Podcast – Lunchtime Lecture Series: George Miller's enquiring spirit
Australian film legend George Miller traces his multi-award winning engagement with film to the ritual Saturday matinee in his hometown of Chinchilla, Queensland. After a stint at medical school he became a filmmaker, going on to create the Acadamy Award-winning Mad Max, Babe and Happy Feet series among many others.
In this intimate talk, George discusses his early life and career, and reveals some amazing facts about his films, such as how his wife, editor Margaret Sixel, had to edit 480 hours of footage for Mad Max: Fury Road down to just two.
He also speaks about his own creativity and process.
I’m probably mostly right-brained – seeing things holistically and in patterns. With the benefit of medical school I was lucky enough to exercise the left side of my brain. I noticed in there that you needed a very convergent view of the world, basically paying attention to detail, but I had a very divergent view of the world and saw things broadly, looked for patterns. [Because of medical school] when I’m working I’m able to get very granular and specific on detail almost to the point of driving everyone around me crazy.
Sue Saxon: Firstly I'd like to welcome you here to the museum and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and future.
So this is the third of our really compelling lunchtime lecture sessions. We've been exploring Australians who've shaped our nation, and you can also visit the award-winning Westpac Long Gallery to find out more about our guests to come as well as the guests we've spoken to, as well as exploring this wonderful collection of 100 treasured objects.
So over the past two compelling lunchtimes we've spoken with Ita Buttrose and Layne Beachley, who've shared their extraordinary insights, passions and challenges. I hope you'll now join me in welcoming Kim McKay, our director and CEO, to introduce today's extraordinary speaker, Dr George Miller.
Kim McKay: Thank you so much, Sue, and welcome again to all of our regular attendees, great to see you. And to those newcomers today as well, to hear from George Miller. Today is a sad day in the international museums world. I'm sure you all saw that horrendous footage of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burning to the ground yesterday. That museum is 200 years old, so just nine years older than our own Australian Museum. And our collections are almost the same size, over 20 million objects and specimens. And we do the same sort of science and we collect the same sort of things. So our team here at the museum today is really quite shocked by this. Watching the footage yesterday many of us were in tears, because you think, 'My God, what if that happened here?'
So I just want to reassure you that we have a lot of good strategies in place. Fortunately we do have a lot of good fire suppression systems here, and we do have sprinklers where that beautiful historic building did not. And we're taking very good care of our collections. And of course moving some of them offsite to minimise risk of them all being located in the one place. And of course in that collection is one of Australia's most significant Indigenous collections, over 20,000 Aboriginal objects. And so I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as well and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging, and those of you who've heard me say it before, the emerging leaders are very important because many of them work here at the museum, and they're really forging some new ground.
So today is very special, because we've got an Australian who has touched all of our lives through his extraordinary filmmaking and creativity. And I'm going to read the formal introduction but I know today George is a very generous person and he's going to let me ask him—he said, 'Anything.' He may regret that; I don't think so. But it's wonderful, George, to have you here, and it's wonderful to have you as one of our 100 treasured people, those people who have helped shape the nation in this way.
So let me just give you a bit of an insight—in case you didn't know—into George of course. Auteur, director, screenwriter and producer, so he can do it all, except maybe act? No. Dr George Miller has been described as the statesman of Australian cinema. His diverse, genre-breaking oeuvre, with storylines that range from endearing family fables to action packed post-apocalyptic sagas has achieved classic status and launched the careers of numerous countrymen and women, including of course Mel Gibson in the original Mad Max and Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm which is, by the way, one of my favourite films, strangely.
He traces his distinguished multi-award winning career and perhaps his intense feeling for landscape to his home town of Chinchilla in outback Queensland, and the ritual Saturday matinee that dominated his childhood. He began his cinematic career in his early 20s and in '79 made his feature film directorial debut with Mad Max.
He most recently directed, wrote and produced the fourth title in the series—so many years later—Mad Max Fury Road, which brought his iconic character back to the big screen. Of course Mad Max Fury Road was nominated for ten academy awards, including best motion picture of the year and best achievement in directing, and the film was awarded six stunning wins. Just quite incredible.
A native of Australia (thank goodness) Miller earned a degree in medicine from University of NSW. However, it was at a filmmaking workshop with Byron Kennedy where he met Byron and, following the release of an award-winning short, the pair formed Kennedy Miller Productions back in 1972, which has since won more than 25 AFI awards, ten Logies, and numerous other international awards like Baftas and academy awards.
With a long list of award-winning films behind him, including Happy Feet, Babe, and Lorenzo's Oil, Miller is a key figure within the Australian and international film industry. He was awarded the Order of Australia for distinguished service to Australian cinema. He is serving as patron of the Sydney Film Festival, the AFI (now ACTA) and the Brisbane International Film Festival. He's also been a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival twice, and served as president of the jury for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Dr George Miller.
