Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Sit Down With Phillip Noyce - A Conversation On Life, Film & Re-make Of Roots.

I had an Incredible opportunity to sit down with filmmaker extraordinaire Phillip Noyce. Who is currently in South Africa for the re-make of the historical American mini-series Roots. I met him at a restaurant in Cape Town and the next day we sat down for the Interview. After the sit down, I began drafting visual material for this post and it blows me away that I sat down with this legend. His career spans 30 years. I sat there in complete awe, from my questions and answers from Mr. Noyce, it is my hope that this interview gives insight to those who would like to understand what it takes to be a filmmaker that is consistent and can make an impact in this world.

Mr. Noyce You are an Australian born filmmaker. At what age did you decide that Film-making or rather story telling would be your form of living?

Phillip Noyce:
When I was 18 I was lucky enough to stumble across an advertisement, a poster on a telegraph pole for what was called underground movies. It was sort of a psychedelic image that was attractive to an 18 year old in 1968 and the word underground was also attractive because it sort of meant maybe risky or slightly bending of the law or something certainly as an 18 year old I wanted to go underground. So I went to a screening of about 15 or 20 short films the following Sunday at Sydney University and there were a lot of films from America by some of the greats of the so called American underground cinema of the 60’s Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner who made a famous film called Cosmic RayThere were some hand drawn films, animation drawn directly under film stock and then colored, Canadian director called Barry Spinello.  Then were some other films made by Australian’s. Now in 1968 there was no film industry in Australia, no feature film industry. There hadn’t been continuously since 1939. When Ken G. Hall made the last of his 17 films during the 30’s, the war came and with restrictions on film stock, there was no production again till after the war. Then only sporadically over the next 20 years. 

So looking at these little short films in Sydney was quite a revelation to a young Australian because I had never seen Australian’s on screen let alone hearing the Australian accent. So afterwards I hung around in the foyer and got talking to the three guys that had put on the show, all of them had made one of the Australian films. They all had beards and lived in the inner city and they all made movies. So that night I decided to grow a beard and I have had one ever since, that I would live in the inner city and make movies. So that was my starting point.
I saved money and then offered my friends parts in a little short film and that Christmas after Matriculation I made my first short which was about 15 minutes long that was how it all began and apart from the job of digging sewage ditches for 6 weeks to raise money for that first film, it’s the only job I’ve ever had. I have been somehow lucky enough to work in cinema doing all sorts of stuff.

So News Front one of your first films that received critical acclaim where the film went to win Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay from the AustralianFilm Institute (AFI). Did that confirm your position as a filmmaker in Australia and the global scene?

Yeah that film we shot it in 1977 and came out in 1978, it was what we called the Golden Age of the new wave of Australian film. It was a golden age for two reasons; the main one was because the audience was so receptive. The Australian audience had grown up without seeing themselves on the silver screen. Like in South Africa, we were controlled by British and American interests and they showed their own movies. There was no local production so once we started making feature films initially the audience were like babies looking into the mirror, they just wanted to see more and more of themselves up there. So it was possible initially in the first wave from the early 70’s through to the mid 80’s to make a film within Australia cheaply enough that you would get your money back only in Australia. This film that we made got us money back quickly in Australia but it also sold to many other countries and that was sort of the pattern. Your question was ‘did it cement me?’ Yes it cemented me in the Australian film industry and I also got a lot of attention from America as well.

How long after that time did you make your move to America?

Well a good ten years passed before I headed over to the USA. I made a film in Australia with Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman called Dead Calm produced by George Miller of Mad Max fame and George sold it to Warner Brothers so they distributed the film worldwide and that was my real calling card to Hollywood because I made a genre film as opposed to the kind of films I was making in Australia that were very parochial that was their strength. But now I had made a thriller and so I got called over to Hollywood. I was 40 years old and I sort of knew everyone in Sydney and I wanted to make some new friends so I took my young family and we all moved to Los Angeles.

Mad Max-Sam Neill.

Dead Calm.

Nicole Kidman & Sam Neill in Dead Calm.

Nicole Kidman.
Once you reached Hollywood by then you had a clear structure and understanding of Film-making, you started working on projects that brought incredible box office success. How important is it for one to know their audience and how do you work on projects that you are sure will deliver visual pieces and garner success?

