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A Pig and a Bloke : George Miller roared into the Apocalypse with 'Mad Max.' Now he's shepherding the gentle 'Babe.' But the films' heroes, he says, are actually brothers under the skin.

March 24, 1996|Eric Gutierrez | Eric Gutierrez is an occasional contributor to Calendar

SYDNEY, Australia — Somewhere over India, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the '80s, George Miller suddenly woke up. Flying to London, having just wrapped his third Mad Max feature, "Beyond Thunderdome," the exhausted director-writer-producer inexplicably tuned in the plane's children's audio channel. A woman was reading from Dick King-Smith's 80-page children's book "The Sheep-Pig."

"She lost control, just started to laugh this rich, genuine laugh," he explains delightedly in a smoother version of an Australian ocker. " 'What tickled her fancy?' I wondered. As soon as I landed in London I bought the book first thing, went to the hotel and read it. I never thought of adapting it. I just needed a good laugh."

But that good laugh captured Miller's imagination and wouldn't let go. And like Farmer Hoggett, Miller has learned that those little ideas that nibble and persist should never be ignored, because in them lie the seeds of destiny.


A decade and a hemisphere later, Miller, 51, sits in what used to be the balcony of the cavernous Art Deco Metro Theatre, half a block away from the neon and burlesque of King's Cross, Sydney's red-light district.

Open-faced, with an unstudied charm that would be truly disarming in Hollywood, Miller is more like your favorite philosophy professor, too cool to care about tenure, than a producer whose picture boasts seven Oscar nominations, including those for best picture, best director for Chris Noonan and best screenplay adaptation for Miller and Noonan.

While his assistant makes arrangements on the phone for his trip to the Academy Awards, Miller greets his guest with the calm good humor of a man easy in his own skin, actually curious about what's going on around him, just the sort of bloke who would spend 10 years with a talking pig.

For a man who came to Hollywood's attention with the apocalyptic visions of the Mad Max trilogy, Miller's evolution as a filmmaker has been almost mystical.

"I see filmmaking as a strange journey," he says, relaxing over coffee.

"In mythology, the trickster leads you into the forest. Film is, to me, the trickster. I think I can be around a thousand years and never understand the process."

Below us, in the old auditorium, the last play closed decades ago. Until 15 years ago it served as a supermarket before becoming the de facto mini-studio for Kennedy Miller Productions. "Babe" got a little post-production mileage in what used to be canned goods. Not at all the techno shrine one would expect after witnessing the film's state-of-the-art effects. In fact, Miller says, it took so long to bring "Babe" to the screen because the technology simply hadn't existed.

"I traveled everywhere, America, Japan, looking for the technology," Miller says. "The first time we budgeted it out, it came to $100 million. Fortunately, the technology advances quickly."

Kennedy Miller Productions won't confirm or deny it, but reports put the budget at $35 million, an astounding sum by Australian film standards, making "Babe" the most expensive Australian production ever. But it's not gizmos or zeros that captured critics' awards and audiences' hearts, turning a British children's fable into a Hollywood crossover fairy tale. To Miller, it's the power of an unprejudiced heart.

"That's the real point of the film," he offers with a smile. "It's an anti-prejudice piece. The farm animals are frozen in their beliefs, there's institutionalized prejudice and here comes the innocent heart that breaks it all down."

Miller, who is a vegetarian, hates to disappoint the vegans who say that "Babe" is to carnivorism what "Gentleman's Agreement" was to anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, he insists that the other primary issue of the film is not vegetarianism but one he finds personally most powerful: the moment when a child finally loses his innocence.

"When Babe learns the truth about pigs, that they exist for the boss to eat, will he be crushed or go forward?" he asks.

How do you confront a terrible truth in a courageous way? Is it possible to grow up and still keep an unprejudiced heart? These are the questions, hilariously put, that have turned "Babe" into an international and intergenerational hit.

In fact, aside from possibly the Pork Council, adults have embraced the little piggy like a nice honey glaze. Miller, however, hesitates to say how "Babe" became one of the few non-Disney kid flicks ever to strike a chord with grown-ups.

"I don't think you can tell why a film works or doesn't until a long time later," Miller says. "It's taken me 10 years to see why 'Mad Max' worked."

He pauses thoughtfully, adding, " 'Babe' invites children to deal with adult issues and adults to see like children again. Someone who writes more eloquently than me said it invites adults and children into the audience as equals." His eyes smile, as if the analysis is beside the point. "I can answer more accurately in 10 years."

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