submitted by Odyssey Magazine on 05.04.2005
Odyssey Magazine, Vol. 8 No. 1 (September/October2000)
George Miller, director of silver screen hits such as Babe, Witches of Eastwick, and Mad Max, reveals his plans to revive the legendary hero who made Mel Gibson an international star.
George Miller thought his cult hero Mad Max had put away his leathers for good. But then a storyline came to him that he just couldn't ignore. The retiring doctor- turned- director of some of Hollywood's favorite off-beat hits takes a break from plotting the next chapter of Mad Max to tell Victoria Kyriakopoulos about his life, his work, and his healthy mistrust of tinsel town.
Holed up in his Sydney studio, Dr George Miller is working on something he swore he'd never do again. But word is out and the excitement is growing. While Miller and his team of writers and artists hatch the script, cyberspace chat rooms are abuzz with ideas of what could, what should, and what should not happen when Mad Max makes his long overdue screen comeback.
Since Miller made the first groundbreaking, low-budget futuristic thriller as a rookie Australian director in 1979, the movie that launched Mel Gibson's international career has become a cult classic. (The Mad Max trilogy has grossed more than $300 million.) The genteel doctor who put his medical career on hold to try his hand at cinema has become one of Hollywood's least likely filmmakers-a writer, director and producer whose big screen credits also include box-office hits such as Babe, The Witches of Eastwick, Dead Calm, and Lorenzo's Oil.
"After the third one I had said I would never ever do another Mad Max," Miller tells Odyssey during a rare break from his production schedule. "I think Mel said the same."
Never say never. "Then, on a long plane trip about three years ago, with nothing to do flying across the Pacific
a story just played out in my head which had somehow been gestating unconsciously for about 12 years and I thought 'my god that's a damn good story' and I got excited."
The idea was put on the backburner while he produced the ill-fated Babe sequel Pig in the City, but Miller has spent the past year developing storyboards for a new Mad Max with consuming passion. The writing and development phase is expected to take another year, so the results are unlikely to hit the screens for some time yet. But 20 years on, the fate of the film's dark, avenging hero is now in the public domain in a way the 55-year-old Miller could never have imagined when he started out. "People in chat rooms are sending messages 'please don't do this or do this'
people are always trying to guess what the story will be," he says, admitting to being influenced by the feedback. "The Net is so much part of filmmaking today. It might not be an individual voice but there are definitely specific themes that emerge and you get to know some of your core audience and what their concerns are. I think it is a more truthful way of understanding where your film is."
The success and enduring popularity of Mad Max still surprises him.
"I wouldn't have thought 20 years after we made the first Mad Max that it would still impinge on the world culture in some way or another. I am not saying positively, necessarily, but it is still out there.
"You make what you think is your first clumsy effort of a film and it's sort of out there with all its faults and it won't go away. But it's also great fun to do a fourth after all this time."
Miller hopes his script will excite Gibson and lure him back into the role. "People know now that Mel wants to do it but we haven't come to a deal. When he heard we were doing the film he got in touch and we agreed like we always do that when the script is finished we'll talk. The only reason you should do a film for anybody is because you love the story and if Mel likes the story he'll do the film." Could there be another Mad Max without Gibson? "There could be, but it would be a very different Mad Max."
Miller's fly-away hair and trademark spectacles lend him an air of theatricality. He is renowned for being shy, but over lunch at a chic Italian bistro around the corner from his studio in the converted Metro Theatre in Sydney's Kings Cross, he lights up as he describes how fortunate he is to have made a living from his childhood pastime of day dreaming and love of storytelling.
The son of Greek migrants, he grew up in Chinchilla, a town in the remote deep north of Australia, where his family ran a grocery store. "It's flat and dry, rough and incredibly hot, with intense sunlight where you often see the heat haze," says Miller. "When you walked home from school at lunch-time the bitumen was bubbling. We had a fantastic childhood there."
Miller's grandfather, a Smyrna refugee who set up house on the island of Kythira, had spent time in America. There he adopted the name Miller, from the family name Miliotis. Miller's father left Kythira as a nine-year-old in 1919 and went to Queensland to work with his older brothers in the catering trade. He met Miller's mother in Sydney during the war and they moved north to start their own business.
