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Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller says he held a number of private conversations with Stanley Kubrick while making his 1995 movie Babe.
Miller had tried to enlist the Clockwork Orange filmmaker to help develop digital technology; after that, they became regular telephone pals and talked “about everything,” he said on Jan. 29, as a guest in The Hollywood Reporter‘s ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters.
“Every night, we’d sit and talk for a long, long time, and talk about the process, and I knew he was very, very intrigued about what could be happening,” he continued. Among Kubrick’s more interesting revelations: “He told me how he had readers who were reading for him that never knew it was [for] Stanley Kubrick. So if he heard of a novel, he would send it out to … housewives and barristers and all sorts of people. I said, ‘How many people are doing this?’ It was about 30 people.”
Despite their many conversations, the two never met. “His daughter, who was pregnant, gave birth to a child a day or two before [the meeting],” said Miller. “And he had to go down to London.”
Miller, an Oscar winner for the animated Happy Feet and a double nominee this year for producing and directing Fury Road, spoke to students at Loyola Marymount’s School of Film and TV.
Asked about his plans for a Fury Road sequel, he said: “Because this got delayed so often, and we dug down deep into the backstory, Nick Lathouris and I have written two other stories. One is a full script. It doesn’t have a title. And one of them we talked about in great detail and he wrote as a novella.” First, he said, he wants to make “something small and quick.”
He also discussed his less-than-happy experience on 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, which he tried to quit twice.
“Some of the producers were very chaotic in their thinking,” he said. “It kind of got crazy. There was no purpose to [things]. The first mistake I made was, I sat down at a production meeting and they said, ‘OK, where can we cut the budget?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t need a trailer.’ I was always seen as being very polite. And they mistake politeness for weakness. That’s what Jack [Nicholson] told me. He said, ‘Be careful. They mistake your politeness for weakness.'”
Nicholson gave him another piece of advice. “He said, ‘You’ve got to make them think you’re a little bit crazy.'”
A full transcript follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I’m glad to see you wearing your Australian bomber jacket, which you take everywhere with you.
GEORGE MILLER: Well it’s very strange. I’m one of those people who likes wearing the same thing all the time. And believe it or not, this jacket I wore every day on the set of Fury Road. [LAUGHTER] And the day will come when my family will say, “Pease, please, Dad, no more.” And so I’ll find something else to wear.
You change the underwear, I hope?
Yes, I do. [LAUGHS]
That’s very reassuring … So it’s 1945, World War II is just about to end, separating to some degree the first half of the 20th century from the second, the old world from the modern. And you’re born in that year in Australia. Your parents are Greek immigrants. You grow up in a little town called Chinchilla. Let’s talk about the past, because you’re one of the most modern directors I can imagine. But I know nothing about your family’s past. Who were they and how did they end up in Australia?
Wow. My dad left a Greek island called Kythira, right in the middle of the Mediterranean, and he was about 9 or 10. And there was so much of this in the very early 20th century. And he came to Australia. He said goodbye to his mother. Saw her for the last time when he was 9.
Came with relations here, and worked. He had one year of schooling. He was a man obsessed with education, so — I have three brothers, and of course we all became doctors and one lawyer. So he came and made life in Australia. He went to a place right in the center of Australia, and I couldn’t work out why he loved it so much. A very isolated, dry, flat [place], very hot in summer. And it wasn’t till we went back to the Greek island in the height of summer that I recognized the same dried grass, the same intensity of light, the same sound of the cicadas, and so on. So he found a way of reproducing the life he had as a kid. My mom, however, came out when she was a baby. She’d been in Asia Minor when the Greeks were thrown out by the Turks. And their family came out, and so we grew up basically in remote, rural Australia, with my twin brother and I, and then later my younger brothers. And it was a very, very privileged childhood, because it was a childhood entirely spent in play. There was a Saturday matinee and there was no television. There was radio. We were on our horses in the bush, playing all the time, acting out all the stuff we’d see in the Saturday matinees.
Did you grow up thinking of yourself as Greek? Did you speak Greek?
Every year, we’d come down to Sydney where my grandmother was. And we learned baby Greek. So, you know, if I speak Greek, it’s always like an infant’s Greek. But I didn’t, because there were no other Greek people in the area where we lived. I didn’t grow up feeling Greek, part of Greek culture, but I realized that my father reproduced the kind of life he had in the islands, so that every Sunday, in particular, there was a table at lunch with 25 people. And they’d come from all over the countryside. And the great thing about those cultures is, they were multigenerational. There’d be the babies and the grandmothers and so on. But they’re all Australian. They’re all country folk from Australia. And it wasn’t until later that I went back to the Greek island that he came from, when I realized that he was absolutely reproducing the life he always had, or the life he was longing for, actually. The other thing, I think, that might have influenced me unconsciously was that the Greeks are very steeped in storytelling.
Greek mythology influenced you enormously.
Yes. I work basically in that area. My films one way or the other are fables or mythological stories. And I really got onto the idea, like so many filmmakers, of Joseph Campbell, and really got to understand — not so much the hero myth, but just the way he tried to elucidate the purpose of us telling stories and the function of story and the function of mythology. It was familiar. It was something I naturally took to. I don’t know whether there’s a connection there.
Did you have a favorite Greek myth or character growing up?
There was The Odyssey. And I always, always loved that. But I love the notion that there were gods; there were hybrids between gods and men. Fallible gods. It was a pantheistic tradition, Greek, Roman, in many, many cultures. And what’s really interesting to me is that the modern superhero myths are the latest incarnation of that. I find that really interesting.
You were going to direct a couple of them: Man of Steel 2, Justice League. What happened?
