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Sam Neill tells Andrew L. Urban about working with women, and reveals a strange, little-known incident involving Elle Macpherson’s pubic hair, before flying off to a new chapter in his career. 

Sam Neill is sitting with his back to the large window in an office in Sydney’s Surry Hills, leaning back slightly, casually dressed and looking as though he were waiting for afternoon tea. Which he is. So am I. He smiles as we reminisce about the time we met on the set of John Duigan’s comedy drama, Sirens (1994) in the Blue Mountains not far from Sydney, starring Hugh Grant and Tara Fitzgerald. Neill played Australian painter Norman Lindsay. The Sirens of the title were girls like Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer. I remember it well.

"Ah … the funniest story"

Neill’s smile stretches in that understated way of his, slightly lopsided. “Ah … the funniest story from Sirens that always makes me laugh,” he begins, haltingly “ah… you know the final scene, where the girls are naked on the rock and the camera pulls away; it’s a long helicopter shot and they get smaller and smaller on the screen and they’re waving gently like sirens, sitting there on top of the Blue Mountains.

“But Tara Fitzgerald has the most terrible fear of heights.” Neill by this stage is not smiling. It’s serious, this fear of heights. “She’s just petrified and it was right on the edge of that cliff, and there’s something about a helicopter pulling away from so close to so far away that somehow accentuates the sense of being on the edge of the cliff. It just put her in an absolute, uncontrollable blind panic. 

“So she grabbed the closest thing to her,” and at this point Neill lunges his right arm into the air beside him, clutching an invisible handful, “which happened to be Elle Macpherson’s pubic hair! And wouldn’t let go! So apparently the dialogue that was going on as the helicopter pulled away was Elle hissing ‘Let Go! Let f***ing go! Let f***ing go!’ If you see it on DVD look carefully … read those lips!”

We chuckle at the thought, and swing our attention to another isolated location, this time on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast. Here, playing The Man in Perfect Strangers, Sam Neill was not surrounded by Sirens, but by a solitary female, Melanie, played by Australia’s Rachael Blake. “We were very close on that film. I really enjoyed her company; she’s a complete dingbat,” he says without a trace of malice, “and a wonderful …. kind of ….what’s the word …. a free soul …. and hilarious. She’s great.”

But there was another woman – indeed, two women – who were involved with the film: writer/director Gaylene Preston and producer Robin Laing. 

"I’ve worked with a lot of women over the years"

“I’ve worked with a lot of women over the years,” he says. “I’ve always … almost always … found that tremendously rewarding. I don’t know why. I like working with women. One of the worst experiences I’ve ever had was … let me rephrase that. One of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had was working on The Hunt For Red October, in which all the cast and all the crew were men. Including make-up, continuity… all the things where you’d traditionally expect some women. None. It was like being locked up in a locker room for a couple of months. I just wanted to run screaming from the place. I think it’s normal to have at least 50% women on a shoot and I’m perfectly at ease being told what to do by women. No problems with that. Indeed, some of my most rewarding experiences have been directed by or being around women.”

Indeed, Neill has not long ago finished shooting a film directed by Sally Potter (The Man Who Cried, Tango Lesson), “which I think will be a very interesting film. She is prepared to take risks – all the dialogue is in rhyming iambic verse!” Yes, a short enough title, also stars Joan Allen (in the title role – she has no other name), who is married to Sam Neill’s Anthony, but feels suffocated by the marriage. She begins an affair with He (Simon Abkarian) which leads them on a journey in more ways than one. (The film is in post production, as is Neill’s latest film, Wimbledon, starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany.)

In Perfect Strangers, Melanie (Rachael Blake) is single and looking, like her friends. One night at the pub, a few drinks later, she goes off with a handsome man (Sam Neill), another possible Mr Right. He leads her to his boat and takes her on a mysterious trip to his remote and wild island home, but the romantic surface is shattered when she realises he is keeping her prisoner, like a man obsessed. Violent and dramatic events leave them both the worse for wear, and Melanie is confused about her feelings for this complicated man. When a few days later her one-time (as in one night) lover Bill (Joel Tobeck) turns up unexpectedly, she has a lot of explaining to do – some of which she does with a shovel.

"It’ll be interesting to see if I can do it"

For Neill, the Sydney visit has been a stop-over to help promote Perfect Strangers, which he enjoyed – unlike most people who read the script, he thought it was funny. And he thought it would be great to make a movie near home. “In fact it turned out to be a six hour drive from my house!”

After our interview, he heads for Melbourne “to start work tomorrow”, where he is to begin the next phase of his career, as a producer and director, starting with a series of telemovies based on Shane Maloney’s ‘Murray Whelan’ comedy thriller novels, starring David Wenham and produced by Neill with his friend and business collaborator, John Clarke (with whom he made Death in Brunswick (1991). Clarke is directing the first of a planned six over three years, Stiff, and Neill will direct the second, starting in January 2004, called The Brush Off. “It’ll be interesting to see if I can do it,” he says lightly.

Published November 6, 2003

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