George Miller: Boy, that sounds impressive.
Kim McKay: It does. Who is that man? So, George, I've been fortunate to know you for quite a long time, actually, because your brother is a good friend of mine. And I've always just stood back and been amazed, like I'm sure many Australians, at how you keep that flow going of hit after hit, success after success. And I know it's damn hard work.
George Miller: Yes, it's hard work. And I think…you really don't know, but if I had to put my finger on it, is that I think I've always had a very, very strong sense of enquiry. Mainly about process and how things work. And it doesn't matter what field it's in—they all lead you down a path where you get fairly wide-ranging insights. People who know about mastery, and I'm not saying that I have any mastery, but people who know about it say that if you can find mastery in one area you can usually transpose it into another. So I think I would say a very strong sense of enquiry, and having the opportunity to put it into practice—putting it out there and seeing how much of what you thought was right was indeed right, or very wrong. So it's a feedback loop.
Kim McKay: Okay. So let's start back at the beginning. You're of Greek heritage, of course, your mum and dad were immigrants. And your mum is still alive of course, she's a terrific lady, isn't she?
George Miller: Yes, I'm very proud of my mum. As I like to say, she's on her 98th ride around the sun. And she's lived each one of those rides magnificently. She's a truly great woman.
Kim McKay: Yeah, she has a wonderful spirit. So your parents went to Chinchilla in Queensland.
George Miller: Yes, just thinking about it, they both came as kids, basically, almost a century ago. And they grew up in the history of Europe, the diasporas. They came for all the reasons, mainly poverty in Dad's case. In Mum's case she was kicked out with her family out of Turkey. And they came and they made a life here and they met during the war and they were just…my dad went to school for one year. And my mum, who actually went to school, she grew up in William Street but went to school, in the first school building, I think in the building next door.
Kim McKay: That's ours, the International School building, built in 1898.
George Miller: Well she went to school there.
Kim McKay: Oh, great…
George Miller: And she had three brothers and three of them were allowed to study professionally—accountants, lawyers and so on. But because she was a girl in a patriarchal family, the best she could do was to learn sewing. She became a seamstress. But that didn't stop her, because like my father she was self-taught about life. And that's where I think I got a lot of that instinct. Most of the things I've done well in life have been self-taught. Anyway, they gave us this fantastic life in Chinchilla, Queensland.
Kim McKay: There were four of you.
George Miller: There were four of us. I have a twin brother. And Chinchilla…does anyone know where Chinchilla is? It's remote and it's flat and loamy, and what a great playground for kids. We spent all our time in the bush, and the most significant event was the Saturday matinee.
Kim McKay: Well we should say, there was no television, of course.
George Miller: There was no television. No internet. There was the radio, and there were the Argonauts on ABC radio. Anyone remember the Argonauts? But the Saturday matinee, you had the newsreel, the serial, a cartoon, the A feature and the B feature. The whole town went, and we took that and it became part of our play. That's the thing that informed our play. And it was unfettered play.
Kim McKay: And you played cowboys and Indians.
George Miller: We did. Cowboys and Indians, we built forts and tree houses and underground tunnels. We played knights, we'd take garbage bins and paint them up. We'd make armour for ourselves.
Kim McKay: So this is where Mad Max came from.
George Miller: Well it certainly was an unwitting apprenticeship for making films. I'm still doing the same thing 60 years later. It's still the same process.
Kim McKay: Well, that's so interesting, isn't it, because playing, which is the most fun thing to do as a child, has been incredibly affected now by video games. Playing in a different way, certainly, but very isolated play. And yet I think that creative play as a child really helps stimulate your curiosity, and it lets your imagination go wild.
George Miller: Yes definitely. I realise how important it was now, only in retrospect. Now interesting, though, I have a twin brother, and we're not identical but we had for the first 22 years of our lives we were literally together every day. We were always in the same class, we went to medical school together and we…and yet he went in a different direction, so he's a very, very bright guy and he happens to be a very, very fine doctor. And he has an imaginative life, but in different ways than I do. He's much more verbal than I am, he's much funnier. The thing I really envy about him is that he's hilarious. He really is. And if there's a gene for humour he's the one who got it in the family.
So I've always noticed how people's minds develop differently, even when they had this almost identical formative experiences. That's always been interesting to me. And I will say the great privilege of being a filmmaker is that you encounter very high level creative type people in so many different disciplines. People who deal with the written word, the performed word; vision, composition, sound, music composers. To do movies like Happy Feet you're working with physicists and high end mathematicians to write the codes to make snow or feathers on a penguin. And to see creativity across all these disciplines, you suddenly realise one day, everybody goes through the same process. The process is the same for everybody. And that essentially is loading up the intellect through your curiosity and by loading up that intellect you basically look to the intuition for guidance. And the intuitive response kind of guides you into how to solve problems.