Justice League was the main one. That was, oh, seven years ago, I think. And there was a really great script. And Warners said, “Let’s do it. Let’s do a Justice League.” I really was attracted to it. But there was a writers strike looming. We had to cast it very quickly, which we did with Warners‘ casting people. And we cast it really quickly and we mounted it very quickly. And it depended on a start date and it depended on some basic rebate legislation that had just got through a new Australian government. But it was just too big a decision for them to make in the time. And that fell through and the whole film fell through. We almost got there. And it wasn’t to be. But that happens a lot, where films line up and the stars look like they’re aligning and they didn’t.
Which happened to Fury Road. For years.
It happened to Fury Road three times.
Which film most impacted you as a kid? When you were going to those Saturday matinees.
Did you say film or films?
If you want to name more than one, that’s OK.
Well, it was the experience of the Saturday matinee. I don’t know if they still have anything like that. [TO AUDIENCE:] Do you know what the Saturday matinee is? The Saturday matinee, there’d be the serials, which were ongoing serials, and then there were the cartoons. And it was like a smorgasbord. And there was often the A feature and the B feature. Usually a Western, or if it was a big film, it had an interval, like Hateful Eight. You’ve got to remember, that place out there was flat and often dusty and there was the heat haze, and so on. And then you’d go into these dream worlds. It was an extraordinary thing. And so that very experience was fantastic. And I remember in Australia, we used to have candy, which were called Jaffas, which were sort of hard sugar on the outside and chocolate on the inside. And people used to roll them down the wooden floors of the cinema and it was just one of the games we’d always play. [LAUGHS]
What a waste of good candy! We couldn’t afford that in England.
It used to start with people, you know, spilling them and then people would just roll the candy down. It was a festival every weekend. And every kid would just turn up. But the movies — there were none that stuck in my mind, except I remember the movie The Thing, the Howard Hawks Thing. And some distributor, some really clever person, took a box in front of the cinema, just like one of those old pirate’s chests. Painted it black. And wrote on it The Thing in white paint that was dripping a bit and put a big chain around it. And as kids, we’d leave school and we’d race down there and just stare at this box, obviously an empty box, and wonder, what was The Thing? And that’s all it was. I mean, it sounds so simple. But we were just fascinated. And the town divided into two types of kids: those whose parents said, “Yeah, you can go and see The Thing.” And those who said, “No, no, we don’t think The Thing‘s for you.” Anyway, my parents — we were a bit young, and my parents thought that we shouldn’t go. My twin brother and I shouldn’t go and see The Thing. But we snuck underneath the cinema and right underneath the screen at the back. And we listened to The Thing. And it was so illicit that it was the most exciting thing we could possibly do. And it was really, really interesting when I finally saw the movie. It was never as good as what we had [no picture].
My mother was a teacher, and she would teach night school occasionally, and then I would stay up and watch something on British TV called Play for Today. You’ve directed for the BBC, so you know. Didn’t you do Vietnam for the BBC?
Yeah, we did.
I wasn’t allowed to stay up beyond a certain hour. and I’d watch these unbelievable things written by Dennis Potter. But I could never watch the end, because I’d hear my mother’s car coming home. So they retained a mystery. You’ve said that going to those movies was more inspiring than religion. Were you religious? Are you religious today?
What was the first part you said?
I said that with an English accent so it’s hard to understand.
Yeah! [LAUGH] I’ve got an Australian ear.
Between the two of us we could pretend to talk, and they wouldn’t know, you know? [LAUGHTER] You said it was more awe-inspiring than religion, and I wanted to know if you were religious then, and if you are now.
I was as a kid, because it was part of the culture. Because I first went to a Catholic school. And I was christened in the Greek Orthodox Church. I went to a Catholic school at first, then a public, non-religious school. Then the church we attended was Anglican. But as time went on, like so many people, I found my own way to be, I guess, spiritual. I have very strong sense of the interconnectedness of things. But there’s no formal religious belief that I practice. But I do believe — and this again is from Joseph Campbell — when he was asked what’s the best definition of mythology, he said: other people’s religion. And it kind of makes sense, because there’s something that compels us collectively as human beings to find meaning in the universe. I mean, we can’t exist without that. And we do it through stories and narratives in order to explain the universe to ourselves. Or life to ourselves. And in all cultures across all time and space as humankind, we do that. We do that spontaneously. And I think that’s the function of storytelling, and some stories are so compelling, they become mythologies and indeed religions.
I’m just fascinated to see Star Wars, because I remember seeing it when it was just Star Wars. And now it’s become a modern mythology.
And not only that, I’m told that people get married as Jedi. [LAUGHTER] They do! The British.
Not British, I promise you. [LAUGHTER]
It’s a census. When people are asked to put down their religion, they say Jedi. A certain percentage.
That’s British humor. That’s like when they say, “Satanic,” you know, they don’t mean it. Hopefully.
I’m sure a lot of it is humorous, but people see this as legitimate. They take it seriously.
Do you pray?
I have a kind of magical thinking thing that I do. But it’s not to a specific entity, it’s sort of to the cosmos, all the things that connect us in some way, and recognizing us as part of it. And one of the things I think is really important is that there’s gratitude for life. I mean, any existence is a remarkable thing. The fact that any of us exist, whether unhappy or happy, is just literally a freak of nature.
How disappointed do you get when things are not working out? I mean, the film business especially, you know, things fall through. I remember once, I was talking to Anthony Minghella, and he’d spent two-and-a-half years just writing The English Patient. And the financing was all in place from Miramax and Fox. And he was in pre-production and one of them pulled out. And the film was over. It was gone. And then either Saul Zaentz came in with money or Miramax did and next thing you know he wins the Oscar for best director, best picture. But this picture was dead — and that happens. How crushed do you get?
Initially, when you prepare just one film, you put everything into it. It can be soul-crushing, because there’s a compulsion to tell some sort of story. But as time goes on, you get a little wiser, and you find yourself working on a number of things. And you know that this is a part of the process, it’s part of the ecology. That certain things align and it’s work. But it’s not everything. And so you learn after a while to become a lot wiser. There are a lot worse things that can happen to anybody in life than a film to fall down. But it’s working up to it like an athlete. If you’re an athlete, you’re working up to a game, or a let’s just say the Olympic Games and so on. And then suddenly, you’re not going to play that game again. You’re energizing every fiber of yourself towards it. So, I’ve been lucky enough that there are more films I want to make than there is time to do them. So there’s always something to replace [the ones that don’t work out].
