Synopsis : Unfolding in real time, THE DESPERATE HOUR is a “riveting and pulse pounding” thriller from award-winning director Phillip Noyce. Recently widowed mother Amy Carr (Academy Award®-nominee Naomi Watts) is doing her best to restore normalcy to the lives of her young daughter and teenage son in their small town. As she’s on a jog in the woods, she finds her town thrown into chaos as a shooting takes place at her son’s school. Miles away on foot in the dense forest, Amy desperately races against time to save her son.
An Exclusive Interview with Director Phillip Noyce
Q : I’d like to ask about your career prior to this film. You became the manager of the Sydney Filmmakers Co‑op in 1969, a collective of filmmakers that showed their short films. That was also when the New Wave directors came out, such as Gillian Armstrong (“My Brilliant Career”), Peter Weir (“Witness”, “Dead Poets Society”), Bruce Bereseford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and George Miller (“Mad Max”). What was it like showing those films back then?
PN: It was an exciting time for us filmmakers in Australia because there was no Australian film industry. Everything was controlled by Hollywood, and to a lesser extent, by the British. They owned the cinemas and the distribution companies. There was a general feeling the Australians needn’t bother making movies, that was too complicated — rather like building rocket ships. You know, “let the other people do it.”
There was a whole group of us who were baby boomers, who found ourselves turning to cinema as a means of expression. We were mainly making short films, and we found the audience like babies. When a baby looks in the mirror and sees itself, it’s fascinated by this image. Well, that’s the audience; they were flocking to see our short films, at these little cinemas that were illegally run above bookshops, in back rooms, showing Australian short films. This is where all the New Wave directors had anything to play with an audience. So that was the first thing that played.
But that audience was crazy about the movies that we were making, whatever it was — because they were seeing themselves, something they couldn’t experience on the big cinema screen.
Q: Are you still in touch with those directors?
PN: I’m still in touch with George Miller, Bruce Beresford, yes. Gillian Armstrong, too. With so many of them, yeah, we’re still in touch by a ubiquitous connection which is sort of a baby boomers diary.
Q: You made critically acclaimed films such as “Newsfront,” “Dead Calm”, which were very well received. Not just in Australia, but all over the world. Was that the significant reason that you moved to the United States?
PN: I made “Dead Calm” and suddenly I had made a film that had a lingua franca, a genre film that could play anywhere and appealed to people all over the world. We sold it to Warner Brothers, and it screened in America. It wasn’t that successful, but it was successful among filmmakers. And suddenly the phone is ringing in Australia, “Come to America”.
I was almost 40 years old. Once upon a time, we used to see 40 as old age. Now, of course, I realize that’s just infancy. So there I was turning 40 and thinking, “Well, they’re asking me to come to Hollywood. Maybe we should start a new life. Go over there and see what’s happening.”
So initially I went, thinking I would investigate, but eventually investigation became a new life. And for better or for worse, I found myself in a studio at Paramount Pictures — that was near my house in Hollywood — and they kept offering me film after film. Something like, the machine finds the material, the machine finds the actors, the machine finds the money, and then the machine sells the movies.
Whereas in Australia, we have to do all that ourselves. Even when we are making films, it was still an uphill battle, and maybe you might make one feature every five, or six years. But here I was in Hollywood and as fast as I finished a film they’re asking me to start another one. That went on for almost 10 years like that. Just playing in a great big filmmakers’ sandbox. That was Hollywood.
Eventually I grew sick of that experience and returned to Australia to make “Rabbit Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American” and “Catch a Fire” — three films in 10 years back in Australia. But the 10 years in America were exciting, and really taught me a lot about the Hollywood system.
Because the success of Hollywood is that it’s the great colonizer — better than Rome, even. The Romans, if you remember, they controlled the known world, but they had to do it with the sword. Whereas Hollywood, at least at its peak — which was when I was there — they owned the hearts and minds of people all over the world, and controlled the movies and television shows that they distributed.
So in a way, Hollywood has been the great conqueror — the Rome of the modern day. With a big difference, of course, and that is that they’ve imported talent from all over the world constantly. From the ’20s right through for the next hundred years. Us Australians were part of that migration.
Q: “The Quiet American” was a great movie, but it took a long time to raise money to make it. Do you feel you had to make a Hollywood studio film in order to make the film that you wanted to make?
PN: Well, money doesn’t grow on trees. Although in some ways, it does nowadays, with streaming services and the way in which they invest in movies like a hungry monster looking for food.
The way I do it is, I have six or seven projects always on the boil, you know, and I’m not perturbed if something doesn’t get made for 10 or 12 years. “The Quiet American” sat around for 15 years, between myself and Sydney Pollack in development, and finally we got to make it.
So if I made this film or that film, I’m not perturbed. I can make a small film, a big film; a studio film, an independent film. A film with one person, if necessary.
As a person who grew up without a film industry, without the possibility of being employed to make movies, that was a pipe dream. That was a madman’s fantasy that in Australia you could make films. So it’s all been a gift to me. A gift! I’m privileged to be able to say that’s my job for a living.
Q: With your latest film “The Desperate Hour,” even though you and Naomi Watts are both Australian, you haven’t worked with each other before now. What was the main reason you made this film? What made you decide to tackle this film?
PN: Well, it was the fact that one of my backups to decide on was the opportunity to work with Naomi Watts, who I’ve known since she was a teenager and watched her career blossom, yet never had then opportunity to work with her.
