By Ali Moosavi.
Having played Bond gave him that background; this coming from a past life in a way. I just think we needed someone who was virile, aggressive, and yet not young.”
Phillip Noyce’s name has been synonymous with successful big budget Hollywood action films such as Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Salt. However, as I tell Noyce at the beginning of our interview, I first got to know of him when I was at university and watched Newsfront in 1978, which was about the pioneer news reel makers in Australia. That film also introduced me to the Australian cinema. But the film which made me a huge fan of Phillip Noyce (and Judy Davis) was Heatwave, which is still one of my favorite films. On 23rd November 1982, in my review for the Manchester University Students newspaper, I described it as “an atmospheric, gripping, highly sophisticated political thriller”. I added that “Phillip Noyce’s direction is stylish and his use of slow motion is particularly effective. The climax of the film is a dazzling piece of cinema guaranteed to leave you dazed and baffled.” I tell Noyce that for the past 40 years, I’ve been trying to find Heatwave to watch it again and it’s nowhere to be found! I want to see if my high praise of the film 41 years ago was justified or not.
Noyce was a member of the first wave of the great Australian directors in a particularly golden age for the Australian cinema with contemporary standouts like Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American on his filmography. Other members of this group include Peter Weir, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford and Lilian Armstrong.
Noyce asks me from where I am making the Zoom call. I tell him from the Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia, where his compatriot Baz Luhrmann is the head of the Jury. Noyce says that he was also invited and planned to come but the 22 hour plane journey put him off. I also tell him that another Australian, Chris Hemsworth, is also there. Noyce asks me to tell Hemsworth to read the script that he has sent him!
Noyce’s latest film is Fast Charlie, starring Pierce Brosnan as the eponymous hitman or a “fixer” for hire. A job which doesn’t go exactly to plan, puts him in trouble with one of the crime lords in New Orleans and Charlie enlists a female accomplice, Marcie (Morena Baccarin) for help. The late James Caan plays Charlie’s mentor and old friend and there’s also an appearance by Sharon Gless of Cagney and Lacey fame.
Fast Charlie finds Phillip Noyce in fine form. It also boasts a great performance by Pierce Brosnan in a tailor-made role, a lean and mean script by Richard Wenk and fine cinematography by Warwick Thornton, who’s also a great Australian director in his own right.
Your new movie, Fast Charlie looks like one of those movies that one would make from Elmore Leonard books. I like the work of its screenwriter Richard Wenk from his Equalizer movies. How did you get involved with this one?
Well, it was a book by Victor Gischler, set in Southern Florida in Miami, and the producer sent me the book and I said I’d love to do this if we can get Richard Wenk to write the script. Lo and behold, he did that, and Richard came on. I’ve admired his work, as we all have over many years now. He is a master craftsman, writes wonderful original set pieces, great characters and has a marvelous sense of humour. We reset the movie from Florida to Mississippi and New Orleans simply because I have a love affair with New Orleans and that’s how it came about. Richard wrote a script that attracted great actors. Unfortunately, just before we were doing the shoot, the money fell through. And it looked for quite a while that we weren’t going to make the film at all. But what started as a catastrophe turned into an advantage in a funny way, because losing a part of our financing meant that we had to cut back on our appetites, and particularly cut back on the action sequences that dominated the film in typical Richard Wenk style. And the film became more of a of a character piece between two people pulling for each other. It became a romance much more than the straight on action film that had started. In addition, when we lost some money, we lost our original Marcie, the character played by Morena Baccarin, and we started filming without the Marcie character. We filmed for seven days before Morena Baccarin joined us and on the eighth day we would have run out of material to shoot without her and she came onto the set cold. I had never seen her play any scenes or do anything with Pierce Brosnan, so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I said action on that first morning. But you know, I think that what we captured, in hindsight, was real magic between these two.
The combination of action and humor really suits Pierce Brosnan. Was the fact that he played a similar character in James Bond movies a factor in casting him?
The fact that he once played James Bond was not a primary motivation in casting him. He has played many other characters, as well. But we were looking for something that he could draw on that would make this story even richer; the idea that someone with a certain set of talents is coming towards the end of his life. So, yes, in a way, having played Bond gave him that background; this coming from a past life in a way. I just think we needed someone who was virile, aggressive, and yet not young. We needed a mature Charlie for the character to work and Pierce, I think, was born to play this character. Like a good wine he’s aged into a perfect Charlie Swift.
The use of voiceover in the film by Pierce Brosnan coincides with the use of voiceover by Michael Fassbender in David Fincher’s The Killer. So we’ve had two films with voiceovers by the main character, both hitmen, in a short space of time. Was the voiceover always there in the script, or was it added later?
Richard’s original script used voiceover throughout. There were different words spoken and one of the advantages of having a voiceover is that you can attenuate the information and the emotions that you’re delivering to the audience. So voiceover was always a part of it, but the words changed.
Was this James Caan’s last movie?