Kim McKay: So your intuition must be quite highly developed then. You know, in a lot of men it isn't.
George Miller: Well, in some parts it is. I don't know how much you want me to go on about this, but I definitely realised that…people used to divide the brain into the four-quadrant brain: left, right, and upper and lower, left and right brain. And the upper right brain tends to see things holistically, see things in patterns; and the lower left brain, for instance, tends to see things in terms of series ,very mathematical, well I shouldn't say mathematical, but in very simple, logical sequences.
Now, to really function best in the world you need to be bouncing between the two all the time. It's probably wrong to define people like this, but this was very strong in psychology. I'm probably an upper right brain. However, I've been lucky enough to exercise the other one as well, because I had the benefit of medical, scientific education. So that's been very, very useful. I'd noticed when I was at medical school that you needed a very convoluted view of the world, basically paying attention to detail in some way. But I had a very divergent view of the world. Saw things broadly, trying to put everything in some context, looking for patterns. And I think that became more and more exercised, even though luckily I'm able to—not in normal, everyday things but when I'm working—I'm able to get very, very granular and very, very specific on detail. Almost to the point where I drive everyone around me crazy.
Kim McKay: You have that reputation. I know Phil Noyce said that about you, that he said in an article, in an interview once, that one of the reasons he thought why you didn't work in Hollywood, for yourself, that you weren't comfortable working in the Hollywood system, was because of that fastidiousness that you have, where you do drive everyone crazy around you.
George Miller: Well…
Kim McKay: Thank goodness he does.
George Miller: Well, I happen to have my wife Margaret Sixel, who was the editor on the last film, Mad Max Fury Road, and that is the most difficult film you could ever imagine for an editor. There were 480 hours of footage to get something under two hours. There was a massive amount of footage. And I drove her crazy, but she did win the academy award for editing, so that…
Kim McKay: That made up for it. Let's pop back to Chinchilla for a second, because your mum and dad had a sweet shop there, didn't they, a lolly shop?
George Miller: That was later on, in Sydney. Yeah, they had the classic Greek café which they expanded into…it kind of became a very early precursor to a supermarket. My father became very skilled at things. He'd do all the signwriting, he was a photographer very early on, he wrote poetry. And my mother, she only started painting in her 80s. But she turned out to be really quite good. She'd never thought to do it. In fact the idea of any of us being in the artistic world just didn't compute at all. Even though we were naturally doing it.
Kim McKay: So then you moved to Sydney, to Vaucluse, which must have been quite a cultural contrast to Chinchilla.
George Miller: Well, it was. But we had a bridging year where Mum and Dad…and Mum's parents were here and Dad promised if they did well enough in Queensland that they would come down and live here. And after 10, 12 years, they did come to be near Mum's parents.
We were sent to boarding school for one year. Now, my twin brother and I thought that boarding school was reformatory school, because Mum and Dad said, 'If you boys don't behave and learn manners, you're going to boarding school.' So we honestly thought we were going to a kind of prison. Now, they thought we'd just learned manners, and the first meal I went to—we were in primary school—the first meal we went to, it was Ipswich Grammar School in Queensland, everyone had to stand up to say grace. While we were saying grace, kids would grab the bread that was piled up on a plate in the middle of the table, they'd grab a piece of bread, spit on it, and put it on their plate. And these were the manners we learned. The reason was they claimed that piece of bread. Everyone wanted seconds. So that's the first thing we learned at boarding school. Take a piece of bread, spit on it, and put it on your plate. So anyway, that was the culture shock, and it was an interesting time.
Kim McKay: What made you and your brother decide to go into medicine, then, at the end of school?
George Miller: One of my favourite sayings is from a John Lennon lyric. I think it was John Lennon who first said it: 'Life is what happens…
Kim McKay: …when you're busy making other plans.
George Miller: '…when you're busy making other plans.' And I found that to be so true. I always wanted to be a doctor from the age of 8. There's a lot of reasons for that but the main one was that I got very ill, I remember, in the country town, and Dr Roban came one day, my parents and the whole family were anxious about me. I had a really high fever, I was having chills and I'm not even sure if I had a seizure or whatever. And he came and he was some magical figure and he gave us some antibiotics and suddenly everything went calm. And I thought, 'Gee, it would be great to have that sort of experience.'
So I always wanted to be a doctor. And of course for migrant families to have a son a doctor or a lawyer—the classic thing. So my brother John…the way that we survived being twins and avoided being competitive is that we always had different interests. And he said, 'Well if George wants to be doctor, I'll be a dentist.' So right up until we did the HSC he was always going to be a dentist. But we got the identical mark in the HSC. We didn't cheat, there's no way you could cheat. But we got identical marks. And Dad said, 'Well John if you can go to medical school then you can share textbooks and you can share a car, I'll buy you a little car,' and so on. So two weeks before, he decided to go to medical school. He was a far better student than I was and a far better doctor. And he's still practicing today. And he was just a natural for it.
