November 15, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

The time came for Phillip Noyce to submit to chance.

The ’90s had been great. Noyce had enjoyed a fat decade as one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors. Ever since the splash of 1989’s Dead Calm, the seafaring thriller that had launched him (and another obscure Australian named Nicole Kidman) into the mainstream, Noyce had sailed into a safe harbor, making big movies (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, Sliver, The Bone Collector) with big stars (Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, Denzel Washington). ”I loved it in Hollywood,” he says now. ”It seemed too good to be true. They kept on giving me projects, and I was just the kid who couldn’t say no.”

Then one day he said no. The project was The Sum of All Fears. Noyce had powered two Tom Clancy war-wonk nail-biters to box office hugeness — $400 million dollars worldwide — but as he developed Fears, he just…balked. ”Everything that was overblown — I mean big — about that movie started to get to me,” says Noyce, 52. ”The budget was $100 million. That’s 100 million headaches. The star system, even the predictability of success, was starting to get to me. It all seemed too easy. I thought I was on a conveyor belt.”

So he got off. By accident, while traveling in Vietnam years earlier, Noyce had stepped out of a store with a different book than he’d intended to buy. It was Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American. Meanwhile, also by chance, a woman had been hounding Noyce to read her script. It had a strange title: Rabbit-Proof Fence. So in a Soderbergh-style double play, Noyce has two Oscar-baiting movies coming out simultaneously and serendipitously this month: The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence.

He certainly didn’t plan this. He ignored the Fence screenplay for months — he suspected writer Christine Olsen might be a ”script stalker” — but when he finally caved in, he was transported. Fence is the true story of three biracial Aboriginal girls snatched away from their mothers by the Australian government — something that was common practice until 1971, part of a bizarre program to integrate ”half-castes” into the white world. The girls trick their captors, flee into the outback, and try to find their way home. ”It seemed to be the antidote to everything that was ailing me,” Noyce says. ”It was a film without stars. It was a film where the story was so simple. Most importantly, it was a film that touched me personally.”

As Noyce moved Down Under from his L.A. home to make a tiny film with, as he puts it, ”no budget,” he got a green light to direct The Quiet American. Ever since 1995, when he’d opened the novel to alleviate a slow train ride through Vietnam, Noyce had been obsessed with Greene’s graceful, pungent tale of an English reporter locking horns with a callow Yankee diplomat on the cusp of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. With Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser finally lined up for the leads after Noyce had spent half a decade struggling to get backing for the film, he knew he needed to move fast — or risk losing his opportunity. Days after wrapping Fence in Australia, he flew to Vietnam to shoot American. ”I can tell you that making The Quiet American on a $33 million budget in a nation that hasn’t seen a Western film like this ever in history is no small feat,” Fraser says. ”The scope of that rivals any quote-unquote big Hollywood film. It took a brigadier general to go in and get this job done, and that’s who Phillip Noyce is.”

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