submitted by Australian Financial Review on 19.09.2007
by Brook Turner
The Australian Financial Review Magazine May 2007
Front cover, pp. 26-38.
To his friends he's the innocent Mumble. To his crew he's Lovelace, the Arctic witch-doctor, while the man himself thinks he's probably closer to Mad Max. Australia's king of the screen, George Miller, has drawn on aspects of all his heroes in his journey from Chinchilla to the pinnacle of the international game.
It's a hot Wednesday morning in February, the day after Sydney has migrated as one to see the Queen Mary and the QE2 outscale the harbour foreshore. Along the way, many have trawled past an old theatre down a side street in Kings Cross. It’s an easy building to miss; an art deco picture palace painted the colour of the sky, like a bluescreen. Inside, another leviathan is passing through town, almost unnoticed. But within days, filmmaker George Miller will dwarf even the big ships.
The following Saturday, Miller takes out the Oscar for his all-dancing, all-singing penguin musical Happy Feet. After two decades, the old croc hunter Mick Dundee is finally knocked from his perch as the top-grossing Australian film ever. Even pre-Oscar, Village Roadshow managing director Graham Burke predicts the film, which has taken more than $460 million in cinemas, will do a billion dollars before it’s finished, DVD and TV included. Meanwhile, Vanity Fair’s pre-Oscar special hits the street, its cover a chorus line of tuxedoed leading men and, on the gatefold, some rather bemused-looking penguins — the only guys who get lucky on the night.
As Miller sits in the stifling Metro Theatre, fiddling with the bits of sticky tape that replaced cigarettes 15 years ago, the coup seems anything but assured. The smart money is on the Disney/Pixar hit Cars, which beat Happy Feet (HF) to the Golden Globe. “The bookies have Cars winning, so I’m going in with fairly low expectations,” Miller says. “I’m definitely not going to be disappointed if we don’t win.”
That apparent equanimity belies just how much has been riding on HF. Miller’s last film, 1998’s Babe: Pig in The City, did comparatively poor business, just $US69 million ($85 million) as against the original Babe’s $US254 million. The filmmaker’s relationship with Hollywood, too, has often been fraught, largely because of an almost pathological determination to do things his way.
“He tried Hollywood; he went there and made The Witches Of Eastwick , which he found the most galling experience,” says fellow director Phillip Noyce. “George is a single-minded creator, an auteur. He doesn’t like people telling him what to do. Others of us who are maybe not as exacting were able to work within that system. George decided he would create his own Hollywood in Australia, exploiting the Hollywood machine for its ability to sell and distribute movies, but retaining absolute creative control and business control.”
With HF, Miller has, as usual, started from scratch, telling an entirely new story in an entirely new way over a $US100 million, four-year production, despite the fact that neither the director nor Sydney effects house Animal Logic (AL) had made an animated feature before. To realise the film’s CGI (computer-generated imagery) ambitions, AL’s staff swelled from 150 to 550 at one point, redefining the possibilities of the medium and challenging America’s CCI supremacy.
The budget, too, grew “significantly”, says AL director Greg Smith. “Every time we would go back to [financiers and distributors, Warner Bros and Village Roadshow Pictures, and say we need a bit more, because the film did grow over its life, they had confidence in George’s vision, and they had confidence in our ability to execute it and so they kept saying yes, OK, we’re still with you’.”
Along the way, what started as a smaller film became a linchpin of Warner’s schedule, defending its honour in a signal year for animated features, and an era — as David Mamet noted in his recent book on the movie business, Bambi vs. Godzilla (Random House, 2007) — in which “studios bet their all upon the big-tent franchise film. It is increasingly difficult to market the non-quantifiable film, as the franchise model continues its advance toward total control of the studio’s budget and, thus, of the market,” Mamet noted. HF was both sui generis and a ‘tent-pole’ production; the need to match or better Babe’s almost fluky success was intense. “They put a lot more pressure on HF to deliver,” Miller confirms. “It’s a very tough business out there. It’s a huge gamble, for everybody, and for the studios it’s a big roll of the dice on the strength of the screenplay and filmmakers.
“The studio game is the toughest there is, aside from politics,” Miller continues. “They’re booking theatres
— 18,000 around the world — and they have to slot into their dates almost a year ahead. You’ve got advertising, promotion departments, toy makers, publishers with all that lead time ... people are seeing the movie in rough form and they’ve got to decide ‘how much do we put into the promotion of this film?’, ‘do we believe George Miller when he says he can deliver a film that is going to work with the public?’ It’s an act of faith for a studio. And it’s much more than a $100 million decision prints and advertising can double that, though a good proportion is shared by promotional partners.”