Kim McKay: So something happened when you were at medical school. You were also working in Sydney as a builder's labourer on a building site. What happened with the brick?
George Miller: Well, this was after I'd graduated. It's a bit of a long story but the short version is I was trying to get fit before I was to start my residency at St Vincent's. And I had three months. And the Siebel Townhouse (I don't know if anyone remembers it, it's no longer there) was being built. And I was a brickie's labourer, and one day we were waiting to go to lunch and a brick fell between—we were closer than you and I—between another man and me from the fourteenth floor. And that could have been the end. So I thought, 'Damn it, I'd better not waste my life.' It was like a jolt. Now it turned out that one of my brothers, Chris, had won a film competition to go to the first film workshop ever held in Australia. That was down at Melbourne University. And he had made this film, and because I was studying for my final exams I'd said, 'Here's a little idea,' and it won the prize. He shot it.
So I got on my motorbike, which is a Honda 90, before helmets, tiny little bike. I rode all the way to Melbourne and tried to talk myself…there were 40 places, they were all filled up, and there was an extraordinary lady called Robin Love who said, 'Look, sorry, it's all filled up.' And I said, 'Okay.' I was about to get on my bike to go back to Sydney and she said, 'Oh, you've got a bike.' And I said, 'Yes, I'm riding it back to Sydney.' And she said, 'You rode that all the way down from Sydney?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Gee. You're keen.' She said, 'Go back to Sydney. I'll see what I can do.' And about four days later she said, 'We've made another place.'
Now, had that not happened, I would not have met Byron Kennedy, who we started Kennedy Miller Mitchell with. We made the first Mad Max with, we started television together, we made The Dismissal and Bodyline, a whole lot of other things together. And I would not have got my hands on film. And in that workshop, which was only one month, I got to make my first film, and it was like I imagine taking some highly addictive drug. I was very, very interested in how that process works.
Kim McKay: Sliding doors. Sort of like Sliding Doors.
George Miller: Sliding Doors. Yeah. So the brick and the motorbike and Robin Love…
Kim McKay: Came together into that. The thing that you're really highly regarded for in the film world is that storytelling ability. And you've often said monomyth or the hero's journey in cinematic storytelling is akin to Aboriginal dream time stories. What do you mean by that?
George Miller: Well, that's a long conversation. I think it's significant. Look, just very quickly, when I was a kid I'd always draw and paint. We all did. And I was very, very interested in art, even in medical school I was painting and stuff like that. When I had made the first film, I was suddenly working with the dimension of time. Once you bring time into a visual context you're dealing with narrative. Once you're dealing with narrative you're on a journey that's going to take you more than one lifetime to really understand why it is we tell each other stories. There is something about the way we are in which we basically interpret the world. We are hardwired to interpret the world through stories, in all cultures, whatever ages, across all time.
And the significance of stories to understand that is just a really, really huge study, best done by Joseph Campbell, who spent 40 years in a library. Forty years by himself, basically studying first of all comparative religions, and then all sorts of folklore and mythologies. He came up with an extraordinary book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's the great inspiration behind Star Wars. That's what George Lucas first got on to and I certainly got on to it by the time—all of Hollywood's now on to it—but I got on to it for the second Mad Max.
Now, the most significant…well, put it this way, the most unique thing that we have in Australia; the only unique thing we have in Australia culturally is the Indigenous culture. As time goes on, and you'd know more now, they're saying 88,000 years ago was the earliest evidence of that.
Modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, is probably—and you'd know as much about this as I would—is something like 150,000 years. So we're talking about a continuous extant culture that goes back all that time. And living in a world in which there were no animals or crops that could be domesticated, so they lived a nomadic world. But their way of interpreting the world through stories is mind-boggling. It's one of the most extraordinary treasures we have here. And it directly connects to what we see in the cinema today. To the Greek mythologies, to the Norse mythologies, to absolutely everything that we have. It's a continuum.
Campbell was asked—even though he studied Jung and all those sort of things, he was somebody who basically made the connections between all these things. And when he was asked what's his definition of a religion, he came up with the neatest answer I've ever heard. He said, 'Other people's mythology.' And so what's so great about the Indigenous culture, in their song-lines, in their stories, in everything they do—and it still exists in fragments today—they go to the supermarket, they've got their GPS tracker, they map out the entire territory through their stories. They go to church, they're astronomers—they have stories to explain the stars. And it's practical, it tells you where to find water, what the seasons will do, when to do this, where to find food. It's a phenomenal culture.
Kim McKay: When to get together and have a party.
George Miller: Yeah. Exactly. So anyway…and that's taken me a whole lifetime to get there, being a practitioner in storytelling as well. I've discovered that through the stories I tell. And I think it informs all the stories I tell.
