Film Review - September 1993





Palaeontologist of the year, Sam Neill discusses his recent career with Tony Crawley in Cannes


"I feel like I've been in something that is of a profound and permanent place in cinema history," says Sam Neill "I really believe that." Sorry, Steven. Sam Neill is not talking about Jurassic Park. He has five new films opening, he likes them all for different reasons, and the one that he loves most, Jane Campion's Cannes festival winner The Piano, places him in the quite unique position of starring in not only the year's biggest runaway box-office success, but they year's top art movie as well.

This is the very best of Neill's 16 acting years. His career - he scoffs at the word - has taken him from a university triumph as Macbeth and directing documentaries on favourite subjects like architecture, ski-ing and being pushed into the big time by James Mason, who paid Neill's way from down-under to an Elstree screentest. From acting all over the world - The Omen's third Damien and Reilly-Ace of Spies - to meeting Pope John Paul II and working with such superstars as Meryl Streep and Isabelle Adjani.

Potential Hits

The New Zealander (born in Northern Ireland in 1948) has more potential hits in the can."I've been a little busy," he agrees.

Since completing the French-financed Piano last May in New Zealand, he's played the Kiwi detective cracking the case of The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior - minus any French money! Plus: Family Pictures with Anjelica Huston.succeeding William Hurt and Tim Robbins in Jurassic Park and when we met in Cannes he'd just arrived from the Blue Mountains of Australia and John Duigan's Sirens. Neill plays the painter Norman Lindsay - "a very good subject to pick, given that his sole subject was women with very little if no clothing on. Good fun!"

Once the current Spielbergmania fades - just a tad - he's off to Paris for Amber Man. With a double credit: Star and script consultant.

You will, therefore, understand the frown on the familiar Neill features, when I began:

OK, let's talk about the movie.
"Sure. Which one?"

In fact, how do you psyche yourself up, regain the mood of a film made two three or more movies ago? Check your script for notations, watch a cassette, examine your diary, ask your wife for ideas?
Sometimes there's no time to think.  You have to just get off the plane, walk across the tarmac.and start work. I've not seen all of Jurassic Park yet, but it's not as full of blood and gore as the book was.  I did see The Piano about two months ago and it had an overwhelming emotional effect on me which I still can't quite get to grips with.  Just seeing the pain my character goes through, the agony and ecstasy of it all, affected me very strongly.  It's the kind of film I've always wanted to do -like the love story that you've always fantasised about.

It's easy to imagine the familial intimacy of making The Piano, everybody's so keen you're all helping to carry lights and cameras around - and then, what eight months later you're in the middle of Spielbergia, a vastly different ball game.



New Zealand

"When I made Sleeping Dogs in 1977, none of us had ever made a feature film before! I was directing documentaries at the time when Roger Donaldson gave me the lead role. Everybody was doing it for the first time - everybody! - but it lead to my 'Brilliant Career' and everything else. Now I must say, New Zealand crews are fantastically professional. The Piano's crew as good if not better than any crew in the world. But, obviously, when you're working on a big Hollywood studio film, the crew's much bigger, so are the logistics - and so is the trailer! But the job is the same.

Even with a legend like Spielberg?
Somebody who knew him told me once: "Spielberg is much nicer than he needs to be." That's quite perceptive. He's a delightful man, a really good director. He's fast, too - like an express train! We finished nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. But what really surprised me about Steven is how interested he is in actors - and what actors can give. I thought these sort of films would be all storyboarded and the actors would be simply part of the machine. But all the time Steven is open and spontaneous to whatever's happening. So things are always changing - it's a very volatile situation on the floor. That was very surprising. And gratifying!




How do you describe your hero, the paleontologist Alan Grant...
Just an average sort of a guy. And that's always the hardest to play. The straighter the part, the harder it is. Much easier to be an allout villain.

There was another surprise. Didn't you get caught in the hurricane.
Oh yeah, we went through Hurricane Iniki. It was fairly alarming! But my wife and three children had left Hawaii by then, so I didn't have my family to worry about. Only me and the film people.

Your family knew it was coming?
No one knew it was coming! I got up for work one morning and went out to the cars and they said: "We're not sure if we're going to work this morning. We've had a bit of a hurricane warning. We think it's going to be all right, we don't know... Just hold on a minute, have a coffee and wait around." Half-an-hour later they said: "We're not going to work today. The hurricane has turned course and is heading for us." Five hours later, we were battened down underneath the hotel in Kauai and by 3pm the eye of the hurricane was overhead. Very fast!

You were in the basement?
No, it was a room like this, like a ballroom or something. And the noise of the thing was incredible -like being under a train. If it had gone on much longer, the hotel would have been destroyed - the water was already pouring in...

What about the dinosaurs?
From what I've seen - and know - some of them you'll love. Others will terrify you! Like Tyrannosaurus Rex.




You're such an itinerant actor. Where's home? Where do you bed the kids and hang your paintings these days?
[Laugh]. They've been in Los Angeles for a couple of years. I rent a house there. But, shit, how could Los Angeles be home to anybody! My main home is... I never say where... but it's somewhere south of Timaroo. I consider myself as a Pacific Rim dweller!

Wasn't there some talk of you doing Schlinder's List straight after Jurassic?
No - and that would have been a bad idea!

Well, you're hardly short of movies. Why are you working so hard?
I think - but don't tell anyone - you really cannot work an actor too hard. It's not like being a coal-miner. There's a lot of sitting around in caravans. It's not the most onerous job in the world. After all, most people work 49 or even 50 weeks in year. Last year, I worked 50 weeks or something and I don't think there's anything particularly exceptional about that. I feel like I'm working at capacity - and I'm enjoying it. When I stop enjoying it, I'll take a holiday. Really, I couldn't be more happy about the ways things are going.



Major Boost

So the career's A-OK!
Well, I don't think of myself as having a 'career'. I've never charted a career course. I just sort of bumble about from one job to the next. I've had some wretched moments in some wretched places but I'm quite firm these days. I don't take any shit.

You refuse many films?
If they're boring - or nasty shoot-em-ups. My agent might consider them lucrative and career-enhancing but there has to be something in it for me. But I still work a lot and I love what I do. No man could ask for more than to be able to do what he loves.

Obviously, Jurassic Park is going to be a major boost for you... providing more good parts to keep you working for... 70 weeks a year!
To be honest with you, I don't really care. I am just as famous as I want to be. And can walk down the street in Amsterdam, even in Cannes without getting a bad time. I'd like to keep it that way.




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