At stake is not only the film and studio’s fortunes, but also where exactly Miller gets to play in the increasingly high-stakes game that is mainstream cinema. “I think a lot was riding on HF,” says old friend Lynda Obst, the woman behind Sleepless in Seattle, The Fisher King and Contact, and author of the ‘surviving Hollywood’ bestseller, Hello, He Lied (Little, Brown, 1996). “George does work in such an uncompromising way, and so much on his own terms, that he had to show that his terms worked; he had to show that he was the king of the market, as we all knew he was.”
Another observer is blunter: “The support of Warner Bros to George over the years has been extraordinary ... and they were there again on HF, but it wasn’t going to happen again if this didn’t work.”
In the end, Miller does it again. Rolls the dice and breaks the house, as he’s done consistently, from Mad Max at the end of the seventies, through the rash of acclaimed, high-rating miniseries that Kennedy Miller produced in the eighties, to the phenomenon that an unassuming pig flick called Babe became in the nineties. On Oscar night he treads the boards with Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas, the company in which it seems he will only become further entrenched. For, as The APR Magazine hears after the February meeting, Miller is talking to US monolith Creative Artists Agency (CAA)
— home to everyone from Brad Pitt and George Clooney to, it transpires, the new global player Animal Logic. When it comes to Hollywood power, CAA has the game sewn up — so much so that the satirical film site Defamer habitually pictures it as a ‘Death Star’ bent on movie-world hegemony.
At 62, after more than 30 years in the business, a director who has always kept Hollywood at arm’s length — living in Australia, dropping into LA when he needed to, some say to his detriment — looks to have finally come in from the cold. All the way into the Tinseltown mothership. As one observer puts it: “To the extent that George worked less than he should have — I think CAA will really help him. They’ll help him negotiate with real leverage and, when he’s not there, get his way.”
As Miller himself tells it, there’s much more to his CAA move than dumb ambition, however. Sure he’s been talking to the agency, he confirms back in Sydney a month later, specifically his old friend, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd, a super-heavyweight even among Hollywood heavyweights. But not because he wants — or needs — the muscle. He and Kennedy Miller (KM) partner Doug Mitchell can “go to the heads of studios directly”, he points Out. What he wants help navigating isn’t Hollywood power. It’s 21st century storytelling.
“It’s really about trying to understand what’s happening to the world out there, because it’s moving too rapidly and everyone’s stuck in a kind of old-school way of thinking,” Miller says. “On the one hand, it’s fragmenting into lots and lots of forms of media: everything from movies you can make on your phone to stuff you can almost self-distribute on the net to big blockbuster movies.
“And there’s a huge influence on world cinema from Asia, and, at the moment, Latin America. I’m very interested in anime [Japanese animation]; I’m very interested in the way that the storytelling of games and the storytelling of cinema are converging. There’s a constant interplay between narrative and the zeitgeist, in terms of both your own culture and of the global monoculture.”
In other words, the CAA deal isn’t about the tuxedoed giant who loomed across our TV screens from LA on Oscar night so much as Sydney George, local filmmaker and Tropfest patron. Still in his signature ‘chilli-shirt’. Still trying to figure out how to tell tales that seize the popular imagination; that chime with the times. “The nicest thing anyone has said to me — and this was someone in Hollywood I’d never expect it to come from — was that I was more interested in wisdom than power,” Miller says. “I’m driven by my curiosity; people don’t believe me but it’s true. I’m just trying to understand how to tell a good story on film. I’ve never thought in terms of career, if I had I would’ve been working in Hollywood and I would have made a lot more movies.
You can see his point. For a man whose hits have made fortunes — for years, The Guinness Book Of Records listed Mad Max as the world’s most profitable film — Miller seems uninterested in the trappings. Sydney’s always been his base. And while he splits his time there between the record-setting $3.75 million Whale Beach house he bought from Nick Whitlam in 1996 and an equally salubrious waterfrontage at Watsons Bay, both are said to be considerably more discreet than many of their neighbours.