Is there a dream film you haven’t been able to make?
There’s certainly films I want to make, but there’s not one that I tried to get made that I haven’t been able to make, no.
Who most influenced you as a filmmaker? Was it Kubrick? A Clockwork Orange was a big influence.
That was huge.
When did you see it?
Back when it came out. It was one of those movies that, once having seen it, for me, I can always remember almost every part of the movie, cut for cut. Particularly the first half, which I thought was so vivid. And that was the great thing about Stanley Kubrick. Somehow he was able to create images which, once seen, are never forgotten. They somehow sear themselves into the brain. And they’re just uniquely his vision. And so whenever I watch something like Clockwork Orange, it’s almost as though I don’t need to watch it over and over, because I know every shot, every gesture, every bit of the music and so on. But the filmmakers that influence you, when I really became interested in cinema, it started with the silent filmmakers. I remember I first saw Buster Keaton, and I thought, “Wow, this guy really, really knows the potential of classic montage filmmaking.” You’ve got composition, how one shot flows to the next, and understanding in those chase films and those action movies he made, understanding that it can only exist in cinema. It could never exist in theater or anywhere else. So they were the people who defined it. And then for me, you know, the greatest pioneer — not only because of the films he made, but because of the way he was able to articulate his process so succinctly — was Hitchcock. But there’s so many of them.
You spoke to Kubrick at one point about pushing a digital initiative. Did you ever meet him?
Never met him. But we had lots and lots of conversations on the phone. And back when we were doing Babe, pre-digital, we didn’t know how to make the pig speak. I knew that the story had to be done live-action, because it didn’t lend itself to a kind of classic kinetic animation, cel animation. And there was a place called Newbury, you might know it.
I think about 30 miles away from London. It was about 30 miles away from where Stanley Kubrick’s house was. And there was a guy at Quantel, this company in Newbury. They were doing analog, but it was very, very high-vision stuff. Military, medical. And there was a guy there who was a kind of genius. Suddenly it occurred to me, my God, if you could get Stanley Kubrick and he together, they would push the technology, because Kubrick pushed lenses, he pushed cameras, he pushed everything. And if they could get together … And so every night while I was there, they invited us into this place, Quantel. And we were trying to figure out how to manipulate the 2D image to make it look like talking. I was definitely going down the wrong track, because it wasn’t digital and would never have really worked well. It would have looked artificial, ultimately. Anyway, it was organized for Stanley to come to this place and see what was happening, because he was so interested in technology. And then his daughter, who was pregnant, gave birth to a child a day or two before he was to come. And he had to go down to London. And they never got together. And I don’t know whether much would have happened because of that digital thing. I think that was happening elsewhere.
Did you talk to him on the phone then?
Oh endlessly. Every night.
Wow. About Babe?
About everything. I explained we’re trying to make a pig talk. He was particularly caught up with the technology of not cutting on videotape. But he was one of those people who just kind of sucked in the world by conversations. Every night, we’d sit and talk for a long, long time and talk about the process and I knew he was very, very intrigued about what could be happening. Then of course, one of the fascinating things he told me about was how he had readers who were reading for him that never knew it was Stanley Kubrick. So if he heard of a novel, he would send it out to people. I think he did it through newspaper ads at the time. And he would send it out to people and ask for a kind of synopsis or a critique of the novel. And he would read those. And it was done anonymously. But he said there were housewives and there were barristers and all sorts of people doing that. And I thought, yeah, that’s a really good way to open up the possibilities. Because otherwise, you’re randomly looking [for material], walking through a bookstore or an airport.
Just imagine the reader who said, “Nah, The Shining, don’t do this one. Ooh, made a mistake there.” [LAUGHTER]
Well, they never knew. I thought that was very interesting. I said, “How many people are doing this?” Now if my memory serves me correctly, it was about 30 people.
Who do you turn to for advice? Your wife?
My wife and my friends and the people I work with. Mostly having conversations in my head. There’s some gravitational pull towards stories, and a kind of confluence of all the things that you’re processing in your life, and your interests in the world. My family think I’m a bit strange, but I can’t read fiction. All my reading is non-fiction.
What do you read? What have you been reading recently?
Everything to do with science — though now I’m re-reading an absolutely wonderful book which is not on science. On Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie. He wrote a great book on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great. I knew nothing about Russian history. But it’s so vivid, because she’s an extraordinary woman.
Slept with a horse I think.
Well, I don’t know that that’s true at all. But she would sit two or three hours every morning, basically, writing down her recollection of all the meetings she had. So that really came alive.
Would you ever make a film about her?
No, not necessarily, but the world it created, the way she tried to stop the feudal system and failed — I mean, she was the emperor of Russia and she couldn’t stop it. The reason I’m re-reading it is because some of the structure of Fury Road, where everybody is a commodity. That’s exactly what happened in those days across the world. People were no different. I mean, there were advertisements where people would be selling wagons or weapons or crops and with them they would be selling beautiful descriptions of various people they owned, and their skills and so on. And some of them had whole opera companies that were basically people who were extremely talented. There’s one a wonderful story where there was some great singer belonging to one of the Russian aristocrats, and this singer just rebelled. He performed with a chain and collar.
You think of yourself as a rebel?
In my head. Not necessarily in what I do. And to some degree in movies. But no. I wouldn’t say that.
You went to medical school. You trained as a doctor. What kind of doctor would you have been?
