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Setbacks, star wars, sackings: How director George Miller plays Hollywood hardball – Sydney Morning Herald

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The legendary director of the Mad Max and Happy Feet films has learnt many lessons during his acclaimed career – including how to handle LA from Down Under.
By Garry Maddox
Known for his calm demeanour, George Miller says that having actors clash on set is “just something you have to deal with. You hope there’s enough resilience within everything that surrounds them that can compensate.”Credit:Tim Bauer
George Miller has done many things in his celebrated filmmaking career. Turned a damaged leather-clad cop named Max into a cinematic hero. Charmed audiences around the world with, firstly as writer-producer, a cute talking pig called Babe, then, as director, a dancing penguin named Mumble. He has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, won an Oscar with five other nominations, chaired the jury at Cannes and, over more than four decades, become one of cinema’s great storytellers. But until a late summer morning on Sydney’s Parramatta River, where he is clambering into an old wooden rowboat, Miller has never made a cameo in one of his films.
Alfred Hitchcock was famous for it. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and other acclaimed directors have done it. But Miller has always preferred staying on the other side of the camera – until now. At least, standing on the other end of a wharf packed with crew members, I think it’s him.
The man in the rowboat – getting ready for a shot after a whirring drone has been dispatched skywards – looks like an escapee from A Thousand and One Nights, with shoulder-length dark hair, an exaggerated nose and a spectacular moustache. He is dressed in a baggy Middle Eastern outfit. When “Action!” is called, he rows furiously into the middle of the river, looking up in terror as imaginary arrows rain down. When he stops, a crew member hauls the rowboat back with a rope. Yes, the film’s publicist confirms, that’s the great George Miller under the disguise.
Longtime collaborator Nico Lathouris has taken over directing for a fleeting shot in Miller’s new film, the fantasy romance Three Thousand Years of Longing. After he and veteran Australian cinematographer John Seale consult a monitor – and Miller watches on a tablet – they decide they need another take. So Miller, once a schoolboy rower, paddles furiously out into the middle of the river again. After a problem with a shadow, he does it again.
Then the man the trailer for Three Thousand Years calls a “mad genius” comes ashore, finds a grassy spot away from the crew who are packing up, and strips away the disguise.
Tilda Swinton plays Dr. Alithea Binnie in Miller’s new fantasy romance, Three Thousand Years of Longing.Credit:Metro Goldwyn Mayer
The film has brought Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba to Sydney. They used their two weeks of hotel quarantine, staying in adjoining rooms, to prepare for up to nine hours a day on Zoom. Swinton plays an academic specialising in storytelling, Dr Alithea Binnie, who finds a glass bottle she loves in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar while at a conference. Back in her hotel room, she finds it contains a djinn – or genie – played by Elba, who grants her three wishes in exchange for his freedom.
Alithea is sceptical: she knows genie stories that involve three wishes usually end badly. So the djinn pleads his case by telling her vivid stories about the mysteries of love over 3000 years. The two – a woman of intellect and a magical creature driven by emotion – become closer as the stories flow.
Miller plays an Ottoman Empire storyteller who flees after failing to entertain a merciless sultan in one of the djinn’s stories. “It’s a little joke for myself,” he says as he peels off his false nose. “I have to escape his wrath because he’s annoyed by my stories. I think I end up getting shot three times by arrows as I try to flee.”
Even a mad genius, whose last film was the triumphant 2015 release Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth instalment in the Mad Max series, has to duck arrows from time to time.
Eighteen months later, Miller is sitting in a dining room in a post-production house in Sydney’s Fox Studios, flanked by posters for The Matrix, The Wolverine and The Piano. Except that his swept-back hair is greyer, the 77-year-old former doctor looks like the same genial figure – round, tinted glasses, warm manner – I first interviewed about the challenges facing the Australian film industry two decades ago.
On what should be a Saturday off from shooting Furiosa, the big-budget prequel to Fury Road, he is dressed in a brown leather jacket, dark pants and boots. After he arrives in a black Mercedes van, Miller’s driver for the shoot, former restaurant owner Pedja, lays out enough food on the conference table to feed a family of four and two mugs of green tea for a late lunch. Miller barely touches either as he talks.
