Mad Max creator George Miller’s return to auteur space
George Miller remembers the moment well. The bespectacled filmmaker was standing in the neonatal intensive care unit of Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital looking down at his beautiful newborn daughter as she struggled to breathe.
Little Augusta, the first of the director’s three children, “wasn’t in good shape”, Miller tells The Saturday Paper during his visit this month to the City of Angels to promote the latest film in his Mad Max franchise. “I remember the doctor came up to me. He said, ‘Where are you from? I notice an accent.’ I said, ‘Australia’. He said, ‘What are you doing in LA? I said, ‘I’m working on a film.’ ”
The doctor nodded and walked away.
The year was 1986, and Miller and his first wife, Australian actress Sandy Gore, were in LA for Miller to direct his first Hollywood studio film, The Witches of Eastwick. The cast was peppered with A-listers – Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Miller, a doctor himself and former resident at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital with a degree from the University of New South Wales, felt lucky to have Augusta and Sandy in one of the most pre-eminent medical facilities in the world.
But 10 minutes after that brief conversation, the inquisitive doctor returned. He was carrying something.
“He said, ‘I know this is inappropriate, but would you read my screenplay?’,” Miller tells me, laughing.
Quietly spoken Miller, who stormed onto the world stage with his small-budget 1979 action-thriller Mad Max, starring a then unknown Mel Gibson, is known for his unflappable nature. He was once described by the Los Angeles Times as “more like your favourite philosophy professor, too cool to care about tenure”.
He commands his actors, hundreds of extras, crew, stunt teams and thousands of other working parts of a film set with thoughtful words and smiles. On this day, however, in the face of Augusta’s breathing difficulties, the director gave the doctor a dressing down.
“Normally I’d shrug it off, but I said, ‘Look, it’s very inappropriate,’ ” Miller says. “I told him, ‘I’m a doctor and that’s really wrong. My daughter, a newborn, is not in good shape.’ ”
Miller, as always, was calculated when he lectured the doctor. He had analysed the medical team looking after his baby and knew it would be okay to “fob off” the wannabe screenwriter. “I noticed there was a nurse who was very experienced and on top of what was happening more than he was, so I was safe.”
Augusta pulled through and in 2008 graduated from NIDA. Her now 70-year-old father, the son of Greek immigrants, smiles as he tells the hospital story.
Struggling with jet lag from the long flight from Australia, and a side trip to Toronto, Canada, he sips from a bottle of icy Coke while leaning back in an armchair at the Montage hotel, Beverly Hills, about 10 minutes’ drive from Cedars-Sinai.
The story comes up as Miller describes to me his relationship with Los Angeles.
“I think it was in the ’80s that a friend who had been living in LA said to me, ‘I left Hollywood when I discovered I was having the same conversation with the same people for the second time,’ ” he says.
Miller much prefers his home in Sydney, where doctors don’t tend to keep film scripts tucked under their case notes. In fact Miller has lived in the harbour city since he was 13, when his father, Dimitri, and mother, Angela, moved him and his twin brother, John, and two younger brothers, Chris and Bill, from the small town of Chinchilla on Queensland’s Darling Downs. Before moving to Chinchilla, Miller’s father had made the bold move to leave his home on the Greek island of Kythira.
“I often wondered why my dad moved to Chinchilla of all places, but when I finally went to Kythira it made more sense to me. The light was the same, the grass,” he says. As for Tinseltown, Miller has never felt the need to move to California. The old Metro Theatre in Sydney’s notorious Kings Cross has been his production headquarters for decades and the city is where his brothers and mother still reside.
“We’ve done everything from out of the Metro,” Miller says. “We’ve shot scenes from virtually every movie and mini-series out of that. Nowadays people are pretty agnostic geographically because Hollywood is an abstract thing in a sense. It doesn’t matter where you are with modern communications, and the great example of that is Wellington, New Zealand, a city a tenth the size of Sydney, which has the greatest concentration of film talent in the world.
“That’s why Jim Cameron, the most successful filmmaker in the world, is down there. You’ve got Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and there’s so much filmmaking there. It doesn’t matter anymore where you are.”
Miller demonstrated that with his new film, Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in the franchise and the first not to star Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky. It was shot largely in the south-west African nation of Namibia, one of the driest places on earth, but scenes were also filmed in South Africa’s Cape Town Film Studios and Sydney’s Fox Studios.
In 2003 Miller, Gibson and the crew planned to make the movie in Namibia, but plans were shelved due to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the resulting global tensions. In 2011 it was back on the agenda, and the idea was to shoot it outside Broken Hill, the setting for the original Mad Max. Gibson, says Miller, had been dealing with some “turbulence” in his life, and wasn’t interested in being part of the movie so he brought in English actor Tom Hardy as Max, along with Oscar-winning South African Charlize Theron as alpha female Imperator Furiosa.
This time rain, instead of war, bogged down the Broken Hill plans. Miller needed a desert wasteland and the area was lush with stunning wildflowers and animal life. But, as Australian production designer Colin Gibson, who has been attached to the project since 2003, tells The Saturday Paper: “The heavens opened up and for two years running Lake Eyre filled with joy and happiness and the desert bloomed with pretty flowers and pelicans dancing in the background and it was impossible to shoot.”
