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International Man of Myths

...and his penguins

If it seems odd that the man responsible for introducing moviegoers to the postapocalyptic soldier of fortune called Mad Max should more recently have turned his attention to two films about a sheepherding pig and one about a tap-dancing emperor penguin, surely it is no more anomalous than the case of the emergency-room doctor who decided to forsake the operating theater for the cinema. Besides, ask Dr. George Miller today and he’ll say that all of his movies are one and the same, whether they focus on human society or the animal kingdom, and whether they unfold against the sands of the Australian outback, the suburbs of Washington, D.C., or the ice shelves of the Antarctic. “I honestly see no difference between the essential elemental story of, let’s say, The Road Warrior, Lorenzo’s Oil and Babe,” Miller told me earlier this month during a visit to L.A. to promote his latest film, the animated musical Happy Feet.

That story, Miller says, is the archetypal hero’s journey — the one canonized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and a source of inspiration to storytellers from Homer to Tolkien to George Lucas — in which a reluctant warrior leaves home and embarks on a quest that is less about the journey’s end than about the gaining of personal wisdom. In Happy Feet, that hero is Mumble, a bright and well-adjusted penguin pup save for his inability to express himself musically through the emperors’ trademark “heartsong.” Whenever he opens his mouth to sing, it’s like an excerpt from the American Idol blooper reel, and, to make matters worse, he can’t stop his lower extremities from breaking into spontaneous displays of rhythmic footwork. So, the ostracized Mumble sets forth into the great white world, forging the kind of unlikely interspecies alliances (with Adélie penguins, elephant seals and even humans) that will come as no surprise to audiences familiar with Miller’s last picture, Babe: Pig in the City, the most remarkable sequence of which saw the titular swine risk his own life to save the drowning pit bull who, only moments earlier, was in hot pursuit of a pork dinner.

But young Mumble’s odyssey is not without darkness and despair, up to and including his incarceration in a zoo, where he suffers the effects of institutionalization and begins to question his own sanity. For as any good Campbell scholar knows, no hero’s journey is complete without some time logged in the belly of the beast. “I wanted to push him to the limit, to that point where he fell into despair,” Miller says. “Even though Mumble is an outsider, he’s essentially optimistic and has a really strong sense of himself. He falters a few times, but he picks himself up pretty quickly, and it’s really not until we get to the end of the movie that he’s basically reduced to his essential self. I find that really interesting.”

Interesting, yes, but an uncertain recipe for box-office success at a time when the most popular family pictures offer an essentially nonthreatening view of the world. When Babe: Pig in the City fell well short of its predecessor’s $250 million worldwide gross, many claimed that the film — which began with the near death of the kindly Farmer Hoggett and continued on through a surreal cityscape that suggested a children’s film made by Luis Buñuel — was too nightmarish and eccentric for mass consumption. With Happy Feet’s $42 million opening weekend portending a far brighter future, Miller is doubtless breathing a sigh of relief, though he says he long ago learned not to measure his worth in terms of box-office numbers.

“Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was the first Mad Max, in that we had a very tough time making it and a very low budget,” he recalls. “I had no idea that filmmaking was so tough. I thought if you planned it well and you shot it as best you could, everything would be okay. But we ran out of money and I basically had to cut the film myself, and I was confronted with all my mistakes, day after day after day. I couldn’t figure out why something was or wasn’t working, and I honestly thought we’d lost all the money of our friends and investors. I thought the film would never be seen anywhere. I thought it was a mess. So, I’d already confronted failure. But to have it turn around and become so that Mad Max is now playing on cable TV somewhere in the world, it’s like that quote by Hunter Thompson about falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”

Though the setting is hardly out of the ordinary — the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in the throes of yet another Hollywood press junket — the chance to talk to Miller about his work is. Happy Feet, which was four years in the making (yes, its conception predates March of the Penguins), is only Miller’s seventh theatrical feature in the 27 years since Mad Max. Stanley Kubrick, by comparison, managed to turn out 10 features in his first quarter-century behind the camera. ?“I’ve asked myself this question,” Miller says of his long intervals between projects. “Part of it is that I don’t see myself as a filmmaker, I really don’t. I’m led mainly by my curiosity, and the thing I’m the most curious about is the writing, and the telling of the story, which begins with the writing. So, virtually every film I’ve done has been from an original screenplay, and it takes a while to write them, to get to the point where you’re ready to shoot them.”

