Phillip Noyce: Have You Directed a Ford Lately?
In 1990, Alec Baldwin originated the character of Jack Ryan in the hit thriller, The Hunt For Red October. Paramount was eager to continue the series based on Tom Clancy’s novels. But they were less enthusiastic over the prospects of working with Baldwin. When the actor played hardball with the studio, Paramount was all too happy to replace Baldwin with a bigger star in Harrison Ford. Clancy was a vocal critic of the casting, but Aussie director Phillip Noyce (who would go on to direct Ford again in Clear and Present Danger) had nothing but praise for his Patriot Games star in this interview from the June 1992 issue of Movieline magazine.
Not long ago, the boulevards of Hollywood were alive with the vroom of information engines. Car phones and in-dash fax machines, studio moles, the vertical integration of talent agencies, all these things testified to the sacred belief that knowledge was power. The mania for acquisition of inside dope turned industry climbers into communication port parasites, Elton John Pinball Wizards teetering on the platform shoes of hyperconsciousness, cyberpunks tethered and jacked in to virtual reality. In the world of I-know-something-you-don’t, a phone ring was like the hot rush of amyl nitrite; the divulgence of a secret release date felt better than (most kinds of) sex.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Mortons. Today, ultimate power lies in the acquisition of detachment, in fashioning estrangement out of conquest, in both working and walking away from the armature of the essential company town. Those with the real fist over the scepter–i.e., Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Harrison Ford– have a quiet disdain for the rumble of kettle drums in Hollywood. The true Lord of Hissownself rejects the plasma of rumor and the saline of all-knowing, rips out the IVs and bolts from his life-support equipment. Half the power elite of Hollywood seems to live on the range now in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Woody Allen claims not to have read a trade paper since the late ’70s. Nobody likes to flaunt their clout anymore. “If I see one more magazine article about who’s got the power in Hollywood . . . I’m going to puke,” Basic Instinct rumpster Michael Douglas recently revealed. Well, skip the paisley opera, Michael, because I’m with you. Meet 42-year-old Phillip Noyce, hitless and Australian, a half-dozen letters shy of the directors’ A-list, a man to whom “power lunch” means turkey carved with an electric knife. More obvious practitioners of the new detachment had to overload their circuits before they self-liberated by pulling the plug. Phillip Noyce never got wired to begin with.
And yet, on the strength of two of his films–a political thriller called Heatwave, which he directed nearly a decade ago, and the wickedly beguiling and manipulative Dead Calm from 1989– Noyce was chosen by Paramount to direct Patriot Games, their follow-up to The Hunt for Red October in the ongoing adventures of CIA company man Jack Ryan, novelist Tom Clancy’s alter ego. After agreeing to disagree with known quantity John Badham, the studio handed its import director a fat $42 million of house money to keep its “franchise” afloat, to render “the tent pole” of its blanket of releases upright.
“They sent me the script–and, um, I actually said no,” Noyce confesses in the halls of a Paramount production office. As we’re walking, his all-weather suit flaps like a renegade mainsail. He could pass for Pete Townsend with Michael Jackson’s remodeled nose. His hair, a confusion of pewter and chestnut, has apparently been conquered only through rigorous brushing.
“You… said no?”
“Well it wasn’t really a no no. I’m not brain-damaged. But what I found in the first version of the script was that it was mainly an action film that relied on the biggest explosion, the goriest death, and so on. With our rewrites, what we tried to do was to make it scary, but avoid making the action scenes about the action as opposed to about the audience’s fear of things.
