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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Saturday, Oct. 12, 2002

Phillip Noyce came to town for the DIFF and brought two very good films with him. The Quiet American, from Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, is about the friendship between a British journalist and an American aid worker in French-occupied Vietnam. The novel foretold American involvement in Vietnam, and as America’s executive branch prepares for another colonial war, The Quiet American seems "mightily relevant" again.

Rabbit Proof Fence is set in Noyce’s native Australia and tells the true story of three aboriginal children who escape a government-sanctioned re-education camp.

Marty Mapes: Let’s start with Rabbit Proof Fence. You and screenwriter Christine Olsen are also the film’s producers. How do you handle filling both roles?

Noyce brings two films to the 25th DIFFPhillip Noyce: Remember that in this film we both had an allegiance — a responsibility — to a real story, a real set of characters. That superseded any jockeying that might occur between a writer and a director or a producer and a director. Our task — and it was a sacred responsibility — was to get that story on the screen and to get that movie out to the audience. This is not a normal artistic enterprise or even a normal commercial enterprise because it’s tinged with a sense of responsibility to the story.

MM: So there weren’t any creative differences then between the producer and the director...

PN: Between me and me? Sure there were. I wished I could have more money, but my producer wouldn’t let me [laughs].

MM: Did your production have any problems with weather or child actors or anything?

PN: Yeah, there were a lot of problems, but this was not a movie where people were working.

MM: What does that mean?

PN: Problems were just there to be surmounted. It wasn’t like a normal film, where you employ people. We did pay everyone, it’s just that everyone wanted to do it. There was no place anyone wanted to be except on that movie set. It wouldn’t have mattered what fence we found ourselves having to climb, we would have climbed it. This was a group of filmmakers who were determined to bring the story to the screen no matter what, for whatever money. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had [only] a hundred thousand dollars, we still would have made that film.

[Graham Greene] was writing about the nation’s motivation for even taking on a Saddam Hussein.
MM: Let me ask you about The Quiet American. Brendan Fraser was, I thought, an inspired choice for the title character. Until now he’s been sort of a lightweight comic actor.

PN: I think every actor brings baggage to every role they play. In Michael Caine’s case in this movie, we needed someone who the audience could empathize with, despite the extreme and often alienating actions he seems to take in the movie. We all know that Michael Caine is a human being first and foremost, and we love him because of his humanity. Brendan Fraser is best known as a jokester, and that’s probably ideal to play a character who is much more than he’s letting on. Because the audience has a certain expectation, a la the Brendan Fraser character, and they don’t necessarily take him seriously when they first see him. That’s exactly what the story describes.

MM: The other question I have about The Quiet American is why now?

PN: Well it wasn’t a “why now” because now is a different now. But now the film has become mightily relevant. It was a film, when we made it, that dealt with near-contemporary history, and now it’s a film that deals with the headlines that have been thrust upon us every day, so it couldn’t be more timely, at this moment in world history. It’s perfect timing.

MM: So no prescience on your part...

PN: No, but I’m sure it was prescience on Graham Greene’s part. Back in the fifties he wrote a novel that answered the questions that hadn’t yet been answered about the American-Vietnam conflict, and also in defining one aspect of the post-war American political personality which has endured to this day, that is the extreme sense of responsibility for the rest of the world. He was writing about the nation’s motivation for even taking on a Saddam Hussein, which is sold to us as — not just because Saddam might attack America — but also that he is a threat to the rest of humanity.

MM: When did you start The Quiet American?

PN: It was shot straight after Rabbit Proof Fence in February last year (2001). The stories that The Quiet American has been on the shelf for a year are mightily exaggerated. The screening that took place on September the 10th, the night before those attacks, was the first cut of the film. And as we know from Gangs of New York, first cuts can often precede final cuts by up to one and a half years. But in this case, the film was finished in May this year (2002).

MM: Just to get to the heart of this question, what did make you want to make it in 2001.

PN: I did think that it was a film that explained a lot to us that needed explaining about the Vietnam-American conflict, but I also did feel that the basic tenets of American foreign policy haven’t changed all that much, from December the 7th 1941. As America emerged from that period of isolationism the sense of responsibility has guided American foreign policy into some noble enterprises, like landing on the beaches at Omaha, and into some ignoble ones.