GEORGE MILLER--A WARRIOR ON THE ROAD
When Australian director George Miller was scouting locations for his new film, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” his location manager traveled to Olga’s, site of the sacred burial grounds of the aboriginal tribes in Central Australia. To enlist the aid of the local tribe, the manager related the gist of the film’s story through the aid of an interpreter.
“When he was done, the tribe became very excited,” Miller recalled. “They all got up and, through a ritual dance, they told a story of their own. And we realized that they were so excited because much of our movie, even though it’s set somewhere in the future, was the same myth as their own. In our film, a plane swoops out of the sky; in their legends, it’s a bird that comes from above. But while the details are a little different, the stories are very much the same.
“You see it all over the world. I met a film maker from Iceland who told me a story from his Viking folk lore that was just like a Western, except that instead of the hero being a lone gunslinger, he’s a knight on horse with a sword and shield. It’s as if we all carry these same stories around with us, all lodged in our collective unconscious.”
Still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Miller was sipping his morning tea, trying to figure out exactly what day it was. “Oh, Friday, is it?” he said, wearily wagging his mane of curly, shoulder-length hair.
It’s not surprising that Miller sounded a bit confused. The 40-year-old director, whose new film opened Wednesday, has been junketing across America, helping promote the third installment in his popular Mad Max series, all starring Mel Gibson. (“Mad Max II” became the hugely successful “Road Warrior” in the United States.)
Miller, who co-directed the new film with George Ogilvie, is still a bit unaccustomed to all the media hoopla. “I’m afraid I haven’t got the whole technique down yet,” he said with a sheepish grin, confiding that he’d spent most of the Fourth of July hibernating in his hotel room, watching a marathon TV showing of “Twilight Zone” episodes.
Miller wasn’t just being fashionably modest. A wry, erudite man who had finished medical school before he made his first short film, Miller appears to live in a realm of amazing stories, seemingly more fascinated with Viking mythology and Einstein’s theory of relativity than studio politics or the auteur theory.
Though he’s yet to achieve name-director status in the United States, Miller’s kinetic series of Mad Max films have achieved worldwide success, winning him accolades from many screen contemporaries, including Roman Polanski, who after seeing the first “Mad Max,” dubbed Miller “a master of the cinema.”
Soft-spoken, with a friendly round face and a burly physique, Miller is the antithesis of most of today’s young Hollywood hotshots, who often act as if having a hit film qualifies them to have their name emblazoned on the wing of a new cinema school.
“You have to understand--we didn’t even have director’s chairs in Australia until a few years ago, when Richard Franklin convinced his crew that he should sit down as he directed the film,” explained Miller, who noted that even a star of Mel Gibson’s stature arrived on his set via Jeep, not limousine.
“I don’t know if the crew understood what a comfort a chair can be. So Richard took a different tack, persuading them that it would help the director serve as the symbolic representative of the audience who, after all, would be sitting down when they saw the film.”
Having read Carl Jung in college, Miller became fascinated by the potency of symbols in the cinema. Set in a post-apocalypse wasteland, his Mad Max films feature Gibson as a somber, mysterious hero who combines the brooding intensity of a samurai warrior with the solitary nature of an old-fashioned Western gunslinger. Even though Miller’s garish cycle warriors have the grotesque gleam of modern-day punks, they brawl with the ferocity of ancient gladiators, their bloody chase scenes shot as if a cross between a stage-coach shoot-out and a demolition derby.
In “Beyond Thunderdome,” Miller broadens this blunt vision, introducing Max to a tribe of feral children who, armed with only a garbled, oral tradition, practice the rituals of civilization without comprehending their meaning. Worshiping such battered icons as a long-playing record and a Bugs Bunny doll, the wild kids are enthralled by the aura of these objects without any understanding of their cultural significance.
“When I first studied Jung in school, I must admit I found him more mystifying than demystifying,” Miller said, straightening his pink bow-tie. “It was only after we started shooting ‘Mad Max’ that I realized that film makers, like any storytellers, are servants to the collective unconscious.
“Ask any director after a tough shoot how much they remember and they’d probably say--'I dunno how it all came off.’ And that’s what it’s like, because you’re really working on instinct--you’re using your gut, not your head. It’s as if you’re a boxer who continues to fight even when you’re out on your feet.”
Miller shrugged. “Which I guess is a complicated way of saying that we didn’t set out to do another ‘Mad Max’ sequel. The story creeps up on you--through intuition, not intellect. In fact, my screenwriter, Terry Hayes, and I were talking over dinner about a completely different script idea, one about this lost tribe of kids who have this sort of fragmented mythology.
“Terry was going on and on and finally I said, ‘You know, you’re talking about another ‘Mad Max’ film.’ Terry was horrified. He immediately sputtered, ‘Oh, no! Forget I said anything. We don’t want to go through that again!’ ”
Hayes’ concept of a lost children’s tribe struck a responsive chord with Miller who, even in “The Road Warrior,” had given his hero a strong if unspoken bond with a savage, boomerang-toting tot.
“In fact, the similarities are striking, especially when you compare kids to primitive cultures, like our aborigines, who operate with such deep beliefs and such an enormous amount of dream time that they are like living myths. When an aborigine kills a kangaroo with his boomerang, he’s not only going to the supermarket but to church at the same time. Because the story he’ll tell about killing that kangaroo will become a part of his ritual life.”
From childhood, Miller has been enraptured by story telling. He grew up in Chinchilla, Queensland, a rural town in the “deep north” of Australia that Miller described as “the equivalent of your Deep South--very redneck.”
Not long after he graduated from medical college, Miller had abandoned medicine for the cinema. The traditional schooling wasn’t entirely wasted. Miller likens his favorite “Twilight Zone” episodes to a “fascinating lesson in quantum mechanics” and attributes much of the original inspiration for the Mad Max series to his night rounds in hospital casualty wards, which were littered with car-crash victims--"our major form of socially accepted mayhem.”
At about the same time, Australia was hit by a gas shortage similar to the one experienced in the States. “It was an eye-opening experience,” Miller said. “When the gas crisis hit Melbourne, what had been a very placid city erupted in violence.
“It left a big impression on us. Here was this civilized city that could break down and collapse into chaos and violence in nine days. Obviously, the Mad Max films are set in the future, but that was just a way to simplify the story and use more archetypal characters and themes. The real events weren’t that far away at all.”
On “Thunderdome,” due to time constraints, Miller shared the directorial reins with George Ogilvie, an Australian theater director who worked with Miller’s production company on several TV miniseries. It was a comfortable partnership, aided no doubt by Miller’s generous nature and by the fact that both men were accustomed to collaboration from birth--they both have twin brothers.
“When you have a twin, it’s as if you’ve been working with someone else all along,” Miller said. “Actually, I’m surprised more film makers don’t work together, since it’s such a collaborative job anyway. We really enjoyed the camaraderie.”
So far, Miller’s only experience working on American films came as director of the “Nightmare at 40,000 Feet” episode of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” He remains intrigued by the nature of the country. “The best and the worst films come out of America, which sort of sums up the country, doesn’t it. You have the best and worst of everything.”