I never really got to find out. But the thing I would have liked to have done was surgery, because I grew up, the kid in the country doing something with my hands. We were always making things, we were always painting and drawing, always. But I have a lot of friends who are great surgeons and that’s just such a focused thing. I don’t know whether I would have been a good surgeon. And I don’t know which sort. I never got to find out. But I still have that curiosity. I think one of the big things that lead us all in life is a sense of inquiry. And I always find myself caught up in an area and that’s really what got me to cinema. There was no sense of a career. There was always a sense of: what’s going on here? The moment I had the opportunity to actually cut a little film, that was just the most —
Was that when you made a short with your brother at university?
Yes. Oh gosh, that was a long time ago and you know a lot. Just as I was sitting for my final exams, there was a competition to make a one-minute [film]. You had one hour to make a one-minute film in one room and it had to be cut in the camera. There was no sound. And I said to my brother, one of my brothers, not my twin brother, I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I’m thinking about it.” I should have been studying for my exams, but I said, “Look, why don’t you do something really simple, because it’s going to be too difficult to do anything much more epic.” And it was a very simple idea that was to be one minute. I think for about 56 seconds, it was a long tracking shot to a man standing against a wall with a long coat, long hair and a hat. And then he turns to the camera and there’s a caption that comes in, like a cartoon caption, which is drawn on a bit of cardboard. And he says, “The thing that gets me about films is they’re never real.” And then he turns away and suddenly his head, his hat and hair fly into the air and the coat drops to the ground. And my brother simply got a balloon, put the wig on the hat on and burst the balloon. And he made the film. And the interesting thing about it is that it won this award to go to a film workshop, which he went to. And to cut a long story short, I felt, “I’ve got the summer before I start work as a doctor. I’d like to go to the workshop.” And they made room for me because of just a pure coincidence: I had a little motorbike. I rode 900 miles on this tiny little motorbike. And the person doing the admissions, when she heard that I’d ridden 900 miles on this tiny, little a Honda 90 C.C, she said, “You came all the way on that bike to try to get into this film workshop?” And she said, “Look, I’ll try to fit you in.” And I did. And that’s where I met Byron Kennedy, who became my filmmaking partner. And that’s when I first got my hands on film. And to actually cut a simple film together was just so addictive, because the moment you bring the dimension of time into it, it’s narrative. [You take] the two-dimensional image, which I was so used to drawing and painting, and then there’s narrative, just that simple thing. And that was the trigger that really got me fascinated.
I want to show a clip from your first feature. Because one of the things I find fascinating is how defined your style was and how quickly. And if you look at a lot of the great directors — Hitchcock, John Ford, Ozu, whom I love — it actually takes a while. And one of the things that is regretful today is: you make a film, it doesn’t work, goodbye. And yet you arrived almost full-born. There is an extraordinary progression in your work, which I want to talk about later. But first, let’s show a clip from The Road Warrior.
Not bad for an amateur. [LAUGHTER] So here’s what fascinates me. You seem very mellow and relaxed. Very pleasant company, I think, right? But you have there’s this extraordinary, unbelievable, chaotic intensity in film. Where does it come from?
Ah gee, even my mother asked me that. She saw Fury Road and she said, “George, I sort of get Happy Feet.” She said exactly that: “Where does it come from?” I guess it’s a number of things. I think storytelling, and storytelling through cinema. I’m really, really interested in film language. And I like playing with the tools. Most of all it’s the storytelling, [and] to the extent that they’re kinetic or violent, they are moving pictures. I know that the very first Mad Max was processing the kind of experience I had in hospitals, working as a doctor.
It’s only recently I realized, you know, that I don’t think I would have been the filmmaker that I am had I not had that experience as a doctor. Because as a doctor, you have a very privileged point of view. It’s all about point of view. You can look at the world as an epidemiologist in the broadest sense, statistically, the statistics of disease. ou can look at a person as a junior doctor assisting an operation. You actually see inside of a person, inside their brain and so on. You can look down a microscope and see what their cells are doing and look at blood cells. And you’re looking at people, and you’re there at the moment of people in extremis, either badly hurt or in the extremes of life. So processing that, I think, seeped into the filmmaking. And it’s only recently I began to realize that would be the case. But I just love the chase films.
It’s more than a chase. There have been chase films since the silent era. But no one had done it in this way. It’s almost like Jackson Pollock painting. It seems completely chaotic; but I was talking about your work with a friend of mine at The Hollywood Reporter who said, “But it’s controlled chaos.” An extraordinary control. Is it the control that you gravitate to or is it the chaos?
Oh I think it’s the paradox between the two. I think all of life is a kind of paradox. If it’s purely chaotic, it’s just noise; and if it’s purely controlled, it’s dead. And you’re trying to find the balance. I think that’s all of human endeavor. We’re trying to find meaning in the noise. We’re trying to find the signal in the noise. There’s so much noise coming at us and it’s increasing in the world, and that I think is one of the functions of story. We’re looking for some coherence. With Witches of Eastwick, that’s one of the things that I learned from Jack Nicholson — who’s incredible, you know: it was really incredible working with him way back because he’s an incredibly wise man. And he understood that, like the athlete —I think that’s why someone like him is so interested in sport. There’s all this preparation and drilling and rigor, but in the moment of performance, whether you’re a basketball player [or actor], you just surrender completely to the moment, to the impulse, to the abandon.
Do you as a filmmaker? Because you did 3,500 storyboards for Fury Road. At what point do you go, “Let’s just get out there”?
The 3,500 storyboards are a fantastic document with which to produce a film that has very little dialogue, where everything is spatial. Where that vehicle is, where that character is, and so on, and what the intention of the shot is. But getting out there in the reality, you’re not looking at the storyboards, you’re looking at what’s in front of you. What’s in the camera lens as you’re setting up the shot? So you have to let the storyboards go. It’s surprising that they are the things that free you to respond to what’s in front of you. And you’re always making many mid-course corrections in everything you do, when you’re making a movie. So it’s not like throwing out the storyboards; this is better.
