In October 1985 I interviewed George Miller in London for Time Out magazine, to tie in with the imminent UK release of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Mr Miller struck me as very different from other film directors I had encountered – slightly boffin-ish, with wild hair and wearing spectacles attached to a cord around his neck, a bit like a slightly nutty professor. He was amicable and articulate, a pleasure to talk to.
Photographs were taken (not by me, alas), the contents of the tape were transcribed professionally, and I diligently wrote up the interview for the magazine… only for it to be spiked at the eleventh hour when Orson Welles died of a heart attack and Time Out consecrated its film pages to remembrances and appreciations of the director of Citizen Kane.
I long ago misplaced my Miller interview, possibly permanently, but I still have a copy of the transcription. Here it is, lightly edited to excise hesitations and repetitions, as well parts of the interview which transcription rendered gibberish (through no fault of the transcriber – merely the sound quality of the cassette tape). The interview was interrupted several times as Mr Miller answered phone calls – once to talk to his brother.
I had enjoyed Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but found it slightly disappointing after Mad Max 2, which had knocked me sideways. It was, from my point of view, an impossible act to follow, so as you can see, I told a lie about this straight off the bat.
My biggest regret is that I never asked Miller about the first of his films I’d seen – an insanely gory 20-minute satirical short called Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971) which in 1975 had been the support to Flesh for Frankenstein. I would love to see this again, but have never been able to track down a copy; perhaps an enterprising DVD company will one day unearth it for use as an extra on a collector’s set.
AB: Well, congratulations on three Mad Maxes in a row! I was prepared to be disappointed by number three but wasn’t. I just didn’t think you could beat number two.
GM: One of the things that kicked this one off was that we thought it could be different: they’re the only features I’ve really directed so you don’t want to be doing the same thing all your life. And it had a different approach, a different feel, so we said oh yes, this is like doing another movie entirely, so we did that.
AB: I notice that Thunderdome was a different certificate to the others. I don’t know what it would be in Australia or in America.
GM: I’m not sure what certificate it’s got here.
AB: The first two were “X” or “18” certificates [in 1982, the British Board of Film Classification replaced the “X” certificate with “18”], and now Thunderdome is a “15”. Would you say it’s more of a family film?
GM: Yeah it is, I think. Mainly because what kicked off this story was the story of the kid. We were talking one day and Terry Hayes [who co-wrote the screenplays of Mad Max 2 and Beyond Thunderdome with Miller] started talking about mythology and how where people are short on knowledge, they tend to be very big on belief. In other words, they take a few fragments of knowledge and, if you take like the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, they just take simple empirical information and using those little bits of the jigsaw construct very elaborate mythological beliefs, which explain the whole universe. Terry was saying if you had a tribe of kids after the apocalypse who had only a few fragments of knowledge, [they would construct] a mythological belief as to what was before. And what would happen if Max or someone like that …
So we were talking about that, and it kicked off the idea of kids who were Lord of the Flies-type kids, and that led to this story. So it automatically had a softer heart to it. Mel Gibson often describes the character as a sort of a closet human being who denied his humanity because he thought it wasn’t conducive to survival. And we said, well this is really a story about Max coming out of the closet. And because it’s a story like that, it has a softer nature.
Whereas if you really look at the first one, which I think is the most violent, it’s violent because it’s an adventure story, so therefore it has a very dark heart, and leaves the audience and the character pretty well without any hope. And where for instance on television in Australia, and also originally in France, they tried to cut it, they couldn’t really cut anything because there wasn’t anything specifically that could come out, because [the violence] was in its tone more than anything else. The tone of this one ultimately is lighter. So that’s why it would explain the new rating.
AB: And the second one I think seems to me to be more comic strip towards violence.
GM: Yes that’s right. So yes, and it’s not a story necessarily about vengeance. It has a certain degree of optimism at the end, and also you’re right, it’s more comic strip in its nature. What rating was that here?
AB: That was “18” as well. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me, when I realised Thunderdome didn’t have as much obvious violence as the other two.
GM: Yeah… that was just the nature of the film, the nature of the story.