Unlike a fair number of his countrymen, Miller has also remained steadfastly committed to making films in his native Australia, on his own terms and far from the prying eyes of Hollywood. His one foray into studio filmmaking — the 1987 adaptation of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick — he readily describes as the worst creative experience of his career. “The time that I spent in Hollywood — it was kind of old-school Hollywood, where I found myself rewarded for bad behavior and punished for good behavior,” he says. “It brought out the worst in me. I didn’t like myself. Actually, I can see why it happens, why people start bullying, getting vengeful. I can see why actors who cop so much shit on the way up can turn into real assholes. The most graceful of them [like Witches star Jack Nicholson, without whose support Miller says he would have quit the project] don’t need to. It’s the other ones who are really insecure. So, you know, that’s the reason I’ve stayed in Australia.”

Miller, who was born George Miliotis to Greek-immigrant parents in Brisbane and spent his childhood in the farm town of Chinchilla, Queensland, fell under the spell of movies at an early age, especially silent films — “pure cinema,” as Miller calls them — and their emphasis on visual storytelling. (To wit, there is perhaps 15 or 20 minutes of dialogue in the entirety of The Road Warrior, which also features some of cinema’s most lyrical action sequences.) He was already making shorts (many of them in concert with his creative partner, the late Byron Kennedy) from the time he was in medical school, one of which, the parody educational film Violence in the Cinema Part 1, created a small scandal during its premiere at the 1971 Sydney Film Festival and offered early evidence of how those hours spent in the trauma ward had left Miller with a keen understanding of our simultaneous attraction and revulsion to human carnage.

“I was seeing people in extremis, in the aftermath of all kinds of violence,” he says. “And one thing I noticed is that what we do with the new brain, the cerebral cortex, is quite different from what we do with our reptilian brain. What we say and what we do are quite different. I’m baffled by the fact that the United States basically swept the Nobel Prizes this year, and yet at the same time there’s this descent into a very dark period [brought on] by your leaders. That’s why I was very interested in violence, because I was very conflicted myself about it, this conflict between the early brain and the late brain. You’ve got to see the two working in harmony. You’ve got to find a way to reconcile them.”

So perhaps the time is only fitting for a fourth chapter in the Mad Max series, a movie Miller had hoped to direct prior to making Happy Feet and to which he now plans to return, albeit without the participation of former Max star Mel Gibson (who passed on the project the first time around in order to direct The Passion of the Christ). “I never thought there would be a story,” Miller says. “Then, about 10 years ago, I was walking across the street and a story flashed into my mind and I pushed it away — I said, ‘No, I’m never going to make another Mad Max film.’ Then, six years ago, I was traveling from Los Angeles to Sydney, and as I sat on the plane, suddenly the movie started to play in my head. I got about two-thirds of the way through the story, and I thought, ‘Holy cow!’ Somehow, in that unconscious mind, you’re working this stuff through.”

As to the specifics, Miller won’t say much except that, like its predecessors, Mad Max 4 will unfold against a future devastated by oil wars and the depletion of natural resources — a future, Miller admits, that seems less of a fantasy now than it did back in 1979. In the meantime, he’s also managed to “download” onto paper three other screenplays that had been “banging around” in his head, which suggests that, with Happy Feet now behind him, one of contemporary cinema’s special visionaries may be poised to enter the most prolific period of his career. “It’s just a question of having a good rest now,” he says with a smile, “and then getting back to work.”