Phillip Noyce recognised with AACTA’s Longford Lyell Award as he readies ‘Rats of Tobruk’

Phillip Noyce

Phillip Noyce. 

One of Australia’s most prolific directors, Phillip Noyce – whose extensive credits include Newsfront, Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Bone Collector, Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American and The Giver – will be honoured with the Longford Lyell Award at tonight’s AACTA Awards Ceremony.

The Australian Academy’s highest accolade, the Longford Lyell Award recognises an individual who has made “a truly outstanding contribution to the enrichment of Australia’s screen environment and culture.”

Speaking to IF, Noyce said it was an honour to join the ranks of those who have won the award previously.

“Particularly Peter Weir, whose work I admire so much; George Miller, who taught me so much; Ken G. Hall, who was one of my mentors in so many ways, and Barry Jones and Phillip Adams, who arguably kickstarted this Australian film revival that we’ve enjoyed since the late ’60s up to the present time.”

Noyce is one of the Australian directors whose trajectory took off in the Australian new wave of the 1970s with films such as Backroads and Newsfront.

He began his career making self-funded short films in the late 1960s. He managed the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op for three years before going on to be one of the inaugural students at AFTRS in 1973.

The director lists these beginnings as among his biggest accomplishments.

“Even before John Gorton was convinced by Phillip Adams and Barry Jones to provide government support for a film industry, a group of us started to make short films and were determined that we were going to make features whether we are supported by the government or not – although I’m not sure we could have done it without that government support.”

“We dreamt of making Australian films when no one was doing it.”

Noyce and Everlyn Sampi on the set of ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ (Photo: Moviestore Collection).

Among his other key successes he lists Newsfront, The Dismissal, The Cowra Breakout, and Dead Calm, the film that launched both him and stars Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill in the US.

However, in his view, his most important film is Rabbit Proof Fence – “the film that I’d say I was put on the Earth to share.”

“When we set out to make the film everyone here and abroad told us, ‘You’ll never get financed for an Indigenous story and even if you do, you’re never going to find an audience. They’ve all failed’. And we proved them all wrong,” he says.

“But more importantly… the subject matter touched on questions that had not been asked, but had always been gnawing away at me inside about our relationship with Indigenous Australians. So it answered a lot of questions for me, and I think it asked a lot of questions  and answered [them] – for Australians as well. Hopefully it contributed towards that famous and momentous day when the Prime Minister stood up in Parliament and offered an apology to Indigenous people for the removal of their children.”

Noyce also announced today that Canberra and Los Angeles-based DEMS Entertainment will finance and co-produce his World War II drama Rats of Tobruk, based on the story of his father and the Allied forces who held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the Afrika Corps in 1941.

The plan is to shoot the film in Australia in the latter half of 2019, and Michael Petroni (The Book Thief, Backtrack) is currently enlisted to pen the script.

Noyce, who will both produce and direct, describes the genesis of the film as a slow burn.

“It’s strange. Since I was about five years old, seemingly every single day that I was with my dad he would tell a story to his three young boys – or whoever would listen – about his adventure in North Africa in the early ’40s as one of the Rats of Tobruk,” he says.

Noyce’s father.

“I’d been hearing his tales for so long I guess that was blasé about the dramatic import. About a year ago I suddenly realised –  when I was looking through old photographs, and also when I found his diary he’d written at the time, with so many personal messages and insights into facing impending death in battle, his feelings about home. That was probably the clincher, when I read his diary. I just thought he’d been telling me those stories all those years so that I could pass them on.”

DEMS Entertainment chairman John De Margheriti, an entrepreneur who forged a career in video games and who is the founder of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) in Canberra, will produce alongside Noyce.

Established this year, DEMS Entertainment is designed as a platform to finance and produce films and TV series with budgets over $USD10 million. It has committed approximately $AUD200 million over the next five years to develop content under its banner.

De Margheriti tells IF that DEMS Entertaiment has a “substantial slate” of films already in the works, however Noyce’s Rats of Tobruk is the largest in scope.

It is the entrepreneur’s plan to eventually establish an independent studio model in Australia. Alongside DEMS Entertainment, he has also recently established The Film Distillery, designed to finance smaller films in the $1.5-2 million range, and operates the Canberra Technology Park, which houses Screen Canberra and Silversun Pictures, and has sound editing facilities. He intends to a develop a VFX studio on the site, and has also been working with Screen Canberra to run programs for scriptwriters that can then go on to be produced via the Film Distillery.

Noyce is also attached to direct two other WWII films, The Devil’s Brigade and Killer 10. However the director says they are all different types of films; with Killer 10 an action-adventure film about a band of bank robbers that just happens to be set in a war zone, and The Devil’s Brigade, about how the mafia combined with the American military to try and defeat the Germans in Sicily.

“It will be a race to see if either of the other two can be mounted before we start Rats of Tobruk,” Noyce says.