Kim McKay: So one part of your career, and I mentioned it earlier, the Hollywood experience, of course you made that wonderful film Witches of Eastwick, which as a regular cinemagoer it was just marvellous in so many respects. But you found that quite difficult.
George Miller: Yes, Kim, it was a big thing for me. Look, we made films here in Australia, we made television here in Australia. And then of course when you make a success—what was great about America, and what was great about Hollywood particularly, is that they would invite you in. They weren't afraid of people coming in. In fact Hollywood was made great basically by the immigrant filmmakers and directors. Every great filmmaker in Hollywood in the so-called Golden Era was from Europe, mainly from Europe, and the British, Hitchcock and everywhere. All those guys who defined cinema were from then.
And of course that continued and still continues today. I believe they're the sorts of things, the migrant populations that make any country great but in particular America. So of course we go to Hollywood. Now my first experience of Hollywood was to make a short film, a portmanteau film with four filmmakers, basically at the invitation of Steven Spielberg. And I worked with the crew that he worked with, that just came off ET. It was a wonderful experience. I felt completely comfortable and at home.
We came back, we worked on other films or whatever, and then I was invited to make Witches of Eastwick, which is based on a John Updike novel, wonderful screenplay, and I was kind of dumb. I didn't pay any attention to the people I was working with, who turned out to be the worst case scenario producers and studio heads that you could imagine. I paid no attention. I thought the Spielberg experience was what I was going to find. And it turned out that they were just terrible people. I'm happy to name one of them at least, John Peters, who's one…I don't know whether it was all cocaine or whatever, but it was completely crazy. There was one saving grace—Jack Nicholson. He played the main character and he, despite his public persona he was the wisest man and the best collaborator you can imagine. We had terrific actors. There was…
Kim McKay: Michelle Pfeiffer…
George Miller: Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Cher, and we all were working together. It's a satire about the devil. Anyway, things started to go really horribly wrong, in quite a corrupt way, actually, but Jack would say, 'George, you've gotta stick with the film. We're doing good work.' When I realised that I could quit at any time, it would completely destroy the film, and they wouldn't let it happen because of Jack, I started to realise that I had a tremendous lot of power. So when I couldn't get anything after pleading with them to do the right thing, all I would do is not turn up to set. Or I'd say, 'I'm getting on a plane tomorrow and going back to Australia.' And suddenly they paid attention. 'Oh well, we'll solve your problems.'
Kim McKay: Did you get a lot of fruit baskets to your hotel room?
George Miller: I did. Ridiculous. Everybody thinks you're somehow a whore. And that's what Cher said about John Peters, 'He thinks we're all whores, that we've got a price.' Anyway, cut a long story short, I suddenly found myself behaving badly. I was rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour. And Jack said to me, 'Be careful, they mistake politeness for weakness.'
So suddenly I was becoming impolite and getting off on it. I was enjoying bad behaviour. The more I could cause the studio a problem, the more they were trying to solve my problem. And then I realised that that was just not a way to behave. I lost all my curiosity for making films, which was very intense, and I came back to Australia. And basically, by the time…now we work with Hollywood but we can work out of Sydney. It's modern communications allows you to do that.
Kim McKay: Which is great. So out of that experience, you've demonstrated extreme resilience over the years, because you did reinvent the way you wanted to make films and base yourself here, which so many people haven't, and you've also, though, had to put up with rejection from time to time, because negotiating for a big budget film is not an easy thing, getting money for any project is never easy. So you've had to negotiate with the Hollywood system. How do you cope with rejection, when they say, 'No, George, we don't like that idea.' Or do they never say that?
George Miller: Well, first of all, you learn very quickly that you should have a number of things going at the same time. Because anything can go wrong or right at any time. And I'm just lucky enough that I've got way more ideas in my head than I can ever, ever make. Or way more screenplays than I can ever make. So that's a really good thing.
The second thing is there's no point in getting into what they call development hell. There's no point in putting a screenplay that's not complete, and which you know that there's still work to be done and putting it into the system, because that just opens it up to a lot of interference and…you know, when people get together there's a lot of money, and try to figure these things out. It can go…
Kim McKay: That money side of it—I noticed in a story I read yesterday online Kathleen Turner, and I've always really admired her, and she said she thinks it's obscene the amount of money that actors and actresses get paid. That compared to so many other things. And it's really now throwing budgets out of all proportion in the filmmaking industry. You know, where they're hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. What did you spend on that first Mad Max film?
George Miller: Well, this is not a good example, but it was $350,000. I think at that point the Australian dollar was higher than the American dollar. But that meant on that film we had to do everything. Byron Kennedy and I had to do everything. The script was done on a Gestetner machine. Does anyone know Gestetner machines? We had somebody who did…a next-door neighbour of his who came and would type it at night. And then we'd print them and we didn't have a car so I'd get on my motorbike and we'd deliver it to the crew. Whenever we did a stunt and we had to clean up the broken glass on the ground, we were the ones sweeping the ground afterwards, and so on. So it was very, very, very low budget.