AB: Would you have considered making the third Mad Max if you hadn’t been able to get Mel Gibson?
GM: I don’t think we would have. We liked the story so much, I think we would have made it, but not [as] a Mad Max film. We would have invented some other world to tell it in. But we got keen on the story. Mel is very straightforward and honest, I mean he doesn’t play games. We could have offered him ten times his normal fee, [but] if he didn’t like the story, he’d never do it. And it [was] simply a matter of telling him the story, and he said oh yes I can see this is going to be different, more interesting than what we’ve done before – let’s do it. And if he [had] said no, which I somehow didn’t expect him to say, I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t think we would have recast. l think we would have probably changed the story to be some other post-apocalypse story.
AB: I also read somewhere that you didn’t shoot the Tina Turner character as a straightforward villainess. Was she a bit of a heroine as well?
GM: Well yes, that to us is very important. We didn’t want to fall into a kind of fairly clichéed bad guy. And we have a saying that today’s tyrant is yesterday’s hero. And if you really look at the rhythm of the way things are, that’s often the case. You have political heroes, for instance… but if you go back to the classical sense, the definition of a hero, as far as we can decide, is that they’re the agents of evolution. They are the characters by which the world changes to a new order, usually for the better. They are the agents of evolution.
And they’re simply that. If they create a new order, and they love that world too much, then they become what you might-call holdfast. (This is all this stuff from Joseph Campbell who I think is by far the best writer on mythology.) They become holdfast, they love their world too much, and they want to hold on, and they won’t allow the next, natural evolution, natural change, to happen. [The world] becomes brittle and is doomed to change.
That’s what we wanted with Tina Turner; we wanted to have the sense that before she built Bartertown, she was a genuine hero. You could have told a story, almost like a Mad Max story, about her. But now, because she’s holdfast… One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense.
AB: But she does seem to acknowledge Max as a fellow…
GM: Yes, Yes she does. They’re the same kind. Max built another place; if he wanted, for instance, to stay with the kids at the end of the story, and [then] really came to regenerate a new society in the city, and then became holdfast, leader of that, he would become a tyrant – you have to. You establish a hierarchy.
AB: That would be an interesting film.
GM: Yeah, you want to keep the same thing going. We do it in families, we do it in political institutions, we do it in corporate institutions, we do in political ideologies – look at Russia, the heroes of the Revolution; it didn’t take long before they became the tyrants of Stalin. You look at tribes, at herds of buffalo, you look at anything; it seems to be a very simple rhythm in nature.
AB: Who were your heroes when you were younger?
GM: I guess they were classic comic book or Saturday matinee type heroes. I guess there were some sporting heroes. I think once I wished I was Superman. As a little kid, I tried to figure out how I would fly, and I think, like all kids, I probably jumped off the roof of the garage or something, wearing a cape. Or I remember seeing a Sir Galahad serial, and running around with little horses and knights, and the family garbage bin lid painted up, and stuff like that, that sort of fairly conventional heroes. But I guess as I grew older my heroes were more intellectuals, people like Bucky Fuller and Freud.
AB: I was going to ask about the Thunderdome itself…
GM: Well, it wasn’t meant to be a geodesic dome. We thought of a dome, but Bucky Fuller was right – it’s the simplest strongest structure, and we had engineers look at it and say this is how we want to build it. And even though it’s not a geodesic dome, they had to look at it because we had to have all our crowds over the top of it, so it had to be extremely strong, and sort of look vaguely look geodesic. Bucky Fuller was a big influence.
I suppose modern day heroes would be someone like Joseph Campbell who writes mythology in a tremendous way – people like that. People who shed light on things more than anything else, and change the way you think about the world. And just recently, the last couple of years, [it has been] Einstein and all those guys who started modern 20th century physics, I think they’re extraordinary people. I remember studying physics at school and university, and really not understanding any of it, passed exams but had no awareness of how beautiful it was and how extraordinary – how simple it was. How poetic.
I was trying to figure out a way of dealing with it in the film; I began to read up about it again and saw how it interlocked so much with what we were trying to understand, and I think it’s just fantastic – so in a sense Einstein’s become a hero to me. But as a kid, I don’t know. Maybe the heroes that everyone else had.
