The Cannes jury president — a surprise pick for the influential role — opens up about childhood trauma, 'Fury Road's' Oscar haul, his shock at Mel Gibson's meltdown and venturing into comedy (his wife thinks it's to prove to her he's funny).
"Dear George," the text began. "Is this cell number still yours? And is this the best way to reach you? There is something I would like to discuss with you … All my best and happy new year. A bientot, Thierry."
"Thierry" was Thierry Fremaux, the head of the Cannes Film Festival, and on this Jan. 7, at the height of awards-season frenzy — a week before Mad Max: Fury Road would be showered with 10 Oscar nominations and four months before the Riviera event itself would get underway — he was reaching out to George Miller to ask whether the Australian director would be president of this year's jury.
"I said, 'Oh, I'd love to!' " recalls Miller, 71. "I asked Margaret [Sixel, his common-law wife and editor], 'What do you think?' She said: 'Do it, do it, do it!' "
It's hard to imagine a filmmaker who, on the surface, less embodies Cannes' art house ethos. This is a man who reimagined the action genre, whose propulsive vision lifted Fury Road to blockbuster status, earning $378 million globally — more than most Cannes contenders put together.
But sitting with him in a Sydney restaurant one mid-April afternoon, it's difficult to reconcile this benevolent figure with Mad Max's maestro of controlled chaos, a helmer who defines the word "dynamic." With his owlish round spectacles and flying gray hair, he looks more like an academic, or perhaps the doctor he almost became, than the dark master of rapid-fire edits.
"I spent 140 days with him or more, and he is consistently that gracious man," says Charlize Theron, one of his Fury Road stars. "You'd assume that the people who make these films, driven by testosterone and speed and angst, are just tough guys; but there's a gentleness about George and a soft-spokenness about him."
A radical in his work, Miller is conservative in his personal style: He wears a white shirt and blue blazer and owns only a single tuxedo, which he bought 35 years ago. (He's debating whether to buy another one for Cannes.)
When asked about the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, he is direct: "The lack of diversity is sad," he says. "There's no question there were performances and films with a mainly African-American cast that were equally deserving to be there as any of the other films."
He is as happy to talk about books as film (he favors nonfiction and is reading The Road to Ruin, about a former Australian prime minister, having just finished Robert K. Massie's biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman). He's also just as ready to discuss his wife's gardening skills as his own talent.
Miller and Theron on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. “She’s incredibly disciplined,” says Miller. “Always the first on the set and very, very clear about what she wants to do and fearless about her opinions.” ?
"He's a very hard worker, and he thinks very deeply," says Sixel, with whom he has two sons, ages 15 and 20. (He also has an older daughter from a previous marriage.) Then she laughs. "But a lot of the time, he lies on his bed."
The couple, who have been together for a quarter-century, work out of an old Sydney movie theater, where Miller surrounds himself with longtime colleagues, including one of his three brothers, Bob Miller, and Doug Mitchell, his partner in the Kennedy Miller Mitchell company. (His other partner, Byron Kennedy, died in a 1983 helicopter crash.)
Though he lives 7,500 miles away, Sixel says Miller is "completely fascinated" by American politics and follows the ongoing presidential election process daily. He also keeps a prudent distance from Hollywood and knows little about the inner workings of his longtime home, Warner Bros. But he does say, without elaborating, that "we got caught up in the bake-off," when three top executives were being considered as studio chairman, a job that eventually went to Kevin Tsujihara.
He's forthright about some of the controversial people he's dealt with, including Mad Max's originator, Mel Gibson.
"Every time I see him, I always love [him]," he says. "But I remember hearing those tapes when he was talking to his girlfriend [Oksana Grigorieva, at whom Gibson lashed out with volcanic anger during a phone call that was recorded and later leaked to the public]. He was completely out of control. There was something deeply, profoundly enraged. And I was shocked."
He rarely hobnobs with celebrities but says he was impressed by the civility of Australia's most famous citizen, Rupert Murdoch, with whom he has worked in the past.
"We ended up doing about three or four miniseries, and each time they were successful, they'd take us out to dinner," he says. "What was really interesting about Murdoch was: He was very, very polite. I remember we were at dinner, and at a certain point someone whispered, 'You better call Rags.' Rupert "Rags" Henderson was the chief editor of the rival newspaper, this hard-core newspaper warrior, now near 90 and blind. And Rupert, his archenemy, would call him every time he was in Sydney, out of respect."
When Miller takes up his new duties at Cannes, he will have learned from two previous stints as a juror: In 1988, when a jury led by Italian director Ettore Scola gave the Palme d'Or to Pelle the Conqueror; and in 1999, when a jury led by Canadian David Cronenberg awarded it to the starkly minimalist Rosetta.
"It was so interesting in '88," says Miller, describing Cannes' inner workings for the first time, "because there'd been so many stories about [voting] being manipulated during the Cold War." Even though he'd heard tales about Eastern Bloc jurors switching votes amid political pressure, he never saw it. A year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he says: "There was nothing. It was completely hands-off."