We ran out of money. I would go and work as a locum, as a doctor; he would go and work on some other film, we cut the film in a flat that someone lent us. I cut the picture in the kitchen, he cut the sound in the garage. Anyway, one thing, we got through it. It was completely, utterly exhausting, and I felt that I just wasn't cut out to make films. And worse than that, his best friend had put money into it and friends of his best friend, and my best friend from school, Mickey Johnson, who somehow just believed in everything I ever did, he said, 'Yes, I'll put money in, I'll get my friends in.' So now we had the responsibility of losing money.
Kim McKay: Investors. Your mates.
George Miller: Yeah, people who believed in you. Close friends. And anyway, somehow it worked. I think it was because of all the immense preparation and just raw instinct that was there. But it didn't go how I expected it to go, at all. I thought if you prepared everything it was going to really work. And I've described it as wanting to walk a really big dog, and you want it to go this way and it drags you off in this direction. But somehow a film came out of it. And it turned out to be remarkably successful internationally, in every territory. Bit by bit it said something. And that's what led me to Joseph Campbell, because I wasn't foolish enough to think that I was particularly clever. I realised something else happened.
Kim McKay: But as part of that now, with these big-budget Hollywood blockbusters that just get more expensive and more expensive, do you think there's a limit? Is there a breaking point for that?
George Miller: Look, the film business is always changing. The big, big budgets. I think Kathleen Turner's wrong in many ways, because that used to be the case, but now you've got big actors working for relatively low fees…
Kim McKay: But the back end…
George Miller: Yeah, with back end, on very small, intimate art films that aren't in the big theatres, they're in the art theatres, and they'll do it for scale. Really well-known actors will work for scale if they believe in the project, and get rewarded if the film's successful. The big, massive blockbusters, they're all superhero movies now, and for a very good reason, because that's all people will go and watch.
Kim McKay: Let's just talk about one change that's happened in the last few years as the emergence of Netflix and other formats like it…now, early on you made long-form series, with The Dismissal, and Bodyline and Vietnam, all these TV drama specials you made. And now Netflix has sort of taken over our lives. We don't go to the cinema as much. We stay at home in our own home theatres and watch these…The Crown is a great example. We just can't wait to see it all. Is that going to influence what you do next?
George Miller: I think it influences everybody. It's great for people like me who make content, because you've got all this streaming. There's many more platforms on which to show films than just television and in the cinema when we started. The problem with Netflix is that there's no engagement with an audience. And I'm still of that era which…I mean, going back to that Saturday matinee, the most exciting thing for me was to sit in a cinema, and particularly comedies, and have that shared experience.
Kim McKay: Do you know what? I don't know if you remember this, but many years ago I had stopped on the way home—I can't even remember what film it was—went to the Cremorne Orpheum and I was sitting there on my own about to watch this film and the seat next to me was empty and a man came along, sat next to me, he was alone, and it was you.
George Miller: Was it? Oh…
Kim McKay: Yeah. You'd just dropped in to the cinema to see this film, and I thought, 'Ah,' so this true love of the cinema art, that you wanted to see this film and off you went.
George Miller: Oh, I didn't know that. We were the only two people in the cinema?
Kim McKay: No, there were many others around us, but it was…I said hello. It wasn't like, you know, I wasn't some weirdo sitting next to you or something.
George Miller: Well, look, the only way to learn…I learned to make movies in the cinema, and this is before you could play back a movie. You'd have to go to the movies. And I'd make a point of going to movies where there was a big crowd. There was a movie I saw many, many times, it was What's Up Doc? Did anyone ever see What's Up Doc?
Kim McKay: Oh yeah, wonderful.
George Miller: It was hilarious. But I went every Saturday night. I was living in Melbourne at that time, before I'd made Mad Max because I wanted to hear the audience and to really, really understand, you know, the rhythm of the audience. If you're a comedian, it's a wonderful thing to be a comedian because you know whether you could even call yourself a comedian if you're getting people to laugh. It's immediate. Well, in film it's not that, you have to somehow fuel your intuition with some knowledge of an audience response.
And gee, you know, it's quite different being on a set than being in a cinema. It's like for example, there was a wonderful Australian director, Richard Franklin, who'd studied in the United States with Hitchcock—or you assume when Hitchcock was there, this was back in must have been the '60s. And he was the first Australian director to use a director's chair, like the classic director's chair. And a lot of people thought, oh, he's a little bit of a wanker, you know, why is he doing this? And he pointed out something really important, and this is what he learned from Hitchcock, who was a big man. Hitchcock would've been like this on the set. That's exactly how most people are in the cinema. If you're on the set, which is all buzzing around you, your adrenaline is so high you're not reading at the same rate and speed. Everything—by the time you get it into the cinema—is going to feel much slower. Because in the cinema you've got nothing else to do but to watch what's on the screen. Nothing is buzzing around you. So you have to put yourself into that neutral space of repose to actually watch a movie. And if you can't get into that space as a director, if you're either too euphoric or too down, or you're not intensely focussed on what's happening, you're going to miss what eventually is going to get into the cinema. Usually it's going to be too slow.