I find it interesting that you talk about paradox, because it’s central to your work. There’s control and there’s chaos. There’s the most extraordinarily avant-garde filmmaking and then you’ve got Saint-Saens music in Babe. Or Verdi. So have this opera playing against the most modern of work … You went from the Mad Maxes to Hollywood. You did Lorenzo’s Oil, which surprised people, because it felt like a somewhat different director. You did Witches of Eastwick, which was not a happy experience. You quit the film twice. Why?
Because it was a chaotic production. I’m not even sure what happened. I’d had a really fantastic experience working on the Twilight Zone movie with Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy and a whole crew that had come off E.T. And it felt like very much at home. I thought, “Oh, this is Hollywood.” You know, all these stories about Hollywood being chaotic [weren’t true]. And I didn’t pay enough attention — when I read this wonderful screenplay Witches of Eastwick — to the crew and how the film was to be made. I thought, “Oh, it’s just going to be like working with Amblin and that whole cohort.” And it wasn’t. I didn’t cast enough of the crew properly. There was some of the producers were very chaotic in their thinking. And, if it wasn’t for Jack Nicholson — it kind of got crazy. There was no purpose to [things]. The first mistake I made was, I sat down at a production meeting and they said, like we always do in these production meetings, “OK, where can we cut the budget?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t need a trailer,” because I’m never in the trailer. I’m either with the actors or I’m on the set. Back in Australia, we’d done the Mad Max movies. I never had a trailer, because we’re out there, just into something. Now that would make sense. I had always been one of the producers on the film. But that was code to them that, “Oh, this guy’s negotiable on everything.”
That was really interesting. And I was always seen as being very polite. And they mistake politeness for weakness. That’s what Jack told me. He said, “Be careful. They mistake your politeness for weakness.” And he said, “You’ve got to make them think you’re a little bit crazy.” [LAUGHTER] Seriously. It was really interesting. When I asked for 150 extras, I was really careful about having to fill a hall. But 75 turned up. And I said, “Well, I can’t shoot.” So if I needed 150 extras, I’d ask for 300. And 300 would have to be let go because they’d say to me, “Why did you ask for 300?” I said, “Because last time you gave me 75.” So the game started playing. Same with camera crews. I always ordered an extra camera crew, but wouldn’t use them because I was very one-shot-camera — you know, one camera shooting — at that time. And it went on and on and on. And then there was one of the producers who threw a tantrum on the set for a reason I still don’t know. And I just didn’t turn up to the set the next day. And the moment that happened, suddenly I had everyone from the studio [saying], “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Oh, we’ll solve the problem.” I said, “Well if he’s on the set, I just can’t be on the set.” So suddenly I was unwittingly being conditioned to bad behavior. I was rewarded for bad behavior. And basically punished for good behavior.
And suddenly I saw how the pathology happened. And it was Jack Nicholson who negotiated me through that, and I’m eternally grateful. But more than the process of that, just to see his process: that thing we talked about, the paradox between rigor and abandon, and the creative courage of that. Seeing his skill was a great privilege on that film.
Did you ever talk with him about doing anything else?
Every film I ever came up with after that, you know! I thought, “Oh, could Jack fit into this and that?” But it never aligned.
You went back to Australia and then you did the two Babe films. And here’s what I regret today: I wanted to show the one you produced and the one you also directed. I wanted to show clips from both back-to-back, because they are very different films. So I guess you’ve all seen Babe, but you might not have seen Pig in the City. So let’s watch a clip, because I see your work as a sort of progression of the surreal. And I think when you look at this clip, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. [LAUGHTER] See, it’s fun, isn’t it?
Yes, very much. It’s like watching your life flash by.
So, this is a kids’ film with a hanging dog! What were you thinking?
I don’t know. It’s so long since I’ve seen it.
We’ve got minutes where the dog is there dangling. But Babe rescues the bloody dog, right?
Yes. Babe is a heroic character. And he’s compassionate even against the brutal dog who becomes his friend after Babe sees him hanging there and drowning and Babe goes and saves him. Joseph Campbell says that’s the moment that defines the hero, the relinquishing of self-interest ultimately for a greater good. And Babe in both stories fitted the pretty classic hero myth. And that’s another connection to the Mad Max films, particularly The Road Warrior. Max is a reluctant hero but he is the agent of change. But Babe is the classic hero.
Why did you not direct the first one? Chris Noonan directed it.
There were a lot of reasons. I was preparing to do another film and also it was a pretty complex film to make, particularly to train the animals. And there was a question of time, and I thought if I could help oversee the process, that would be more helpful. As it was, the other film didn’t happen but —
What was the other film?
Oh right. You wanted to cast the Pope in a role in Contact. No?
Cast the Pope? The real Pope?
So I read. [LAUGHTER]
I was going to ask you which Pope would it have been.
No, there was a catholic priest in it, but it wasn’t the Pope.
Why did Chris Noonan not direct the second Babe?
He was doing something else. I really don’t remember.
The casting is extraordinary. Is it James Cromwell who plays the farmer? I always feel like either saying Oliver Cromwell or — his father was John Cromwell, a Hollywood director. He always got cast as these corporate villains, but he actually looks just like a farmer.
It’s a wonderful story on James. His father was a British director, and James is a very fine actor but he never got any larger parts. And he literally thought it was the end of his career when he had to come down to Australia and play a supporting role to a pig. And he told his agent, “I think this is it and I’m not going to do it.” But he was so determined to do a good job, and I love the fact that there was a scene in the first Babe where he had to walk with boots. There was purely a shot of his boots walking through the rain — and he insisted on wearing those boots. Didn’t need a double to do it. And when hands were used, he wanted them to be his hands. And he was nominated for an Academy Award for that, for best supporting actor, and it was wonderful. And then he had this wonderful career. And he does look like a farmer.
You speak with great joy about actors like him, like Jack Nicholson. Which part of the process do you feel the most comfortable with? Script, actors, editing, filming? Hitchcock hated filming.
