As Sony’s summer blockbuster Salt rolls out across Europe, director Phillip Noyce talks about working with Angelina Jolie and why he isn’t ruling out a sequel.

Australian director Phillip Noyce has ratched up an impressive list of credits including Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, The Quiet American, The Bone Collector and Rabbit Proof Fence. Based in Sydney, the Australian director is currently working on a Prague-based spy love story, Wenceslas Square and an adaption of Tim Winton’s novel Dirt Music with Russell Crowe.

The movie has already had a healthy opening in the US…

This is a movie that was made for summertime and we pitched to that time in the American yearly experience where everyone sits back and has fun. We’ve had the big excitement of opening in the US, and reaching $100m domestic.Now it’s about watching as it opens in each country and Angelina is working hard for the movie, going all over the world.

Salt may be a 2010 summer blockbuster, but it has shades of the old fashioned thriller about it…

It does, in as much as it recalls elements of Cold War paranoia, and it harks back to The Manchurian Candidate. It’s also a little bit reminiscent of my own Clear And Present Danger. But it is a post cold war movie in as much as it speculates elements of that furious ideological struggle might still be out there.

It was a case of life imitating art when a group of Russian spies were arrested in New York city recently..

The timing was unbelievable. It was two weeks before the film opened and the news was revealed to me by email by Kurt Wimmer who wrote the screenplay. It seemed as though he had written a false New York Times article, at least I assumed it was false when I read it, because it just seemed so far fetched.

It has certainly taken that first interview question – “do you really expect us to believe there are sleeper spies out there?” – away.  Suddenly that question disappeared off the rosta. It was a relief. Although the unveiling of the fact that there were sleeper spies was not a surprise, the surprise was that it was done so close to the movie. The fact that they were out there, has always seemed to me that it is very obvious to me.

You have your own connections to the spy world. Was that why you were attracted to the project?

My dad was a trainer in Z Special Force, the Australian equivilent to the OSS, the forerunner to the CIS, so I grew up on his stories of espionage, sabotage, assasination. They were very romantic and compelling stories to a youngster growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in Australia. Once I went to Hollywood I became attracted to spy movies and did Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger.

I have always found the idea of sleeper spies to be fascinating and I had been looking for a project that tackled the subject for years. My assistant who was reading scripts for me in LA knew this was what I was looking for, but for almost five years she didn’t come up with one script that she was willing to recommend. Then in 2007 she sent me a eureka email, saying she had found the film, which turned out to be Salt and I responded to it straight away.

In 2008 it crossed my radar again, I was invited to join the project by producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and the team at Sony.

When you came on board the film’s main character was Edwin Salt, not Evelyn Salt…

When I came on board we approached various actors, including Tom Cruise, who flirted with the project, but decided it was a little too close to Mission Impossible. Then Amy Pascal, head of Sony, said, if we can’t find the right guy, let’s turn the guy into a woman. Amy had approached Angelina over the years to play a Bond girl, but her response had been that she wanted to play Bond, not the Bond girl. So Amy sent her the screenplay and said, here’s your Bond. It’s called Salt.

Then Kurt, myself and Lorenzo went over the France for a week and talked to her about the possibilities for the new film and how we would change the role from a man to a woman and what other changes we would make. Angie laid out her ideas for the movie. Being the extremely fearless person that she is, she was willing to commit almost immediately, even though we hadn’t yet completed the script.

You directed Angelina in The Bone Collector in 2000. How was it working with her again after all these years?

If 10 years ago I was her teacher, I quickly realised that this time round I had a lot to learn from her. Particularly in action films, which is an area she has developed a real expertise in.

The big difference, when I first worked with her, she was almost unknown, 10 years later there is almost no one in the world who didn’t know her. She is a genuine superstar, with, potentially, a huge amount of baggage that might weigh her and the process of making the film down.

 But the funny thing was that the person who came through the stage door onto the set, was very similar to the young unencumbered person who I worked with 10 years ago. If she had baggage she checked it at the door. Whatever was going on in her life it never once impeded on her total focus. Maybe she has developed a greater focus as as defence against all the things that could derail her.

What made her right for this role?

She is a directors dream for this kind of movie, in the sense that she is fearless and a genuine adrenaline junkie and she enjoys physical danger, or at least pretending to be in danger. It’s not that she is going to work, she is having fun. I think that comes across in the film.

The conventional construction is that you introduce the hero or heroine and they earn your loyalty, early on in the movie and they retain that loyalty, it is never questioned. In Salt, the whole movie depends on that umbilical cord being constantly almost broken. The audience, as well as her doubters in the story, are constantly questioning whether they believe her or not. That required a very particular type of actor to pull that off. I think that Angie has a coldness that goes to the character and yet a warmth and empathy that allows the audience to be pulled along and their loyalty to be maintained by the most slender umbilical cord.

What changes did you have to make to the script, when the main character went from being a man to a woman?

The original character, Edwin, had a wife and child. But as a mother of 6, Angie was adamant that Evelyn Salt would not have a child, because given the nature of her job, she wouldn’t put a child in emotional or physical jeopardy.

We agreed with her for different reasons. Originally the third act was devoted to the somewhat predictable sequence of Edwin rescuing his wife and child from a coalition of bad guys. A finale you could see coming.

We decided we wanted to make a film that was constantly mutating and if we stopped at any point and turned to the audience and asked what was going to happen next, we hoped that they might be wrong. We hope that people are walking out of the movie still asking questions about the character.

The film’s ending leaves it wide open to a sequel. Will you be directing it?

Who knows who will make it, or if there will be one. I think everyone is waiting to see what the final numbers are on the movie. I’m not saying I won’t. Because I love the character. But there are only so many stories you can tell in your lifetime, maybe I have told this one, I’m not sure. It would be interesting to see what another director did with the character. It’s fun watching a new director take up the baton. For example, Martin Campbell gave us a new type of Bond story and really reinvigorated that character in Casino Royale as did Paul Greengrass with the second Bourne.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on Wenceslas Square, a love story set in Prague about, you guessed it, spies. It’s an independent film which could well shoot in the spring. There is also Dirt Music, which is an Australian love story based on Tim Winton’s novel of the same name, with Russell Crowe. I’m concentrating on those projects, but in this business you never know what’s going to happen!