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By Andrew L. Urban

It’s a cool, early winter night in Los Angeles, around 3.30 am; Phillip Noyce is fast asleep. The phone rings. A woman’s voice: Hello, is that Phillip Noyce? Yes it is, who’re you? Woman: I’ve got a script that you’re perfect for. Lady, you know, the number of people that ring me and tell me they have the perfect script for me … happens more times a week than I’ve got fingers and toes. But usually, they ring my office, but you’ve rung in the middle of the night - at home.”

The woman on the phone was writer Christine Olsen, who now chuckles with embarrassment, as we stand chatting about it in the shade of the art-department created shell of a church on location in South Australian wine country, where Noyce – after a 12 year absence from Australian filmmaking - is shooting her script. Olsen is on hand with a producer’s credit, for authority. A small woman with curly brown hair and eye-catching black shoes (one has a curl at the tip, the other a tip on the heel), Olsen is elated, almost disbelieving her script is turning into a film. “I sat at my kitchen table trying to figure out who’d be best for this….and I thought of Phil. . . I remembered his (1977 directing debut) film, Back Roads (an incisive commentary on racism). So I plucked up courage and dialled what I thought was his office. I hadn’t checked the time and there I was talking to Phillip Noyce with his head on the pillow!”

Noyce was not amused at the time, but things changed. “All credit to her – after such a disastrous start to the relationship, she persevered and sent the screenplay. Also, all credit to the people that work with me, because every time they badgered me to read the script I’d say, ‘You mean the script that was sent by that crazy lady?’ and they persisted long and hard enough to finally get me to read it. And when I did, I became an evangelist for the project myself.

"Emotionally overwhelmed"

“I was overwhelmed by the story. Emotionally overwhelmed. I really strongly identified with the three young girls, Molly, Daisy and Gracie, and that was not because they were black. It was just because they were young children who were powerless and had no redress and seemingly no escape from their destiny. And who, after an almighty effort, triumph. I found myself on their side, in their shoes, massively identifying with them, very soon into the story. I thought to myself, well, there is a truism in the Australian film industry. ‘Oh, Australians don’t want to see Australian films with black themes.’ But I thought if there was a story that’s going to prove that wrong, this is it. I felt there was a movie here.”

Noyce has squeezed himself behind the fixed table in one of the trailers parked near the location in Onkaparinga National Park an hour from Adelaide, taking a short lunch break from filming scene 47, a crucial moment in the story. A private property has been turned into the Moore River Settlement of Western Australia, the setting for the fact based story recalled in Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. Pilkington is Molly’s daughter; Olsen had read the book and was immediately taken with it, and optioned the film rights.

In this scene, played out in the dusty, sandy ‘street’ sloping down towards a clump of trees between six timber huts of the settlement, with the church at the top of the slope, A.O. Neville the Protector of Aborigines (played by Kenneth Branagh) selects the whiter skinned children who have been collected at this settlement, which is under the control of Earnest Neal, played by Garry McDonald.

English star Kenneth Branagh was cast on the suggestion of casting consultant Christine King, after Noyce had approached a number of actors in Australia, all of whom were unavailable, including Russell Crowe, amongst others. “Then we said, well, he’s English so let’s see who might be right among English actors, and Kenneth was first on the list.” (His usual fee has been ‘invested’ in the film, so he’s working for a relative pittance against an appropriate share in the returns.)

Dozens of Aboriginal children (most of whom had never ever seen a movie) have been recruited for the film, from tiny ones to 12 year olds, like Everlyn Sampi, who plays Molly, the eldest of the three girls who had been taken from their home well over a thousand kilometres away. As the title implies, the fence was their lifeline, when the girls escaped and made their (long) trek home.

Noyce, with a large voice to match his stature, exudes energy as he shout directions on the open set, urging on his cinematographer Chris Doyle, driving the crew like a muster master, with a confident, no nonsense style, peppered with shrapnels of humour.

"reverberates with the passions aroused in Australian society"

Urged on by a sense that the subject’s time was ripe, Olsen and Noyce are aware that even if the film is a terrific adventure story, it is inherently political, a story that reverberates with the passions aroused in Australian society by the revelations and recriminations of the Stolen Generation issue. “It was A.O. Neville,” says Noyce, “who enacted a scheme to destroy a race, separating children from their parents and casued massive grief, and yet – and I hope the film makes this clear – he’s a man who believed that he was a saviour, doing the right thing. There is nothing more overwhelming and terrifying than someone who utterly believes he’s doing the right thing.” It wasn’t bad people responsible for the Stolen Generation, says Noyce, but people massively misguided.