As for the man himself, he wears one of two pairs of boots and seven identical chilli-emblazoned chef’s shirts every day. “It’s simpler,” he says. “I make so many decisions, particularly on animation, why should I have to think what I’m going to wear?” Film may have provided a very good living, but “if I’d really wanted to make money, I would certainly have put this energy into something else,” he says.
“I would be better off working in Hollywood, where you can line up film after film. There’s certain A-list directors doing one film a year or so ... whereas I’ve made very few. Because I like conceiving ideas, and writing and producing them, I like to get the story right. That’s why we try to stay as independent as possible, then you have a chance to control something of your own destiny.”
The marathon that was HF has allowed him to ‘download’ into screenplay form three of the stories always competing for attention in his head. At the February meeting, he’s fresh from talking to the studios about how they might roll out. One is Mad Max 4, titled Fury Road, which was set to go before HF until the US dollar’s post-Iraq collapse took with it the film’s budget and star, Mel Gibson. Fury Road will now re-emerge as a different kind of sequel, with a different kind of Max. There’s also a smaller, more intimate project he won’t discuss but will probably make next. An HF sequel is likely, as is greater involvement in the latest narrative form, games.
As he enters his seventh decade, Miller’s curiosity and appetite for filmmaking are undiminished. “In fact, they’ve only grown,” he says. “There’s many more stories I want to make than I have time to. And I’m realising it’s harder to make a successful film; the playing field itself is moving. We can barely grasp hold of it.” In fact, the movie business is shifting so fast that it’s gone from a traditional flat-field game, such as hockey, to one vast game of Quidditch, played in multiple dimensions, he says. And therein lies a dilemma, both for George Miller and Australia.
Technology means films can be made anywhere, as HF has again proved. But Australia has failed to keep pace in ways that are more profound. If film is our collective dreaming, as Miller said in his 1997 history of Australian cinema, we now find ourselves asleep and dreamless. “I tried so hard in this country to make local films ... but we are too small a nation in terms of our population and narrative history,” says the man who, as Kennedy Miller, mined those stories throughout the 1980s. “There are isolated pockets of brilliance, but it’s so difficult to sustain that; there’s just not the critical mass of people thinking rigorously enough, really trying to understand what cultural evolution is.”
It’s something Miller has long lamented. “I feel like I’m having this conversation with myself,” he says. “My kids know more about America because of The Simpsons, than they do about Australian culture — and I’m a cultural worker.” Australia’s ever-swelling creative diaspora is the result. “It’s not only our actors. Most of our top cinematographers have left and I’m watching it happen with CCI; all this great talent leaving for Hong Kong, Singapore, London, the US, Canada,” he says.
To stem the tide, Miller says, Australian governments of all persuasions need to be much cannier, not just about upping the tax rebate for film production to make us competitive internationally, but more generally about co-ordinating efforts to harness, and husband, local talent. “The Btacks government understands it because Victorians do,” says Miller, who estimates the production of HF injected $130 million into the NSW economy.
“I think a whole succession of South Australian governments have, because Adelaide is a city dependent on the arts
But NSW and the federal government really haven’t paid much attention. There aren’t any votes in it. Bob Carr pretended he was some kind of patron of the arts — he was anything but. There was the rhetoric, but very little was done.
“People talk about film culture or moving-image culture. I’m talking about culture at large,” he says. “If you talk about film culture you’ve got to talk about moving-image culture and all digital media, and if you talk about digital media, you’ve got to talk about the national culture in every form. And if you talk about the national culture you’ve got to really try to figure out the world culture and where it is at the time. Unless you can contextualise all of that, you’re not in the game.
“That’s the reason why we’ve hooked up with Bryan Lourd and CAA, so that Doug and I can get into hardcore discussions about the state of the world,” Miller says.
“There are few people I can really have that conversation with here. And if you don’t, how can your work have any coherence. You’re going to end up very bewildered. And that’s what’s happening; there are a lot of people walking around very bewildered about what’s happening to — not just film culture — what’s happening to our culture at large.”
George Miller might have been born to make movies. Only the camera was ever missing. Not that that was immediately apparent, least of all to the kid himself. It was Phillip Noyce who first taught him to use an old wind-up Rolex at a 1970 students’ union workshop. Miller had won a place with a one-minute short. Noyce, five years younger, was his tutor. “All I could see was a film genius,” Noyce says. “I thought, well, I taught him how to load a movie camera, but I think that’s all I’m going to teach this bloke.