He won’t say much about Furiosa; Hollywood studio Warner Bros is insisting on secrecy because it doesn’t open for two years. But it’s well known that Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) is a younger version of the fierce warrior that Charlize Theron played in Fury Road, Chris Hemsworth has a role and Sydney’s endless winter rain has affected outdoor shooting. Editor Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife and winner of one of six Fury Road Oscars, has started assembling footage in a suite off the dining room.
Over the next two hours – then again on Zoom the next day between Furiosa duties – Miller tells stories like the djinn, except they’re about the mysteries of filmmaking. Not just making Three Thousand Years but over a celebrated film career that started with the original Mad Max in 1979, while he was still a locum doctor.
George Miller with film editor and wife Margaret Sixel.Credit:Getty Images
It’s a career that has included great highs since he formed film and TV production company Kennedy Miller with the late Byron Kennedy in 1978: international success for Mad Max 2 in 1981, a series of landmark film and television projects he produced in the 1980s and ’90s that includes The Dismissal, Bodyline, Vietnam, The Year My Voice Broke, Dead Calm and Babe, directing two Happy Feet films, the unlikely success of Fury Road, given how epically difficult it was to make, and a Cannes world premiere for Three Thousand Years, with Variety reporting it received a six-minute standing ovation. It opens in Australian cinemas on September 1.
But Miller has also had painful lows, including being sacked from the Hollywood film Contact in the 1990s, a simmering feud between Theron and Tom Hardy, who played Max, while shooting Fury Road in the Namibian desert, a disruptive visit to the set by a senior Warner Bros executive, then having to sue the studio for unpaid fees on the film.
What emerges is a fascinating insight into how Miller has successfully managed to make Hollywood-backed films while living in Australia. In short, how he has learnt to play Hollywood hardball.
Miller traces his intense imaginative life back to a childhood based around play, without television, as one of four sons of Greek immigrant parents in the rural Queensland town of Chinchilla. Father Jim and mother Angela, whose surname had been anglicised from Miliotis, ran a Greek cafe. Saturday matinees at the local cinema inspired jousting contests on horseback among the brothers, using garbage-can lids as shields, building forts, digging tunnels and setting up zip lines to fly like Superman. Three of them went on to be doctors, the fourth a lawyer.
After studying medicine at the University of NSW with twin brother John, then working at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Miller had been making short films when he met Byron Kennedy at a University of Melbourne film workshop. The inspiration for the high-octane Mad Max was the damage caused by the country’s car culture, which Miller had to deal with as an emergency doctor.
The idea for Fury Road came to him out of the blue as he crossed a street in Los Angeles in 1998, then played out like a film in a dreamlike state on a flight to Sydney two years later.
Three Thousand Years came from a more conventional source: an A. S. Byatt short story Miller read in the 1990s that struck him as truthful, deep and paradoxical: a fantasy universe stretching over thousands of years unfolds in a hotel room. At the suggestion of the late Australian playwright Nick Enright, his co-writer on the 1992 medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil, Miller adapted it with his actor-turned-screenwriter daughter Augusta Gore.
When he was looking for a more intimate film to shoot after Fury Road, it jumped to the top of the pile of possible projects. “The story is something that almost takes you over,” Miller says. “The story comes first.” These stories always engage with real-life issues, including environmental collapse, the hoarding of resources and the rising power of women in the Mad Max series and the nature of truth, desire and storytelling in Three Thousand Years.
Miller and producer Doug Mitchell in 1996, with their Golden Globe award for Babe. Credit:Getty Images
Producer Doug Mitchell, his partner in the production company that is now called Kennedy Miller Mitchell, says Miller can switch easily between “big-picture and little-picture, left and right brain”, adding: “He has the ability to discern a bad idea from a good idea and he’s collaborative.”
Even after the success of 1979’s Mad Max – still one of the most profitable films in cinema history – Miller questioned whether he could make it as a filmmaker. “It left me completely bewildered,” he says from his eastern suburbs home. “I had a conversation with [fellow Australian director] Peter Weir, who’d done two features by then. I remember saying, ‘I don’t think I’m cut out to make films.’
