Oscar File: George Miller’s Happy Feat

An Aussie director's great adventure: from punk to pigs to dancing penguins — and a possible Oscar.

Of all the directors who hit their stride in the 1970s, the Australian doctor-turned-filmmaker George Miller may have taken the most unusual artistic journey. Martin Scorsese, who started out chronicling the mean streets of his native New York, then made pit stops in the mountains of Tibet (“Kundun”), 19th Century high society (“The Age of Innocence”) and golden-age Hollywood (“The Aviator”), finally returned to mob land this year for his Oscar-nominated commercial comeback, “The Departed.” Francis Ford Coppola, who created the nonpareil “Godfather” saga, is now mainly a producer (and winemaker); the last film he directed was “The Rainmaker,” in 1997. And George Lucas, of course, is still dicking around with his 30-year-old “Star Wars” franchise.

But Miller keeps pressing on into new cinematic areas. In the punk-rock year of 1979, he scored an international smash hit with the very punk-rock action classic, “Mad Max.” Two sequels, which he also wrote and directed, followed. Then he went Hollywood — sort of — with a pair of idiosyncratic features, “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Lorenzo’s Oil.” Then, in 1995, he wrote and produced that greatest of talking-pig movies, “Babe” (which was directed by Chris Noonan); and three years later, taking the directorial reins himself, he wrote and produced the equally wonderful (but decidedly darker) follow-up, “Babe: Pig in the City.”

And after that … nothing. Until now. Miller’s new film, the animated instant-classic penguin musical “Happy Feet,” an enormous logistical undertaking (the movie’s Visual Effects department alone numbered more than 360 people), has grossed upwards of $190-million since its November 17th release. Given those numbers, one might think that Miller, now 61, would find animated epics a very comfortable artistic métier to stick with. Characteristically, though, he won’t be doing that. Well, not entirely, anyway.

Kurt Loder: It’s been eight years since your last film, “Babe: Pig in the City.” What were you doing all that time?

George Miller: One of the main things was preparing the way for another “Mad Max” movie. We were within a few weeks of shooting, but then that had to be aborted because of the war in Iraq, and we ended up moving into “Happy Feet,” which took four years.

Loder: Mel Gibson says he saw the script for “Mad Max 4,” and he said it was a huge movie. Will it still get made?

Miller: Well, there’s certainly a very big appetite in Hollywood to get it made, and from more than one studio. It’s very, very prepared in every way. I’ve never been so prepared in terms of the detail of a movie. We were ready to start shooting in Namibia, in Africa, because that’s where we found the most accessible deserts. But with the Iraqi war, the American dollar crashed against the Australian dollar and the South African rand, and we found that we’d lost about 25 percent of our budget. But it’s still there. It won’t be my next film; I’ve got another film to do. But it’ll be the one after.

Loder: Who’s going to play Max?

Miller: Well, we haven’t decided on that yet. There’s a lot of interest from several quarters.

Loder: You’ve come a long way from the wild action of the “Mad Max” films. Now you’re a master of animal whimsy. Does this reflect a personal journey of some sort?

Miller: Well, it never occurred to me consciously, but I’d have to say probably there is some truth in that. Although the stories actually tend to be the same. I mean, if you look at “Happy Feet,” it’s set in a wasteland; it’s about a loner, someone who is an agent of change. The action sequences tend to be dancing and singing and stuff like that, but essentially they’re the same sort of film. Same story, different dress, you know?

Loder: Was “Happy Feet” inspired by “March of the Penguins,” last year’s Oscar-winning documentary?

Miller: It wasn’t, actually. Because “Happy Feet” took so long to make, it was conceived and in production well before “March of the Penguins” came on the scene. But it was certainly inspired by documentaries made about eight to ten years ago that were like “March of the Penguins” — one in particular, “Life in the Freezer,” which was done by the BBC.

Loder: You must be a computer-animation expert by now.

Miller: Yeah, I would have to say so. I got a taste for it on the “Babe” films, and by the time we finished “Happy Feet,” I reckon we would have been at the cutting edge of it, yeah.

Loder: Judging by the size of the tech crew, making this movie must have been like marshalling an army. Was it very complicated keeping it all together?