It was James Caan’s last movie. He passed away eight or nine weeks after he finished shooting. We had no idea that his health was so precarious. Maybe he didn’t either. Or maybe he did because there was a certain poignancy in the way that he played Stan Mullen, the aging crime boss in this movie. Certainly when I would say action, it was a completely different James Caan than when I would say cut. Then it would become himself again, full of energy, excited to be on a set again, having not acted for more than a year before that. But I think he definitely drew on the travails that he was going through in his own real life and brought them to the character.
Recently I interviewed Australian director Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country) about his new film, The New Boy. I noticed that he shot your movie. Why did you choose him as your cinematographer?
I love working with Australian cinematographers. Chris Doyle, Don McAlpine, just to name two. I’ve also worked with Dean Semler who shot Dances with Wolves. I love Australian cinematographers because we speak Ocker, the Australian language. We also understand the harsh light of Australia and what that means to how we light our subjects. But mostly I love working with Australian cinematographers because they place story and character first, and visual flair second. They know what’s important to the audience at the end of the day. Australians can always be relied upon to be ready whenever as a director you are, and Warwick was a perfect example of that. He also came with an added asset. Like Charlie Swift, the character that Pierce Brosnan plays in the movie, Warwick Thornton is a wonderful chef! So he moved into a house in New Orleans which he shared with me, and every night I would come home and be looking at my yesterday’s dailies and so on. Meanwhile, Warwick is in the kitchen, preparing Spaghetti Bolognese and all sorts of different dishes. So we bonded over food as much as cinema!
I made five films over the next ten years. And yet I can say that I never dreamed about any of the movies that I was making.”-On directing mainstream action films in the U.S.
Quite a few years ago I interviewed Fred Schepisi and I asked him why those Australian directors, Schepisi, you, Peter Weir, George Miller, Bruce Beresford, generally known as belonging to the golden age of Australian cinema, all ended up in Hollywood? He replied that in Australia we had to wait five years to get the budget for our next movie and we were wasting the best years of our productive life hanging around waiting for money to come. So that’s why we moved. I wondered if you had the same reason for moving?
Yes, exactly the same. I turned 40 and I realized there was a whole group of younger film makers coming up behind me. And I thought, maybe I’ll make two or three films here in Australia. I shot Dead Calm, which we sold to Warner Brothers, and suddenly the phone started ringing. It rang for Nicole Kidman and it rang for me. We both ended up being side by side in rooms of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, taking more calls. Of course she went out to lunch with Tom Cruise, came back and said he’s asked me to be in his next movie, and I responded to the call from Paramount to make Patriot Games, as it turned out with Harrison Ford. I made five films over the next ten years. And yet I can say that I never dreamed about any of the movies that I was making. I started my career making films from the heart in Australia and now I found that I was more or less a migrant guestworker, doing a good job, getting well paid, but not making movies from the heart. So after ten years in Hollywood, I went back to Australia and restarted my Australian career, making an entirely different type of movie. And I’ll go back again.
Are you talking about Rabbit-Proof Fence?
Yes, and The Quiet American and Catch a Fire. Three films made back in my home country.
What do you think of the current group of Australian directors?
Well, there are two master film makers, of course. George Miller, who’s in his late 70s and Baz Luhrmann in his early 60’s. But there is a whole group of film makers coming up, of whom the most interesting are the indigenous storytellers. The most interesting because they have an urgent need to tell their stories. The same urgent need that we, the first wave of Australian film makers, had back in the 70s.
Are you seriously planning to go back and make more movies in Australia?
Yes, absolutely. It’s difficult to raise the money to work on the same level as you can in America, but that’s my aim to be back in Australia. Making, I hope, a film about my father’s misadventures in North Africa during the Second World War and producing a film, which could be in shorthand described as Australia’s Braveheart. It’s the story of an of an indigenous warrior who fought the British invaders for twelve years in the area around Sydney.
That sounds fascinating. In the US, you’ve become like the go–to director for action movies. Do you get offered any other types of movies, love stories, comedies or dramas since you’ve become such an expert in making commercially successful action movies?
The films that I have been developing myself over the last few years, are not action based. They’re all character based.
Do you have another movie on the pipeline now and would next one be made in Australia?
After six months of inactivity due to this prolonged series of strikes, we’re all just getting into our stride. The conveyor belt of creativity that is the movie making business is just getting back up to speed. I’ve got several projects that I’d love to shoot in Australia and in America, and one of them even in South Africa. The story of Doctor James Barry, the noted surgeon in the nineteenth century who, when he died, It was revealed that he had masqueraded at all that time as a man, and in fact was a woman. That’s one project that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years.
Why has Heatwave been so hard to find? Why hasn’t been released on DVD? It’s a fantastic film.
It was shown at a retrospective of my films at the Cinema Francais two years ago. So I know it exists! It’s my fault really. I haven’t concentrated so much on that film. For the last six months I’ve been remastering Rabbit-Proof Fence, which will come out very shortly. And before that it was Newsfront, the first film of mine that you saw back in 1978. Heatwave is on list!
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).