Interview: Director Phillip Noyce Tackles Science Fiction with The Giver


Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce has been a fairly prolific and diverse creative force since making his debut in the early ?70s, really hitting his stride during the ?90s with two Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, both starring Harrison Ford. Since then, he’s been involved with a number of political thrillers including Angelina Jolie’s 2010 hit Salt, but now he’s entering new territory with The Giver.

Although the original 1993 bestseller by Lois Lowry involves some of the same political undercurrents that have always been present in Noyce’s work, it’s also his first straight-out science fiction movie, taking place in an alternate world where society has been repressed in order to try to create the perfect crime-free community, overseen by the Elders. From out of that community, a young man named Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites from Maleficent) finds himself encountering a mysterious figure named “The Giver” (Jeff Bridges) who imparts him with memories that will open Jonas’ eyes to how the world used to be and how that may have been better. Another Oscar-winning actor, no less than Meryl Streep, takes on the role of Chief Elder. got on the phone with Noyce a few weeks back to talk about his foray into science fiction and the world of young adult novels. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but you’d been developing other things over the years. What made you finally want to come on board an adaptation of this book?
Philip Noyce:
It was a book that I was aware of from my two daughters who had read it in high school and once I read the book, that’s what convinced me. It’s like a book of emotions and ideas and a contemplation about how we might live our lives with a lot of twists and turns and a great hero, two great heroes really, the Giver and the Receiver in parts played by Jeff and by Brenton Thwaites. Great roles, but mainly because it was a book of ideas.

CS: Most of your movies so far have been rounded or had some basis in reality. This is straight-out science fiction in some ways, so can you talk about going in that direction?
It’s science fiction but it’s a science fiction that could be, as opposed to science fiction that could never be. (chuckles) It’s future prediction. After some great cataclysmic event, which changed the world, we find ourselves in a future society that has tried to avoid all the conflicts that almost might have led us to the brink of destruction in the past. But it’s probably going to happen sadly, throughout history and now. Half the conflicts or the true wars, restrictions that were tried to do to Germany after the first World War how successful that was. We’re always trying to codify human behavior in little ways and in big ways, whether it’s by taking action, prisons, sanctions on an international level, warfare, we’re always trying to defend the way we live. People try and live natural lives, but even they run up against the war, so this is a future world that’s tried to program and regulate the way we live our lives in order to avoid conflict. It has certain advantages and certain disadvantages. As we see in any respected society, any of those experiments in restricting humanities, the actual urges, whether it’s the former Socialism or the former Communism, we’ve seen these ideas sometimes prosper, as in semi-socialistic society like the United Kingdom and Australia, and sometimes practiced in Canada, and we’ve seen other failures like Communism in North Korea to the Soviet Socialist Republic.

CS: There are definitely some interesting parallels to what’s been going on in the world, so were you involved with this from the very beginning or was there something already being developed before you came on board?
It had been developed for 20 years almost by Jeff Bridges and then for 15 years by Nikki Silver in partnership with Jeff Bridges, so I was very much a johnny-come-lately to the project. Another factor in that was Harvey Weinstein. Harvey had bought the rights to the novel. He believed in it. His enthusiasm tends to be pretty contagious. He’s a guy who succeeded by never underestimating the intelligence of the moviegoing audience, quite the opposite. (laughs)

CS: Doing a movie based on a book, I imagine that it has a million or more fans and there’s part of adapting it where you have to appease and keep the fans happy. How much pressure does that add and how much do you want to change things to surprise them since they’ve read the book and might know what to expect from the movie?
The basic story of the book is exactly the same story. There was some consternation on the internet when the first trailer came out and it seemed to promise that the whole movie was going to be in color. In the novel, people can only see black and white. All of their sensory perceptions have been restricted, but as people have been following the various trailers know by now, the movie sticks pretty closely to the color scheme set up by Lois Lowry. All the other changes that we made?and there’s always going to be changes?we made in partnership with Lois Lowry, who was deeply involved in advising us as the script was written, and came to the set and advised us on costumes, on design elements. Of course, in any adaptation, there will always be changes, there always are, particularly because when you’re in a visual media, you can sometimes insert things that could take a thousand words. So Lois kept a pretty close eye on what we were doing.

CS: I want to ask about the black and white thing, because the most recent trailer was very striking because of that. We don’t see a lot of movies made in black and white and when you do, they get a lot of attention for that reason. Making that decision to do that, was that something done early on? That it was always going to be like that and that was important?
Yes, it was always going to be that way. Almost half the movie? well, a good part of the movie is in black and white, and it changes from black and white to color according to the lead character’s changing perception of the world, and that’s exactly what happens in the book. That lead character Jonas, whose chosen to receive every memory is introduced to color by The Giver, Jeff Bridges’ character, and then increasingly starts to see this full spectrum of color around him and the audience starts to see things in color as well. So his and our perception of the story gradually changes throughout the movie. The story and character influences everything.

CS: Jeff Bridges was involved from the beginning, but getting someone like Meryl Streep? When she was cast, it was surprising, maybe because she only does one or two movies a year?if that?so do you know what convinced that caliber of actors to get involved? Did they like the book, the script?
She loved the book and she loved the script. She was intrigued by the character, a woman who so loves the place that she lives that she fights to retain the status quo that she believes is the foundation of that society. As I said, it’s a story that’s set sometime in the future after some sort of cataclysmic event has almost destroyed the world. Our story is set in a community that’s made up of the humans that have survived and rebuilt. To avoid the problems of the past, they have accepted a code of living, which is Draconian but it’s there to avoid conflict. This is a society that is free of conflict, free of pain, free of everything, but has no crime, so for the Meryl Streep character, Chief Elder, this is a world she’s willing to fight for.

CS: Because this movie is based on a novel presumably for young adults, it’s being lumped in with them, but what do you think sets this apart from those other movies, whether it’s “Hunger Games” or “Divergent” or “The Maze Runner”?
Well, the first thing that sets this film apart is of course that they all followed. (laughs) They’re the copycats. But the audience has to judge what sets it apart. I think you’ll find that both the look and feel of this movie is entirely different to any of those films that you mentioned.

CS: I don’t always agree with Jeff Wells, but I do agree with him that I’m more intrigued by the movie because you’re directing it. What about some of these other projects you’re developing? Do you still have a lot of work to do on this first of all?
Another four weeks of intense work, yeah.

CS: Are there other projects you’ve been developing that you’d like to go back to?
After that, I’ll be doing an adaptation of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” which we plan to shoot in the new year. I’ve been working on it for the last 11 years with Gary Lucchesi at Lakeshore.

CS: What finally got “American Pastoral” moving forward after 11 years?
We found Ewan McGregor, who plays “Swede,” and we all agreed that it was looking for the right actor for the lead role.

CS: And the script was pretty much done and ready to go even before you found Ewan?
Yeah, yeah, the screenplay has been in development all those 11 years. It’s written by John Romano, a beautiful adaptation.

CS: That’s great. What happened with “Dirt Music” with Russell Crowe?
You know, I could never get a script that I thought captured the poetry of the novel, and there’s the problem. A poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie. It’s a project I’ll come back to I’m sure in the future.

CS: It’s been four years since “Salt” and you’d been a very prolific director up until that point.
Well, since “Salt,” I then took time off to create two TV shows, “Revenge” on ABC and “Crisis” on NBC.

You can hear what else Noyce had to say about why he didn’t direct Salt 2 and what happened with some of the other projects he was attached to by reading this.

The Giver opens nationwide on August 15. Look for interviews with some of the cast before then.

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