“But first a word about the studio’s fear of things. After Noyce was hired on, Paramount less than smoothly got themselves a new Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin, the incumbent Jack and the consensus choice to reprise the role in Patriot Games, drove a hard bargain, holding out, perhaps not unwisely, for additional pay on overages. But he also pushed for a reported $700,000 in extras tacked on to his base price of four million, and then promulgated the Baldwinesque papal bull that Premiere magazine be barred not only from the set, but from having any contact with the Paramount publicity department. Things got really interesting when Paramount moved up its shooting schedule for Patriot Games. The new date conflicted with Baldwin’s upcoming Broadway curtsy, playing opposite Jessica Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire. Enter Indiana Jones. But then, perhaps Indiana Jones had already entered. Regardless of which version of the events one chooses to believe as to exactly when Paramount began considering Harrison for the role, Paramount’s or the Baldwin camp’s–Baldwin reportedly offered to approach the producers of Streetcar about moving their production date; Paramount contends the offer came too late in the game–Harrison Ford became the new Jack Ryan.
The facts facing Phillip Noyce in this opportunity of a lifetime were now as conspicuous as that ring of stars that goes round and round the Paramount logo: a budget of $42 million (he could make 10 Dead Calms with that kind of money) and an actor in the supernova class, able at this point in his career to make whatever and work with whomever he chooses. If Harrison Ford wanted to do a picture with Harry Hamlin and Jaclyn Smith–no, Sally Struthers–about corruption on the Home Shopping Club, the only studio in town that wouldn’t scrape its knees begging for the chance would be Orion, and only because they’ve developed calluses.
“Harrison,” Noyce maintains to me, “is Jack Ryan.” A more cynical listener than I would be impressed with Paramount at this point for hiring a director and ad copywriter all in one. But Noyce strikes me here as completely earnest. “He’s a real thinker,” Ford’s director continues. “He’s just so analytical about everything. He made my job half as difficult. When I first met Harrison and we flew to Washington to shoot interiors at the CIA, if he wasn’t already Jack Ryan, he certainly was when he hopped off the plane. Some actors metamorphose into the character, then the separation between the character and themselves becomes impossible to define. I don’t know Harrison well enough, so my first statement was probably based on too little knowledge of him–saying that he is Jack Ryan. It could be that he became Jack Ryan.”
“And you never felt as though someone was peeking over your shoulder?”
“No, no–not at all. The way I like to approach a film, the director is really like a ringmaster in a circus. You’ve got all these acts that are coming on. Some are naturally brilliant, some have learned their stuff and some are no good. They all have different personalities. The trapeze artist hates the clown, the clown hates the lion tamer for sleeping with the high wire girl, and you deal with all that.” While in the back of my mind I’m pondering who, in Patriot Games, was the lion tamer, who the high wire girl was, Noyce continues with his spirited analogy. “Two people want the spotlight, so you get two spotlights. You’re not any more important than any one of those acts. But in order to get those great performances, you have to create an atmosphere where everyone feels completely free to contribute.”
Someone could observe, of course, that Harrison Ford is even freer to contribute than most. “Working with someone like Harrison,” continues Noyce, “was just the opposite of intimidating–it was liberating. Now, the money, on the other hand, is intimidating.”
At this point, even someone who’s as bad a judge of character as Pat Buchanan’s wife would be able to recognize two things about Phillip Noyce: First, in the area of colleague critique he has a mouth as soft as a hunting dog’s, and second, the Qantas koala bear might be in possession of a larger ego. Of his relationship with Paramount, he claims, for example, that “whether they were distracted by the change of management or whether they looked at the first weeks’ rushes and thought, well those guys seem to be going along fine, so let’s not change something that’s working, I don’t know … they left us alone.”
Without having to do too much bridge building, a case might be made for putting Noyce not only in the company of P.T. Barnum and the Qantas koala, but Han Solo. Harrison Ford has one of the best working reputations in Hollywood in any case, but he and Noyce seem to have shared a particular rapport that was based on a similarity in personal style. Both men seem to possess an overlying sense of decency and discretion, accessorized with a kit for shame that rarely requires assembly. Ford carries it in his shoulders, Noyce in his laugh, uncontentious and atoning. Whereas Phillip Noyce lacks the chest-beating power in filmdom that Harrison Ford has–we’re talking Mighty Joe Young vs Bonzo–he has arrived at the same point in attitude. Ford’s autonomy is virtually complete– he is a titan of the new detachment. When Phillip Noyce shrugs off the clamor of Hollywood power-brokering (he professes, for example, to know nothing of Paramount’s prior considerations for a director of Patriot Games), he embraces a shut-up-and-deal bearing in a town that is given to chatter between hands, and ends up playing the game more the way his reticent star does rather than less.
