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On the 25th anniversary of its cinema release, Phillip Noyce’s second feature, Heatwave, may get a better reaction on DVD than it did at the time, with audiences appreciating that it belongs to a different, riskier era in the history of Australian cinema, as Noyce tells Andrew L. Urban.

“I’d have no doubt shot it differently … told the story differently, today,” says Phillip Noyce. Maybe that’s because I’m more conservative. I might have made the connections between the conspirators more certain, rather than implied. Heatwave belongs to a different era in Australian cinema, a time when we took a lot risks. I guess that comes with youth – the youth of the director [Noyce was 31 at the time] and the youth of that second new wave of filmmakers. It was a time when there was a love affair between audiences and Australian cinema, something which these days is rather on and off.”

"fate delivering hidden surprises"

It was a bit off for Heatwave, too, as it happens and its lack of commercial success sent Noyce into directors’ purgatory: TV drama. If film funding was hard to get in the wake of Heatwave (strange as it seems after looking at the film even with today’s over-fed eyes), TV work wasn’t. For the next three years or so, Noyce worked on some of the most groundbreaking mini series, produced by the Kennedy Miller house for the then Murdoch-owned Ten Network, directing shows such as The Dismissal and The Cowra Breakout, and writing Vietnam. It wasn’t until after Dead Calm (1989) that Noyce was again bankable. In retrospect, though, he is immensely proud of his TV work; a case of fate delivering hidden surprises.

Perhaps, muses Noyce, Australian audiences were averse to the political nature of the subject matter in Heatwave (see synopsis adjacent); “although you could argue that Newsfront (1978) had also been political, albeit of a bygone era.” While not a hot box office item in Australia, Heatwave did, however, appeal to distributors around the around the world, many of whom saw its strengths. The film was best received in Britain, less so in the US, but it played in many other countries. The interest was partly driven by the presence of Judy Davis in the cast, who had just made a splash with My Brilliant Career and Who Dares Wins. “It was just the beginning of a star system here,” says Noyce.

“But we were young enough that we were making films to express ourselves … seeing ourselves in the movies was a new phenomenon.”

Also in the cast are Bill Hunter and Chris Haywood; Hunter as Stephen’s boss and Haywood as the developer Houseman come fresh from Noyce’s debut feature, Newsfront, but in opposite role relationships. In Newsfront, Haywood plays Hunter’s apprentice; in Heatwave, Hunter is Haywood’s client. “Yes, it was a conscious decision, or at least we were aware of the irony … we all talked about the roles and they chose the roles they wanted; in fact, Bill couldn’t have played the cocky English developer anyway …”

"made on the smell of an oily rag"

And while Noyce may have shot it differently today, he says much of the Australian filmmaking essentials remain the same. “We had to shoot it very fast on our limited budget of around $1 million, and there was no studio to bail you out if you went over. So it was made on the smell of an oily rag – just like films made here today … as with Rabbit Proof Fence, say.”

Published July 12, 2007

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Phillip Noyce

DVD Release: July 10, 2007

A planned housing development in Sydney’s Kings Cross in the mid 70s, designed by architect Stephen West (Richard Moir) for upstart Cockney immigrant developer Peter Houseman (Chris Haywood), becomes the centre of controversy as tenants and squatters in the doomed, older houses refuse to move. Their most outspoken member is Kate Dean (Judy Davis), who works with the publisher of a small but vocal local paper, Mary Ford (Carole Skinner) – whose relentless rabble rousing against the development is silenced only with her disappearance. Kate searches for Mary and has her suspicions, while she and Stephen develop an uneasy relationship. The union bans work on the site, but a well timed fire changes the dynamics of the dispute – but leads to tragedy.

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