“He was the equivalent of a child who could already speak Latin, in terms of his film fluidity and vocabulary,” says Noyce. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole career. We gave the students one roll of film, two minutes and 45 seconds long, and they had to shoot a meeting, a chase, a confrontation and a resolution ... George came back with a primer of film grammar which absolutely had that puzzle in perfect place without any editing required. It was a movie, a finished movie, but completely constructed in the camera.
“He’s very instinctive but all of his decisions are guided by an astute, acute intelligence. Whereas most mortals might look at a problem from five different points of view, George has the capacity to look at it from 55.”
Graham Burke, who through Village Roadshow became the first investor in the Mad Max goldmine, a $25,000 investment that yielded a 1,500 per cent return, calls Miller “a genius; one of the guys who every so often gets a direct line to god. What George did with Mad Max was take Hollywood and action to a new level, as he’s done with [CCI in] Happy Feet,” Burke says. “It took Hollywood years to catch up with the visual style that George created in action. Lethal Weapon 1 was the first film that mirrored the quality that George had taken it to.”
“He’s not like anyone else at all in any country,” agrees Lynda Obst, speaking from LA. “He has a unique background and a unique vision and a unique way of working. Now what is that uniqueness? Well, for one thing, it’s self-invented. He doesn’t subscribe to any sort of theory of development or any school of development or any classical narrative technique, which can sometimes frustrate writers, because he has nothing at all conventional or circumscribed in what he is looking for.
“When we do development here, there’s a sort of conventional three-act narrative that we have imprinted inour brains like ducks and we cleave all of our ideas into that. Eventually George gets there but he doesn’t start there. And he does that in every aspect of production, whether he’s reinventing animation, or he’s reinventing characters ... he has to learn everything from scratch.”
With his non-identical twin John, and younger brothers Bill and Chris, Miller grew up in the small rural town of Chinchilla on the edge of the Darling Downs, about 300 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. His grandfather had anglicised the family name, Miliotis, well before George’s father Dimitri (Jim) emigrated to Australia from the rugged Greek island of Kythera. “The moment I landed there for the first time in 1989, in the middle of summer, it unlocked a great mystery for me,” Miller recalls. “I had no idea why my father, who left at the age of nine and never saw his mother again, felt so at home in this loamy, flat, dry place but there, on this Greek island was the same burnt grass, the same sound of the cicadas, the same intensity of light.”
It’s tempting to trace Miller’s intense feeling for landscape — the apocalyptic deserts of Mad Max (MM), HF’s glacial tundra — to Chinchilla. Certainly the local film screen dominated his childhood. The worlds he improvised with his brothers and the local kids as part of what he calls “an invisible apprenticeship in play”, also sound like early versions of what he would later create on film, from MM2’s cubby-like desert outpost to Thunderdome’s Bartertown.
“That was the big advantage of growing up in rural Queensland, without television,” Miller says. “We’d go to the Saturday matinee; it was a window to the outside world, and it would affect our whole week of play. I do not remember doing any homework. It was just out in the bush, on our bikes, on our horses, doing stuff with our hands. If we watched a serial or a movie about knights or gladiators, we’d make swords; we’d turn bin lids into shields, paint emblems on them. We’d dress up our horses and we’d be knights or cowboys and indians. There were the tree houses and the forts and everybody was involved, all the kids in town.”
The communal make-believe of movie sets, Miller constantly at their centre — he’s never had much use for a trailer
— suddenly seems inevitable. As does buddying up with CAA in the new, ever more global game. “Throughout my childhood, Sunday lunch was a dinner table of 20, 30 people, with kids from all over the countryside running around, spending the whole day together. My father reproduced the life he had as a kid in Greece. It’s rather like a film crew, really. You all run away to the circus together and you’re all intensely bonded, often on a distant location.”
Miller’s has always been a familial, often fraternal, enterprise. His first one-minute short was made with brother Chris. And it was at the Noyce workshop, after he and his twin John’s paths had diverged in their clinical years at medical school, that Miller met his MM partner fellow film fanatic Byron Kennedy, who became “like a brother”. Brother Bill, a lawyer by training, has co-produced everything from the Babe films to HF (a title he came up with). George Miller’s HF co-writers and co-directors included long-term collaborators John Collee, Judy Morris and Warren Coleman.