When I’m writing, I love the writing. I really love that moment where anything’s possible. When I’m preparing, that’s always very interesting. Shooting has its own demented pleasure. It’s not a moment for reflection, shooting; you’re there in the middle of the game. Different when you’re doing animation, when you can actually reflect on any moment, and in that sense it’s more relaxed. But there’s something about shooting that is very intense and you can’t stop and say, “Oh, that was such a great… we pulled that moment off” and really enjoy it, because you’ve got to think about the next moment. It’s like playing some sort of football match and you pull off a good move or something; you can’t suddenly stop and say, “Yay, I did a good move.” The game has to continue.
Do you keep a diary?
No, I don’t. Too busy making a movie. It’s interesting, you finish shooting the movie, and then you go through the cutting process where you’re confronted with all the things that you’ve done wrong and all the problems you have to solve, whether from the writing or the production. And then it becomes something else. So that’s an interesting puzzle. I love the cutting room. I love working with the composers, too, because that’s another thing — because when you’re looking at the score of a movie, often you’re dealing with the same sort of sub-textural themes that you were talking about when you actually started a project.
Somebody described your work as being visual music.
Very much so.
You work with your wife as an editor. Was she an editor before she became your wife?
She was an editor working on other films, when we were doing television and so on.
How do you handle that? Do you sit in an editing room together when she’s cutting?
Well, she has a cutting room and there’s several cutting rooms where assistants are working. And in her case, I’ve learned at certain moments to just let her do her own thing, because she often can see things that I can’t. My first impulse is to say, “Well, that’s not going to work.” And most times I find I’m right, but if I let her do it she’ll always surprise me — like, “Oh, that’s a much better solution.”
There’s small, incremental moments in a film like Fury Road. It’s mosaic art, in that sense.
The editing is just extraordinary in that film. Did you disagree about anything during the editing?
A lot. She did say to me, “I’m here to stop you embarrassing yourself.” [LAUGHTER] And she did. And she’s got a much lower boredom threshold than I have, so she’ll get very bored with repetition. It’s not just stringing action together, because it can become very boring. It’s looking for some very strong causal connection. One shot to the next. Very much like a composer would put the music together, looking at chordal progression, melodic line, tempo and all those things. There’s a similar conversation.
Do you ever go home and you just don’t talk because you’re both so —
No. We usually talk. Even if it’s an argument, we debrief. And then we’re talking with our kids, and so on. The only tensions would be in the cutting room where we’d have a disagreement over something. Or just the sheer hard work of managing the footage. And, like doing a massive Rubik’s Cube, how to get everything to align. And that, it’s amazingly draining just to do that work. And I knew that at certain moments it was far better for me to just let her be and do it and she’d work it out. And I’d come back and I’d say, “Oh yes, you’ve solved it.” And she’d say, “You really think I do?” Because she’s there in the nitty-gritty of it. And that was just a wonderful thing. But the main tension was in the cutting room, about both trying to solve a problem. I’m always self-flagellating: “Why did I do that as a director? Why didn’t I do this?”
Do you ever lose your temper?
Not a lot, because certainly on set I find it’s very counter-productive. People can’t do their best work unless they’re very relaxed, particularly when you’re doing stuff that has high risk, and stunts and things like that. We had a really wonderful stunt crew and camera crew, and one of the things that defined them was a kind of very relaxed discipline. There was always a lot of humor, but underneath everyone realized that we were doing something very, very serious. So I found that the few times I might have lost my temper through my career, it’s not very useful at all. Someone loses their dignity and it’s usually me and it’s not a way to work together as a team.
You had this 17-year break, I think, between live-action films and in between you did the two Happy Feet films. And one thing you said that was interesting was that you really found, on the first Happy Feet, the truth of the thing that Godard said — I think it was Godard — that there’s only one perfect place to put the camera.
I think it was Polanski.
So let’s take a look. I just think this whole film is marvelous, but this is a really lovely clip from Happy Feet.
Don’t you just love that? It’s gorgeous.
I just realized it’s very similar to the Babe: Pig in the City being chased.
Well, you do like chases. What I like is — we’re talking about the paradoxes in your work — there are a couple others that struck me. One is that in the midst of terror you have great sweetness. And I think one thing that’s made these films great is that the whole Mad Max franchise — so many dystopian universes are very cold, but there’s so much warmth in them. I want to go back to the camera and what your decisions were when you made this sequence, and different ways you might have shot this or wrong directions you took in putting this together. Walk us through it.
Well, obviously, you’re doing animation, so you start with storyboards. But the thing about storyboards is, as much as you try to get that dimension of time into it, the kinetics are not there. You can do animatics and so on. But as you do an animation like this, you start to build it, with previews and so on. This is where it becomes really interesting: in animation, you can change the camera at any time as the performance becomes more fully formed, and you’ve done virtually everything but render it. You obviously start with sound first. Then shifting the camera, which basically costs you very little. You’re sitting in front of a desk with someone who’s effectively the camera operator, and you’re adjusting the sequence. And the way that I like to work in animation, you’re also adjusting the cutting. By shifting angle, by a different cutting pattern, you can take exactly the same performance and tell a significantly different story. And that’s when I realized that Polanski was right. If you’re telling a story through camera, there’s only one perfect place for the camera.
I’m interested in that comment, because isn’t it more true that there are actually many different perfect places, but there’s one perfect place for the point of view you have? Similarly with editing: if you look at some of Bergman’s films, if you gave those to a Hollywood director, the editing would be much quicker. He’d cut from you to me, whatever. But Bergman will hold the shot. If a traditional editor had done that cut, he would have cut away or had a different angle. So is that really true?
