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by Betty Jo Tucker

How many directors would trade their Hollywood "golden cage" for a chance to spend long months in the Australian outback working on a risky movie venture? Phillip Noyce, helmer of such blockbuster action flicks as Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, did just that – and it’s paying off big time in the form of an incredible motion picture called Rabbit-Proof Fence. This powerful film, scheduled for release in late November, tells the true story of Molly Craig, an Aboriginal girl who leads her younger sister and cousin on a 1500-mile journey to reach the home they were taken from as part of a misguided government program in the 1930s.

"The girls playing Molly, Daisy, and Gracie – well, each one is a gift," said Noyce, responding to my question about what he did to get such marvelous performances from Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, three youngsters who never acted before. "A performance is based on good casting, and each of these girls is in contact with the strong Aboriginal culture. Each has a body-language less polluted by watching television, movies and so forth."

Because Noyce wanted to cast children with characteristics similar to the individuals they portrayed, he went to see the real women of the story who are still living. "Molly is in her 80s now -- still strong, proud, and intelligent. I looked for a kid who reminded me of her – one with independence and fierce pride," explained the filmmaker. And he found the perfect Molly in 11-year old Everlyn Sampi.

What about those rumors concerning Everlyn’s tantrums and her movie-diva attitude? "True – just exaggerated," Noyce declared. He compares Everlyn’s star quality with that of two other actresses he directed during the early part of their careers – Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm and Angelina Jole in The Bone Collector. "Everlyn has already won a Best Actress Award and has been nominated for two others for her portrayal of Molly Craig," he said proudly.

Still, Noyce spoke candidly about his problems with Everlyn during filming. "Of course, it’s because of fear. When you fear, you’ll be late getting to the set. When you fear, you’ll obsess about what clothes to wear. And, in Everlyn's case, she was only 11 when we started filming, so her hormones were starting to rage all over the place."

Noyce believed it was important for his three young actresses to be themselves in Rabbit-Proof Fence, so he brought in their family members to make them feel at home. "We incorporated the families into the cast and crew. We had a big "play" – not a big "work," he said.

As a result of working so much with the children, Noyce sometimes found himself treating adults in the same way. Acclaimed Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh, who delivers a remarkably subdued performance as the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, must have been quite surprised when his director began speaking to him as child!

Is Noyce happy he chose directing as a career? "I’ve never done anything else – except for spending six weeks digging sewage ditches, so yes, I do like directing; I like to play God," he teased.

Born in New South Wales, Australia, Noyce was only 17 when he made his first film, a 15-minute short entitled Better To Reign in Hell. In 1973, he won admission to the Australian National Film School during its inaugural year. "I started making films in Australia . . . and after ten years in Hollywood making big budget blockbusters, I’m back where I began," Noyce announced when he returned home to make Rabbit-Proof Fence.

No doubt Noyce will get the chance "to play God" again soon. Upcoming films under consideration include Dirt Music, another movie with Nicole Kidman, and Kon Tiki, Tor Heyerdahl’s famous true adventure. Meanwhile, Noyce’s 2002 remake of The Quiet American earned star Michael Caine a Best Actor Oscar nomination. And Rabbit-Proof Fence has garnered some well-deserved awards of it own, including Best Director for Noyce from the National Board of Review, Best Film from the Australian Film Institute, and the Audience Choice Award from Calgary’s International Film Festival.

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