“Patriot Games is really like Harrison Ford’s greatest hits all rolled into one,” says Noyce, “and then a new character that’s borne out of all of them. You’ve got the guy from Witness, the guy from Presumed Innocent, and you’ve got Indiana Jones–and then he fashions this other character on top of all that. It’s perfect because he really is just like Jack Ryan in the book and screenplay.”
And in some important way, having to do with factors other than temperament, Noyce does seem to be Jack Ryan’s perfect director. But not at first glance.
Noyce is tracing his heritage for me in great pauses of conjuring. “Australians, you see …” he halts, looking for them in the blur of film rewinding on his memory screen.
“Weren’t they all criminals?”
“No, no, they’re half-and-half, you see,” he laughs. “The typical Australian is half-Irish and half-English. He’s always fighting this ancient tribal battle inside his head all the time.”
Noyce, who is one-quarter Irish (and had the view of Irish terrorists in Patriot Games considerably softened during script rewrites), was raised in the countryside just outside of Sydney by his father William (“a lawyer who always wanted to be a farmer”) and his mother Phillippa, a nurse who, during the ill-fated Philippines campaign of World War II, tended to injured American soldiers shipped in from the islands. The two met “for seven stormy hours” before Phillip’s father boarded a transport to fight Rommel in Africa. “Four years later, he came back on the Mauritania, and at the docks he couldn’t get off of the boat for hours, since there was a huge crowd of soldiers back from turning the Germans at El Alamein. So he put a note in a bottle with two pounds and threw it into the crowd. That night this taxi driver shows up at my mother’s door and says, ‘Look, I don’t know you and I don’t know Bill, but Bill says to get on the milk train to Sydney at one a.m. You’re getting married in the morning.'”
With that kind of cinematic charm swirling in the exchange of his genetic material, it follows that Noyce would make his first film early in high school. Better to Reign in Hell was funded with money he acquired by selling roles in the film to friends. (By that arrangement it would cost Harrison Ford a reported $9 million to star in Noyce’s Patriot Games.)
Doing the film school rag in Australia, Noyce created a moderate stir with the 1977 release of his film Backroads. The following year, he took Best Director, Best Film and Best Original Screenplay at the Australian Film Institute Awards with Newsfront. It would be the 1983 release of Noyce’s Heatwave that would finally rouse the interest of film communities north of the equator, where it was referred to as the “Aussie counterpart to Chinatown.” No such “Aussie” diminishments could be heard in the sweet praises of Dead Calm, the 1989 hand-crafted marine thriller with smashing performances by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman, as high-seas spouses, and Billy Zane, as a kind of Club Med psycho-killer/charlatan who comes between them. On the basis of Dead Calm‘s irresistible dramatic pull alone, Paramount executives could be thought prudent in turning Patriot Games over to Noyce. Just as an entire set of chromosomes can be found in a single cell of skin, virtually every critical moment–and there are many–in Dead Calm maintains the same carefully engineered tension as the next. You’re inclined to get out of your seat and shove Sam Neill onto the goddam boat he’ll inevitably miss,- your fingers itch to tighten the knots in the ropes used to hogtie Billy Zane.
“It’s just based on a very simple notion, really, which is that the best suspense is based on the audience’s pre-knowledge,” says Noyce. “And we did our best to give quarter to this notion in Patriot Games. You’ve read the script? Then you know the crash sequence with the wife and the daughter–” I did. The Irish terrorists, lead by the embittered brother of the IRA-type lad Jack Ryan has killed (played by Patrick Bergin), stalk Ryan’s unsuspecting wife (Anne Archer) and daughter as they’re driving on the freeway. Ryan knows of the assault plan and frantically tries to reach his wife from his car phone. But his wife is on her car phone. By the time Jack finally gets through, the assailants are already firing from a van. The car phone becomes an instrument of torture as Jack hears the shots and the violent sounds of his wife’s car skidding into an embankment until the receiver transmutes to static.
