Chris Noonan is living proof that a hit can be harder to follow up than a flop.
Eleven years after he burst onto the scene with “Babe,” the 53-year-old Aussie has just started directing his second movie, the Beatrix Potter biopic “Miss Potter,” starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
The $30 million pic is shooting in London, the Isle of Man and on location around the U.K., and Noonan has the festive air of a man recently released from a prison of his own devising.
“I’m having a great deal of fun,” he says. “This is the way to live. It makes me wonder, why did I bore myself so long?”
What, indeed, explains his long hiatus?
“Some call it a hiatus, some call it a drought,” he laughs. “I was offered every project under the sun, but I just couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for them. And when I did find something, the producers didn’t want to concentrate on what I found interesting about it.”
When your debut movie earns seven Oscar noms and $250 million at the worldwide box office, “it makes the choice of what to do next all the more difficult,” he admits.
“Previously if I’d been offered something terrible, I would probably have said yes. But once you have made a film that’s successful and liked, you certainly don’t want to make a film that’s unsuccessful and not liked.”
He was particularly determined to avoid any more animal projects. “I knew that would sentence me to a life in the pigsty,” he jokes.
He considered moving to Hollywood, but was too attached to his life in Australia. His wife Glenys Rowe was for several years the general manager of edgy Oz web SBS Independent, until she quit three months ago to accompany him to Blighty.
Noonan spent the past decade shooting commercials, producing the occasional telepic, acting as an uncredited creative adviser on movies by other directors (he modestly won’t say which), and developing his own scripts.
“Miss Potter” came to him via Cate Blanchett, who was originally attached to star. Considering the amount of time that had passed, “I felt there was a certain urgency in making something happen,” he admits. “The script was so emotional, it affected me strongly.”
Even though its heroine is perhaps the most famous writer of talking critter stories (and those animals do briefly spring to animated life in the movie), “Miss Potter” is very much an adult romance — with a tragic twist.
“It’s a movie about a woman with modern values who found herself placed in a time extremely restrictive to women,” Noonan says.
“Miss Potter” has been trying in development for even longer than Noonan has been trying to find his next movie. David Kirschner initiated it 14 years ago as a musical by Richard Maltby, which became a drama when Mike Medavoy, Arnie Messer and David Thwaites of Phoenix Pictures came aboard in 2002 as co-producers.
Financing comes from Summit Entertainment, the U.K. Film Council’s Premiere Fund, the Isle of Man and Grosvenor Park. A North American deal with the Weinstein Co. is reportedly imminent.
Having caught the directing bug again, Noonan promises he won’t wait so long next time. Indeed, he has two projects vying to start as soon as he has finished “Miss Potter” — “Zebras,” about a mixed-race soccer team in South Africa, and “The Third Witch,” a New Line script retelling “Macbeth” through the eyes of a teenage girl. He’s also developing an American movie “Rule of the Bone.”
“I’m going to be lucky to get a holiday after ‘Miss Potter,’ ” he says. But he insists he has no regrets about spending so long to get back in the saddle. “I feel I’ve done the right thing. I’ve been true to myself, and that will be better for my career in the long run.”