“We had a very low budget, Byron and I, and we prepared the film to within an inch of its life. I thought, if you prepare something really well and you know exactly what you want to do, it will all go according to plan. Well, it didn’t. All sorts of crazy things happened. It wasn’t the film that I intended to make.”
“He said, ‘Making a film is exactly like you’re on patrol with your platoon in the jungles of Vietnam. You don’t know where the landmines are, or the snipers.’”
Weir told him that making a film was always like that. “It was the late ’70s and the Vietnam War wasn’t long over,” Miller says. “He said, ‘Making a film is exactly like you’re on patrol with your platoon in the jungles of Vietnam. You don’t know where the landmines are, or the snipers. You don’t know what’s coming your way next. All you know is you’ve got to complete your mission. And you’ve got to be agile and adapt to anything that happens.’ That really stuck with me.”
Miller decided to learn more about acting, initially from Hugh Keays-Byrne, who acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company before playing Toecutter in Mad Max, then through taking acting classes in Los Angeles. Reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he realised why Mad Max worked so well: it fell into a classic mythological archetype about a loner hero. And he studied silent movies.
Miller now felt ready to begin Mad Max 2 (known as The Road Warrior in the US). The shoot, around Broken Hill, proved highly challenging, but the film was a critical and commercial triumph on its release in 1981.
Miller’s success led to him directing in the US: a segment of the sci-fi film Twilight Zone: The Movie, then the dark comedy The Witches of Eastwick and Lorenzo’s Oil. He lived in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, but found it too much of a company town, realising, “I definitely don’t belong here.”
Miller moved back home and considers himself lucky that Hollywood studios are prepared to back the films he wants to make, encouraged by Australian filmmaking incentives that include the federal government’s producer offset – a 40 per cent tax break – that substantially reduces their financial risk.
Living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs suits family life with his three children – Augusta, aged 36, with first wife Sandy Gore, and sons Budo, 27, and Tige, 22, with Sixel – and lets him work with a loyal core of key crew. While he has lawyers and other representatives in the US, Miller can these days cast films and have meetings with studio executives online from Australia. “I haven’t been on a plane to Los Angeles for years,” he says.
One of the most traumatic experiences for any director – probably even worse than a film bombing – is being sacked. It happened to Miller after he agreed to adapt Contact, Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan’s novel about the search for extra-terrestrial life, for Warner Bros in the early 1990s.
“I spent a wonderful year working on that film,” he says. He was preparing to shoot “a very beautiful screenplay” by Dutch-born writer Menno Meyjes (The Colour Purple) when he realised the studio’s executives were anxious. “At a certain point, they started to panic because the film was ‘too European’. As the budget grew bigger, they weren’t prepared to go for broke. They wanted to play it safe.”
Miller was told, “If you’re not prepared to compromise, then that’s it.” He was off the film; Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) later directed it with a different screenplay. Miller has seen the same thing happen often enough to know it’s just how Hollywood works – “not because they’re bad guys”.
Miller’s 1995 film Babe won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for six other awards, including Best Picture.Credit:AP Photo/Universal
Back in Australia, he produced the 1995 charmer Babe, directed by Chris Noonan. It was a worldwide hit that won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for six other awards, including Best Picture. He did not direct another film until the less successful but underrated 1998 sequel, Babe: Pig in the City.
Miller once told students at the National Institute of Dramatic Art that when he and Jack Nicholson worked on The Witches of Eastwick, the actor gave him some good advice about studio executives: “They mistake politeness for weakness; you’ve got to make them think you’re crazy.”
While he has worked successfully with many other Hollywood stars, notably Mel Gibson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nick Nolte, Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, the animosity between Theron and Hardy made Fury Road even more difficult to shoot in Africa’s Namib Desert.
Kyle Buchanan’s oral history of the film, Blood, Sweat & Chrome, reveals that the relationship blew apart after the often-late Hardy left Theron waiting on set for three hours one morning. She reportedly accused him of being disrespectful and screamed, “Fine the f…ing c… a hundred thousand dollars for every minute that he’s held up this crew.” After he aggressively charged up to her, saying, “What did you say to me?“, she asked for protection from him for the rest of the shoot.
