INTERVIEW : The Spark That Gives 'Oil' Its Heat : Movies: Director George Miller follows his passion and gambles on a long-shot--a medical mystery story.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before assuming that "Lorenzo's Oil," based on the true story of a couple seeking a cure for their terminally ill son, bears no relationship to George Miller's post-Apocalyptic "Mad Max" trilogy, think again. Though the movies' content and style couldn't differ more, both feature "heroic loners" whose struggle is more important than the outcome itself.

"These characters descend into darkness and learn they can make a difference," explains the 47-year-old Australian, who is openly critical of, if sympathetic to, a medical establishment that, he says, hides behind institutions and perceived power in an effort to cope. "This is a story of empowerment--a little manual for courageous human conduct."

It's the symbols, Miller believes, that give stories their clout. Mad Max was seen as a Samurai by the Japanese and as a Viking by the Scandinavians. Though the Odones--played by Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte--also transcend the particulars of time and place, getting folks into the seats, particularly during the holiday time, will be a challenge.

"This movie isn't designed to be 'Jurassic Park,' " notes Universal chief Tom Pollock, alluding to Steven Spielberg's cinematic take on Michael Crichton's dinosaurs-on-the-loose novel. "But it's a very moving medical mystery that could do well. I was interested in doing it because, in a world of meticulous, concerned, even obsessed film makers, George Miller is probably the most. It's important to care that passionately. You see the doctor in him."

Miller, a short, congenial man, was a few weeks short of his medical degree when, as he puts it, film came and "seduced" him. His downfall came while studying for finals when he gave his brother an idea for a one-minute movie to enter into a university competition. Though the film won, his brother passed on the prize: a chance to enroll in a college film workshop. Miller, a lifelong movie buff, attended instead. For the next two years, he had a foot in both camps, working as a doctor in a big-city hospital on weekends and making films during the week.

"I was hooked, as if by heroin," he recalls with a smile. "I was attracted to film on a purely plastic level. It was so much less static than painting and drawing. The first films I enjoyed were chase films, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd comedies that had no sound and visual music: little strips of film that were put together into one sentence that made sense."

Action, rather than drama or acting, Miller admits, was at the core of 1979's low-budget "Mad Max," a film about a lawless, degenerate post-nuclear world inspired by the gunfire that erupted when the normally sedate town of Melbourne was hit by a gasoline shortage. That installment and the two that followed (1982's cult favorite "The Road Warrior" and 1985's "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" with Tina Turner) featured an amoral vigilante hero played by an up-and-comer named Mel Gibson. "Ten years ago," Miller says, "I would have been surprised if you'd told me that any Australian actor would become a mainstream movie star," the director says. "But, having said that, I'm not surprised it was Mel. Mel is a greater actor than we've seen on the screen and, by his own admission, a tortured Catholic, which is what gives him his demons. Mel is a very good man who thinks he's a bad man. That gives him the complexity that makes movie stars."

Miller's next project, "The Witches of Eastwick"--a big screen version of John Updike's novel starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher--gave him an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the workings of Hollywood, one, in retrospect, that he'd like to forget. Warner Bros.' desire for "a special effects" movie, he claims, significantly altered the original thrust, co-producer Jon Peters insisted in getting involved in every aspect of the production and Cher's need for attention added to his load.

"As Nick Nolte once observed, people who go into acting from comedy or as a pop star are very self-oriented," says the director. "Those that come from theater are not. Cher behaved liked a movie star--like a child, in fact. The squeaky wheel, as they say, gets the oil. Before long, I also started to behave badly, throwing tantrums, being manipulative, which was the most effective way to get things done. Hollywood penalizes you for good behavior. You meet directors and actors with terrible reputations and find that they're perfectly reasonable and sane."

Cher, too, spoke of bad blood between her and the director not long after the film was released. "George Miller left a lot to be desired," she asserted. "He never wanted me. The studio finally forced (him) to use me. I was in tears with him because he kept saying he didn't want Cher--he used to make quotation marks in the air whenever he used my name--to ruin his movie."

The experience, he says, took the edge off his fervor. "To me, filmmaking is an avocation, not a vocation and, sad to say, 'Witches' caused me to lose my curiosity for it. I made a promise not to direct again until I was 'called'--to be moved by artistic impulse rather than the need for a job."

For the next several years, Miller confined himself to producing Australian projects, including "Bangkok Hilton"--the highest rated mini-series in that country's history--Philip Noyce's "Dead Calm" with Nicole Kidman, and the first two parts of director John Duigan's quasi-autobiographical trilogy: "The Year My Voice Broke" (1988) and "Flirting," which has recently been released to good reviews.

Not until the director read about the Odones in the London Times did he feel that inner voice beckon. An Italian economist working for the World Bank and his Irish- American linguist wife had together discovered a means of reducing the fatty acids that caused adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), the nervous system malfunction that constituted a certain death sentence for their son. Today, eight years after the diagnosis, 14-year-old Lorenzo is severely disabled, awaiting further breakthroughs. And the "oil" that ultimately saved his life? Like a host of drugs that show promise in combatting AIDS, it is unavailable for mass distribution pending FDA approval.

Miller took the idea to Warner Bros. but his timing was poor. Not only was the ill-fated "Bonfire of the Vanities" about to open, but the studio was a bit out of sorts, having just passed on a small, long-shot of a movie called "Home Alone." Paramount flirted with the project, but the deal ultimately fell through. Nolte pulled out due to personal problems, replaced by Andy Garcia who was, according to the director, not only too young for the part but uncomfortable with having a female lead more Rambo-like and hard-hitting than he. Universal came aboard and the musical chairs continued. Nolte returned, but Pfeiffer was having doubts about her ability to carry off the role.

Flying back to Los Angeles to reassure the actress, Miller ran into Susan Sarandon, with whom he'd also worked on 'Witches.' He found that, through Italian director Franco Amurriwho fathered her first child, she'd become passionate about the Odones years before he.

"It was the most remarkable coincidence," he says. "Susan has all the qualities I was looking for: Irish Catholic, intellectually astute, and a mother-tiger with her three kids. Nick, too, was perfect for the part. Like Augusto (Odone), he's a big man who looks more like a footballer than a great mind. Yet you walk into his house and there's a massive library of books, every one of them dogeared and annotated in his handwriting." What of Nolte's stab at an Italian accent? "Nick's a risk-taker," the director responds. "In his next film, (James L. Brooks' "I'll Do Anything"), he'll be singing and dancing."

This time, Miller notes with relief, neither the studio nor the stars made waves. Had it not been for New York journalists Suzanne O'Malley and Dan Greenburg--the recently separated parents of Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who was cast as the young lead--the shoot would have been a breeze. The two of them were not only personally competitive, the director charges, but engaged in "grotesque attention-seeking." Only when they were around, he says, did Zack throw the tantrums that resulted in time-consuming and costly re-shoots of the $20-million-plus film.

In a recent interview, O'Malley fought back. For starters, she said, she gave up half a year's income to serve as acting coach for her child, a labor for which she was never credited or compensated. Her son, by her account, had it even worse, enduring hours of makeup and stretches without meals during the course of interminable work days. Such tantrums as occurred, she says, stemmed, in part, from exhaustion. Though the Hollywood paycheck will probably pay for Zack's education, it's one experience O'Malley is loath to repeat.

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