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HOGGING SPOTLIGHT

How do you follow “Babe,” the innovative talking animals saga that was the sleeper of the U.S. summer? That’s the happy dilemma facing Chris Noonan, its director and co-writer with George Miller.

Noonan is painstakingly reading through the 40 scripts with which he has been inundated after “Babe,” his debut feature. He’s made no decision yet, except to rule out “another cutesy animal family film,

The Universal pic has turned the filmmaker into a hot commodity 17 years after helming his first telepic. Noonan, 42, made his reputation in Australia in the 1980s writing and directing gritty miniseries “Vietnam” and “Cowra Breakout” and telepic “The Riddle of the Stinson,” all for Miller’s production company.

A month before the barnyard fable was released, Noonan was courted by the major U.S. talent agencies, and he opted to sign with United Talent Agency’s Barry Mendel. Mendel took his client to a series of highpowered meetings with such luminaries as Bill Mechanic (Fox), Peter Guber (Mandalay), Lisa Henson (Columbia), Sidney Sheinberg (the Bubble Factory) and execs at Universal, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, Imagine and Caravan Pictures.

Virtually all the mavens were buzzing about “Babe,” and many thrust scripts at him. Noonan took soundings on two pictures he’s developing, a thriller and a romantic comedy, but says it’s likely he’ll first do one of the projects offered.

“A lot of doors have opened for me,” he said. He credits Miller with being “my creative guide” on “Babe.” “He wasn’t around the shoot very much, but in the lead-up and in post-production he was very influential. He was always contactable: Through the process I could lean on him, and I did all the time.”

Noonan is sure his next pic will be a departure from “Babe” so “it will define me more broadly.” He has agreed to promote the film in some overseas territories for distrib UIP, which plans December release dates, so he can’t start another project until next year.

He’d prefer to work on something that can be made in Australia although he expects that “sooner or later” a project will arise that will take him overseas. But he intends to keep Sydney as his base.

His visits to the exec suites at the studios cleared up at least one misconception he’d had about Hollywood. “I did not expect to meet as many people as I did that I liked,” he says.

The son of an author and book reviewer, Noonan was encouraged by his father to go to film fests at an early age. “I first went to the Sydney film festival when I was 16, and the legal age (for admission) was 18,” he says.

At 16 he directed “Could It Happen Here?” a spoof on high school life, which won a prize at the Sydney fest’s short film competition. He did the Australian Film and Television School’s directors’ course with classmates Phillip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong, then spent five years shooting docus and shorts at Film Australia.

“Babe” opened in the U.S. Aug. 4. The next day, Noonan and his partner of 13 years, producer Glenys Rowe, got hitched at the Graceland chapel in Las Vegas. An Elvis impersonator sang at the wedding.

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