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Actor and Tropfest founder John Polson was in the bathroom of his Los Angeles hotel when ANDREW L. URBAN rang him after the Hollywood premiere of MI:2*, in which Polson co-stars; but things aren't going down the toilet, he says optimistically, as long as Australian politicians don't confuse foreign productions for Australian filmmaking.

While of enormous benefit in terms of employment and experience, films like Mission Impossible 2 which are shot in Australia (often at the Fox Studio in Sydney) should not be mistaken for Australian production, says John Polson, who plays the happy go lucky chopper pilot Billy Baird.

"I am an optimist"

"I am an optimist and I think it's entirely possible to have these two very different film industries co-exist within Australia. I also think there's a bit of a feeling in Australia that we haven't had any huge hits for a little while and maybe that's because of Fox Studios…but I don't think that's fair. We made as many films last year as we did before, and the truth is that - for whatever reason - we haven't had a breakout success. That happens; it's naïve to think we'll make a Strictly Ballroom every year…."

But there are dangers, Polson says, such as Australian crews getting used to the big money of Hollywood studio pictures. "So when a guy like me comes along and wants to make a humble little Australian film, there is a danger that I can't afford my own people any more and maybe I have to go down to the next level of quality . . ." It has already happpened when he was directing Siam Sunset and a couple of his preferred crew weren't available because they were working on a big budget film at Fox.

"Like Tom (Cruise) Woo's an amazing guy"

"But I don't think we need to be melodramatic about it," he warns. "What does makes me nervous, though, is when politicians look at the overall production figures and start to include MI:2 and The Matrix in the budgets, thinking, wow, we had $200 million worth of production here last year…why are we giving the FFC $50 million. That's a danger."

Of course, the upside of working on a major production is an extraordinary rush of experience, even for someone who had a modest support role. "I spent pretty much eight months with John Woo - and it'd be quicker to go through the things I didn't learn. Like Tom (Cruise) Woo's an amazing guy. Extraordinarily humble, which I find endearing, and he's very shy. He doesn't say a lot, which can be disconcerting at first…but you soon realise that the guy's made something like 25 films - and he doesn't have to say much. He spends a lot of time casting - carefully. Once he's cast the film, he doesn't speak just for the sake of letting you know he's the director."

When other actors, frustrated by the constant waiting around would go to their trailers and listen to music or read, Polson would pull up a chair and sit on the set, watching Woo's every camera move. "Mind you, in between, it was like watching paint dry sometimes," he admits.

"He's a very generous guy, very loyal" on Tom Cruise

As with Woo, Polson was impressed with Tom Cruise. "He's a bit of a gem, really. I always say up front that I feel a bit boring talking about Tom, only because people are hoping for some secret tantrum throwing story or whatever. I had an absolute ball with him. He's a very generous guy, very loyal - and probably even more impressive than that is his dedication to his work. Seriously, Andrew, I've never seen anyone work harder in my life. He's a very good actor and an amazing producer, as demonstrated by this film. He cares for the film and is prepared to do anything he can to allow the director to realise the film. And John Woo is ultimately happy with this film, which of course is a tribute to him, but also to Tom and Paula (Wagner, producer with Cruise).

As for the relationship between Cruise and Woo, Polson says it was no different to any other film, except the producer was also the star, "so he's there every day and when they call Action! he's the guy you're talking to in the scene." Polson's heard the rumours about a clash of wills between the two, but he never saw that. "I've got a modest role, but in a big film like that you're around a lot - and I didn't see any of that. What I saw was John Woo calling the shots, and Tom was looking to him, like every 20 seconds, to make sure he had what he wanted." (Woo is quoted in Newsweek saying, "Tom gave me a lot of respect. We worked together as friends.")

"I've never heard such bullshit"

Polson dismisses another rumour, about instructions that no-one was to make eye contact with Tom Cruise on set. "I've never heard such bullshit in all my life! The guy spent half an hour, it felt like, every morning, going around shaking hands with 30 or 40 crew and seeing what they did on the weekend . . . it could not be further from the truth."

But with a mix of Australian and American crew, the production started off "with a pretty serious case of culture shock," Polson recalls. "Whether it's in the rules of the union, or the different terminology . . . lots of things were very different. But some things were the same and we tried hard to make it all work."

Polson was disappointed about Ving Rhames' remarks, quoted in the press, reflecting on the professionalism of Australian crews. "I didn't think that was necessary. We don't yet have the volume of experience at this scale of production as the American crews do. So you can't expect us to completely understand the workings of a production of that size. But no-one could argue that Australians contributed greatly to the film."

The biggest fallout of that culture clash was probably the early departure of Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. Polson, who was away at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival at the time, never found out what happened. "And I didn't ask… I don't know what happened, but I think people have a right to decide who they work with."

"all working smoothly together"

But by the end of the film, Polson says, "we were all working smoothly together."

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John Polson as Billy Baird


* When asked about the Hollywood premiere of MI:2, Polson gasped: "Mate, it was bigger than Tropfest!" When queried about that, he backed down: "No, no it wasn't."

John Woo on set with Tom Cruise

Ving Rhames & Tom Cruise

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