AB: What would you say the difference between a hero like Mad Max and somebody like Rambo? [Rambo: First Blood Part II had been released a few months prior to this interview, triggering a media feeding frenzy over its violence and ideology.]
GM: Well I haven’t seen the Rambo film, so I don’t know.
AB: I’d say Mel Gibson’s more like Clint Eastwood than Sylvester Stallone – I mean the character. More like the Man with No Name.
GM: Ye-es. I don’t know what your impression is, but I think my first memory of Mel Gibson, and also how I’ve come to know him, is that basically inside you think of him as a good person. And I think I get the feeling too with Sylvester Stallone that there is basically a good person inside.
And Mel Gibson suddenly said to me in Mad Max 2, he said you know what he is? He’s a closet human being. And it really pretty well sums up Max for me. He’s someone who denies his humanity, and sometimes it’s going to come out, somehow. So I think he’s sort of a pretty sad figure from that point of view. And yet, you have a sense that he’s wise enough to learn. He finally learns, slowly, that you can’t live by yourself. You’re part of the community, like it or not. That we’re all sort of vaguely responsible for each other, and he sort of understands that. There are purposes outside of the individual’s life or existence. I think [Max] somehow understands that, and it probably makes him more compassionate – at the end of Mad Max 3, at least. That might be the difference; maybe he has compassion ultimately, in spite of doing all these sort of fairly brutal things.
AB: Do you think there could ever be a female version of Mad Max?
GM: I thought a lot about that. I think there’s no question about it. I still can’t figure out sexuality; I mean it’s such a big mystery to us all. It’s like violence and aggression, it’s something we try to understand with our heads, our intellect, but they’re really to do much more with the instinctual side of us. It’s old brain versus new brain, you know.
So dealing with something like sexuality and women… If you’re talking about it in conventional mythology, being nothing fancy, just simple storytelling, if you look at stories like Beauty and the Beast, which is a myth that was very common – you know, King Kong, right up to the fifties – and then I guess they invented the pill and abortion and a freer sexuality, and a certain liberation of women, which most of us agree was long overdue.
The Beauty and the Beast story is no longer a viable one in society, because women aren’t as mystified – they’re much more people than they are mystical. Yet women are still sex objects, yet they’re not demystified sex objects. And yet we have more women artists, women this and there are women that, so it seems clear that you can have a female hero. [But] historically there haven’t been very many.
If you go back to the theory – this is the mind of Joseph Campbell – that heroes are the agents of evolution, the means by which one world is shattered and the new world is created, they’re not for their own sake, their purpose, like Mad Max at the end of Mad Max 3, is over. Once the kids are free, they’re going to go off and start something new [and] he can’t be part of that. He’s too fixed in his ways. At least that’s his function. He recognises that he’s not so important, just a chance of a renewal is much more important than an individual.
If you agree that heroes are the agents of revolution, there have been very few women heroes in society. I don’t think there’s any reason why there can’t be a female version, in fact the Tina Turner [character] in the subtext of Mad Max 3, before the story started, probably followed a very classic hero story – the story of how she built Bartertown would be a very interesting story. And – in the way we discussed her back story, she would pretty well follow the hero story – she would have to. So a short answer is yes, I think there can be a female hero in the same way. How we would respond collectively as audiences, I don’t know. I suspect that we would respond very well, if the story was well told.
AB: Did you see Bartertown as intrinsically evil?
GM: No, just as profane. Just concerned with everyday getting on, making a buck-type world, which we are all part of. And in a sense, because it’s not very broad in its vision, ultimately evil in its function. Without people consciously trying to be evil. It’s just the way we conceive everyday life as being ultimately corrupt and cynical, but there’s no room for the broader issues. Mainly because they’re so limited, only evil in that sense. And the people in it don’t really see it as evil.
AB: Dr Dealgood is some sort of parody of a TV game show. Was that based on anything specific?