“Right. The crash is actually in Clancy’s book, but we’ve added the business with the car phone. In the book, Jack never makes contact with his wife.”
Our conversation turns to the spleeny face challenging us from the dust cover of Patriot Games. With the bridge of a destroyer looming over his shoulder, Tom Clancy looks more like an insurance salesman in a five dollar tourist trap than a character in Harlot’s Ghost.
“Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman,” Noyce chuckles. “He’s a fascinating guy and he writes marvelous stories.”
“Have you talked with him since he became angry?” I ask, referring to the much publicized grousing Clancy has done about how his book has been treated by Hollywood.
“Not personally. I just bought out of it. What does he claim?” Noyce cannot be unaware of the extent of Clancy’s reprisals. Perhaps he should not only direct, but act in films. After all, Clancy, sounding unmistakably like a man preparing to make a deposition, remarked back in December, 1991, ” … to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a single scene in the movie that tracks with a scene in the book,” then amended that to “only one scene,” as late as March of ’92. At one point Clancy wanted Paramount to remove his name from the credits, and as late as January of ’92 was still decrying the “liberties” Paramount took with the story and vowing to never work with the studio again. The author also cited glaring technical errors in the script, and, in perhaps his most bizarre complaint, objected to the casting of Harrison Ford.
“I don’t know,” Noyce sighs. “I tried not to become concerned about Tom’s concerns and just to make the best adaptation and the best film we could possibly make. He’s sold off his rights to Paramount, so saying that he wants to end his relationship doesn’t really mean a lot. He can’t end it, because he’s been paid a huge amount of money ($1 million) for the rights.
“First of all, a screenplay is not even a blueprint. They change every day. You saw the screenplay–we were already into the ocher [a reference to the page-color system of identifying ongoing script changes]. There may have been various things in various versions of screenplays that he read that he may have had justified objections to. I certainly know that during preproduction I was talking to him a lot.”
The hunt for the red-nosed clown in Noyce’s circus analogy has suddenly become clear and present. “Many of Clancy’s concerns were highly technical and pedantic points that would never necessarily be communicated to the audience or that they would notice the difference. But we wanted to be as accurate as we possibly could. On the other hand, we also found, from our own research, that several of the points that he was making were not quite right. Look, hopefully when he sees the film, he’ll change his mind. I just hope that when he sees the film, that he’ll be proud.”
Noyce had other help than Clancy’s book in achieving verisimilitude for his spy thriller. Location shooting included surprisingly easy access to CIA buildings at Langley, in Virginia. Production crews were even allowed the liberty of sketching various portions of the interior for later sound-stage reproduction, a true indication of the Cold War thaw. (As for the release of Steven Seagal’s employment records, don’t hold your breath.)
“The CIA was very helpful for obvious reasons. In the post-Cold War era, they’re looking for a raison d’etre with the potential for renegade nuclear devices around the world. And the CIA does have a real role in this new free-for-all. But going to the CIA, the thing that freaked me out the most was not their covert operations or their destabilization programs, but their spying apparatus.
“I’m hoping that in our movie we bring out the potential for good and the potential for bad that such a giant spying machine has. The CIA has the apparatus that makes George Orwell’s 1984 look like a Sunday school picnic. 1984 is 1884, compared to what they can do. They can watch us sitting here, right now, if they wanted to. Photograph us from a satellite right now, if they wanted to. Shoot right through the roof, from 23,000 miles up.”
“Is Brandon Tartikoff with the CIA now?”
“I think that the people at Paramount were only one thing, which was incredibly supportive,” Phillip laughs. “This was as free a working environment as I’ve ever had, really.”
We’re camped in front of a video monitor equipped with a screen that simulates the silky curve of 70mm. In the sequence we’re seeing, Jack Ryan waits in a command center as CIA operatives hunt down and destroy a terrorist training camp in the Libyan Desert. Jack and his CIA compatriots watch the entire assault via infrared satellite, on a large screen in the control room.