Well you know I was very lucky because I met the Producer of Hunt For Red October, Mace Neufeld who at 87 now is still producing and is a good friend so he was the one that offered me Patriot Games which was the second in a line of films about ‘Jack Rhyme’ a CIA Agent. I was lucky to meet that producer who offered me Patriot Games and then I was lucky that Harrison Ford accepted the part of playing Jack Rhyme because I was handed really a bestselling novel with one of the biggest actors at that moment and then we got Steve Zallian to re-write the script. It was an all star cast in front and behind the camera. So I was really lucky. Clear And Present Danger was the second in those series. In this business as much as you try to find your audience there is a lot of luck involved too, in my case there were several pieces of luck of course in some ways you could argue, you earn your luck but that is not always true particularly in the film business instead of Patriot Games I could’ve done four other films all of which were made by other people and all failed. So there was a lot of fortune for me as for actors, an actor could be in a movie and it’s a big success then suddenly be working for the next ten years or they could be in a movie that is not a success but having given a good performance and their career does not go anywhere. That has happened over and over again. 

You do earn your luck, but luck or serendipity has a lot to do with film-making on that level.
To answer your question really, to ‘know your audience.’ Well I think the only way is you have to sit there in the audience thinking about the film before you make it. The entire process imagine someone else, when you are making the film and when you are editing the film you just got to imagine some other person, not you sitting in the theater watching the movie at all stages. You must think ‘how is this going to work on people?’ You can’t entirely make the film for yourself although that is essential of course. You have a strong vision. In my case I have always survived by just becoming another audience member & not me.

Mace Neufeld.

Patriot Games.

Clear and Present Danger - Poster
Clear & Present Danger. 

Harrison Ford.
I would like believe or think rather, in order to chase your dreams or your ambitions; you would have to eradicate fear. When you started taking on projects what was the voice inside you that encouraged you or made you believe you were capable of doing what was entrusted upon you?

There is no way of eradicating fear because the creative process particularly a movie has so many moving parts, actors cinematographers, composers, writers and every crew member. It’s such a complicated mechanism that you can never be certain about the outcome no matter how skilled you are. You can make a good film that does not find its audience for some reason or you can make a good film that does. But if you don’t have any fear you are probably in trouble because its only fear like hunger that drives an artist forward. So I think fear is a good thing and shouldn’t be removed from the equation. You must be afraid and pretty soon after you’ve had started a life in this business uncertainty becomes an aphrodisiac because you can’t live with certainty because you are so used to things being uncertain. Uncertain whether you’ll make another movie, uncertain whether you’ll get an actor, uncertain whether you’ll finish on time, uncertain whether it will be a success. It just becomes what you feed off. Everyone else in the world is living with certainty you know, people who have jobs and they know what their salary is, they know they will retire on a certain day and all of that but in movie making and in art, you live on the opposite and that is what drives you and as I said, I am so used to uncertainty now I don’t know how I could ever settle for anything 

It is said that your films have a running theme of espionage. Is there any truth in that and if so, how did you gravitate towards this form of storytelling?

To a degree Yeah, my dad was in the special forces in the 2nd World War so he told me stories of espionage and he was in the war for 6 years so he had many stories of military tactics and all sorts of things so that was one thing inherited from him for my earlier films and the latest like the film Salt as well which is very much about the same subject.

Angelina Jolie in Salt.
I was having a conversation with a filmmaker who I mentioned I was seeing you for this interview. His name is Akin Omotoso, a very well known and respected film-maker here in South Africa. He made sure I ask you about Rabbit Proof Fence which has been said is easily one of your proudest moments as a filmmaker. Before we get to that let’s talk about the idea of equality or the lack of it in the world.  
The world is unequal that is a given. You have the have’s and have not’s. Equality is an ideal that unfortunately we found in those experiments in soviet union and other countries into various forms of socialism, doesn’t always work because human beings are basically greedy animals and they want more for themselves and that has been the driving force of history and the driving force of the world economies and of every countries economy, it’s always been to have more. I think it’s a country by country process which tries to foster some form of equality.  It’s up to legislatures and Governments of those countries. If we are left to our own devices we will always exploit each other, it’s just been proven over and again.

