`Lawn Dogs', like the forth- coming `Lolita', touches on the theme of child abuse. But, for director John Duigan, the sexual tension comes from the audience's own preconceptions

Somehow a smart penthouse flat in Bloomsbury is not where you expect to find film-maker John Duigan. From his first film Flirting to the sensuous blockbuster Sirens, the director has explored the theme of man versus nature, wilderness versus civilisation. He's at it again in his latest movie, Lawn Dogs (right). Set in rural Kentucky, the film explores the friendship between Trent, a free-spirited young man who scrapes a living mowing lawns and Devon, a lonely girl who lives on the gated estate where he works. Based around a dark fairytale, the film is rich with Duigan's painterly compositions and a discreet magical realism.

"I like to anchor a film in reality," says Duigan. "But remind an audience that there's all manner of magic available in the world. Because the central characters in this film are not as fully socialised as others in the community, they have a more primal relationship to the reality around them. I think the more swallowed up we are by the manufactured reality of society, the more cut off we become from nature. As children we see in a more unadulterated way."

In Kentucky, Duigan found a newly-built suburb that fitted his vision of Devon's hermetic estate perfectly. To create a rather sterile, empty eeriness, the director was keen that the audience never saw any people apart from those in the script, or any cars. "In fact, that wasn't difficult," he smiles. "Because you hardly ever do see people at those places. They go to work at the beginning of the day, park their car in the garage at night and don't come out of their houses."

As well as portraying the equivalent of a walled city, the film touches upon the very "realist" theme of child abuse. Lawn Dogs is one of a number of recent films, including Leon and the yet to be released Lolita, that features the relationship of a young girl with an older man. Why does Duigan think this subject currently fascinates film-makers?

"I think in the case of those films there is much more of a sexual component to the story," he says. "Initially, when casting Devon, we thought we may have to get an older girl of 14 or 15, but as soon as we began to audition girls of that age the film became quite different. The chemistry changed and there was a more self-conscious dimension of sexual tension." With 10-year-old Mischa Barton in the role, Duigan says the tension comes instead from audience expectation. "The audience is edgy because they think that this seemingly nice guy is inevitably going to end up doing something awful," says Duigan. "Viewers bring to the film the burden of issues that are constantly in the media."

The son of an RAF father, Duigan grew up in England until the age of 10, moved to Malaya and subsequently on to an Australian boarding school, where he was "persecuted for having a plummy accent". Could this be where he finds his fascination and sympathy for the outsider? "I've always been interested in misfits," he admits. When studying at university, Duigan indulged in a spot of undergraduate acting. Only while starring in a friend's experimental film did the fledgling thespian realise he wanted to direct. "I was cast in this silly surrealist scene which involved me running around naked," he reveals. "One day of the shoot, the director had invited all his friends to come and watch. It was drizzling and cold and rather, erm, unflattering. I soldiered on, but when I saw the boom swinger standing there looking down at me sniggering - that was the moment I thought I could probably have more fun on the other side of the camera."

Most of the acting Duigan does now is in post-production, "doing background conversations and animals. On my very first film, I did a whole herd of cows." Given the director's pastoral fantasies the idea of him lowing in an editing suite is rather touching. But for the moment that's as close as the Bloomsbury-bound director will get to the wilderness of his films.

`Lawn Dogs' is released on 21 Nov