GM: Bartertown had to be a little microcosm of modern day society, so we tried to account for everything [there], you know… the equivalent of the police force, and the military. Tina Turner was kind of a politician and a feudal lord, the Underworld and Master Blaster were a form of the energy, so there was a dialogue going between the people who ruled the place and people who produced things. And we wanted to account for entertainment.
We also wanted to find out what happened in terms of law, if people came to an impasse. Like sport is ritual war in a very valuable way of redirecting aggression in society. We thought wouldn’t it be great, instead of people going to war, they’d fight it out in Thunderdome. Fight to the death. It had the pageantry of, say, the Law Courts, and the pageantry of church, in a way, because of the kind of religion, a strong enough belief to be a religion, it had to have pageantry to have any meaning. It was a little bit like a circus, and a little bit like a game show – it was all those things combined. Because they’re all, in a way, the same sort of things.
AB: I understand you studied as a doctor of medicine. Does that influence your direction?
GM: Yeah, it sort of has. I think any life experience does – that’s the way you happen, unconsciously or consciously, to use a lot of experience to inform your work. But I’d say the two most obvious ways – studying medicine gave me all the sixties, while I was at university, to indulge the things I was interested in. I was very interested in art, I was very interested in the movies, I used to do a lot of painting and drawing and cartooning, and stuff like that. I’d spend every day at the movies on student cards, student concessions. I went to medical school with my twin brother and he would be at the lectures, and I would go to the movies. So I had time to do that.
And in a practical sense, I think part of being a good doctor is being able to observe things fairly acutely, I suppose that’s useful as a director. And a lot of it has to do with problem solving, and in a sense the actual execution of a film tends to be problem solving. So those are the things – one, it gave me time to experience a bit of life; two, you tend to be an observer, in the worst sense probably a voyeur, you watch life, you watch extreme human behaviour and you get as close to it [as you can] without it affecting you directly.
AB: What films were your favourites?
GM: Well, films that were favourites were those that influenced you at the time, rather than when you go back and look at them now. So you have to put them in the context of the time when you first saw them. And when I first saw, for instance, M*A*S*H – the Robert Altman movie – I’d never seen a movie like it, all that overlapping dialogue. When I first saw The Battle of Algiers, I never [knew] a movie could be so real. When I saw Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, for some reason that had a big effect on me.
And if I see any of them now, I’m not sure if I have the same response. In terms of the film makers, not talking about the individual films but the actual language of film, of course the big influences were the classic masters, I’d say. Probably Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa and probably above all Buster Keaton. If you go back and see all his work, he was extraordinary, his use of film language.
AB: Do you think Mad Max appeals to both men and women?
GM: I think the third one tends to split the audience a lot more than the others. The first two seemed to be much more male-oriented – according to the kind of feedback demographics you get from the distributors. The third one, it seems, has been accepted by both audiences much more than the first ones. Probably for obvious reasons; it seems to be a gentler story.
AB: Were you happy with Maurice Jarre’s music?
GM: Yes I was. Some people have said ah, but you should have used rock ‘n’ roll, it’s too lyrical and all that. But I’ve never been able to figure out how to fit rock ‘n’ roll music into a Mad Max film.
AB: The scores for the first two were composed by Brian May of Queen?
GM: No, no, no. There’s another Brian May – he’s an Australian composer. A few people have asked me that. No, a different Brian May. And Brian unfortunately had been working in Hollywood and had a Hollywood agent, and Hollywood agents tend to be very demanding, and so we said well, why don’t we start asking other composers as well. Peter Weir had just worked with Maurice, and John Davidson, who I knew, had worked with him on Top Secret! and said how wonderful he was. So we worked with him, it was terrific.
AB: Tina Turner has made a comeback in recent years. Had she already made that comeback when you were filming?
GM: No, it was happening while she was filming.
AB: So you timed it really well?
GM: I mean, obviously we knew Tina Turner; she’d done concerts twenty years before in Australia with Ike, and I’d seen an interview with her where she spoke about acting, and I remembered it for a long time. But more importantly [when] we actually wrote the character, as a shorthand way of describing the character we said someone “like Tina Turner” – without even thinking of casting her.