Secondly, there was the challenge. A one-person movie is a new genre that we’re seeing. Maybe it’s a lock film. But you know, as you get older, the challenges become significant for you. In a way, being challenged as a filmmaker is very attractive.
So having to make a film to hold the audience with just one performer was a challenge that I really wanted to undertake to prove that I could do it. And hopefully, we did.
It was an antidote. Making that film during the Covid lockdown in beautiful northern Ontario was an antidote to all the depression of being locked up in our own houses like we were — you know, in a super-max prison. Other Covid lockdowns halted production of films all over the world. So here was a chance to escape from Covid prison, make a movie with someone I’d wanted to make a movie with for a long time.
And in addition, I’m a parent of a 14-year-old boy. So the psychological turmoil that we see in Naomi’s character going through the movie was something that I’ve contemplated many times.
Is this 14-year-old that’s growing up in our family, is he like me? Does he share my values? Does he share my wife’s values? What’s going to happen, what is he thinking, why is he so contrary? All these questions — they’re the questions that every parent has of their teenager. So investigating that aspect of my own life was also an attraction for making this film.
Q: This film very much relies on the script as well as your directorial approach. How did you collaborate with your writer Chris Sparling, on this really good script? What was your conversation on the direction you wanted to take?
PN: The script came as a finished piece, and we were shooting it four weeks after I signed on. This was very fast. Chris would watch the rushes every day, watch the footage that we shot, he would send his comments, and constantly he was making adjustments for the upcoming scenes. So there was a pretty open collaboration between writer and director.
But the big issue of the film was, usually you have more than one actor in the movie. So if something goes wrong, you can always cut to the other characters or bring their scenes forward.
Here we had an actress who was constantly putting her body through enormous physical, potentially damaging actions: running through heavily wooded areas, unpaved surfaces, sometimes performing scenes where she had to move continuously for several miles through the locations. So her body and her mental agility were constantly challenged.
But Naomi, being the consummate actress, used her physical deterioration, her discombobulation both physically and mentally — used that to fuel her performance. We planned it so that she could shoot the film in continuity, starting at scene one and going through to the ending. So every day’s experience on the set became the preparation for the next day, as her character was seeking down and going through the events that she was enduring.
Q: Surely there is a lot of physical preparation that Naomi had to go through as well as the emotional element. Did you advise Naomi about the physical preparation prior to that?
PN: Yes, yes yes. Naomi started to run every day to get ready. Although she probably wouldn’t admit it, I know that she was, many days, in extreme pain from her muscles’ tiredness and soreness. But she never mentioned it. She just used it to fuel her performance.
Q: Since the character is constantly moving, all the wardrobe and makeup people have to move at the same rate. So what was it like on the set preparing those people?
PN: Okay, you’ve got the actress, that’s the beginning. Then you’ve got the camera operators. Then you have the AD and the director in another vehicle in front. Then you have the sound recordists sitting in a vehicle with the actors who are playing opposite Naomi on the phone.
Then you’ve got the makeup car, the sound recordists and the grips. It was a convoy that would proceed her. So seven cars in front, seven vehicles — mainly electric-powered vehicles to keep the sound down. Seven vehicles are in front of Naomi as we move along these roads and tracks and so on. Quite complicated.
Of course the great tool that we used often, that we couldn’t have done even 10 years ago, is the drone. Because we got those wonderful overhead shots with the drone that years ago would have required a helicopter and be very expensive. But with a drone that we bought from Best Buy in northern Canada, we were able to get all those amazing shots up above the forest, above the characters.
Q: Was there anything that you came up with on set that helped you move the filmmaking forward?
PN: We had so many different varieties of ways of moving the camera to keep up with her. The best one was a camera on the back of a motorbike, on a trail bike. That’s how we would shoot the shots where she’s running deep into the forest on unpaved ground — that was a motorbike driven skillfully by a Canadian grip. So the motorbike check-back was probably the best invention.
Also we would often use a camera on the end of a very long crane so that we could get the wheels of the tracking vehicle away from the sound. The camera was on the end of the very long crane so the tracking vehicle wouldn’t interfere with the recording of her voice. That was another one that we used. There are a variety of little camera tricks.
But in the end, a camera in the hands of cinematographer John Brawley, was the best recorder of the emotions and the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride that Naomi’s character was going through. Because he was able to dance with her, capturing many sequences that are one-shot sequences where the cinematographer is in sync with the actress in catching the emotions of what she is going through.
Q: What is your take on gun control in America? Parkland students were very eloquent after the school shooting happened. But you don’t hear much about school shootings in other countries. It seems to be a uniquely American problem. What’s your take on that?
PN: It’s not uniquely an American problem. It’s a terrible American problem. In Australia we had a mass shooting incident that was immediately followed by government action. People were forced to turn in their licensed and unlicensed weapons.
So I hope this adds a little to our awareness that “The Desperate Hour” is not a foregone conclusion. We don’t have to endure it. There are ways of avoiding it.
One movie like this cannot change hundreds of years of American history. But maybe it will contribute to the debate.
Q: So what do you want the audience to take away from this film?
PN: Hopefully it just reminds audiences all over the world that it’s not a foregone conclusion that parents have to endure.
Q: Okay, thank you.
Here’s the trailer of the film.