Interview#20…Phillip Noyce, producer, director, writer

My 20th interview on The Mighty Dragon blog, could not be more special.

Picture courtesy of Phillip Noyce

I have so much respect for this talented director. His films have kept me on the edge of my seat for years and his never ending list of credits as producer, director and writer are truly admirable (Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games, The Quiet American, The Bone Collector – to name a few!).

I was delighted that he agreed to an interview with me as I was very keen to learn more of the background to one of his earliest films, Echoes of Paradise. IMDb trivia had indicated last minute changes to the story which Phillip clarified on the call.  We spoke too about the epic thriller, Dead Calm (my favourite of his films), his thoughts on the strengths of Australian film and his opinion on effective writing structure.

I would like to thank Phillip for his kindness, generosity and time sharing his memories and expertise. I would also like to thank Warren for kindly coordinating between London and LA.

The Mighty Dragon interview with Phillip Noyce.
(transcribed notes from call)

Vikki: As I was watching Echoes of Paradise – to me if felt like Raka’s story – I wondered if it started out originally as his story and changed?

Phillip: The story was always a two-hander and what happened was that John agreed to do the part and flew over to Bali to spend time with the real Raka, a dancer in the palace, in Peliatan, a village near Ubud in Central Bali.  He stayed there about a month just absorbing the Balinese culture and dance – training in dance and totally immersed himself in that character and place. What happened was that a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald wrote an article that accused the Indonesian President of being corrupt. As a result of that article, and series of articles, the Indonesian government imposed restrictions on all Australian media and visas were withheld. So, we were about to shoot the film, but suddenly found we couldn’t get final permission and couldn’t even get into Bali. So, we had two choices 1) to call the film off or 2) to try and set it somewhere else – so I spent a week thinking about it and then flew up to Thailand. I had some contacts in the film business up there and looked for locations and during that trip chose some potential locations – including Phuket in the south – with the idea that we rewrite the script so that it becomes the story of an exiled Balinese – someone who is so in conflict with his culture and obligations that he left and set up a little piece of Bali in another part of the world – this was immediately before shooting. The script had to be changed and the character of the film, John’s character, he didn’t have the world he was in conflict with all around him- it was just a memory – it made it more the woman’s story – rather than the Balinese dancers.

Vikki: How long did you have to re-write the script?

Phillip: We only had a couple of weeks. The problem was John was already cast in The Last Emperor with a start date, so he had to have a stop date on our film. I would later visit him in Beijing during the shooting of The Last Emperor. It was one of those unfortunate things that sometimes happens on a film where we had the money, we had the actors, but we didn’t have the central location. There’s a famous saying from the African National Congress – “forward ever, backward never” and I could have waited I suppose until the end of The Last Emperor, although that was a mammoth production, but I couldn’t be sure if I could hold the money together.  At that time the financing was predicated on investors that were able to minimalise their tax payments to the Australian government – so the film had to be done in a certain time for that to all  work – we were all locked-in in various ways and may be not have made the film otherwise – so “forward ever, backward never” it was.

Vikki: I also had a question about my favourite film of yours, Dead Calm. Watching that I find it really incredible that the tension of the thriller was set in the small environment of a yacht and I wanted to know what challenges you faced with that and also filming at sea – its well documented that Steven Spielberg had problems filming JAWS at sea?  

Phillip: The big issue for making a film at sea – the solutions the same as running a restaurant, its ‘location, location, location’ – the three rules!  In the case of a film called Dead Calm which is supposed to be filmed on a calm ocean, you’ve got to be triply careful. We couldn’t afford to go overseas to one of the various exterior ocean locations that exist – I think there is one in Malta that was being used a lot at the time. Basically we needed for financing purposes to shoot the film in Australia – so we found an island inside the Great Barrier Reef. The reef runs 3000 miles up the NE coast of Australia and its under the water and acts as a breakwater to the violent currents that run under the water – you can’t see them – and we found an island there where we could film in the lee of the prevailing SW winds.  We then, near that island, built another studio on another island. Having first dug a swimming pool where we submerged the Orpheus, the other yacht. The crew stayed on the first island and every day we would travel across to the second island, the filming island, and completed the filming in the lee of the winds so that we had what appeared to be a relatively calm ocean, so the biggest problem was ‘location, location, location’. Later the same cinematographer, Dean Semler,  worked with Kevin Costner on his water epic in Hawaii and when I went to that location for a holiday once I looked out to sea and saw this huge wind blowing the water – they had chosen the worse possible ‘location, location, location’ for a water-set film,  we chose one of the best! We had the world’s greatest production designer, God, working on our side – we provided ourselves with a workable shooting location.

