"In Hollywood they think directing a movie is nuclear physics and it can never be mastered by a mere stage director," he said with an amused grin. ''They wanted someone else to direct, and they wanted to shoot it (in the United States). They didn't think it would make any money if it was set in Australia."
Undaunted, Dowling boarded a plane for Sydney in the hopes of raising his budget with joint American-Australian financing. When his prospective American backer died, the Aussies wanted one of their own to direct, not a guy who grew up in Gladwyne.
"It was really quite amazing," he recalled. "I wanted to catch some Australian films while I was over there, so I read the movie listings. Everything was American, and even the art films were Italian. So I can see why there is a lot of resentment."
But David Stevens, who wrote the autobiographical and affectingly funny stage play, "is very much admired in Australia," Dowling said. The English native adopted Australia as his home and co-wrote the Australian hit Breaker Morant.
In addition, Dowling said, "they knew I had fought to keep the film's Australian setting."
Dowling also agreed to an Australian cast and a co-directing credit for the distinguished Australian cinematographer Geoff Burton.
The Sum of Us finally made it to the screen (it's currently at the Ritz at the Bourse), and it proves well worth the wait. The film pairs veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson with rising star Russell Crowe in a movie that turns an issue that has caused many bitter generational collisions into a tale of loving family collusion.
Thompson's Harry Mitchell is a harbor-ferry pilot who not only accepts that his son Jeff (Crowe) is gay, but also takes an active and all-too-intrusive interest in his dates. Outside the Mitchell household, the world is as homophobic as ever, and the film's darker developments involve people who do not share Harry's genial live-and-let-live attitude.
Dowling, who came back to his hometown to talk about his movie recently, believes that the film's Australian location adds a dimension to the story.
"I mean, Aussie and gay seems almost like a contradiction in terms," he suggested in a conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel.
"It upsets all the Crocodile Dundee stereotypes. And Jack Thompson has this tremendous Marlboro Man macho image there: He's the ultimate hetero, red- blooded bloke."
Thompson, whose films include Breaker Morant and The Man From Snowy River, took a considerable chance in agreeing to do Harry Mitchell, Dowling said.
"He's very big in Australia, and a lot of his endorsements, like Fosters Lager and the Bank of Melbourne, are based on his image. And, in a way, his part is more threatening and risky than the gay character that Russell plays," Dowling noted.
"But Jack does what he wants and doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks. He feels that if they don't understand, the hell with them."
In The Sum of Us, Stevens, who won an Oscar nomination for his Morant screenplay, traces two relationships and their impact on father and son. Jeff thinks he has found the real thing with Greg, who works as a gardener. The widowed Harry encourages him while conducting his own quest for a second wife through a dating service. The quiet enclave they have constructed must withstand new pressures when the divorcee Harry is wooing discovers the truth about his son. She is more shocked by Harry's tolerance than by Jeff's sexual orientation.
When Dowling directed The Sum of Us for the stage, Stevens' script included a generous serving of asides in which Harry and Jeff turn to the audience to offer cutting commentary on what's going on. In his most daring move, Dowling refused to follow movie convention and has preserved those passages.
Moviegoers tend to be jolted when a character suddenly starts talking to them, and the device is rarely used effectively. Michael Caine in Alfie is one successful case. The Sum of Us is another.
"I went back to Alfie, which is one of my favorite films," noted Dowling. ''I wanted to review how and why it worked there. My feeling was that Alfie is such a reprehensible character (that) the audience would have hated him if Caine hadn't been talking to the camera. You like him in spite of who he is.
"In The Sum of Us, we went beyond that, and I was excited about breaking up the traditional narrative," he explained. "When Russell and Jack speak to the camera, they're letting the audience know that we're not going to be too serious about all this, and they are also letting them into the character. . . .
"You're pushed out of the story for a moment, and then when you come back into it, you're on a deeper level. . . . You see it used a lot on television, and I don't think younger people have any problem with it at all."
Dowling, who is in the process of moving from New York to Los Angeles with his wife, a TV producer, has also done something unusual in making a gay- themed film that barely touches on AIDS. That, too, was a conscious decision.
"It's funny, but that was talked about more in the reviews when we did the play, with some saying we should have dealt with AIDS more. Between the play and the film, Philadelphia came out as the first mainstream movie about AIDS, and I've found less questions about it now," he said.
"I do think, as you watch this story, it's on your mind that something bad is going to happen to Jeff - and, specifically, it's AIDS that's on your mind. When it gets turned around and it doesn't happen, I think it's obviously a comment on living in the age of AIDS."
Dowling, who studied theater at Oberlin College, has a stage-directing resume that ranges from Picnic and A Moon for the Misbegotten to a musical based on Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners.
Dowling had waited a long time for the chance to step behind the camera, a delay he attributes to the allure of the theater and the frustration of wading through "hundreds of lousy, terribly written scripts."
"Then one day I was just lying on the couch watching a talk show, and a woman who directs theater in L.A. was chatting about the first play by the man who wrote Breaker Morant. I got on the phone right away," Dowling said.
When he finished reading Stevens' script, Dowling did the one thing that ensured he would both direct the play and become the film's Mr. Right. He bought the rights.