Kim McKay: So just before…I know there'll be some audience questions, I don't want to run out of time…what would you like your lasting legacy to be? I mean obviously you've got this extraordinary body of work now.
George Miller: If I have to answer the question, it's something I don't think a lot about, but I'd like…it should be about storytelling, that I got to understand a little bit about storytelling. Because ultimately it's like every great mystery, the more you dig into it the more you realise how big it can be. And it's something that I just…yeah, and that possibly in the cinema I got to tell some stories that last. How I measure a good film is to ask how long does it follow you out of the cinema. If you've forgotten it by the time you get to the car park or by the time you get home, then it's probably not a good movie. But if something about the movie—and it varies for every individual—that once seen, it might be just a moment or scenes or the whole movie, once seen you never forget it. And we all have those movies and I would like to get a couple of those movies under my belt. That's the most rewarding thing.
Kim McKay: A few more yet to come.
George Miller: I hope so. But life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
Kim McKay: That's it. Please thank Dr George Miller. Now, I know this audience will have some questions they would like to ask of you, I would imagine.
Audience question: Hi, just wanted to say thank you. It's a real pleasure to hear you speak and to have enjoyed so much of your work all these years. I wanted to ask you about Mad Max. I first saw the first Mad Max as an eight or nine-year-old girl, because my older brother always used to watch it, and I watched it under duress and I didn't like it very much because it was very loud and it was all about cars. And as I've got older and revisited the films, and particularly with Fury Road, I really just thought that was a spectacular film. And there's something about that character, or the spectre of the character that was always interesting even if I had that initial unpleasant interaction. And I just was really curious, for you, what is it about that character and his world that has continued to draw you back to that story and that universe to keep making those Mad Max films?
George Miller: That's a really interesting thing to ask of myself, but basically…first of all, the world. The world, even though it's post-apocalyptic, it's not speculative. It's a reasonable guess of what's going to happen in 50 years if all the bad things we read, we see on the news starts to happen next Wednesday. All the economic collapse, the power grid collapses, the climate change…
Kim McKay: The government changes…
George Miller: Everything happens. There's wars, limited nuclear…all those things happen. And what would happen if we were reduced? We would go back to—it's almost forward to the past. But really all these stories, as all dystopian stories should be about, are about today. They're reflections on who we are today. It's why the American western became such a major genre. Because they were morality plays set in very spare, simple landscapes. And that was one of the things; the first Mad Max, the French picked it up big time. And they picked it up and they said, 'Oh, it's a western on wheels.' And suddenly I thought, 'Oh, yes it is.' I had no idea. The Japanese, they too picked the first one up big time. And they said, 'Wait a minute, this is a lone samurai wandering the wasteland in search of meaning.' In Scandinavia he was a lone Viking and so on.
Suddenly we realised, back then—this is what I meant about Campbell—somehow we tapped into the collective unconsciousness. This was an archetype, told in all storytelling as part of the monomyth that Campbell described. The heroic figure. Max was an anti-hero but the heroic figure, basically all great religious figures follow the classic pattern. The key to it always—and very few people really take notice of this when they talk about heroes—is facing great fears and relinquishing self-interest. At the moment of the relinquishing of self-interest, often it could lead to the hero's death, that somehow a boon is won for the greater good and their society. They usually return with the boon. That's in every story.
We look for sporting heroes. You know when the Millennium happened and people were asked what are the greatest sporting moments—do you know what in Australia was the greatest sporting moment that every sports journalist virtually voted for in Australia? Can anyone guess? Underarm? No, not Donald Bradman. Yes, it was John Landy who picked up Ron Clarke. He was up there making the four-minute mile. Ron Clarke, he clipped him. It's black and white footage. That's really good, because he clipped him, he turned around to pick him up. I think it was the Australian championships. I'm not even sure what it was. He had a chance to make the four-minute mile but he turned, picked up Ron Clarke, he went on and won the race. Now that's what every sports journalist in Australia, whenever it was, the turn of the millennium, said was the greatest event in Australian sports history. The relinquishing of self-interest.