“This scene is probably the moral finale of the film,” Noyce tells me. “It might be the most unusual action sequence I’ve ever seen. What Jack is seeing is what he has to resolve in himself, which is the moral responsibility of having this camp of terrorists, well, slaughtered. There’s a whole subtext here. In one way, it’s the real story of Desert Storm–a combination of exhilaration, horror and pity.”
On the screen we’re watching, Ryan is watching his screen. The figures on his monitor are faceless and indistinguishable from one another, although the anatomical clarity of their forms is startling as the action unfolds. As they pursue or retreat, they create ripples in the fabric of the picture, as if a blanket of radioactive molasses covered them. When a figure dies (two are caught by surprise, leaping from their cots], his motion wavers, then becomes still, like a drop of toxin placed on an amoeba.
“Well, hell, how did you do it? This isn’t actual footage.”
“Yeah,” Noyce laughs, “we got it from the CIA. A sort of home movie that Mephistopheles would make. No, we did it with a lot of testing, first of all.”
The effect of Noyce’s infrared bloodbath is deeply disturbing. Without the conventional fashion show of gaping wounds and the dubbed cracking of ulnar bones, your imagination leaps in with details from its own files. Robbed of your familiarity with screen gore by Noyce’s neo-violence, you are put back in touch with death.
“When we screened it the other night, audiences didn’t know whether to cheer or to cry. On the one hand, they have their retribution,- on the other, however, it was very disturbing.”
This ambivalence of sentiment was, apparently, one of the things Tom Clancy strongly objected to. “Tom felt audiences should be cheering and clapping at that point. I think he might’ve been happier had we filmed it straight, showing the actual assault. But once you get into that battle of who’s got the biggest explosion, who’s got the biggest fireball, how many limbs can you set from end to end, it’s like a no-win situation. Who can compete with a film like T2, that was done so brilliantly, and all the better, who wants to, anyway–who has the biggest explosion, who has the biggest dick? A certain section of the audience is gonna get their rocks off when they see destruction, yeah. But I think we were looking for something else.”
I realize while we’re talking that the gripping footage I’ve just seen is precisely what ringmaster Noyce was arguing for when he first turned down then turned on to Patriot Games. Writer Steve Zaillian, who scripted Awakenings and The Falcon and the Snowman, was brought in to do a series of rewrites. “He gave a lot more texture to the characters, he also took the action out of your face and put it in your bones, where you can fear it–and you don’t necessarily have to see it. We de-explosioned the film, you could say.”
Noyce turns on the lights and considers the flatbed editing machine, offering up the spools of his labor. “Well,” he gestures lightly, as if not to disturb a sleeping child, “there we are, 18,000 miles away from the action–and in infrared.”
Marching–strolling–away from the flaming horizon, then, might be the new action hero, averting his eyes from the salty body count. Tomorrow’s soldier of fortune is a family man, his backpack of plastic explosives replaced by the weight of conscience. Different from the old-fashioned commando who heard the small voice within as little more than a nagging wife, the new warrior exposes himself only to an abstracted image of destruction but turns the lethal weapon of moral contemplation against himself as well as his enemy. And Paramount, with at least one more Clancy adaptation in the works, is betting that the repercussions of such tenderness will have some market value.
As for the next Noyce effort, he has two impending projects with Paramount, neither of them, incidentally, a Clancy adaptation. If a meteor struck Hollywood and I suddenly became the supreme green-lighter of projects, I’d say give Phillip the sequel to Basic Instinct and let’s see those sex scenes with the Noyce spin. I ask Noyce if he’d have liked to direct the follow-up to Patriot Games.
“The beauty of making movies is that you can live so many lives apart from your own. I’d prefer to go off and live someone else’s life at this point, rather than revisit the same one, but who can say?” Having finished working with a Ford, Phillip Noyce has just now directed a dodge.
Michael Angeli interviewed Juliette Lewis for Movieline’s May issue.