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Dead Serious About Aussie Cinema : Australia's Phillip Noyce directs an icy thriller with a resourceful heroine : Phillip Noyce

April 02, 1989|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

On screen, it looked so simple.

The scene showed a bridal party parading through a Nevada gambling casino. Off screen, an actor dubbing the groom's dialogue leaned into the mike and bellowed: "Hey, everybody! I want you to meet my wife--we're going to get married!"

Phillip Noyce groaned. "There's only one problem," he said to the actor. "You're already married in this scene. You're going to the reception."

The bluff, rugged-looking 39-year-old Australian film director has been in a dark room full of actors all morning, dubbing lines for an upcoming film. "Let's personalize it," Noyce said, scribbling new dialogue on a yellow legal pad. "Why don't you call your wife Charlene? Actually, that's too close to our Colleen character. What's a good just-got-married-in-Reno name. . . . How about Mindy?"

Welcome to the wonderful world of dubbing (known in industry parlance as looping dialogue), perhaps film land's least glamorous pastime. If Noyce finds the work dreary, he never lets on. And if he's wary about making his first big stateside splash, after years of labor far from the maddening Hollywood crowd, he's keeping his nerves to himself.

Over the next few months, three Noyce-directed films will open here, starting with "Dead Calm," a ferocious thriller starring Sam Neill, which Warner Bros. Films releases Friday. Later this month, art-house patrons can see Noyce's "Echoes of Paradise," a romantic drama starring John Lone and Wendy Hughes. And by August, Tri-Star will open "Blind Fury," a comic thriller starring Rutger Hauer that Noyce was finishing here on the dubbing stage.

The projectionist rolled the casino scene again. When the groom appeared on screen, the actor dubbing his lines bellowed: "Here's my wife . . . uh, Marg--no, uh . . . Mindy!"

The room echoed with laughter. "That's OK," Noyce said jovially. "You're entitled to forget your wife's name if you've only been married for four minutes."

At 6-foot-4 and a solid 200 pounds, with piercing eyes and chiseled features, Noyce is a formidable man with the rugged, resolute gaze of a frontier sheriff. Born in a tiny hamlet in New South Wales where his father both farmed and practiced law, Noyce grew up with a love for Australia's arid expanses and tumultuous history.

While still a teen, he was making experimental films such as "Better to Reign in Hell" (nicking the title from Milton's "Paradise Lost"). He's gone on to celebrate newsreel cameramen ("Newsfront"), skewer urban developers ("Heatwave"), critique Aussie treatment of Japanese prisoners of war ("The Cowra Breakout") and dramatize the fall of Australia's first Socialist government ("The Dismissal").

Intense and eloquent, Noyce sees the rebirth of Aussie cinema--and its fascination with historical events--as a symbol of the nation's cultural maturity. "When my generation of film makers grew up, all we saw were British and American characters--there was no indigenous film production," he explained, relaxing at a house he and his wife keep in Hollywood. "Australia suffered from what we called the 'cultural cringe.' The major symptom was that any cultural expression was automatically inferior to anything imported from England and America.

"It's something our generation has tried to change. When we began to make films it was only natural that we'd turn to Australian historical occurrences--and examine them from an Australian perspective. I think people really embraced them because it was their first chance to see their own culture."

Noyce eyed one of his daughters, who was playing in a nearby room. "Now my children think nothing of it--they've grown up with all these films as their history lessons."

An icy thriller, "Dead Calm" is a Hitchcockian tale in the best sense--it's both a taut drama and a gripping lesson in love and personal loyalty. Written by Terry Hayes, who scripted the "Mad Max" films, it's based on a book that has attracted movie makers before (Orson Welles filmed a never-completed version in 1968 with Jeanne Moreau and Laurence Harvey).

The story is about an Aussie couple who--eager to recover from a family tragedy--sail off to the Great Barrier Reef. One day they encounter a wild-eyed man frantically fleeing a sinking yacht. After offering a gory tale of his escape from death and depravity, he goes below and falls into a deep sleep. The husband (Sam Neill) rows off to investigate his story, but just as he makes an ominous discovery . . . the man wakes up.

Most of the critical kudos have gone to Nicole Kidman, the 22-year-old actress who plays the resourceful young wife who must survive a dangerous liaison with her captor (Billy Zane, a co-star of "The Hillside Stranglers" which airs tonight. See article on Page 18.).

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