Also revealing is his view of the jury's love for Rosetta, which many observers disliked. "It was shown on the second-to-last afternoon," he says. "[Before then] a number of members of the jury were saying they felt depressed because nothing really stood out. Then Rosetta came out. It's a very dour film about a young girl, completely impoverished, who simply will do anything for a job. But ultimately it was so life-affirming. At some point in the final afternoon, Cronenberg said: 'Let's just do a vote to see where we are. What film do you think should win the Palme d'Or?' In 49 seconds, it was a unanimous vote for Rosetta. [Then-festival chief] Gilles Jacob said, 'In all the years I've been at Cannes, I have never seen a decision made so quickly.'"
On the morning of Feb. 28, Miller woke at the Montage Beverly Hills hotel, ready to go to the Oscars.
"I was surprised we'd [gotten] 10 nominations," he says, "and I didn't have any expectations. I knew, having been before, to really temper expectations. People say, 'You're going to win!' and you don't. We had breakfast, just Margaret and I, and [talked about] very mundane things. Margaret is someone who never wears makeup, but she decided a makeup person should come along. She only bought her dress the day before. I said, 'Margaret, why don't you wear the same dress you wore to the BAFTAs?' And she said, 'People will have seen me.' "
Hours later, the couple sat in a front row at the side of the Dolby Theatre as the ceremony got underway, chatting with Louis C.K., who didn't appear to know who they were until the movie started winning awards. "We couldn't hear very much," says Miller. "So I couldn't hear the Chris Rock jokes very well."
Miller (left) and Gibson in 1981 on the set of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. “He was a pure actor,” says Miller. “He had raw charisma.”
He was delighted when Sixel won the editing Oscar and admits he briefly had palpitations as the film began to accumulate awards (it won six in all), only to lose the directing prize to Alejandro G. Inarritu and best picture to Spotlight. Both losses left him unfazed.
Afterward, the couple piled into a car with some colleagues and headed to the Vanity Fair party. They had not been invited. "When Happy Feet won, they said, 'Oh, you can go to any party with the Oscar,' " explains Miller. And Margaret said: 'We've got an Oscar. Here's the Oscar.' " When they arrived, a security guard looked at the statuette with skepticism, then began checking it over, inch by inch.
"I said, 'Why did you check it so carefully?' " recalls the director. "The guard said, 'We've seen two fake Oscars already.' "
At 7, Miller nearly died.
He was born in Brisbane as the son of a Greek immigrant. His father left his native land at age 9 on his own and changed his surname from Miliotis, while his mother's family came to Australia as refugees from Anatolia. Miller grew up in Chinchilla, 200 miles northwest of Brisbane, where his father ran a general market.
One day in the countryside near Chinchilla, he went horseback riding with three friends and decided to escape the heat by taking a dip in a nearby river. "There was a beautiful grass area on the other side, and we said, 'Let's swim across the river,' " he recalls. "What I didn't realize was that the eldest of the boys, who was a top sportsman at school, couldn't swim." When Miller reached the far side, he looked back to see his friend disappearing under the water. "I jumped in, thinking I could really swim well, and I was going to help him get out. And I got to him, and he grabbed me, and we were sinking down."
After a long struggle, Miller lost consciousness, but a cowboy saw them and plunged in with his horse, dragging out the boys. "I woke up just coughing and coughing up water in this very isolated place," he says.
Death, and a heightened sense of life's fragility, exist as eternal givens in Miller's mind. Both were familiar to a kid growing up in the country, where dinner often would be the nearest squawking chicken.
His fierce and often fatalistic imagination was present at an early age. He speaks of "night terrors" he experienced after being sent off to boarding school at age 11,"these feelings of having done something so irrevocable, you don't even know what it is, but you can never recover from it. I had a deep sense of terror. And there were always these strange little dreams, recurring dreams of a man on a horse riding across a desert landscape, and the landscape started to move and he got swallowed up."
Miller wound up going to medical school, but there he began to explore other interests. "I really did like studying medicine, but I started to see myself in flux," he says. "I did drama and philosophy, and that opened up. There was a film society, so I started to go. I started to paint like crazy."
He recounts one haunting memory from his residency in Sydney. One night, following a terrible car crash, five people were rushed to the ER. "There was a young girl they brought in," he says. "She had a rubber blanket around her, and I lifted it and couldn't even make out what should have been her legs, she was so badly crushed." He struggled to insert an IV but couldn't find a vein that would take it in her arm, and so he inserted it in her neck. "She was conscious the whole time," he adds. "She kept saying, 'Die me.' A priest was there, and he kept shouting, 'Say you're sorry!' He didn't want her to go to purgatory or wherever. She was wheeled into the operating room and died that night."
Miller and Sixel, his editor and common-law wife, at this year’s Academy Awards, where Fury Road won six Oscars. Says Miller, “We knew each other for a long time before we fell in love — it was through work.”
Eight years later, she came back in a dream. "Her head was severed except for a flap of skin," he says. "She was saying, 'Die me!' I couldn't understand how she could talk."