Miller’s wife of 12 years, Margaret Sixel is also his film-editing partner. The couple have two sons. (Miller also has a daughter, Augusta, currently studying at NIDA, with his former wife, actress Sandy Gore). A tall, natural beauty, as un-Hollywood as her husband, the South African-born Sixel is “very influential in a low-key way”, says one friend of the couple. In fact, her husband credits Sixel with turning Babe around, declaring an early cut too episodic and lacking in narrative tension, and suggesting the linking devices of chapter headings and singing mice. Doug Mitchell, an accountant by training who came to KM 24 years ago as Kennedy’s protégée, has been so central to its fortunes since Kennedy’s death that Miller plans to change the company name to Kennedy Miller Mitchell.
As Miller says: “You can’t run a country, you can’t run a business, you can’t run anything alone ... I’m very at ease collaborating; I think it’s because I had a twin brother with whom I spent every day for 24 years, so I’m very used to that dance that happens between individuals.” Others say the intense personal and professional bond Miller enjoyed with Kennedy — they founded KM together in 1983, just months before Kennedy’s tragic death in a helicopter accident — has been harder to replicate. After all, Miller has left the company name unchanged, until now. “Byron was his perfect partner,” Noyce says. “George has been the ultimate right brain, intuitive thinker, and Byron was left and right brain, and together they were the perfect filmmaking combination.”
“Knowing George and loving George you get to hear wonderful stories about Byron Kennedy, and how perfect it was when their partnership began,” says Lynda Obst, who collaborated intensively with Miller on Contact, flying in for three months at a time she calls “the most fascinating 18 months of my life”. “I think there was a half missing for a really long time that [Margaret] has filled to some extent, but that is still unfilled to another extent.”
From Chinchilla, George ended up at Sydney Boys High, around the same time as NSW Chief Justice James Spigelman, Nick Whitlam and Rene Rivkin. But even as he was fulfilling the second-generation-immigrant professional dream, something was missing. As a child he’d always drawn, made things. “There was a whole other part of me, that so-called creative side, that went almost unrecognised,” Miller says of his childhood. But his mother’s cousin was the sculptor Andrew Mayson, a legendary art teacher at Sydney’s Cranbrook School. “Andy was the only member of my extended family who gave me any encouragement in the arts,” Miller says. “And then I encountered that second generation of European Jewish families who went to Sydney High. They just instinctively put store by the arts.”
Miller has Mayson’s ceaselessly creative hands, the same hands that form endless sticky-tape origami as he sits talking in the old Metro Theatre. It helps him think, he says, as the paraphernalia of smoking used to. “I’m driven,” he says of the creative process. “I must say, I still get this incredible — erotic’s not the right word, but it’s almost an erotic feeling of creativity, that endorphin high.”
Miller’s first big eureka moment came when he attended a lecture by the maverick American thinker and polymath Buckminster Fuller at university in the late sixties. “I’ve often been asked to talk about what a medical education meant to my filmmaking,” Miller says. “Probably the two most valuable hours I spent were in an architecture lecture listening to Bucky Fuller. There I was, a medical student who heard the word ‘synergy’ for the first time ... suddenly I thought ‘oh my god, the sum is greater than the parts’. I’d sensed that, but the idea had never consciously come into my mind ... I really set about trying to be a ‘comprehensivist’, as Fuller called them. I found myself going to the theatre, painting a lot, watching movies endlessly. And of course what’s more comprehensive than filmmaking ... everything becomes part of your purview.
“The campuses are dead now,” he adds as an aside. “Once they were great hotbeds of Australian culture. I think the government’s afraid that they’re hotbeds of political movements.”
Miller’s second great epiphany came when he heard the American writer Joseph Campbell speak on a rainy night in Santa Monica after he had made MM. Campbell’s thesis — that all religions and myths are basically one endlessly shifting and evolving hero’s journey — became Miller’s; an influence shared with the likes of Lucas and Spielberg. Indeed, Miller has worked in such a variety of genres — from MM’s R-rated action through miniseries as diverse as Bodyline, Vietnam and The Dismissal, to the passionately personal story of Lorenzo‘s Oil and the family-friendly Babe and HF — that it is hard to remember they’re all one body of work, let alone that Miller’s is always essentially a Campbellesque hero’s journey; that Max and Mumble — or Nick Nolte’s Augusto Odone in Lorenzo's Oil for that matter — all share the same blue-eyed gaze.
“They are the agents of change,” Miller says of the clear-sighted outsiders who are always battling deadly orthodoxies in his films. “They’re the agents of evolution really, and it’s always been like that in our narratives — not just fictional stories, but those of our scientific, artistic, religious and political heroes. Any effective change basically follows the same pattern.”