I'm not saying that was what was there with Max. I'm giving a long answer, but that was certainly part of it. But there are other things as well. So I never wanted to make another Mad Max film but I've made four now. And the opportunity—they live, like characters in your head, or the ideas live in your head, and when they won't go away you either have to explore them, and if you explore them and they come out and suddenly you say, 'Hey, I can't wait to see this in front of an audience and see what it means to them. And that's how Fury Road came about. I pushed it away for years but it kept coming back. But it's a wonderful world to explore. It's an allegory, it's a very, very huge amount of effort that goes into building that world. Nothing is random in it. Everything is explained, there are very strong reasons why everything is in it, in the way they speak and the way…everything is based on found objects repurposed. And every object that survives in that world is in some way, but particularly cars, become almost religious artefacts, and all the behaviour and all the language and everything follows from that. If you saw the film, not only is everything made from found objects but one of the rules we had was it usually has to have more than one purpose.
So those who saw the film, there's a character who plays the guitar. He's got a flaming guitar, and the guitar is a double-necked guitar and it's made from a hospital bedpan, but it's also got a flame-thrower on it. He's like the drummer. He's blind but he's like the fife player or the drummer or the bagpipe player leading everyone into battle, except he's got a guitar and a massive truck with all these speakers. So those sort of ideas influence the movie, and indeed the character. What happened in this film is that the hero became Furiosa the female. And that arose out of story.
Kim McKay: That was a very long answer to the question.
George Miller: I'm sorry.
Kim McKay: I know there is another question over here.
Audience question: I actually just spent a week doing work experience—I'm a school student—at Animal Logic. And we had a lot of [inaudible] about Happy Feet so I was wondering why you chose to get into animation and direct an animated feature and what you learned from that experience.
George Miller: It's really interesting. One thing in all the films that I've made or the ones I'm drawn to; I don't make many films, the story is the primal thing. If it's a powerful story and ticks all the boxes that I believe a good story should have, then it's something I usually move towards. But it always goes hand in hand with technology. The tools of filmmaking have changed enormously since I started. I've been working probably getting on for 40 years now, making films. And it's phenomenal how it's changed. So with Babe, the first Babe, it took us ten years from when I first read the book to actually make the film, because digital filmmaking hadn't started. To make animals talk was really not possible, to do it well. Except for hand-drawn animation. And Babe wasn't one of those films.
For Happy Feet I had the idea and pretty much the story formed in my head and then one day a great friend of mine, Andrew Lesnie, who shot Babe, went on to shoot The Lord of the Rings. And he came back from the first one and he showed me the first motion capture of Gollum in Lord of the Rings, which for those that don't know, motion capture is where they put a suit on an actor and can take the movement in fine detail and high fidelity and put it on to any other character. So they were able to take Andy Serkis, put it onto Gollum, and the moment I saw that I said, 'Ah, we can make the penguins dance.' And the moment that happened, that led to Happy Feet.
I loved animation. We had animation on the Babe movies and so on, and one of those films that stick in the head for me was always Pinocchio, the first Disney Pinocchio. I saw it as a kid, never forgot it. I could play virtually every scene in my head right now.
Kim McKay: Isn't that great. One last question.
Audience question: You've just mentioned one of your favourite films, and that was going to be my question, if you wouldn't mind just talking about a couple of your favourite films from maybe when you were younger.
George Miller: Well here's the thing. The favourite films—because everyone's different—are the films that most affected you at a certain point in your life. That's one of the functions of stories. I won't go on too long, but if you read Bruno Bettelheim on why children like stories, the same stories, over and over again, and then one day they'll say they don't want that story anymore. They'll watch it in films or they want to have it read. It's usually they're processing something. And I think we're processing something.
So for me, of course Pinocchio, which I remember. Godfather 2 I think is one of the greatest films ever made. For me, two films which were in another highly influential moment of my life, was…I was at university, I was at a loose end, I was going past a cinema in town and I saw a poster with two women's legs, an American flag and the V sign. And I said, 'What movie's that? I've got to go and see that movie.' I walked in, and it was Mash, Robert Altman's Mash. I'd never seen anything like it. I didn't have much money. I watched the movie. I paid, went back straight into the movie and watched it again. Then I walked out. It was night-time, and I was on a high. I don't know, when musicians first see a great musician, or a painter sees a great painting or whatever. I had to go and see another movie. I walked down the street and there was a film, the first film I saw was a film called Battle for Algiers. Now, those who don't know Battle for Algiers, extraordinary documentary-type film made by a great Italian director about literally the battle for Algiers. Again, completely different from Mash and I just came out with an intense sense of the potential of cinema from those two experiences. It's a day I'll never forget.
Kim McKay: I think that's a wonderful way to end today, George, the potential of cinema. And we hope that you'll continue to create a few more great potential pieces of cinema that we can share in. Without doubt, Australia's greatest storyteller, Dr George Miller.
This installment of Lunchtime Lecture Series took place at 1pm, Tuesday 4 September in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Lunctime Lecture Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is a series of talks with distinguished Australians who are shaping the nation across science, sport and the arts. This year's speakers were drawn from our 200 Treasures in the Westpac Long Gallery. The series will return in early 2019.