In Chinchilla, the young Miller grew up on a diet of comics and Saturday matinees, playing in the bush, and long Sunday lunches to which people would come from miles around and sit and talk. "Had I not grown up in Chinchilla I don't think I would be a filmmaker because all our time was spent in play," he says. Life was basic but comfortable as the family prospered. "We had the first septic flush toilet in the town, about 1952, and literally for a year I remember strangers would come and say 'can we see the toilet?' And you would take them and flush the toilet for them and they would look at it and then leave."
Miller's father had received little schooling and, like many of that generation of immigrants, was obsessed with educating his four sons. He eventually moved the family to Sydney, where three sons became doctors and one a lawyer. After practicing medicine for 18 months, Miller, who had already been making short documentaries in his spare time, moved to Melbourne to pursue his passion for cinema. With producer and friend Byron Kennedy (who died in a freak helicopter crash in 1983), Miller founded Kennedy Miller which, after Mad Max, went on to produce some of the most notable Australian films and television series of recent times, helping launch the the likes of actress Nicole Kidman and directors Phil Noyce (Dead Calm) and Chris Noonan (co-writer and director of Babe).
I Got You Babe
If the graphic violence and international success of Mad Max carved Miller a unique place in the Australian film industry, his rejection of Hollywood after his well-documented bitter experience during the making of the Witches of Eastwick has kept him outside of the movie world's mainstream.
More than 13 years on, the softly-spoken Miller is still riled by that Hollywood encounter. "The producers and the studio were so morally bankrupt it was the most shattering experience in my life in terms of work." He flinches when discussing his equally unpleasant encounter with Cher during the shoot. "I've been very lucky really, except for Cher, she's the only bad experience I've ever had with an actor. If it wasn't for Jack Nicholson, who I found to be an extraordinary human being, I would have quit. I produced a lot after that but it took me almost five years to direct again, when I did Lorenzo's Oil."
Miller seems somewhat in awe of actors. "I find the best of them are heroic creatures because they are people at the forefront of exploring what it is to be human and they do it in the most unguarded way possible. When they are doing their best work they are trying to find truths about us as human beings and their medium is their own selves."
After nearly 30 years in the industry, Miller has found that though directing comes naturally to him, he is now far more intrigued by the scriptwriting process. "I usually find that the writing is where the greatest creativity happens and that's what I enjoy the most even though it does take a long time. But if a great story comes along of course I'd direct it."
These days Miller prefers to live and work in Sydney, where he made most of the Babe sequel at the recently established Fox Studios. "I don't go to Hollywood often but I am basically a Hollywood filmmaker. I just use Sydney as a base because it is a great city to live in."
The Outer Limits
Being an outsider seems to sit comfortably with him. "I think it is part of being Greek and part of being Australian that you are kind of an outsider, which I always like. I remember when I started making movies, to the movie industry I was the doctor and to the medical profession I was a moviemaker. I was neither a doctor nor a filmmaker, I was neither an Australian nor a Greek, I grew up in the country but I was neither a country or a city boy."
Yet, unlike other notable Greek-Australian filmmakers such as Ana Kokkinos (Head On) or John Tatoulis (Beware of Greeks Bearing Guns), Miller has never directly drawn on his cultural background in his films. He says he has trouble telling Australian stories, period, and prefers to deal with universal themes-the hero myth, the hero's journey. "My films like Mad Max and Babe came out of the world's hyperculture, the global monoculture."
In 1989, Miller travelled to Greece for the first time after his father, then 78, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The entire clan, including Miller's brothers and their families, decided to go while the father's memory was intact. For Miller, the trip helped piece together the puzzle of his remote childhood.
"It was high summer and the moment the plane landed in Kythira I knew exactly why he had gone to Chinchilla because it was the same light, the same colour of the grass, it was the same intensity of life, the dry heat, the cicadas. Dad had created Kythira in the outback of Australia. The lifestyle we led I realized in hindsight was quite Greek, village Greek. When we went to Kythira there was the same long table with 25 people and multi-generational meals that went on for hours."