I think you’re right from the point of view of the story. Each different director, each different editor, would do something differently. But the one thing that you know, ultimately, whether consciously or not, we all have to understand that the whole is always privileged over the part. Ultimately it’s the entire effect. You take a film like Fury Road, which could be very much the same: We have people sitting in the same seat in a war rig, traveling across a very similar landscape, and if you shot every scene with the same sort of camera progression, the same cutting progression or whatever, it would feel very, very same-y. We had to really budget out the angles, making sure that there was something new in each scene. So yes, I guess that is the caveat, obviously depending on the filmmaker. But going back to the analogy of music, once you set up a certain tempo, a certain style, the great pieces of music feel very self-evident. It’s as if you change one thing and it’s not the same piece of music.
How do you create that? Do you lock yourself in a room and lie under a blanket or something and say, “Oh God, how am I going to direct this?” What’s your process?
It’s not lying under the blanket saying, “How am I going to direct this?” There’s a lot of that, but it’s more like a kind of daydreaming, and you give yourself the time, whether you’re traveling in the car or having a shower. The shower in the morning is a big moment, because it’s a very disassociated moment, and the scenes play in your head. That’s the sort of play time, and then there’s the work: OK, today we’ve got to get through 10 minutes of storyboards, or whatever you need to do. And you sit down and do it. And a tremendous amount of story is based on that. It’s a very slow, iterative process.
Do you dream a lot?
Yeah. Very intensely. And when you’re making a movie, you dream only about the movie. It’s extraordinary. It invades you completely. And there are anxiety dreams. The dream I almost always have is: I keep on thinking there’s a shot or a piece of the jigsaw that I haven’t done yet. “Ah, I forgot to do that.”
Guy Norris, who was doing second unit, the stunt coordinator, said: “George, I’m having the same dream. Got to tell you, I’m having the same dream. I keep on dreaming that I’ve forgotten to do this.” Now I say to myself, “Oh, you’re just having one of those anxiety dreams.” You’re processing the work all the time. When I said “demented pleasure,” it is a bit demented when you can’t do anything but think about that.
Fury Road is almost a sort of dreamscape. And one thing that interests me is: I always feel, with great artists, that their work changes and evolves. If you look at Shakespeare, you have the great tragedies which are really explorations of human psychology as well as many other things. But by the time you get to The Tempest, it is a dream world in which the exploration of characters become irrelevant. When you go from the original Mad Max toFury Road, it’s almost as if we’ve left the realm of reality and you’re not trying to show us what is even probable or believable. There are moments — and watch this clip, because it’s extraordinary — where suddenly things flash to black-and-white, or where at one point the sky turns red. Not for a logical reason, but because like in a dream it connects with our emotions. Let’s watch a clip from Fury Road, which is just extraordinary filmmaking.
God. Unbelievable. It’s just astonishing. You can watch that clip, which I have, over and over again and still not figure it out.
Figure out the process or figure out the concept of it? It’s interesting, as you were saying when you talk about dreams and stuff, it’s that paradox again. The approach to this film, once the world is decided on, is almost like a documentary. It’s not shot in a documentary style, but we had to make everything about it — the internal logic of everything you see in the movie, not only the objects and the cars and so on, but even the language — have the same cohesive logic as if you went into some anthropological film and saw a culture that we’re unfamiliar with. You see things that you don’t quite understand, but you know it has meaning to the people in the film. So for instance, people often ask me when those War Boys spray themselves, what does that mean? Well, I have my version of what it means. You know, there’s a lot of rituals like that in war. I remember seeing in the Vietnam War documentaries, where Cambodian soldiers would take their little ‘J’ talisman from around their necks and put them in their mouths before they ran into battle. And it evoked that and a whole lot of things. So it’s interesting when you say, “Is it a dream?” There is a kind of fever dream about it — but I think all cinema’s like that. Cinema is public dreaming. We go to the cinema with strangers in the dark and we share it.
And what’s so interesting is: the film language evolved so quickly. Its grammar evolved in a few years. So it must have connected to some deep thing in our dreams, the way that the “editing” in dreams has nothing to do with real life. It has a lot to do with film.
Yes. Yes. That’s right. I never thought of that.
So, the question: what’s impressive, the concept or the process? First of all, conceptually this goes very deep into the question of what can film do, pure film? It’s not about, “Let me make a film about a 1920s transgender person or whatever.” That could be done in a medium that is not purely film. So conceptually this is very original. And then how do you execute it? You have to have both the great concept and the great execution to be a great film director, don’t you?
Well yes. Just as if I describe that little film that my brother made, that got me into that film workshop — the one hour to shoot a one-minute film. It’s a perfect example of that. The concept suited the medium, the tools, the resources available. So as you’ve just proven to me, I’m very interested in action. There’s enough of the skill set to make you hubristic enough to think that yes, we can go out and do a film like that. The concept actually takes that into account. When you get into the reality of it, it’s not often the case. You know: “Oh gee, I’d love to do that shot, we can’t quite do it that way.” As time goes on and the technology becomes much more agile, you’re able to do just about anything you’d like.
What was the toughest decision you had to make here? Was it in casting Mad Max, was it in the use of color, music? What was the one you wrestled with the most?
To be perfectly honest, the one that always gave me the most anxiety was safety. That was the biggest thing. Even though there’s a lot of CG in there, these were real actors. That was Tom Hardy and Josh Helman fighting on top of a vehicle that was moving. They were harnessed on, the harnesses were raised, but you’re always worried. So we very carefully prepared and rehearsed, but as you’re shooting for long days over about 120 days in a remote desert in Africa, your fatigue sets in, you let your guard down. That was the biggest one. The biggest decisions? I don’t know. You know, the process is — it’s boiling a frog. It’s by small steps. And so there’s never that big moment. I mean there was a moment when we were going to shoot native 3D and we built cameras and we only had six cameras and we tested camera systems, and we realized if one got damaged or if the dust and the heat really got to it and we lost two or three of those cameras, we were really in trouble. And there was a moment when you had to say, “OK, we’ll do a post conversion,” which luckily enough is getting really, really good 3D — and all the work we’d done building these native cameras had to be let go. There were decisive moments, but the biggest one was the safety.