Why was it Important for you to tell the story of Rabbit Proof Fence?

That is a big question to explain, to explain it would take a lot of time but let me try to compress it. Those people who know about Native American’s and their history will understand what I am talking about when I talk about native Australian’s, or Australian aborigines, black Australian's. They, like the Native American’s were the people living in Australia when the European's settled and like the Native American’s they were immensely disadvantaged by the differences in technology and the basic ethos of the European invaders. So cut to almost 200 years later and I am growing up in Australia in the 1950’s. Basically my little town was like most towns in Australia and like some towns that we still have in America because outside my town was what we called a reserve in America they call it reservations and that is where the black people had been rounded up locked up supposedly for their protection inside this area and then they were controlled by protectors who controlled their lives. 

They had to get permission if they wanted to move supposedly so that they would be protected and you can imagine somebody growing up in a country thinking ‘who are those people?’ As I grew up they were out there in a place, it was kind of an odd situation when you are in a town, similar you can now equate back to South Africa because in apartheid time all the blacks in those country towns lived outside and all the whites lived inside the town but you could not ignore it because there was an overwhelmingly large majority of blacks in South Africa. In Australia it was out of sight out of mind because they were a very small proportion of the population so you could sort of pretend they did not exist. So it was like that crazy uncle who would come over once a year for Christmas and act foolish but nobody says anything till one day you’re older and it gets explained to you. But there was no explanation in Australia then during the 60’s and 70’s black athletes presence in sport of black Australian's became more and more unavoidable it put the wh
ite Australians in a difficult position because being so patriotic about sport they could not help but support black Australian athletes but now they had to admit that there were black people in Australia and they had to accommodate them within their mindset.

The fence. 
A scene from Rabbit Proof Fence.
So I was sent the script by somebody who had written the script which was based on a book about these three little girls who were as part of a Government programme that went on for about 70 years in Australia were 3 mixed race children who as part of this programme were forcibly removed from their mothers for their own protection supposedly and taken to re-education camps where they would be trained in white ways and their tribal consciousness eradicated from them so they could be part of the main stream society, was the theory and the story which was a real story of these three girls that were placed in the camp decided to escape and to escape they found their way home by walking 1500 miles across the Australian desert following the rabbit proof fence. Now the rabbit proof fence was what brought their fathers into contact with their mothers because the fence was built to keep rabbits on one side and farming land on another because there was a rabbit plague in Australia. So the fence went from the bottom of Australia to the top. So the girls knew that if they headed East, eventually they would hit that fence and if they followed that fence it would take them back home and that was the story. The reason why I wanted to make it, it started to come to terms with a lot of the unanswered questions that I had grown up with you know about white Australian's relationship with black Australia.

And was this question eventually answered?

The question was answered 7 years later when the Prime Minister rose in Parliament on the first day of the sitting and apologized to all of those children who had been separated from their parents and he noted the effect the film had made to provoke the apology. There were similar policies in Canada with Native Canadian’s. What it had produced in Australia was three generations of children growing up without knowing what mothers and fathers did which then takes generations to correct because you deny the very basis of family to people so they can’t be mothers and fathers because we learn how to be parents from our own parents. So to take that experience away from someone, you really are destroying them.

You have been in the industry for a long time. What do you think you know and understand that we younger ambitious filmmakers should know and understand?

I know that you can’t learn how to be a filmmaker just by going to film school and you should not be making films unless you have an insatiable appetite for telling stories and connecting with other people. It’s not a job in order to say that you are a film director; it’s only a job if you are possessed because you have to be possessed in order to go through it all and to get a movie made because it is expensive and difficult. In terms of South African’s we in Australia re-established our film industry because of Government intervention, my earlier films had some or another Government participation and subsidies. 

I know you have a subsidy system here in South Africa and I know it has been very helpful on a small level but it is nothing like the money that you spend on bringing foreign productions here. Lobbying for more attention from the Government is a good investment in your future because South Africa is relatively rich compared to the rest of Africa and you have got a fluid Government, an idealistic Government and I think that is one thing you can do. I don’t think that South African’s should ever try and make Hollywood movies or try to tell Hollywood stories. I think you need to make your own storytelling. One of the best films I saw lately was ‘Ayanda’ which was a lovely film. I thought the Actors were superb, a great Joburg story.