Fury Road’s feuding actors, Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.Credit:Alamy
While the tension reflected their characters’ relationship in the film, the stars had different approaches to their work: Hardy is a method actor and a larrikin, Theron is more cerebral and down-to-earth. John Seale, who shot both Fury Road and Three Thousand Years, tells Good Weekend that Miller had to be a diplomat on set. “He knew there was angst between them and he handled them very, very diplomatically and kept things going,” he says. “But it did bear on him. I think, by the end of the movie, he was very relieved he got through all of that.”
Says Miller: “If you’ve got two actors who are at each other for whatever reason, it’s just something you have to deal with. You hope there’s enough resilience within everything that surrounds them that can compensate for whatever dysfunction was there. Would it have been better had that not happened? Way better. But we still had to get the film made.”
“I was not fortunate enough to live at a time when I could have worked with Hitchcock, but I’ve worked with George Miller.”
Both actors subsequently expressed regret for how they behaved. Hardy says in Blood, Sweat & Chrome that he was “in over my head” on the film; Theron, whose adopted daughter was only four months old when they went to Namibia, said she was in “survival mode”. Miller says it made him appreciate working with Swinton and Elba on Three Thousand Years. “I’m an inaugural member of the Tilda Swinton Club,” he says. “I called her Her Tildaness. It was just a wonderful experience and Idris has that quality as well.”
The appreciation is mutual. Speaking on Zoom, Swinton says she spoke to “this extremely nice person” at a lunch in Cannes for 15 minutes before she found out he’d directed films she loved. “He is one of the most loving, communicative, interested, curious people you can ever meet,” she says. “I was not fortunate enough to live at a time when I could have worked with Hitchcock, but I’ve worked with George Miller.”
Elba describes Miller as a master of every aspect of filmmaking, including acting. “I have ambitions to direct,” he says. “Going to work with him every day was an absolute masterclass. It was like the best seat in the best film university you could ever have.”
Miller on the set of Three Thousand Years of Longing, with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton.
Miller planned to shoot Fury Road way back in 2003, until production stalled due to the looming Iraq War, the rising US dollar, insurance issues and problems with Mel Gibson’s deal. When it was revived after Miller had directed two Happy Feet films, shooting was delayed twice more in 2009, then 2010, because rain had turned the desert around Broken Hill too green to pass for a post-apocalyptic landscape.
By the time it shot in Namibia in 2012, Fury Road was up to its third Hollywood studio, with Warner Bros taking over from firstly Universal Pictures then 20th Century Fox. And Max had gone from Mel Gibson, to Heath Ledger until his shock death in 2008, to Hardy.
For what is now considered one of the greatest action films in cinema history – giving a new feminist heart to the genre – it had an epic shoot. Miller directed 55 actors and up to 1700 crew, orchestrating 300 stunts involving more than 200 vehicles in extremes of heat and cold, amid regular sandstorms.
It became even tougher when the president of the Warner Bros film division, Jeff Robinov, arrived on what Seale calls “a gold-plated Learjet” to “rant and rave” about the shooting schedule and the budget. According to Blood, Sweat & Chrome, Robinov insisted that filming finish on a date that meant Miller could either shoot the final chase or the opening and closing scenes … but not both.
At the time, Robinov was in a three-way battle to be the new head of Warner Bros. Time Warner chief executive Jeff Bewkes ultimately picked Kevin Tsujihara, with Robinov leaving the studio not long afterwards. After viewing an early cut of Fury Road, Tsujihara allowed Miller to reassemble the cast and crew in Sydney to shoot the missing opening and closing scenes almost a year later.
“Jeff Robinov, poor guy, tried to do his own thing, mainly to hang on to his job,” Miller says now. “It was crazy and it was unnecessary.” He has learnt over the years that studio executives often act badly out of fear. “There was a kind of panic in him and he had to assert himself,” he says. “He saw people around him getting sacked. He was vying for a job.”