And all, in a sense, are Miller. To Graham Burke, Mumble is Miller, from his “engaging freshness” to his “lovely innocent naïve quality”. Miller jokes that the HF crew thought he was more like the penguin nation’s shameless shaman Lovelace, the Arctic’s very own wizard of Oz. As for himself, “I like to think I’m Mad Max,” he laughs, quickly adding: “Not really.”
There is quite a bit of Max in George Miller though. “You need to be a creative warrior to make films,” he says at one point, and his career, from student filmmaker to the pinnacle of Hollywood, has been its own kind of hero’s journey. In person, he is surprisingly boyish, genial, unassuming, albeit with that ease particular to very successful individuals. He throws himself into the lengthy portrait shoot for this magazine, patiently taking direction to dance, to re-enact Oscar night, bend down to talk to an invisible penguin who’ll be superimposed later — “Oh God, I feel like an actor,” he moans — even giving a second lengthy interview on the hop.
He’s quite without ‘side’, as the English say. Perhaps as a result, he can also be hard to read. There’s a reticence, almost a Cheshire Cat quality, that may just be that childlike quality on which all who know him agree. “He seems to still have an innocence about him,” actress Nicole Kidman says, echoing Obst and Burke. Miller himself speaks of being “like a mirror . “Behind the camera, you’re an observer,” he says by way of explaining why it makes him self-conscious to talk about himself. “For the actor, I have to be a coach and provide an objective response to their work ... be a true mirror, as it were."
Everyone also agrees that Miller is singularly tenacious in pursuit of his story, and that seems to include the story of who he is, what he does, and why. Babe director Chris Noonan sparked headlines after he claimed in an interview with The AFR’s Michaela Boland in December that Miller had stolen the credit for the film’s success. “It was like your guru has told you that you are no good and that is really disconcerting,” Noonan, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, subsequently told The Sydney Morning Herald. “I regard George as one of the great Australian filmmakers and I don’t want to talk about our relationship. It’s a bad time to go there; it was a mistake to say it.”
“Chris said something that is defamatory: that I took his name off the credits on internet sites, which is just absolutely untrue,” Miller says, his first words on the controversy. “You know, I’m sorry but I really have a lot more to do with my life than worry about that.” The episode clearly still rankles, however, and he wants to set the record straight. “The Year My Voice Broke (TYMVB) was unquestionably John Duigan’s vision and Dead Calm was Phillip Noyce’s,” Miller says of two earlier films he produced. “But when it comes to Babe, the vision was handed to Chris on a plate.”
Miller’s battle for his version of the film of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact forms a whole subplot in Obst’s Hello, He Lied. The film finally emerged in 1997 under another director after Miller refused to agree to a release date until the studio agreed to his changes to the screenplay it had already green-lighted. Warner Bros called his bluff. “Oh is he tough!” Obst exclaims. “I mean he has incredible softness as well, but he’s fierce in his vision and he’s fierce and uncompromising in how he wants to work. He can’t be charmed ... I mean he loves to be charmed, he loves to be wooed but, at the end of the day, he’s going to do exactly what he wants.”
“Film is tough,” points out Foxtel CEO Kim Williams, who has known Miller for 20 years. “Making a film is the toughest thing you can do in creative life, and it’s not for the fainthearted and you’ve got to have a will of iron, and you’ve got to be extraordinarily stubborn and you’ve got to be incredibly assertive and you’ve got to be confident even when you’re full of doubt, and you’ve got to fight ... it’s horrendously speculative and you’ve got to work so hard to protect your vision. And he does all those things.”
It was The Witches of Eastwick in general, and Jack Nicholson in particular, that forged that toughness. “It was an extreme version of Old Hollywood,” Miller says of the film, which he made after the three Mad Max films in the mid-eighties, the only time he’s directed from another’s script. “I ended up working with the highly dysfunctional producers who were deal makers but weren’t filmmakers, namely Cuber-Peters, Jon Peters in particular. The shocking thing behind any dysfunction in Hollywood is that you not only get rewarded for bad behaviour, you get punished for good behaviour. If you are polite, it’s seen as a weakness and if you make a commonsense suggestion to cut costs you are suddenly negotiable on everything.”
