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CALENDAR'S BIG OSCARS ISSUE

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

Miller is a man with the long view. He began his career as a doctor. In 1972, while still an intern at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, he and best friend Byron Kennedy (who died in 1982) made a $1,500 short, "Violence in the Cinema, Part One."

The film won awards and thrust Miller into the vanguard of Australian filmmakers with other '70s wunderkinder like Peter Weir ("Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Dead Poets Society"), Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career," "Little Women"), Bruce Beresford ("The Fringe Dwellers," "Driving Miss Daisy") and Fred Schepisi ("The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," "Six Degrees of Separation"). Along with "Mad Max," the short film is part of the New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective "Strictly Oz: A History of Australian Film" that was recently staged in Los Angeles and will be moving to Atlanta in time for the Olympics.

As with Miller's contemporaries, early success in films brought him big-ticket Hollywood assignments. And big Hollywood headaches.

"Working with [Peter] Guber and [Jon] Peters on 'The Witches of Eastwick' was a very unhappy, dysfunctional experience," he says simply. "Although it was glorious working with Susan Sarandon, Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, it's a wonder half a film came out the other end. As a self-taught filmmaker, I prefer to put all my energies into making the film, and too much else in Hollywood goes on that gets in the way of filmmaking. I find I can't do things by committee."

Miller is full of compliments, however, when it comes to Universal, the studio behind "Babe" and "Lorenzo's Oil," for which he received his first Oscar nomination, for original screenplay with Nick Enright.

"Universal left us alone with 'Babe,' " he says. "They said, 'We trust you, you've made lots of films, go do it your way.' That's music to my ears, so you want to honor it the best you can."

Still, Miller turned the director's chair on "Babe" over to Chris Noonan, who had won awards for directing documentaries and Miller-produced television dramas but had never made a feature film. Characteristically generous, Miller doesn't covet Noonan's best director nomination.

"I didn't direct 'Babe,' for very good reasons," he says, smiling, as if wondering how much to reveal. "I'm very obsessive as a director. I would have got too caught up in which way the duck was looking. 'Babe' was a pre-planned military exercise--every animal movement was trained into them months ahead. Nothing was spontaneous. If I was on set every day, I would have lost the big picture. As producer, I got to sit back and take a more Olympian view. Even then, I drove everyone crazy."

It's hard to imagine any serious Hollywood player less crazy-making than Miller, although he claims to know how to use the tactical tantrum to his advantage. "Every director knows that."

It was not required on "Babe." The project that started with a laugh may have required perseverance, patience and NATO-like logistics but was always a labor of love.

"We were infected by the spirit of the book," Miller recalls. "We were middle-aged men earnest about what we were doing. We felt it was valuable to do and treated the material seriously but always had great fun."

So much fun that there will be a sequel?

"I don't know what happens to me in showers, johns and airplanes," Miller says laughing, "but I was flying somewhere thinking of 'Babe' and a story came up, so I'll sit and write the idea up and see if something's there. The trickster always leads you into the forest, though."

The merry trickster does indeed work in mysterious ways, taking Miller from nuclear Armageddon to Hoggett farm. He seems to be the only one unfazed by the journey.

"I don't see Babe and Mad Max as very different," he explains philosophically. "They're both individuals wandering in unknown landscapes trying to find meaning, overcome a number of obstacles, reach the moment their essence is tested and through courage effect change in the world they inhabit. It's essentially the hero story told again.

"Depending on your point of view, the chaos at the turn of the millennium is either the new dawn or the apocalypse. 'Mad Max' is one, 'Babe' the other, sunnier side."

Miller looks a little surprised, then his eyes do that laughing thing again when asked about his own personal evolution. Let's face it, Joseph Campbell aside, Max and the pig are not exactly soul mates.

"I have to recognize I've gone to the much more optimistic view of the world," Miller acknowledges with what seems like pleasure and relief. "Humankind is extraordinary. We're a tiny planet in a vast universe, sorrowful and joyous, exhilarating and terrifying. Whatever happens, it's a scary ride, but still, it's a fabulous adventure."

As Australians cheer favorite sons Miller and Noonan and adopted Yank Mel Gibson toward little gold statuettes, Miller dismisses any expectations about his big night at the Music Center.

"There's a strange mystique to Oscar," he confesses, "but without false modesty, I'd be a complete fool to be disappointed if we didn't win any, because it's all totally unexpected.

"Besides, there's only one moment of truth in filmmaking--when you sit in the theater with a paying audience for the first time. They've paid the baby-sitter, parked the car, bought the tickets and they're waiting for magic on the screen. That's the moment. Everything else is secondary to that."

Then he smiles, like a trickster at play or a man hearing laughter high in the midnight Indian sky.

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