Miller: That was probably the biggest thing. We had to begin from a standing start, so it wasn’t as if we had evolved the production team. We had worked with Animal Logic before, which was the effects vendor, but we had to transform them into a full story-telling production team. There were people from all over the world — animators, visual-effects people, average age 27, many different languages, coming from a lot of different traditions, from cell animation, CG animation, visual effects, and it was really my job to turn them into a cohesive group. And you had to basically work very, very hard on that. So, it was like running an army. But it’s the same as running any very large organization.

Loder: Some of the penguin comedy riffs in the picture, with Robin Williams doing the lead voice, have an improvised feel …

Miller: Yes. Even though it’s a very kind of hand-woven movie, what you try to do is make it feel as though it’s happening in front of you, that it arises very spontaneously. And I think one of the smartest things I did was to get all the actors in the room together. Normally in animation you’d record them one by one, or one or two at a time. But whenever it was possible, we found that by throwing all the actors together, they could really work off each other. I think acting is a body-contact sport, and you get a lot more by working with each other than just sort of working in isolation. Especially someone like Robin Williams, who is from improvisational theatre. But having said that, it always has to be very disciplined, too, because you have to stick to your story. You’re basically working through the characters.

Loder: It’s interesting how you managed to insert into this very light-hearted movie a serious issue — the over-fishing of the world’s oceans. Is this a personal issue for you?

Miller: Oh, yeah. I mean, you can’t tell the story of Antarctica and the penguins without going into that. Particularly in Australia, which like Antarctica is essentially a desert. We have the worst continuous drought in history, because of global warming; we’ve got the largest ozone hole in the world over Antarctica and Tasmania, our southernmost state. So the climate-change is a real thing that we are directly experiencing. And certainly there’s over-fishing of the waters. I live in Sydney, on the Pacific Ocean, which looks pretty big to me — I never thought we’d get to the stage of over-fishing it. Things like that — the more delicate environments — are a little bit like the canaries in the coal mine, you know? They really alert us to there being problems. But it wasn’t something we actually set out to do. It just came as part of the organic process of telling the story.

Loder: What’s your next project going to be?

Miller: There’s an anime that we’re gearing up to do — I’m very keen to do an anime. And there’s probably a little bit more of an intimate film, with not very many special effects, more live actors. I kind of miss working with live actors. There’s quite a number of things. One of the good things about taking a long time on something like “Happy Feet” is that I was able to download a lot of the screenplays that were bouncing around in the back of my head.

Loder: What else have you been up to?

Miller: Since having finished “Happy Feet,” I’ve spent a month with my family in India. I just got back this week.

Loder: What were you doing over there?

Miller: I’ve always wanted to go to India. I wanted to take my kids to a different culture, different than the ones they’re used to. Sometimes I felt that I was in another world completely. India is so complex and rich in its history. Also, I’m very interested in what they’re doing in Bollywood. I mean, that’s such a huge industry, and it’s shifting; they’re getting heavily into visual effects. And their star system — the whole thing I just find fascinating. It’s a kind of parallel universe to ours, and in many ways more extreme.

Loder: Did you visit any Bollywood film sets?

Miller: I did, just in a very peripheral way. But I do want to go back and get deeper into it. I’m just very, very interested in how their cinema works with their population, you know? They’ve got 1.3-billion people — 300 million in their middle class — and these Masala movies they make have a bit of everything, including exotic locations — it’s a way of allowing people to get away from the humdrum of their lives. It’s kind of extreme cinema, in a way, the function of it.

Loder: Might you be making a Bollywood movie yourself?

Miller: No … well, not in Bollywood, anyway. But there’s a lot of stuff to learn from what they do. And I found that with “Happy Feet,” I unconsciously had a lot of the elements of a Bollywood movie: exotic location, lots of layers of story, action, familial story, love story — and of course all the song and dance, which is obligatory in Bollywood movies.

Loder: What about your pig movies? Why was there no “Babe 3″? Just because “Babe 2″ was perceived as being too dark?

Miller: Well, that was one reason. “Babe 2″ didn’t do nearly as well as the first film. But the irony is, that’s one of the things we’re talking about now, the possibility of another “Babe” movie.