Miller and Gibson looked at shooting in the Atacama Desert in Chile, but decided to head back to Namibia. “Chile didn’t have the variety of desert that we needed, or shape,” says Gibson, who first worked with Miller on 1995’s Babe. “Swakopmund in Namibia also had the advantage of having a brewery in town close to where we were all staying. Australian logistics – the first thing you find is the brewery, the second thing is great seafood, and everything after that is just gravy.”
Refinding a wasteland
Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a wasteland in the middle of Australia 45 years after the fall of civilisation.
It is lawless and water, the rarest commodity, is controlled by the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe, played by Australian actor Hugh Keays-Byrne who was the villain Toecutter in the first Mad Max film.
Coming 30 years after the third movie in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, it was a reunion for Miller and many of the key contributors.
“It was like getting the band back together,” says Miller who, with his friend Byron Kennedy, founded the Kennedy Miller production company.
The stunt co-ordinator, Guy Norris, was 21 years old when he worked on Mad Max 2. Co-producer Doug Mitchell, who was on the Kennedy Miller-produced TV mini-series Bodyline, The Cowra Breakout, Vietnam and Bangkok Hilton and films The Year My Voice Broke, Dead Calm, Lorenzo’s Oil and the two Happy Feet animated movies, also journeyed to Namibia.
Miller’s right-hand man on film sets, P. J. Voeten, an assistant director on Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, was also riding shotgun in Africa.
Another key member was Miller’s second wife, South African-born Margaret Sixel, with whom he has two sons. Sixel was the editor on Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, although she was reluctant to do Mad Max: Fury Road.
“She said, ‘Why would you want me to cut this movie?’,” Miller smiles, as his joyful eyes wrinkle up at the corners. “I said, ‘If a guy cuts it, it will feel like every other action movie.’ Margaret is a great problem solver, has a low boredom threshold, hates repetition and is really good on performance, so was perfect for the Herculean task of taking 480 hours of footage and turning it into a two-hour movie.”
Namibia, located where the icy currents from Antarctica meet the heat generated from the Namib Desert, posed a logistical nightmare for Miller, including the shipping of 150 custom-built vehicles from Australia that are the trademark of the Mad Max franchise.
But, through the stress, sandstorms, vehicle breakdowns and desert sets, the former casualty doctor remained calm.
And his stars loved him for it. As Charlize Theron told a Fury Road press conference: “I fell madly in love with George. Don’t tell his wife because she’s also South African and I know how we roll.”
Miller laughs at the praise.
“I certainly have moments of anxiety, but everyone tells me, even my family, that I’m calm and easygoing,” the filmmaker says. “It doesn’t feel like that inside all of the time.”
Miller lives in the fantasy world that is his head, just like he did as a kid growing up in Chinchilla, a town he notes is similar to the “big, flat earth and long roads to the next town” settings in the Mad Max movies.
His childhood was spent in play and his parents let Miller and his brothers roam freely.
His mum would ring a bell from the front doorstep to call the boys home for dinner, or they’d just turn up when the sun went down.
“We didn’t listen to the radio,” Miller says. “There was no TV. There were the Saturday matinees and I had comics, although they were illicit and you couldn’t take them to school. What there was was play and we would be out in the bush on our horses playing, building cubbyhouses and all of those things. It was kind of an invisible apprenticeship to filmmaking.”
Mad Max: Fury Road ’s younger actors, including Australian model Abbey Lee and American actress Zoë Kravitz, noticed something special Miller would do when they asked him questions about their characters. Kravitz told the media: “He’d close his eyes and would go into his own world to find the answer. It’s a world that I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of. Before meeting him I wondered, ‘What is going on in this man’s head?’ because when you look at his filmography there is Mad Max 1, 2 and 3, Babe, Happy Feet, Lorenzo’s Oil and The Witches of Eastwick, all of these diverse movies. What I found is he is a very quiet and very calm man.”
Lee, quizzing Miller about her character, The Dag, one of five wives fleeing Immortan Joe, remembered having an intimate conversation with Miller: “He once told me the reason why it is so difficult to cast his characters is because a lot of the time his characters come to him at night in his dreams. So when he wakes up in the morning he does whatever it takes to find that person in his dream.”
Miller, who won an Oscar for best animated feature film in 2007 for Happy Feet, was nominated for best picture and adapted screenplay in 1996 for Babe and was nominated for the Lorenzo’s Oil original screenplay in 1993, says that despite the success of the original Mad Max, he wasn’t sure if he was capable of directing again.
That first film took such a mental toll he thought it would be his last. A conversation he had with another great Australian director, Peter Weir, changed his outlook.
“I describe making Mad Max like walking a big dog,” Miller says. “I wanted it to go one way and it dragged me another way. I thought, ‘Well, I’m not really cut out to do this.’ I just happened to be speaking to Peter and he had already done two features and he said, ‘But, George, it’s always like that. It’s like being on patrol in the jungle. You have to take your platoon through. You don’t know where the landmines are or the snipers, all of those things that can get in the way of where you are going. You have to be agile, adjust to it and accept that’s what the nature of the job is.’
“The moment he said that it stuck with me.”
Now the doctor who has spent the past 36 years making films and TV mini-series has no plans to retire.
The dreamer will continue to dream and turn those dreams into movies.
“I can’t help it,” Miller tells me. “I often say this to my family: ‘If I’m one of those people in the nursing home staring at the ceiling, you can bet I’m playing a movie in my head.’ It’s what I’ve done all of my life. There are many more stories I have to tell that I’ll never have time for.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Auteur space". Subscribe here.