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INTERVIEW : The Spark That Gives 'Oil' Its Heat : Movies: Director George Miller follows his passion and gambles on a long-shot--a medical mystery story.

December 30, 1992|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before assuming that "Lorenzo's Oil," based on the true story of a couple seeking a cure for their terminally ill son, bears no relationship to George Miller's post-Apocalyptic "Mad Max" trilogy, think again. Though the movies' content and style couldn't differ more, both feature "heroic loners" whose struggle is more important than the outcome itself.

"These characters descend into darkness and learn they can make a difference," explains the 47-year-old Australian, who is openly critical of, if sympathetic to, a medical establishment that, he says, hides behind institutions and perceived power in an effort to cope. "This is a story of empowerment--a little manual for courageous human conduct."

It's the symbols, Miller believes, that give stories their clout. Mad Max was seen as a Samurai by the Japanese and as a Viking by the Scandinavians. Though the Odones--played by Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte--also transcend the particulars of time and place, getting folks into the seats, particularly during the holiday time, will be a challenge.

"This movie isn't designed to be 'Jurassic Park,' " notes Universal chief Tom Pollock, alluding to Steven Spielberg's cinematic take on Michael Crichton's dinosaurs-on-the-loose novel. "But it's a very moving medical mystery that could do well. I was interested in doing it because, in a world of meticulous, concerned, even obsessed film makers, George Miller is probably the most. It's important to care that passionately. You see the doctor in him."

Miller, a short, congenial man, was a few weeks short of his medical degree when, as he puts it, film came and "seduced" him. His downfall came while studying for finals when he gave his brother an idea for a one-minute movie to enter into a university competition. Though the film won, his brother passed on the prize: a chance to enroll in a college film workshop. Miller, a lifelong movie buff, attended instead. For the next two years, he had a foot in both camps, working as a doctor in a big-city hospital on weekends and making films during the week.

"I was hooked, as if by heroin," he recalls with a smile. "I was attracted to film on a purely plastic level. It was so much less static than painting and drawing. The first films I enjoyed were chase films, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd comedies that had no sound and visual music: little strips of film that were put together into one sentence that made sense."

Action, rather than drama or acting, Miller admits, was at the core of 1979's low-budget "Mad Max," a film about a lawless, degenerate post-nuclear world inspired by the gunfire that erupted when the normally sedate town of Melbourne was hit by a gasoline shortage. That installment and the two that followed (1982's cult favorite "The Road Warrior" and 1985's "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" with Tina Turner) featured an amoral vigilante hero played by an up-and-comer named Mel Gibson. "Ten years ago," Miller says, "I would have been surprised if you'd told me that any Australian actor would become a mainstream movie star," the director says. "But, having said that, I'm not surprised it was Mel. Mel is a greater actor than we've seen on the screen and, by his own admission, a tortured Catholic, which is what gives him his demons. Mel is a very good man who thinks he's a bad man. That gives him the complexity that makes movie stars."

Miller's next project, "The Witches of Eastwick"--a big screen version of John Updike's novel starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher--gave him an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the workings of Hollywood, one, in retrospect, that he'd like to forget. Warner Bros.' desire for "a special effects" movie, he claims, significantly altered the original thrust, co-producer Jon Peters insisted in getting involved in every aspect of the production and Cher's need for attention added to his load.

"As Nick Nolte once observed, people who go into acting from comedy or as a pop star are very self-oriented," says the director. "Those that come from theater are not. Cher behaved liked a movie star--like a child, in fact. The squeaky wheel, as they say, gets the oil. Before long, I also started to behave badly, throwing tantrums, being manipulative, which was the most effective way to get things done. Hollywood penalizes you for good behavior. You meet directors and actors with terrible reputations and find that they're perfectly reasonable and sane."

Cher, too, spoke of bad blood between her and the director not long after the film was released. "George Miller left a lot to be desired," she asserted. "He never wanted me. The studio finally forced (him) to use me. I was in tears with him because he kept saying he didn't want Cher--he used to make quotation marks in the air whenever he used my name--to ruin his movie."

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