“I just love action movies. For me, the most universal language and the purest syntax of cinema is in the action movies” – George Miller, 2015.
As a child born into the 1970s and growing up through the 1980s in Melbourne, Australia, any list I ever put together of the most influential film-makers of all time is going to place George Miller very high. The wide-ranging list of projects he has been involved with, whether it be as writer, producer or director, throughout different genres, is really quite astounding, and that he can still create modern Hollywood blockbusters without buckling to the pressures of modern mantras is a credit to his own artistic talents.
With 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road gaining 10 nominations at this year’s Oscars (for which Miller received two – Best Picture and Director), it is timely to look back on the remarkable career of George Miller.
As a twenty-something year-old physician, Miller enrolled in a film-course where he met Byron Kennedy, a man whose influence on film and television would be all-too-brief. The two teamed up to create the short film, Violence In The Cinema in 1971, and thus was born a friendship that would leave an indelible mark on both the local and international film markets.
Directing his first feature film, and the first of the newly established Kennedy Miller Productions in 1979, Miller’s Mad Max exploded across Australian cinemas to local acclaim – acclaim that didn’t necessarily repeat in overseas markets at the time – but was enough to launch the careers of both Miller and his young star, Mel Gibson. Made on a miniscule budget, featuring a real-life biker gang (the Vigilantes) that were required to ride to the set each day already in costume (to save time and money), and starring an actor (Gibson) who was only offered the part because he accompanied his sister to the auditions, it would have been impossible for Miller to conceive that his creation, Max Rockatansky, would be so gratefully embraced by film fans around the world 36 years later.
I was too young to see Mad Max in the cinema, but I do recall seeing it just a couple of years later, on television. What I do remember, at the time, was the schoolyard legend that was Max. We would scoot around on our imaginary motor cycles and beefed up pursuit vehicles, fists out in front of us revving imaginary engines. Mad Max was a hero and he was always going to make a big-screen return. And it was always going to be with a heftier budget.
Mad Max II: The Road Warrior is the epitome of the style that is George Miller. A reluctant hero in a chaotic world, a world over which he has very little control. A who’s who of our nightmares (villains that very closely mirror those that modern audiences would later encounter in ‘Fury Road’) and heroes that barely hold onto their principles as the fight for survival doubles as a fight against insanity. Watch Road Warrior, and look on in awe at that final, climactic chase (that again foreshadows what we would see in 2015). That Miller can convey such carnage, chaos, and accelerating adrenaline while keeping the audience fully aware of what is going on in front of them is an old-school filming technique (neatly finished off in the editing room) that is sadly lacking in action movies today.
Following the international success of Road Warrior, Miller pursued further projects both home and abroad. For the anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie, Miller was in rare company as he directed one of four shorts, alongside John Landis (The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins), and Steven Spielberg (having just completed E.T.). Miller’s contribution, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, is widely considered the best of the four shorts (obviously my own tendency is to agree with that assessment) and helped cement his position as a film maker of note.
Back home in Australia, Kennedy-Miller Productions was in full swing, with a number of projects in the works. It was around this time, while scouting locations for the upcoming filming of Mad Max III, that Byron Kennedy was tragically killed in a helicopter crash. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) carries a dedication to Kennedy in its closing credits and Miller has retained the name of his close friend to this day (in 2009 the production house became Kennedy Miller Mitchell Productions in recognition of the role played by Doug Mitchell, one of the producers of in-house projects such as The Year My Voice Broke, Dead Calm, and Happy Feet). The death of Kennedy affected Miller deeply, and whilst he still kept busy writing and producing television mini-series such as The Dismissal (1983), The Cowra Breakout (1984), Bodyline (1984) and Vietnam (1987), as well as his involvement with Babe (1995) as writer and producer, his work in the director’s chair over the next two decades was restricted to The Witches of Eastwick (1987), starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), again with Sarandon and Nick Nolte.
Miller was set to direct Contact (1997) but was replaced by Warner Bros due to creative differences and the delay of the production’s start date. He was also set to direct a film adaptation of DC’s Justice League in 2007 but the project was cancelled due to the Writers Guild of America strike at the time. One can only imagine what Miller would have done with the wealth of characters available in the DC world, such as the Joker, Riddler or Catwoman. There are a great many fans that would still love to see him take the helm of such a project.
In 2007, Miller won his first (and thus far only) Oscar as director of Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, Happy Feet (2006). Miller not only directed Happy Feet, but was also writer and producer. He also acted as director, as well as writing and producer credits, on the follow-up, Happy Feet Two (2011), a film noteworthy as Robin Williams’ last animated feature.
Mad Max: Fury Road was over a decade in its conception, and represents probably the last time we’ll see Miller direct a Max film. At age 70, he has been quoted as saying as much (due to the exhausting travel and scheduling commitments of such a project), though he is also known to be currently working on a screenplay for a future Mad Max film (tentatively titled Wasteland)
George Miller deserves to be recognized for the outstandingly creative talent that he is. How many other writer/directors would be brave enough to make a Mad Max film in which the hero (now played by Tom Hardy) plays second fiddle to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, or would still insist on using ‘eye trace’ and ‘crosshair framing’ techniques (see the link below for an interesting article that offers a very good explanation of this technique) when other action directors are taking quick edit shortcuts to denote action and energy. The outrageous visuals, the nerve-jarring score, and lead characters that barely say two words to each other. It is an amazing pulling together of chaotically skewed jigsaw pieces into a thoughtful and cohesive story-telling experience.*
Have a George Miller marathon night. Be thrilled, be inspired. The aforementioned mini-series are still well worth checking out to this day. A couple of years ago I made my Irish wife watch Bodyline to help her understand cricket and the English-Australian rivalry. She thoroughly enjoyed it and, as a Matrix fan, was chuffed to see some of Hugo Weaving’s earlier work. And at the very least check out Mad Max II if you haven’t already. A great example of Australian cinema at its best.
*For a good explanation of these techniques check out Vashi Visuals article http://vashivisuals.com/the-editing-of-mad-max-fury-road/