Somewhere over India, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ‘80s, George Miller suddenly woke up. Flying to London, having just wrapped his third Mad Max feature, “Beyond Thunderdome,” the exhausted director-writer-producer inexplicably tuned in the plane’s children’s audio channel. A woman was reading from Dick King-Smith’s 80-page children’s book “The Sheep-Pig.”
“She lost control, just started to laugh this rich, genuine laugh,” he explains delightedly in a smoother version of an Australian ocker. “ ‘What tickled her fancy?’ I wondered. As soon as I landed in London I bought the book first thing, went to the hotel and read it. I never thought of adapting it. I just needed a good laugh.”
But that good laugh captured Miller’s imagination and wouldn’t let go. And like Farmer Hoggett, Miller has learned that those little ideas that nibble and persist should never be ignored, because in them lie the seeds of destiny.
A decade and a hemisphere later, Miller, 51, sits in what used to be the balcony of the cavernous Art Deco Metro Theatre, half a block away from the neon and burlesque of King’s Cross, Sydney’s red-light district.
Open-faced, with an unstudied charm that would be truly disarming in Hollywood, Miller is more like your favorite philosophy professor, too cool to care about tenure, than a producer whose picture boasts seven Oscar nominations, including those for best picture, best director for Chris Noonan and best screenplay adaptation for Miller and Noonan.
While his assistant makes arrangements on the phone for his trip to the Academy Awards, Miller greets his guest with the calm good humor of a man easy in his own skin, actually curious about what’s going on around him, just the sort of bloke who would spend 10 years with a talking pig.
For a man who came to Hollywood’s attention with the apocalyptic visions of the Mad Max trilogy, Miller’s evolution as a filmmaker has been almost mystical.
“I see filmmaking as a strange journey,” he says, relaxing over coffee.
“In mythology, the trickster leads you into the forest. Film is, to me, the trickster. I think I can be around a thousand years and never understand the process.”
Below us, in the old auditorium, the last play closed decades ago. Until 15 years ago it served as a supermarket before becoming the de facto mini-studio for Kennedy Miller Productions. “Babe” got a little post-production mileage in what used to be canned goods. Not at all the techno shrine one would expect after witnessing the film’s state-of-the-art effects. In fact, Miller says, it took so long to bring “Babe” to the screen because the technology simply hadn’t existed.
“I traveled everywhere, America, Japan, looking for the technology,” Miller says. “The first time we budgeted it out, it came to $100 million. Fortunately, the technology advances quickly.”
Kennedy Miller Productions won’t confirm or deny it, but reports put the budget at $35 million, an astounding sum by Australian film standards, making “Babe” the most expensive Australian production ever. But it’s not gizmos or zeros that captured critics’ awards and audiences’ hearts, turning a British children’s fable into a Hollywood crossover fairy tale. To Miller, it’s the power of an unprejudiced heart.
“That’s the real point of the film,” he offers with a smile. “It’s an anti-prejudice piece. The farm animals are frozen in their beliefs, there’s institutionalized prejudice and here comes the innocent heart that breaks it all down.”
Miller, who is a vegetarian, hates to disappoint the vegans who say that “Babe” is to carnivorism what “Gentleman’s Agreement” was to anti-Semitism.
Nonetheless, he insists that the other primary issue of the film is not vegetarianism but one he finds personally most powerful: the moment when a child finally loses his innocence.
“When Babe learns the truth about pigs, that they exist for the boss to eat, will he be crushed or go forward?” he asks.
How do you confront a terrible truth in a courageous way? Is it possible to grow up and still keep an unprejudiced heart? These are the questions, hilariously put, that have turned “Babe” into an international and intergenerational hit.
In fact, aside from possibly the Pork Council, adults have embraced the little piggy like a nice honey glaze. Miller, however, hesitates to say how “Babe” became one of the few non-Disney kid flicks ever to strike a chord with grown-ups.
“I don’t think you can tell why a film works or doesn’t until a long time later,” Miller says. “It’s taken me 10 years to see why ‘Mad Max’ worked.”
He pauses thoughtfully, adding, “ ‘Babe’ invites children to deal with adult issues and adults to see like children again. Someone who writes more eloquently than me said it invites adults and children into the audience as equals.” His eyes smile, as if the analysis is beside the point. “I can answer more accurately in 10 years.”
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.