At first, however, it didn’t look as though Noyce was going to be able to make this film. He was trying to get another movie going, and had been for a long time, called The Quiet American, the adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic novel set in Vietnam during the French Indo-Chinese war in the early 50s. He was also actively working on the fourth of the Tom Clancy adaptations, The Sum of All Fears, which was to follow Clear And Present Danger, the last one he made with Harrison Ford.

This was to be the swansong for Jack Ryan and also for both Harrison and Noyce. It looked a fair bet to go, because of its star, the studio backing of Paramount and the pedigree of the material. So he told Christine Olsen, “I love the script, but you’re very anxious to get it made so I won’t tie you up – won’t make any promises. As it turned out, in April 2000, I was in NY trying to get Harrison Ford to agree to the various rewrites. I was holed up in a Wall Street hotel – the only one available – and alternate days I’d travel uptown to Harrison’s apartment on Central Park West and talk to him, try and convince him that he should commit to The Sum of All Fears and that we could solve the problems – problems that were inherent in the material, incidentally, since the novel was written in 1991. It involves a hypothetical brink of nuclear holocaust between the former Soviet Union and America.”

But Noyce couldn’t get Ford to budge. He went back to his hotel and told his business partner Kathleen McGlochlan, “I think I should go to Australia and quickstart Rabbit Proof Fence. She was thinking same thing. Within three days, I’d emotionally bid goodbye to The Sum of All Fears, even though Paramount was pressing me to meet with Ben Affleck, who’d be the new Jack Ryan. He’s charming and talented with a huge career ahead of him, but somehow he didn’t seem to me like Harrison Ford!”

Noyce, talking on his mobile phone while getting out of a cab in New York, told Olsen that if she could “fix up the ending” they might make the film within the year 2000.

"a great scriptwriter"

Noyce arrived in Australia and told Christine Olsen that if they could get the script to a certain point within a week, he’d commit to it. “She’s a great scriptwriter and she improved the script massively in that time frame. I took it back to America and showed it to [producer] Jeremy Thomas, who shares offices with my company in Los Angeles, and he committed to making whatever financial contribution was necessary to knit all the money together.”

Australian financiers (both private and the Government agency, Film Finance Corporation) quickly agreed to invest. Suddenly, it was a go project. “Producer David Elfick came in to knit all the finance together while Christine and I set off for WA for the first part of shooting, with the real Molly and the real Daisy in Jigalong. That was just three and half weeks after I decided to do the film.”

While accepting that the Rabbit Proof Fence has political overtones, especially coming as it does in the wake of a tidal wave of social action towards reconciliation (from the massive Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the 2000 Olympic games and its publicly embraced success for Cathy Freeman), Noyce does not believe the film will be ‘enjoyed’ because of its political context.

“Hopefully, the audience will respond in exactly the same way as I did when I read the screenplay. And that is, they will find themselves rooting for these three young girls, wanting the injustice to be righted, wanting them to escape from the institution and the nightmare that they found themselves in, wanting them to wake up from that nightmare wanting the bad guys to be defeated. It’s very hard not to identify with kids, no matter what colour or size they are. They are powerless, and as adults we owe them our responsibility and care.”

"a great emotional story"

For Olsen, the reception her screenplay receives is critical. “The white people in this film are our grandparents (the period is the late 1920s/early 1930s). I hope we’ll understand a bit better how something like this can happen. There are no moral judgements…it’s a human story. We’re all products of our time, so we shouldn’t try to be morally superior.”

When some Hollywood agents read the script, they referred to it as ‘a great emotional story.’ “I don’t mind that,” says Olsen.

That pre-dawn phone call from Australia was timely after all, as it turns out. If you were so inclined, you might even think that the events and coincidences that led Phillip Noyce to the Rabbit Proof Fence were manipulated by fate – or whetever name you wish to use.

And for filmmaker Phillip Noyce, “This was a story that grabbed me – and never let go.”

Published February 21, 2002
An edited version of this article also appears in The Australian Way (Qantas), January 2002

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Phillip Noyce onset


Phillip Noyce

Onset with Gary McDonald and Kenneth Branagh

Cinematographer Chris Doyle

The map showing the rabbit proof fence

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