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With The Quiet American, Australian director Phillip Noyce has made quite a noise: he’s tackled a film that touches on highly sensitive subjects, goes against all the rules of formula filmmaking, and has been made pointedly relevant by tragic world events, he tells Andrew L. Urban. And then he was named Director of the Year for it.

Unseasonably high winds caused Phillip Noyce’s Melbourne-bound plane to land in Sydney, as he began his promotional tour of Australia for The Quiet American last month (Dec. 2002). Walking through the terminal, Noyce turned on his mobile phone and a cloud of concern floated through his mind; “why did I have 27 messages? Somebody’s really sick or there’s another sort of emergency …” It didn’t help that the first one was from Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. “Oh God, what’s happened now,” thought Noyce, who had been “in a bitter battle” with his movie’s distributor (and friend) over the release of The Quiet American both in public and in private.

“I thought I must have slandered him again,” says Noyce with his booming laugh. “The week before he’d said to me, ‘You owe me a thousand dollars for every time you defame me…[laughs] but don’t stop because it’s working!” Another booming laugh. “We’d had heated words in the press, me saying this film should be seen… And the press had been asking me if it had been a publicity stunt, Harvey saying the film shouldn’t be shown, to thus provide an avalanche of press about the movie….”

"Director of the Year"

But Harvey Weinstein was in fact ringing this time to congratulate Noyce not to berate him: the American Board of Review of Motion Pictures had just announced Noyce as Director of the Year for 2002, citing both his latest films The Quiet American and The Rabbit Proof Fence. The irony was not lost on Weinstein, who had feared that American public opinion would not welcome The Quiet American in the climate of post September 11 terror alerts. Although the film is set 50 years ago in Vietnam, its central political point concerns clandestine American sponsored terrorism.

The honour bestowed on Noyce helped what was already a changing of the mind at Miramax. To fully understand the context of the moment at Sydney airport, we have to go back a bit. It was on the stormy New York night before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that The Quiet American had its first preview screening. A stone’s throw from the World Towers. Audience scores were average.

The Quiet American (based on Graham Greene’s novel) is set in Saigon, in 1952: a beautiful, exotic and mysterious city caught in the grip of the Vietnamese war of liberation from the French colonialists. New arrival Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic American aid worker, befriends veteran London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). When Fowler introduces Pyle to his beautiful young Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Hai Yen), the three are swept up in a tempestuous love triangle that leads to a series of startling revelations and finally murder.

In the weeks that followed, test screenings returned ever worsening scores. It seemed to Miramax it was holding rights to a film that would never find an audience. Acts of terrorism and American foreign policy were subjects for the front pages – not the cinema screens.

Noyce says the situation was confusing because when the test audiences were asked if they were affected by the events of September 11 in their assessment of the film, they all said no. “People denied that. But then we started getting feedback on comments overheard in toilets, like ‘Well, I don’t think it’s appropriate … we need to just pull together at this time….’ And things like that. So it did become apparent that there was a link. And not just with the aftermath of a terrorist bombing [depicted in the film] but with the implied criticism of American foreign policy – albeit back in the 1950s, but with a resonance today.”

There was clearly no good commercial reason to release the film before the end of 2001; for one thing, if it were released, Miramax would want to enter it in the Oscar race, which would add at least US$300,000 to the release costs (in outlays on advertising, tapes of the film to members, etc). “That was when we convinced Harvey to screen it at Toronto (in September 2002) and use that as a litmus test, to see if public opinion had changed and whether there would be critical support for the film.” 

"...spoke of Michael Caine as a possible Oscar contender"

When Time’s Richard Corliss and Chicago’s Roger Ebert spoke of Michael Caine as a possible Oscar contender, that shifted Miramax’s opinion on the film. It could be released. It did have an audience. It did have critical support. Those were more persuasive ‘scores’ than the ones from test screenings.

“This movie was never going to get high test screening scores,” says Noyce. Well aware of the testing process, Noyce points out that the film goes against the formula for high scores with test audiences, who know nothing about the film and see it before there are any reviews or public comments on it. “Within two minutes of the ending, they are asked to tick boxes about how they feel about it…the formula says you have an up ending, with up music, and resolution - and positive moral resolution – where the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In this film, who is the bad guy? There is no good guy… and all the characters are totally compromised.”

But when the film was released in the US on November 22, there was a new mood at large. People had come to recognise, Noyce feels, that “the themes the film touches on - America’s sense of responsibility for the rest of the world, and examining the need for intervention in the sovereignty of other countries to be approached with great responsibility - have become issues that need to be discussed.” 

But it was the sure knowledge from the start that the film would be ‘difficult’ for an American audience that Noyce wanted to cast Michael Caine. “He has authority and a humanity that people will invest in. For Thomas Fowler, a man who would act as a judge, jury and executioner of the all-American boy, we needed a man people would respect, on or off the screen. And we needed a performance from that man that was revealing of his failings, but also kept the audience in contact with his emotional struggles. Even if they didn’t condone what he was doing, they wouldn’t condemn him.”

Speaking very highly of the Vietnamese cast and crew, Noyce credits the film’s extraordinary evocation of time and place largely to them. And, he says, the film is just as important to the Vietnamese, “so they can try and understand why the West wanted to destroy this independence movement and why we wanted to kill them so badly for so long!” he says with a sardonic laugh. “It’s even more important to them then to us…”

"answered questions that hadn’t been asked"

Written more than 50 years ago, The Quiet American “answered questions that hadn’t been asked; that’s the genius of Graham Greene,” says Noyce. “In his portrait of Alden Pyle, the evangelistic American do-gooder who felt responsible for Vietnam in the same way that America - justifiably – feels responsible for the rest of the world, Greene was able to define the underpinnings of American foreign policy from that day to this. Their responsibility that America felt she owed, as the melting pot of all humanity, to the rest of the humanity.”

With The Rabbit Proof Fence, Noyce ignited a row in Australia about the veracity of the stolen generations story, one of the most explosive issues in modern Australian politics. With The Quiet American, he confronted Americans with their foreign policy shortcomings at precisely the time (to the day, you could say) when that became the most explosive issue in America, and perhaps the world. He should have been named not just Director of the Year, but the Most Relevant Filmmaker of 2002.

Published January 16, 2003

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Phillip Noyce



QUIET AMERICAN GHOSTS - a poignant and deeply personal response to Phillip Noyce’s film of The Quiet American by Cynthia Spencer

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