You said you’re going to do another one. Do you have a script in place?
Because this got delayed so often, and we dug down deep into the backstory, Nick Lathouris and I have written two other stories.
Are they actually full scripts?
One is a full script.
Is that Wasteland?
It doesn’t have a title. And one of them we talked about in great detail and he wrote as a novella.
Will that be your next film or are you going to do the smaller, Tangerine type of film? I want to give you my iPhone! Use it.
Yeah, I just love the Tangerine shot on iPhones.
So what’s next?
Something small and quick, I hope. I’ve joked Mad Max: Fury Lane.
[LAUGHS] OK. Questions.
QUESTION: Hello Mr. Miller I was wondering, since Furiosa has become such an iconic character, similar to Ripley in the Alien movies, with a big cultural impact — I was wondering if you were surprised by the public’s response in calling this film a feminist film, or whether that was your intention from the very beginning?
Are you wearing?
Yes I’m dressed as Furiosa and my brother’s dressed as Max right now.
Oh that is great! Thank you.
Gee that’s great.
GALLOWAY: Where’s your arm band?
I’m Max. I’m more Immortan. Look, the initial concept of the story: I didn’t say, “OK, I’m going to make a feminist movie.” It really starts very simple. I wanted to see whether we could tell an extended chase movie and see how much story and subtext we could pick up on the run. How much we could get to understand the characters and the world, and these are allegorical stories which have all sorts of resonance. You know, we see the same motifs through history. Dominance, hierarchy. Everybody in this movie wears the logo of the Immortan on their back, and even though I do say Max is a blood bag and the women are the breeders and the War Boys are cannon fodder and so on and so on and women are milkers — it started off with that one idea of a chase and what’s being chased over, what the risk was going to be, what people had conflict over, what it was to be human, to be the five wives. They needed a Road Warrior; it had to be a female; she needed a backstory, where she came from the so-called green place of many mothers, where we meet the Vuvalini at the end. It all grew organically out of that initial concept.
QUESTION: In Fury Road, the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound gets almost gray sometimes, with the Doof Warrior and the drums and the fight sequence with the guitar. So I was wondering if you could talk a little about the workflow with Junkie XL, Ben Osmo, and how that all came together?
That’s a long story. The brief part of it was, we had a wonderful sound crew. And for me this was a silent movie with sound. Initially, believe it or not, I didn’t want to have music. I thought the guitarist, the Doof Warrior and the drummers and the sound of the vehicles would be enough of a soundscape to basically tell the story. And then there would be music, once the characters started to find some affiliation, particularly Max and Furiosa, and Max in particular was more humanized. I thought we’d bring in some musical element. And so it’s a great opportunity, this movie, for sound. And there was a lot of work in that regard. But then I heard some music. Someone from Warner Bros. sent me some music Junkie XL that he had written, this is Tom Holkenborg or Antonius… He’s got a very long and wonderful Dutch name. I can’t remember all the middle names, but Antonius Holkenborg. And he’s extraordinary. He’s a kind of polymath. He’s a lawyer: he studied as a lawyer while he was doing his music. He’s big into sound design and he mixes so much of his own stuff. And he can write any kind of music when tasked to do it. He can write beautiful, lyrical music and long progressions of intense, intense action. He’s the first composer I’ve ever worked with — and I’ve been very privileged to work with great composers — who can actually explain to me the mathematical underpinnings of musical progression which is wonderful. He can show me Mahler and say, “This is the mathematical progression.” Musicologists do this all the time. And so he was someone who was very, very significant in that process. And he brought on guys like Chris Jenkins, who mixed the music and the dialogue, and Gregg Rudloff, who did the effects and whatever — and everybody was really aware of the opportunities we had. I’m not even describing a process, but at least the personnel. But a lot of thought was put into it. And silence is very incredibly important. I’ll just give you one thing. At the end of that chase we just saw, in the test screenings I thought there was a tendency for the audience to applaud, and then the applause would fall away. And then you see that there’s a shot of Max as he wakes up out of the sand. It holds for a very long time. And I thought, why are they not applauding, continuing with applause, which is a lovely thing to have in the cinema? And I realized it didn’t become completely silent. There was a little sound, little, sustained, droning sounds that had continued right through into the next scene. So that caught the audience’s ear and it led to an expectation of something else about to happen, rather than we were coming to a full stop. And by making it completely silent, with not one bit of sound, it sort of gave permission for the audience to applaud. And that was really interesting to me. I didn’t think a sound I could barely hear influenced the way that the audience would respond to them.
QUESTION: I’m curious about your writing process and how you tackle things differently whether you’re writing for animation, for a younger audience, or an extreme live action for an adult audience?
I would say each film has its different process. I love collaborating, and depending on who you collaborate with, it has a different process. In this case, this film started off, we mapped out the story, wrote it down very quickly and basically its first iteration was storyboards, which is very exciting. I worked with Brendan McCarthy, a great graphic artist. He and I devised the story and then two other great storyboard artists [came in] and that was the first iteration, and then we turned that into a screenplay. Something like Happy Feet was sitting with writers in a room and, having mapped out the story, it’s all the written words. So it depends on the project.
QUESTION: A quick question about The Twilight Zone. I think you directed the best segment of the movie, so I was wondering what attracted you to do the very iconic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
That was interesting. You know, I always loved The Twilight Zone, a great series. And then Steven Spielberg decided to do a Twilight Zone. And I think he’d just seen Mad Max 2. It was way back then. And he paid me a great compliment. He said, “Look, we were only meant to do three episodes, but we’d like to do a fourth and we want it to be this one.” And I remembered the episode. I thought, yes, I’d really like to tackle it. So they kind of squeezed open a space for that. And I didn’t choose the story; that was the one that they had decided to do and they gave it to me. And I had the most wonderful time doing it.
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