We wanted a woman, we wanted someone whose age was indeterminate, you weren’t sure if she was old or young or whatever; we wanted someone who had a lot of power, charisma, someone who would hold a place like that together – or build it in the first place. And we wanted someone who was a survivor. You know, you felt about her that no matter what happens she’s going to survive it. And then – what we talked about before – someone who basically deep down inside still had a good persona, a good heart.
And as shorthand it was like someone like Tina Turner – it was just a way of describing the character. So pretty soon when we saw the character, we saw Tina Turner. And then [when we started] casting, the first person we spoke to was Tina Turner. She had recorded Private Dancer by then, but it hadn’t been released, and actually while we were shooting the film she started to chart and was doing well. So it was a matter of timing.
AB: And the hit song from the film. [We Don’t Need Another Hero]
GM: Yes, that came after. After Private Dancer, the record company said oh well, let’s have another album, and very wisely Tina and her manager said oh, that’s a mistake, let’s wait and get some really good songs. Wait till next year, and let’s collect some great songs. So the feeling was, let’s tag something to the movie, and instead of coming out with one song, they came up with two, so we put two songs in the movie and the credits.
AB: I believe there’s another Australian director called George Miller. Is that very confusing?
GM: Yes, and funny too. Because we sort of look vaguely alike, to describe us. So people say do you mean the George Miller who’s short and fat and has got curly hair? And they say, yeah. He’s worked a lot in television, maybe for twenty years, and he’s from Melbourne. And when I first met Byron Kennedy, I went to Melbourne for seven years and worked with him [there], and that’s his hometown, that’s where we really got confused. In recent years it hasn’t got so confusing cause he’s basically in TV, except he has done two or three feature films, including one which was very successful in Australia, and a so-called important critic for an Australian newspaper, one of the Murdoch papers, wrote a review of The Man From Snowy River, the film that George made, which had horse chases in it, and he compared the horse chases with the car chases in Mad Max and Mad Max 2, saying how it’s obvious that the same director did the movies! He was a so-called highbrow critic, didn’t know the difference.
AB: Are you from Sydney?
GM: I’m from Sydney yes. I live there now, yeah. Sydney’s a good city actually; it’s a very easy city to live in, a very hedonistic city in the sense that it’s full of sun and plenty of beaches and yet it’s small enough. It’s not like L.A. or somewhere that’s too spread out, it’s very small. And that’s where the film industry tends to be concentrated. Only one big bad problem with Sydney, we’ve had a succession of corrupt state governments almost since the early convict era, I think, and unfortunately during the sixties they let in organised crime, so Sydney is also the gateway to organised crime in Australia. Heroin and everything are ridiculous there. Really I mean it has noticeably affected society.
AB: What does your twin brother do?
GM: He’s a doctor. We went to medical school together. You just heard me on the phone, I barely see him.
AB: I just remember somebody telling me you had a twin brother who was a writer.
GM: No no. George Ogilvy, who co-directed the film – he has a twin brother. People often say how can you possibly co-direct a film together, how come you don’t fight all the time? l say well, we both have twin brothers, we’re both used to working in tandem with someone.
AB: What do you think of the Australian film industry as a whole?
GM: We-ell, it’s very tough, very tough. I don’t think you can really assess an industry until a fair bit of time has gone by, and I think if you took say the last fifteen years, I guess since 1971, so the last decade, say, you can only really see the whole body of work. And basically what happened was three clear things, at least for me. We are a hybrid between a kind of European film making and Hollywood film making… that’s the first thing.
[And then] there’s a lot of passion and enthusiasm in those early years, in the people who made films and the people who emerged as film makers. I’m not only talking about the directors, but in particular some of the producers, particularly the camera crews and things like that, but specifically the directors I’d say were passionate about film, wherever they were they would have made a film, one way or another.
The third thing is that if you really look through the body of the work, at the time everyone wondered why the hell are we making period films all the time? Films that tend to go back, kind of potted histories of what we were – and through film we went back and identified ourselves historically through cinema.