The other problem is if you try and empty a car full of crew – you can do it under a minute – if you take a boatload of crew and try and transfer them from one boat to another it could take up to 45 minutes.  We pretty soon realised even going from one island to another was a mistake.  Eventually we took a flotilla of boats, parked them in the lee of the second island, stayed there overnight so we could get up in the morning and start filming – without getting on and off endless boats.  The other thing we discovered was first we’d all go from one boat to another and eat lunch, lunch eventually had to come to us, wherever we were. It was a long process at times and shot completely out of order. After 6 weeks of filming we had no completed scenes, but a little bit of every scene.

What happens of course in the ocean – the sun changes – so this affects the look of the ocean, winds blow up and subside which changes the surface of the ocean. In a twelve hour shooting day you have four different oceans that you’re playing with. So, we had to start a sequence in one set of conditions we would then wait till the same conditions appeared on another day then we’d take a couple of shots from that scene and move to midday light, 2pm light and 4pm light.  

We rewrote the script once we realised that every couple of weeks there was a storm. The storm sequence appeared in the film out of necessity as we realised before a storm the ocean changed as it naturally does after a storm. So we let God guide us, we used the best nature could provide and worked around mother nature.

Vikki – What I liked about the film is that the tension is within the small environment of a yacht rather than a big, sprawling mansion.

Phillip: That of course is in the original novel by Charles Williams. The idea of 3 people on 2 boats was embedded in the novel and its like a line in a Ridley Scott movie ‘in outer space no one can hear you scream’ – we took that on the ocean! No one can hear you scream as there’s no possibility of being rescued when you are in the middle of the ocean. Someone may be coming for you but may never find you.  It’s probably worse than outer space as if you leave your vessel you are likely to be eaten by all sorts of sea creatures or drown. When you think about it – it’s the perfect place for the creation of tension. It was a lot of fun to make, principally because of the wonderful actors we had and the setting was very beautiful. It was moving into winter which is the mating season for humpback whales to attract their mates.  They find their mate, they make love and then they stay together forever – it’s a very romantic notion and one we were constantly watching, as these whales would arrive and the male would dive into the air showing off his body.

Vikki: You must have some pretty impressive behind the scenes footage?

Phillip: It was before the era of Behind The Scenes and handy-cams were not common. Although Billy Zane brought a camera and took a lot of footage at the time.

Vikki: I wanted to ask you about modern Australian film – where are its strengths?

Phillip: Its strengths are with the indigenous filmmakers – that’s its glorious future. The reason is because Screen Australia and its various incarnations over the years has adopted the right approach to help indigenous filmmakers to find their skills – this has then allowed the indigenous unit to be run by indigenous administrators whereas mostly in the 200 odd years of Australian history, there’s been hundreds of billions of dollars spent to bridge the gap between black and white which has been administered by white know-alls who think they know best for Black Australians. What’s happened is because the Indigenous administrators have been in charge of the Indigenous funds – there’s been a whole host of really talented storytellers that have emerged, writers, directors, cinematographers – notably Warwick Thornton, (Sweet Country, Samson and Delilah). But there are many others and most of them unknown outside Australia. They have a treasure trove of stories – because they are witness to Australia’s hidden history – the history of black white relations from day 1 of European occupation – so they have something to say and an urgency to express themselves in film. That’s where you will see the bright lights over the next 10 years, the next wave of vital Australian cinema.

Vikki: As a writer as well as Director, could I have your opinion on writing to a prescribed method such as the 3 act rule, or is it too creatively constraining?

Phillip: You do follow the 3 act structure in planning, in as much as it always works! Act 1: introduce characters and situation, then something changes at the end of the act, Act 2: you lead up to the confrontation which allows you to play out the resolution of that confrontation in Act 3.  That classic structure does not have to be followed but it does work, and it works over and over. There’s nothing wrong with planning the story around that structure, even if you don’t follow it strictly while writing the film, shooting it or editing it – but it’s certainly a good framework to follow. By page 30 you need something that changes everything – by page 60 a confrontation of all the elements up to that time, by page 100 you need to resolve it all. It’s just a theory but a theory that works. So when in doubt – follow it as its good architecture. For example if you study the film ‘Cold War’ is set over 15 years from 1949 -1964 has many different sequences in different time zones and places – that film follows the classic 3 act structure.

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