Last May, at 70-years-old, George Miller dropped an unexpected masterpiece in the shell of a studio action franchise flick with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’s a film that stunned critics and is guaranteed to be a mainstay on year-end best of lists (it already ranks at no. 3 on Sight and Sound’s annual critics poll). Miller is a master filmmaker whose talents haven’t faded over time and if you chat with him for even a few minutes he’ll enlighten you with an ocean of knowledge that only the Spielbergs and Scorseses of the world can match. And that’s exactly what happened when I interviewed him last month for two pieces I wrote for Variety and the Los Angeles Times’ The Envelope.
The chat was supposed to be only 15-minutes, but happily Miller kept talking and it swelled to over 30. In fact, it probably would have gone even longer if I didn’t have a pressing engagement that forced us to cut it off. The Aussie filmmaker has a lot to share as one of the rare cinematic auteurs whose artistic achievements have become more pronounced with each subsequent picture and if someone hasn’t recorded him already Miller needs to tell his stories in front of a camera for a few hours for posterity’s sake.
“To be honest, it takes you a long time for you to understand what any of your work means,” Miller says. “It’s in the eye of the beholder and one of the things that is really exciting when you are doing interviews is that people reflect your work back at you. People have been telling me that my style has changed more than I’m aware of it and it’s provoked a lot of self-reflection.”
Miller’s made his mark in global cinema with his directorial debut, the 1979 post-apocalyptic thriller “Mad Max.” Cinephiles would insist that he’s just being humble, but when he looks back at that experience he believes he’s much better with actors today than when he first sat in the director’s chair.
“On the first ‘Mad Max’ movie I [had so many different actors from different backgrounds],” Miller says. “We had actors from television soaps. We had Mel Gibson who had come out of the National Drama School and was very steeped at a young age in Shakespeare. We had Hugh Keays-Byrne out of the Royal Shakespeare company and he’d starred in a very famous production of ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ that he’d toured the world in.”
Miller didn’t come from a stage background, but spent a good amount of time studying action films and was “particularly interested in the quiet language that had developed in the silent cinema.” It wasn’t until he began working on his animated films, such as the Oscar winning “Happy Feet,” that he realized just how critical camera and cutting patters were.
“I’ve always been struck by what Roman Polanski said and I don’t know the exact quote, but ‘At any given moment there is only one perfect place for the camera.’ And I was able to prove that to myself in animation,” Miller says. “You could take the same performance, the same setting, the same everything and by changing the point of view of the camera and the cutting pattern you could substantially shift the mood and the way that a scene would be apprehended. Polanski was right. Then you go into a live action movie like ‘Fury Road’ and it’s so helter skelter.”
He continues, “The difference between animation and a live action movie is in animation it’s a difference between a coach and a player. You’re in the middle of a football game and all the prep and all the drilling and all the skill sets and whatever, count for nothing if you don’t have that instinctive intuitive response in the moment. It’s why you set out to have a plan.”
Anyone who has seen Miller’s films knows that he’s just as prophetic in creating iconic characters whether its Imperator Furiosa in “Fury Road,” Felicia Allen in “The Witches of Eastwick,” Mumble in “Happy Feet” and, of course, Mad Max himself. And, obviously, they are just as important as where the camera is pointed at in a scene.
“You’re driven by the story and the characters and you’re driven by the technical realities of what you’re trying to achieve,” Miller says. “So, if you’re sitting there thinking about what the fans will think that’s another voice that you don’t need to hear. There is a wonderful quote Joseph Campbell picked up where he talked about the Swahili storytellers in Zanzibar and he said at the end of a story they would say ‘This story has been told. If it was good it belongs to everybody. If it was bad it was my fault because I am a storyteller.’”
While many “Mad Max” fans looked to the previous films for clues or hints about what “Fury Road” would be, Miller says he was focused on the new story at hand responding to what was in front of him, not what was behind him. That being said, he gives significant praise to artist Brendan McCarthy whose own style had been influenced by “Mad Max II” and he eventually ended up with a screenwriting credit on the film. Miller notes, “He basically said, I’m here because I don’t want you to make a movie that will disappoint me as a hardcore ‘Road Warrior’ fan. And I said, ‘Well the story I want to tell is a chase in a war rig in its extended version’ so he was a good representative of the fan. When the guys got into building the vehicles lots of mechanics and petrol heads keeping me honest there.”
Technology has also been a huge influence as Miller’s films have evolved over the years. After he first read “Babe,” which he produced and co-wrote the screenplay, Miller reveals he tried to get Stanley Kubrick involved in order to deal with the dicey problem of having the animals speak. He solved that issue by animating the mouths, but can you imagine if those two had collaborated? It was his good friend cinematographer Andrew Leslie who provided him the inspiration for the more difficult “Happy Feet.” Miller recalls, “Andrew had come back from shooting the first ‘Lord of the Rings’ and he showed me the first Golum motion capture and the moment I saw that I thought, ‘Ah, the penguins can dance.’”
“Fury Road” was green lit and fell apart twice before shooting finally began in 2013, but Miller now sees a huge technological benefit in that extended wait.
“In the decade it took to get made the camera became smaller and more agile,” Miller says. “And you could use your DI [Digital Intermediate] as part of your editing process, your coloring. And stereo conversion, 3-D conversion was also getting way, way better. That changed how we made the movie.”
But wait, there’s even more. Miller continues, “Being able to put a camera anywhere was huge. You know the [vehicle we used to shoot the action scenes]? It’s a high-powered four-wheel drive with a crane on it. And there’s a stunt driver. There is a grip with toggle switches moving the remote control crane. You stage these battles for real, you have endless landscape and this camera can go anywhere.”
And, shockingly, cost effective.
“You smash an Alexa it’s a huge amount of money. If you smash a Cannon 5D, which we used, you can go to the airport in Namibia and buy one for $1,500,” Miller says. “And we smashed a few, but it was OK. That’s why Margaret [Sixel], the editor, had so much footage. Often you had a 40-minute card. We just let the cameras run.”
It may be hard to believe, but Miller was making films before video playback – now standard on almost all productions– was in use. He notes and then digresses, “Where it really worked was for me was with Johnny Seale on ‘Lorenzo’s Oil.’ He was one of Australia’s great operators and he came to lighting really late because all the very finest Australian [cinematographers], Russell Boyd, Don McAlpine and the others would say to Johnny, ‘Just one more’ before he went on to lighting.”
Miller circles back recalling, “On ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ he started blocking the scene and I’m walking over to the monitor and there was a perfectly famed shot. On [‘Fury Road’ it was much different because] there were monitors but there were real world, real people and real desert. And you’re in a vehicle following it just that vibration and the camera is moving and vibration is great and the camera because it suggests speed. So, I just had to rely on my eye more than anything.”
An eye that is as creative as ever on “Fury Road” will, hopefully, be recognized by at least his peers with a DGA Awards nomination. And all prejudices aside, can you really name five people who deserve a Best Director Oscar nomination this calendar year more than Miller? And at this point, critics and the media may truly be Miller’s best hope this season (are you listening LAFCA and NYFCC members?). Not that we’re sure he even cares. Something tells us he’d rather be out on a rig having fun shooting gorgeous action scenes on the blank canvas of an endless desert in front of him than playing awards season games. But, boy does he deserve it.