Then it changed. We kind of became flavour of the week or flavour of the month in the United States; Australian directors tended to become popular there to some degree, and the government saw that we’re a good way of advertising Australia. And so they started to introduce the tax legislation which brought in tax shelter, which brought in a whole lot of people who were skilled at financing but not skilled as film makers. So the industry took on a degree of cynicism, it matured in one sense but also got cynical.
And so we had a lot of bad films, tax shelter [films]. We reproduced the Canadian system, as much as we tried to avoid it, we reproduced that system. And then people got sick of seeing the historical films, or we ran out of subjects, started to move into more contemporary stories which just didn’t [work as well], because our society isn’t significantly different enough to American society to really make our stories stand out as contemporary stories. The budgets were so high by now with the tax legislation that you can’t make indigenous films for sixty-eight million people, what we call “parish pump”, more intimate local colloquial stories.
So a lot of that work then went into TV, so in a sense we reproduced what’s happened in England. So now as we see it, we have a small population with a degree of maturity in the industry, with a lot of the advantages that come with that and a lot of the disadvantages, but a fairly high degree of cynicism unfortunately, which I think is the death of any industry. And with a lot of the talent going into television, so who knows where we’re going to go. A lot of the Australian directors are tending to work in Hollywood, mainly because the budgets are bigger there, and they have a wider range of stories that they can tell.
AB: Do you think you’re likely to do that?
GM: In a sense I have already done it. I did do Twilight Zone.
AB: I enjoyed that episode best. [Miller directed Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the final – and many say the most powerful – segment of the portmanteau production Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).]
GM: Yeah, it was a good story. Steven Spielberg’s very generous in that he said take this story, it’s a good one. It’s his favourite of the old Twilight Zone stories. Originally there were three episodes, all to be original stories, and then almost on an impulse he added one. It just happened I was there the day he was talking about it, and he had one for me. And I used to love The Twilight Zone, and I read the original short story and it was great. Then after the accident on John Landis’s episode, he changed the whole project, so they went back to do old stories, except for John Landis’s. So I ended up with the best story.
But also really whatever film you make, it ends up being distributed – if it’s going to be distributed [in the] mainstream, it ends up in one of the major studios and very few films are made in house, on the lot any more. You know Hollywood is such a small industry too…
So people seem to think working in America is a big step, and really it’s no step at all, it’s the same process, it’s a continuation. Neither a step forward nor back. And I’ll continue definitely to work in Australia because I’m lucky in that the company I have is very free to split our work between television and features. And the only features we’ve done are the Mad Max films, each is such a difference from the others that they’re like a holiday from the others. And so it gives us a lot of freedom. I didn’t realise until I went to the States how much freedom we have.
We’re on our fourth television mini-series, the one we’re doing now is on Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, ten hours. [The 1987 mini-series Vietnam.] They’re done for a network; they’ve all been successful, that’s the reason why we’re able to do them. We work with a lot of other directors which is great because directors learn a lot from each other.
They’ve all been done for Rupert Murdoch’s network, and people said oh that’ll be terrible because you’ll get a lot of interference. And in fact we’ve had the opposite. We’ve done political subjects and we’ve had no interference whatsoever. We literally tell them the subject matter, we give them a one sentence synopsis of what the ten hours are going to be about and we give them a delivery date. And they give us a fee. What I’m saying is no-one reads scripts, no-one tells us who to cast, no-one says oh cast Richard Chamberlain so then we can sell it to Japan, or something. No-one says you’ve got to get this person to direct, or you can’t use that subject, you can’t use swear words – none of that. You don’t realise it until someone tells you that you don’t have that sort of interference… it’s wonderful.
But more importantly you can experiment with the way you work. We workshop them in very strange ways, like with Mad Max 3, I can work with another director and people in Los Angeles say that’s weird, why are they working with another director, what’s wrong? That was just a natural evolution of what we were doing; George Ogilvy and I have been working together for three years together in television. So, that freedom is still there in Australia.
AB: Are you identical twin brothers?
GM: No my twin brother has blue eyes, I’ve got brown eyes. He’s left-handed, I’m right-handed. Real different.
AB: Are you intending to make any more Mad Max films?
GM: No. The three seem to make up a whole, so I doubt whether we’re going to be doing another one.