, set in Australia, a contemporary love story.

Q: Would you say you’ve slammed the door on Tom Clancy movies?

A: No, you’d be silly to say that. Because a good story might come along. I love entertaining people, I love communicating with people. Popcorn and art are not mutually exclusive. The demands to make the corn pop, often exclude art, but they don’t have to.

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originally posted: 01/18/03 15:47:25
last updated: 01/01/04 14:04:49
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