George Miller: The Only Director Who Could Make Mad Max and Babe
How did the director of Mad Max end up making one of the most beloved children's movies of all time?
When people think about Academy Award-nominated directors, George Miller is probably not one of the first names that come to mind. Academy Award-nominated films have a certain connotation – typically we think of movies that are serious, but maybe a bit stodgy, ambitious, but classically-minded, crowd-pleasing, but rote. In the general public’s mind, Academy Award-nominated films are usually well-made, stuffy dramas that are more akin to eating your vegetables than pigging out on something decadent and different. But Miller makes odd, energetic genre films, something the Academy historically has ignored — unless this particular director is involved.
Miller, whose new film Three Thousand Years of Longing is out today, may be our weirdest highly decorated filmmaker still stretching his gifts. His last film, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth entry in his post-apocalyptic action series that saw a 30-year gap between installments, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also featured a character named “Doof Warrior” playing speed metal solos on a flame-spouting double-neck guitar atop a moving tanker. Meanwhile, his new film is described as a “visually marvelous” and “ambitious,” which are words that apply to most of the man’s filmography.
So far, Miller has made 10 feature films, along with contributing a segment to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. Almost half of Millers’ filmography follows the adventures of Australian dystopian lawman Max Rockatansky, and his next feature will be a prequel spin-off set in the Mad Max universe, Furiosa, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth. The Mad Max series was inspired by Miller’s time working as a medical doctor in Sydney, seeing many car accident-related injuries and deaths, as well as his love of the work of Silent Era film stars like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In Miller’s eyes, the films of these great artists were narratively simple, but featured highly engaging visuals.
Set in a world that has seen civil breakdown over widespread oil shortages, the Mad Max series was also inspired by the 1973 oil crisis. Co-screenwriter James McCausland told The Courier-Mail (via Screen Rant), “There were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol—and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. … George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.”
But there’s another, very different side to Miller. There’s the guy best known for making some of the grittiest actioners of our time, but then there’s also the filmmaker who created…Babe. Yes, Miller wrote 1995’s Oscar-nominated Babe and directed its 1998 cult-classic follow-up, Babe: Pig in the City. How did the guy who made violent, post-apocalyptic thrill rides go from mostly telling stories about stoic badass Max Rockatansky to a talking pig?
Simply put: parenthood.
Miller told Vulture back in 2016, “It only occurred to me fairly recently that the films that they call family films — Babe and Happy Feet — came about because once you have kids, you don’t get out much anymore. You’re watching kids’ movies, which I was always drawn to. I remember my own experiences watching Disney movies like Pinocchio, and I watched them all again with my kids, and suddenly I was alert to those sorts of stories.”
Having children may have attracted Miller to creating children’s entertainment, but surely the technical wiz who was adept at staging these awe-inspiring car stunts and visceral action sequences would grow bored making a movie about talking animals? Well, not exactly. Babe proved to be just as difficult of a technical challenge as any Mad Max film. Babe was the first live-action film where animals appeared to speak their lines themselves, rather than actors delivering the voice-over narration-style like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and the effect was incredibly difficult to achieve.
Speaking to Indiewire, Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor Scott E. Anderson laid out the scope of the achievement, saying, “We weren’t just changing technology, we were changing filmmaking. It was a huge step forward as far as using visual effects for telling a story. Instantly it started a different [performance-driven] trend.”
Cracking the code of how to make it appear as if a pig was talking was apparently so difficult for Miller that he consulted filmmaking and special effects wizard Stanley Kubrick. The pair ended up talking at length for nights on end until Miller was able to get the look he was striving for. This was partially why Babe and its sequel ate up so much of Miller’s time in the ‘90s, along with the fact that shooting 500 animals for the first Babe movie alone, including 42 different pigs for the film’s lead, then applying CG animation over the live-action footage of the animals was an insanely time consuming process.
There’s more connecting Mad Max and Babe than just the technical challenge of it all, though. The stories that emerge from the Mad Max series are about the fight for civility and the improbable grasp on hope in the face of death. It may sound silly, but Babe trying to survive life on the farm fits this motif pretty snuggly. These are themes that permeate the rest of Miller’s filmography, including the more traditional Oscar-fare Lorenzo’s Oil, the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, parents who search for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s adrenoleukodystrophy.
The twin pillars of Millers’ work, crowd-pleasing, visual feasts with easily digestible narratives and stories about hope through perseverance, can also be seen in his well-received animated features, Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, another pair of oddities in the director’s filmography. The films are jukebox musicals that used then state-of-the-art motion capture technology to tell the story of Mumbles, an emperor penguin who cannot sing the “heartsongs” needed to attract a mate, but can dance. Miller stages the musical numbers like his jaw-dropping action sequences, swapping out crashing cars for tap-dancing flights of fancy. Instead of a wordy script, Miller lets the music do the talking. Happy Feet went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
The Mad Max films and Happy Feet share more than broad themes and technical virtuosity, they’re also rooted in visually distinctive settings — the harsh desert and icy Antarctica, respectively. And Miller turned that aspect of his work up to 11 in 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City. Unlike the first film, Miller took the reins on directing, imbuing it more with his flair and devilishness. The titular city, Metropolis, is a maximalist, fantasy-like vision, borrowing from numerous architecture styles and landmarks from around the globe. In the film, the skyline features famous landmarks such as the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the IDS Center, the MetLife Building, the Sydney Opera House, and the Hollywood sign, among others. Like the towering mish-mash of buildings in Metropolis, Babe: Pig in the City is a monument to Millers’ unrelenting vision
This is a director who’s craft is rooted in the Silent Era, but is constantly striving to push the medium of film forward. In an interview about his career with the Los Angeles Times in 1996, Miller said, “I think I can be around a thousand years and never understand the [filmmaking] process.” His restless exploration and dedication to creating eye-popping sequences make him just as well suited to gonzo action films as he is to inventive children’s movies; he’s trying to dazzle audiences of all ages. Whether directing pigs or Doofs, Miller is always taking big swings — whether they lead to hits is the studio’s concern.