Dreams, and the language of dreams, pervade Miller's best work. At one point in Fury Road, when his characters are enveloped by a dust storm, the grainy sky turns blood red, as if their inner emotional life has stamped the very planet, leaving naturalism behind.
Miller fell in love with film as a child, when he was in and out of a local theater that played everything from 1940's Pinocchio to 1951's The Thing, a picture his parents forbade him to watch but found its way into the deep recesses of his imagination when he snuck beneath the theater and listened to every sound as the story unfurled.
While at medical school, he helped his brother Chris make a short. "It was shot over a weekend," he recalls. "There was a Marcel Marceau-type clown on a bicycle, being chased by five nuns on motorbikes. I thought it was very funny." He was fascinated to see the film come alive in the editing and even more when he watched it in front of an audience. "The laughs never died. It was such an exhilarating moment because it only happened through the cutting, and I never expected it. It really alerted me to the notion of rhythm."
When Chris won a place at a weekslong film course in Melbourne, George was determined to talk his way in and set out for the school on his Honda 90 motorbike. It was 500 miles away, and when he got there and told the school administrator what he had done, she was so impressed (or shocked) that she allowed him to study there, too.
After taking various jobs on film sets and even as a construction worker, Miller, at age 31, raised the money to make the low-budget Mad Max. Actor James Healey had been Miller's original choice for the role of Max, but Healey declined, and Mel Gibson impressed in an audition. In the film, the director's style hatched fully formed, a kinetic, explosive assault on the senses. With its rampaging camera and split-second editing, it contrasted a bleak future with a giddy, vertiginous joy in being alive.
"Even in quiet moments, there's movement," says Courtenay Valenti, executive vp creative development and production at Warner Bros. "There's never a stasis reached. He's always trying to push cinema so that the audience can connect on a deep, visceral level with his characters."
That, says Miller, "is something I was doing without thinking about it. Unconsciously, I was trying to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. But it takes a lot to move a camera and then coordinate that movement with the actors because you've got many more movable parts." The film polarized critics — The New York Times called it "ugly and incoherent, and aimed, probably accurately, at the most uncritical of moviegoers" — but two decades later, the paper put it on a list of the best movies ever made. Meanwhile, audiences loved the picture, which ultimately grossed more than $100 million.
He followed with two sequels (1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and then made such different films as the black comedy The Witches of Eastwick (1987), the medical drama Lorenzo's Oil (1992), Babe and the Oscar-winning Happy Feet.
In 2001, he returned to Mad Max in an abortive effort that reteamed him with Gibson. "We were about 11 weeks from preproduction," he says. "The deal was never finished, and then 9/11 happened, and overnight everything changed."
Tom Hardy, who took over as Max in Fury Road when Miller returned to the franchise in 2014, "made a point of getting together with Mel over dinner, sort of a handover of the role," he says, pausing to put his thoughts about Gibson into words. "And it was Tom who said: 'You can bet however bad he feels about the other person [Grigorieva], he feels way worse about himself. A profound sense of remorse.' I've never talked to Mel about what he's feeling inside at those moments, and I never saw it when he was young, [though] I did see him have a lot of trouble with the sudden adoration."
After the insanity at Cannes, Miller will get back to the work he loves and the lifestyle that's comfortably removed from too much fuss.
The filmmaker is well into writing a new script but prefers not to reveal its title or plot. ("George says I don't think he's funny," says Sixel. "So he's writing a comedy just to prove it.") This will be his next project, he hopes, on a much smaller scale than Fury Road.
He intends a follow-up to the latter, using an already written screenplay or an adaptation of a novella by co-writer Nick Lathouris: "There is a strong possibility [I'll direct it], but not next."
He is helping two young filmmakers with their documentaries and absorbing others' work. He particularly admires Breaking Bad. "When people come and ask, 'Should I go to film school?' " he tells them: "Look, the best thing you can do is sit and watch the 63 hours of Breaking Bad 10 times and each time concentrate on one of the elements — the writing, the camera, the unfolding story, the acting, the music, the sound."
His openness to others' ideas remains undimmed, his intellect roaming across politics and medicine, history and technology. He speaks with a contagious pleasure about listening to Eubie Blake's ragtime, just as he does the work of Buckminster Fuller, a man he first heard speak when Miller still was a student.
"I went to a lecture [of his] in 1968 or '69," he says. "Those two hours completely opened the doors of perception. They were [about] things I was ineptly struggling with, a worldview I couldn't articulate. Up to that point, I'd always felt I was doing what was expected of me. I was still a good boy. Then he said, somewhere in the middle of his lecture — it sounds very simple — 'I am not a noun. I seem to be a verb.' He went on to say the evolutionary process [is] an integral function of the universe. And in those three or four sentences, he described who we are as humanity."
It's a description that applies as much to Miller's work as to any human endeavor, a forward momentum, a belief in endless and blessed change, that can be felt in each frame of his films. "Everything is dynamic," he says, drawing on Fuller. "Everything changes, nothing is static. That's the big thing: Everything is verbs."
This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.