The director and his satanic leading man, on the other hand, “really bonded”, Miller says. “He’s one of the cleverest guys I’ve ever met, a true sage; I learnt more from him than from anyone else. And he just kept on saying ‘look George, you’re too nice, make them think you’re crazy’ ... and I started enjoying the bad behaviour. The more tantrums you threw, the more people paid attention. But after a while, I remember one old-timer said to me: ‘Be careful, because I worked on all the last three or four Sam Peckinpah movies — after a while it’s about getting back at them; it’s not about getting the movie made’.”
Instead, Miller returned to Australia and the Metro Theatre, which Kim Williams’s father, Greater Union boss David Williams, a film buff, had helped KM secure. He didn’t direct again until Lorenzo’s Oil five years later. The Metro is a building steeped in cinema history: Ginger Rogers danced there, Peter Finch played there, as did the original production of Hair. But many more layers have been added over the past quarter of a century. Parts of The Dismissal, The Cowra Breakout, Vietnam, Bangkok Hilton, and Babe were shot there. Miller worked there with Obst and Sagan on Contact. And it was in an old video alcove of the main theatre that John Duigan handed him the one perfectly formed script he’d ever read, the coming-of-age masterpiece The Year My Voice Broke.
Mel Gibson shot part of MM3 at the Metro and Kidman screen-tested first for Vietnam and then Dead Calm, the film that helped break her internationally. Like Michelle Pfeiffer, whom he cast in Witches against much more high-powered actresses, Kidman’s natural facility in front of the camera immediately impressed, as has her subsequent creative adventurousness. Miller compares her with Pfeiffer who, despite her technical prowess, “underachieved because she was just, creatively, completely conservative,” he says.
“Whereas Nicole takes my breath away because, unlike most of those people, she’s creatively incredibly daring, so she’s growing in her ability. Success often means the opposite.” That admiration is mutual. “He has always supported me and encouraged me,” Kidman says. “He is one of the primary reasons I went to America and was able to have a career internationally, and I think coming from a young girl to where I am now ... you never forget that.”
When Miller speaks to The AFR Magazine in February, KM’s Metro is empty, between projects, with few of its core staff of 12 to 15 in evidence. Miller says he’s kept the operation as lean as possible since moving out of television. “It’s very deliberate, because if you run too big a machine, you’ve just got to keep the machine fed,” he says. “It gives us the flexibility; we’re not forced to do anything. We’re not doing it because we have to.” To Obst, such independence has been the key not only to Miller’s success, but to that of “all the great Australian directors” who also just happen to be, she says, Hollywood’s best filmmakers. “I think they have a tremendous advantage. Hollywood wants them, so they can have Hollywood on their terms and, at the same time, they’re not of Hollywood so they can maintain their integrity.”
While KM may have scaled back in the ninties, there is no doubt it has been one of the few truly successful artist-as-busimsessman-run production companies. "George and Byron were always very astute businessmen,” Noyce says. When the rest of us started making hasically state-sponsored features in the 1970's, George and Byron did the most unusual thing of financing Mad Max [produced for just $350,000] 100 per cent from privàte investors, when noone else could find one, less than the usual 50% ownership. The company belongs to a utopian, and- rarely so suceessful tradition; founded on MM’s success much as Francis Ford Coppola founded American Zoetrope on the back of The Godfather in the early seventies and George Lucas Lucasfilm after Star Wars at the end of the decade.
But where Zoetrope petered out, and Lucasfilm turned into an expensive party to which no one came, as Peter Biskind wrote in Easy Riders/Raging Bulls (Bloomsbury), KM has gone from strength to strength. “George [Miller’sl idea was that they would establish something like....Zoetrope,” Noyce explains. "Coppola had the idea that they would reinvigorate the concept of the artist-as-businessman by taking a number of writers and directors onto salary. George and Byron took the same idea and decided that, initially, they’d create a stable of directors and writers who would be on salary and work within the comfort zone of a studio and that they would initially embark on revolutionising the face of Australian television.” It was the era of 10BA*. [*Australian Government taxation concessions at or beyond 100%, which attracted considerable funds for film investment in Australia in the 70's & 80's]. Miller takes up the story: “Rupert Murdoch bought Channel Ten and he did something that HBO has done in recent years, which basically transformed television,” Miller says. “He said ‘I want drama. I don’t care what it is, provided it's really bold’, and we said ‘well we’re not that interested in doing television but if we were we’d have to have no interference’.”