Phillip Noyce.

You are quite fond of South Africa; you have come before for film projects Mary& Martha, The Giver and Catch a Fire. Now though you are currently filming the re-make of Roots. Before we speak about your current project let us first talk about your attraction to South Africa.

What brought me here initially was Patrick Chamusso’s story in Catch a fire written by Shawn Slovo inspired by one of the MK fathers operatives and coming here in 2004 & 2005 I connected particularly through that story with a country that had obviously been driven by division going back hundreds of years but I must admit that I was impressed by the ethos of the country. The whole Truth and Reconciliation hearings but also the positivity and commitment of the people black and white people towards a greater future and that kind of positivity is rare in the world and it’s also rare in the world to see such a fluid country, most countries have established themselves. Here it is a very dynamic place particularly with black African entrepreneurs emerging, it’s extremely dynamic and yet it clings to the rule of the law and democracy so it’s an interesting place to work. For that reason obviously there are still a lot of problems and they are not going to go away anytime soon but everyone seems committed to making it come right so that is a dynamic place to be. The crew here are amazing too, very creative and it is good to see an increasing number of African black crew members as well. 

Catch A Fire.

Phillip Noyce directing Tim Robbins.
Shawn Slovo wrote the screenplay for Catch A Fire.

Roots; quite a historic television series. What made you agree to be a part of the re-make and where in regards of production is roots current status?

So roots was a miniseries that came out in 1976 in America it was based on the bestselling novel by African American writer Alex Haley who traced his own forefathers back to the town of Gefori on the river Gambia which is now known as Gambia which is that country that is in the centre of Senegal. Of course most of the slaves who were brought to the America’s came from the west coast of Africa because of its proximity to the east coast of America and Roots the book was a huge success and Roots the mini-series was a huge success so 30 years after that, the son of the producer convinced the producer of the original series to convince three networks in America to re-make or rather re-mount the series. 

I became involved in the first two hours of the 8 hours when John Singleton had to pull out for contractual reasons. It is interesting to me because I have two kids who are half African, their mother is Xhosa. So although South Africa is a long way from West Africa there are some similarities so in investigating, as the first two hours does, what life was like for the main character growing up on the river Gambia in 1716 with the music, religion, the family structure, the initiation rites and so on that he had to go through. In a way it was a chance to show my own children a little bit of their own culture although there are specific differences, in West Africa it was a Muslim society but there are a lot of similarities. I am looking forward to them coming to the set in a few weeks up in the wild coast which is their South African home as well and seeing the recreation of life of 1716 Gambia and it may be interesting for them although it might be challenging when they have to take a trip on a slave ship when we come back to Cape Town because we will be filming the journey of the main character once he is captured, sold to the British and then transported across the Atlantic as so many millions of Africans were.

So Later scenes have already started shooting in New Orleans which involves different characters and we will eventually end up in New Orleans in December to film the plantation sequences.

Author of Roots- Alex Haley.

Roots-The Novel. 

Malachi Kirby plays Kunte Kinte. 

Lawrence Fishburne plays Alex Haley.

Rabbit Proof Fence.
What is the film you would like to be remembered for?

Oh that is easy, Rabbit Proof Fence.

I like to end off an Interview with words of wisdom from my guests. So could you kindly say anything that you think is worth knowing?

I think that it is the same wisdom that was imparted to me on that first night when I met those guys in the foyer of the cinema because one of them said to me, anyone can make a movie and I think that is so true now then what it was then, you needed film then now there a lot more options. You don’t even need a camera you can do it on your phone. There is nothing stopping anyone and money is no excuse its only ideas that’s all you need and determination and there are so many outlets that are not necessarily dependent on cinemas. You can make money off YouTube if you are smart, you can make money off blogs if you are smart. There are all sorts of ways. So it is the same advice that I got and I have used ever since. Just do it.

Phillip Noyce on the day of our Interview.

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