Miller has both critics and admirers. Yet no-one can dispute his success, most recently with the animated comic morality tale Babe, which received seven Oscar nominations and earned more than $500 million worldwide. The 1998 sequel, however, proved a box-office flop-Miller's first. He says the film was released before the audience had been properly prepared for the its darker undertones.
"The bitter thing about that film was all the effort and knowing that we really fumbled it badly at the end, but then on the other hand we'd had a pretty unbroken string of successes and the idea is not to take them too seriously either.
"I am proud to say that I found my appetite for making films didn't diminish at all and the important things in my life were intact, family and friends, and it was something I just had to put down to experience."
He appears to have reached a happy point of equilibrium in his life, appearing both relaxed and content. He recently became a father for the third time and, with reputation and success well entrenched, he has the freedom to pursue his dreams.
"I'm 55 and when I leave here I'll be doing what I was doing when I was five years old - making up stories in my head."
George Miller on the Big Screen
(Films directed by Miller unless otherwise stated.)
Mad Max (1979)
George Miller's debut film soon became a cult classic and propelled the leather-clad Mel Gibson towards international stardom. A low-budget ($15,000!) futuristic thriller set in a chilling, post-apocalyptic desert wasteland in Australia, Mad Max is about a cop seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and child.
Mad Max II, The Road Warrior (1981)
Max, now retired from the police force, is a wandering road warrior who helps the good guys protect their oil refinery from the bad guys (motorheads, skinheads, metal-freaks). Lots of action, stunts, vehicle-jumping, and multiple car wipeouts. A menacing Grace Jones adds a touch of high camp. According to John Lavin of Movie Magazine International, "The Road Warrior is one of the best action movies that this humble movie fan has ever seen."
The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Miller co-directed this one with the mighty Spielberg. A spin-off from the popular 1960s TV series, split into four segments, this one received few positive reviews, despite the host of stars.
Mad Max III, Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Post-nuclear Australia is slowly showing signs of society taking shape in the form of punk capital Bartertown, ruled by queen Aunt Entity (Tina Turner) from her sky palace. Max appears in Bartertown and has a showdown with Aunt Entity's greatest warrior, Master-Blaster, in the giant up-side-down bowl-shaped fighting arena called Thunderdome.
The Witches of Eastwick (1986)
Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher team up with Jack Nicholson in a hilarious, dark, sexual comedy. What could three manless, divorced, deserted women living in a small town in New England possibly want? Why Daryl Van Horne of course. But the man they conjure up turns out to be a real old devil. Nicholson keeps the film "reeling wildly, with a zest that must be illegal," wrote the Washington Post.
The Year My Voice Broke(1987) (produced by Miller)
A coming-of-age story, in which 15-year-old Danny (Noah Taylor) falls in love with his childhood soul mate Freya (Leone Carmen).
Dead Calm (1989) (produced by Miller)
Well-crafted, tense Hitchcockian thriller directed by Philip Noyce. Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman play husband and wife whose yacht is becalmed in the flat, windless South Seas. They take on board the psychotic Hughie (Billy Zane in his first major role), which proves a major mistake.
In the sequel to "The Year My Voice Broke," Danny is sent to a prissy boarding school, where he comes-of-age once again. This time, he and his mates grow from boys into men under the oppressive headmaster.
Lorenzo's Oil (1992)
Based on the true story of a couple (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) whose son is stricken with a rare and deadly nerve disease (adrenoleukodystrophy).
A farmer wins Babe in a raffle and leaves him in a barnyard where he's adopted by sheepdogs. He wins respect from all the animals when he drives off a sheep poacher, decides that he wants to be a shepherd himself, and wins a shepherding contest. Seven Oscar nominations and global success.
40,000 Years of Dreaming (1996)
A documentary. Miller's personal view of Australian films.
Babe - Pig in the City (1998)
This sequel did not go down well with critics, though Babe's journey into the urban landscape to help his farm had a dark edge that was missing from the sometimes schmaltzy original.
[kythera-family contains many references to George Miller, and the Miller family. Search under Miller, Miliotis, or Chinchilla, to access numerous entries].
When Published: bi-monthly
Publisher: Odyssey Magazine
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