"There was nothing shallow about the way they approached the work on any level,” says Noyce, who co-directed The Dismissal and The Cowra Breakout. ‘Thev reached outside the film industry into theatre and brought in George Ogilvie who was a great theatre director, and he began to stage a series of workshops for actors, writers and directors which explored the nature of storytelling. And then the miniseries became a further investigation into storytelling, because they were making 10-hour miniseries, not to be screened one hour a week, but 10 hours in one week. It was absolutely unheard of....... what a commitment you’re asking from an audience, to turn up all night for four nights in a row to watch one story."
It was event storytelling.in a medium - television - that Miller helped redefine in Australia. In other words, that same synchronicity of medium, story and zeitgeist that he is still chasing with CAA something so novel, with such an attendant sense of occasion, that it captures people as the Queen Mary and QE2 have just done when he speaks to The APR Magazine. “I just know that every film you do has to have something that distinguishes it, lets it stand out,” he says. With Happy Feet; it was a revolution in CGI; with Max it was a new kind of road movie; and with Babe it was the cutting edge animatronics that finally allowed him to film Dick King-Smith's novel a decade after he read it.
As Murdoch moved on from Channel Ten in 1987, Alan Bond bought Channel Nine. "Sam Chisholm [then at Nine], called us and said, 'we don't do drama well; you guys do drama successfully. Do you want to take ours over?'.....Then Kerry Packer bought Channel Nine back and didn't like the agreement. Basically he wanted creative autonomy and he wanted to influence the way we worked too much." KM took [the 1990 agreement] to court, becoming one of the few to best Packer when an appeal was dismissed on their $8.1 million suit in 1994. By then Miller was playing a new game but, along the way, KM had helped hothouse generations of Australian talent, from Kidman and Gibson to Noyce, Duigan and Noonan to cinematographers Dean Semmler (Apocalypto), Don McAlpine (The Chronicles of Narnia, Moulin Rouge) and John Seale (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, The Talented Mr Ripley).
It's a roll-call that lends a singular weight to his concern about Australia's growing creative diaspora. It also points up his extraordinary versatility. Even if HF had tanked, there's no doubt he would have had several further Hollywood lives as a producer and director in another of the genre's he has mastered. “The extraordinary thing about George is how many filmmakers he started and how he has affected Australian culture,” says Obst. And yet ar the same time to he able to make great American and international movies as well. I really think you can only compare him to Steven Spielberg or George Lucas....He's one of the patriarchs of this generation of breakthrough Australian filmakers."
Kim Williams adds a local, historical perspective. “I think George is in that pantheon of great Australian filmmakers which stretches from Raymond Longford and Ken G. Hall and particularly Charles Chauvel.” Which begs the question Miller himself raises in speaking of the difficulty of making Australian films in Australia. In the l980s he helped refine our identity, telling this country its own story through a string of historic miniseries, even making that achingly Australian bildungsroman, The Year My Voice Broke. But, says Phillip Noyce, “George hasn’t made his quintessential Australian film statement personally. As a producer he has, working through other directors and storytellers, but it will be interesting to see if he feels compelled to make a uniquely Australian film with an Australian setting.”
“What George did with Mad Max was take Hollywood and action to a new level, as he’s done with [CGI in] Happy Feet. It took Hollywood years to catch up with the visual style.” Graham Burke.“
I’m realising it’s harder to make a successful film; the playing field itself is moving. We can barely grasp hold of it.” George Miller.
“He has incredible softness, but he’s fierce in his vision and he’s uncompromising in how he wants to work. At the end of the day, he’s going to do exactly what he wants. Lynda Obst
You can only compare him to Steven Spielberg or George Lucas...He's one of the patriarchsof this generation of breakthrough Australian Filmaker." Lynda Obst.
George Miller’s Filmography
Babe: Pig in the City
Fragments of War: The Story of Damien Parer (TV)
The Clean Machine (TV)
White Fellas Dreaming
Video Fool for Love
Bangkok Hilton (TV)
producer/second unit director
The Dirtwater Dynasty (TV)
The Year My Voice Broke
producer Vietnam (TV)
The Riddle of the Stinson (TV)
The Witches of Eastwick
Mad Max Beyond
The Cowra Breakout (TV)
Twilight Zone: The Movie
The Dismissal (TV)
miniseries, executive producer/
Mad Max 2
The Chain Reaction
Violence in the Cinema, Part 1
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