Loder: Is that a long way off?

Miller: I’m happy to say that there’s a script.

Loder: So all you have to do is hire the pigs?

Miller: Well, that’s another story, but yes, that’s kind of what you gotta do.

Loder: Do you actually audition these animals?

Miller: Well, apart from being a world expert on penguins in some ways, I have to say I’m a world expert on pigs. They’re extraordinary. And they’re very easy to work with — as easy as dogs, in many ways. They’re highly intelligent and they’re very sensitive, and the pity of it is that we eat them. The only problem is that they grow so quickly; you only have each pig for three weeks.

Loder: Pigs get a bum rap, don’t they? Everybody thinks they’re dirty, but that’s because humans force them to lie around in the mud.

Miller: That’s exactly right. If you give them straw or whatever, they’re remarkably clean. I think the only reason they get kind of dirty is because they do like to eat, and they really throw their snouts into the trough, and a lot of stuff splashes around. But give them a clean environment and they’re immaculate, because they don’t have a lot of fur and stuff.

Loder: Is there going to be a “Happy Feet” sequel?

Miller: Well, having immersed myself in that world, and knowing those characters so well, it’s something that I almost can’t help thinking about. You know, you work on any film and it invades your every waking moment and your dreams. And I think I’m a compulsive storyteller, it’s the thing I like most to do. I like writing, you know, working out original stuff. That’s probably one of the reasons I don’t do that much. And having spent four years with “Happy Feet,” I find myself just reflexively thinking about it. So stories are banging around in my brain already on “Happy Feet,” and if a good one emerges, we’ll go for it.

Loder: The movie has a great range of music, from hip-hop to the Beach Boys. Were you heavily involved in picking it?

Miller: Oh, yeah. I mean, everybody on the film was. What I found very interesting was that in the CGI world, there are a lot of really good musicians, and a whole bunch of them, including the writers, were intensely musical. I’m not, unfortunately — I cannot sing and I cannot dance. But we had people working on the film — in particular the composer, John Powell, and Judy Morris, one of the writers — who have an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music. And I worked very hard to fit the music dramatically. Given that all the characters basically look the same, we wanted quite a variation in the music. We wanted all the songs to be iconic, given that the actual emperor penguins themselves sing, and have individual songs that differentiate them. So we had everything — the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Prince, and everything else in between.

Loder: Must have been very expensive licensing it all, I imagine …

Miller: Very, very expensive. But Alan Horn, who’s the head of Warner Bros., played in a band when he was younger, so he loves music. And at the very beginning, he said, “Whatever you do here, get some really, really great music.” And … I don’t know if you know the story of Prince, but Nicole Kidman sings one of his songs, “Kiss,” at the beginning. We wanted to change two words in it, but he basically said “No, you’re not gonna change my lyrics.” The guys from Warners said, “Look, if you saw the movie, you’d see how appropriate it was.” So he said okay, show me the movie. So they went up to Paisley Park; he watched the movie, and at the end of the movie, he picked up his guitar and said, “Give me two weeks. I’m gonna write you a song.” And he said, “I don’t want any money for it.” [Prince donated his fee to charity.] So he not only let us change the lyrics of “Kiss,” but he wrote the song that goes over the end credits. That was in direct response to seeing the movie, and it was right at the end, when we were racing to finish it, so it was really good to get that endorsement from him.

Loder: One last question: Do you still practice as a doctor?

Miller: No, no. I’ve forgotten it all. I have a twin brother who’s a doctor, who’s still practicing, and I realize, talking to him, that after all these years, it’s left me. I remember the basic things, but it’s like anything else, you’ve gotta practice it.

Loder: What sort of doctor were you, a general practitioner?

Miller: I had just finished my obligatory two years residency, or internship, in a hospital, and I was doing emergency work on weekends. But I was already starting to work on very low-budget films, doing everything from sound to camera to editing, leading up to the first feature I made. I always intended to get back into medicine, but I never did. I’m still making films — which is definitely better for a lot of the patients who I would’ve got my hands on! I took to filmmaking like a duck to water. I find that it’s a very mysterious and wonderful process, and it still piques my curiosity. I love doing it.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Happy Feet.”

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