Director George Miller thinks penguins look like humans from a distance if you squint. So might you, I suppose, if you’d spent the last seven years obsessing over animated feathers and frozen fluff. He’s also quite an expert on natural history, and willing to dish out lengthy and informative lessons on the behavioural habits of penguin breeds and elephant seals to prove it.
We’ve spared you those, but did ask Miller just how one makes the transition from an all singing, all dancing kids’ movie like Happy Feet Two, to the post-apocalyptic world of his fourth and fifth Mad Max films?
“One is a holiday from the other. Particularly when you do animation, you micromanage every movement and detail, so it kind of flushes out the brain to go into a completely different world with different sensibilities. I wrote three screenplays in the time we were working on Happy Feet Two because it was just a way to find a neutrality so you could come back to the Happy Feet Two material and come back to it as freshly as you could, otherwise you lose perspective.”
Despite working on them at the same time, neither film bled into the other, Miller assures us, although he doesn’t see Mad Max and Happy Feet as such different beasts…
“All of them, Babe, Mad Max, Happy Feet tend to fall into the pattern of the classic Joseph Campbell hero myth. You have the lone character setting out into unknown territory and exploring the edges of their society and who undergoes dark trials and returns with a burden to their community. Almost unconsciously, I’m drawn to the hero myth. I like to work in fables or myths, not naturalistic film storytelling. So I think that’s what’s in common in the stories.”
Something of an old pro at sequels, we asked Miller what compels him to return for further instalments of his films?
“I don’t make many films but I conceive them from the beginning and write them and they become very much part of you, like imaginary friends – which probably means I’m crazy. I’m drawn to filmmaking because of a kind of curiosity. I never meant to make other Mad Maxs, each one is different from the other, the Babes, the Happy Feet. It’s an opportunity to test the craft more. In a way, the story carries you along. You just put the best of yourself into it and see what comes out the other end”
Why is he so selective about the films he makes?
“I don’t see myself as a professional filmmaker yet. I get offered lots and lots of films in Hollywood, but I don’t feel like I’m a director for hire, I feel very much like a storyteller who loves working in the medium of film. It takes a long time to write a good screenplay, that’s where I spend most of my time.”
But once you have the screenplay, you still let the actors improvise in the recording booth?
“Oh yes. When you get such wonderful actors in a room together, as Robin Williams says, it’s a little bit like acting jazz. You lay down the structure but on top of that structure they’re free to play what they like. With people like Robin Williams and Hank Azaria they riff off each other.”
Miller has been praised by his actors for taking an unusual approach to voice recording for animation, grouping his cast into the same studio to record their characters. Elijah Wood reckons, “It just makes everything come to life”. “The sound guys don’t like it because of overlapping, but for the actors, it’s the best.”
So enthusiastic was Wood at being able to work directly alongside Robin Williams and Hank Azaria on Happy Feet Two, that he found it difficult to keep still on the job.
“The thing about animation is that you do start to do some of the things the characters do, even unconsciously, because you’re in the scene and you just end up having to physically move to make it all happen. I danced in front of the mike like an idiot.”
Can he tap dance?
“I can’t tap dance, no, but I’ve got rhythm.”
Robin Williams too, was full of praise for Miller’s directing style, and the freedom he allowed his cast.
“Oh, he lets you go crazy. He really lets you kick it out. A lot of the time you’re improvising with the Amigos so you get to work with four really great Chicano comedians so they throw stuff back and forth. The sad thing is that a lot of it didn’t make it into the movie, but for me there was a lot of atmosphere and me riffing off them but they didn’t use it all.”
Sofia Vergara, of ABC sitcom Modern Family fame, told us she had no trouble getting into the character of “a South American, hot Latina penguin with an accent” for the film, understandable what with her being undeniably hot and Colombian.
When asked what Vergara thought of Robin Williams’ South American accent in the film, she joked that it was better than hers and went on to praise the energy her co-star brought to the studio.
Asked what they all have coming up next, Miller confirmed he’s off to shoot Mad Max 4: Fury Road in January, with a non-penguin animation and a fifth Mad Max film to follow. Williams is in talks for comedy drama The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, but first up can be seen starring opposite Robert De Niro in comedy The Big Wedding.
Vergara is also sticking with comedy, appearing in Farrelly brothers caper The Three Stooges in April before (fingers crossed, the renewal announcement hasn’t been made yet, though Vergara is quietly confident), returning for another series of the award-winning Modern Family. Elijah Wood has a slightly longer answer:
“I am about to start working on a remake of a film called Maniac, it’s a horror film from the 80s. Alex Aja’s doing it. I play the bad guy. The thing is that I honestly don’t love remakes, and I’ve actually spoken about this so I feel the need to reiterate that I still feel that way, but I was very intrigued by the film, partly because they’ve chosen to shoot it in PoV, so the entire film will be from the killer’s perspective, kind of like Peeping Tom, so you’ll only ever see the killer in reflection shots.
“I was intrigued to do a horror film like that and taking a different approach, not just simply remaking the original film. We’re going to do that before the end of the year, and then I start another season of Wilfred [Wood’s sitcom] in the spring.”
Who would Wood like to work with, in terms of directors?
“Cronenberg would be awesome to work with. If David Lynch were to start shooting on film again I would be way into working with him. I love David Lynch, but he shot Inland Empire on shitty VHS video, though he loved it and it had its own artistic look for sure. The Coen brothers would be a dream to work with, I love Chris Nolan. When I got a chance to work on the Michel Gondry film, I was so excited to work with him and Charlie Kaufman. I love Shane Meadows too.”
In the long term though, Wood plans to start a production company, and eventually move into directing, having, in his words, “been lucky enough to spend the last 22 years at film-school”. Just don’t ask him about whether The Lord Of The Rings influences his role choices nowadays…
“It’s been so long since Rings, I think it’s more present in other people’s minds than it is mine, and it’s funny because people bring it up, like still, eight years later. They’re like, ‘So, is this choice because you want to get away from Frodo?’, and I’m like ‘Dude, it’s been eight years!’