Miller’s producing partner Doug Mitchell says people can misread him. “When the going gets tough, George never gives in,” he says. “Sometimes they think he’s a big, cuddly teddy bear and tremendously easy so they try and use it, but he’s very tough.”
Almost universally acclaimed by critics, Fury Road was a bolt of cinematic energy that took a solid $US375 million at the worldwide box office and, as well as winning six Oscars, was up for Best Picture and Director. But more than two years after it was released, Kennedy Miller Mitchell sued Warner Bros for non-payment of a $US7 million bonus for making the film.
Miller directed 55 actors and up to 1700 crew for Fury Road.
In a 2017 document filed in the Supreme Court of NSW, it claimed the studio acted in a “high-handed, insulting or reprehensible” manner, “destroying” the relationship of trust by refusing to pay the bonus for delivering the film under budget and breaching a co-financing agreement, which meant they could not work together on two more planned Mad Max films.
In a cross claim, Warner Bros alleged the film “significantly exceeded the approved budget”, with extra costs largely caused by the production company without written approval. Miller says it is important to be “firm” – nice understatement – but, despite the fierce language, they did not set pitbull lawyers on the studio. “People always make the mistake ‘I want the toughest, flashiest, most brutal lawyers,’ ” he says. “That’s not the way to go. You need people who are wise, who really understand the industry and really understand the issues.”
The dispute was resolved out of court – with a confidential settlement – in the same way as when Miller sued the same studio over non-payment of his deal for Contact. “In every case we’ve had litigation with a studio, everyone on the other side at the studio was in a state of flux,” Miller says. “It’s happened twice: a new head comes in, looks at what the previous regime has done and … says, ‘Why are we in litigation with those people? We should be making films with them.’ ” Doug Mitchell says they “found an arrangement which gave us the compensation that we felt we were missing and an appetite to go forward”.
After Kennedy Miller Mitchell financed Three Thousand Years independently, Warner Bros Discovery – a result of the merger between Warner-Media and Discovery Inc – stepped up to back Furiosa. Talent wins out.
I’ve always been surprised by how calm Miller seems to be – rugged up in a warm coat even on hot days – on set. Surrounded by hundreds of cast and crew, he will take a moment to show a young actor what a scene looks like on a monitor, or ask about a visiting journalist’s job and health.
“I call it ‘body bags’, where you’re pulling them out every Friday night, the ones that don’t want to come back. George has never had that. People just love to work with him.”
Lesley Vanderwalt, who has worked regularly with Miller since Mad Max 2 and won an Oscar for make-up and hairstyling on Fury Road, says she’s never seen him lose his temper on set, though she has worked with some combustible directors. “I call it ‘body bags’, where you’re pulling them out every Friday night, the ones that don’t want to come back,” she says. “George has never had that. People just love to work with him.”
Miller insists there’s no point losing your temper. “There was a time in the ’80s when people were doing a lot of drugs, not only in Hollywood movies – cocaine – but even in the Australian film industry,” he says. “One time [on] Mad Max 3, I really had to read the riot act as a producer, but that’s the only time.” Even on Fury Road, he appreciated that the Australian crew knew not to throw tantrums: “they waste time and they freak people out,” he says.
Mitchell says he’s seen Miller “pin his ears back and not suffer fools gladly many times” but never do what some hysterical Hollywood types do – pound desks, call people vile names and march off set. “I’ve never seen him not being able to hit the pause button and deal with somebody,” he says. “He can be angry, but I’ve never heard voices really raised, or an argument.”
Another day on the set of Three Thousand Years, Miller is shooting a scene that has turned the interior of an old industrial building at Melrose Park in Sydney’s north-west into a lavishly decorated Ottoman Empire palace, full of ornate architecture and characters dressed in bright silks and satins.
“He can be angry, but I’ve never heard voices really raised, or an argument,” says producer Doug Mitchell of the diplomatic directing style of Miller, pictured. Credit:Tim Bauer
Sultan Suleiman (played by Australian actor Lachy Hulme), looks down from a balcony at dozens of his subjects, magicians, jugglers and concubines. Seeing his favourite consort, Hurrem (played by model-turned-actor Megan Gale), he has her raised on a red ribbon to be with him.
Hulme says later that he was sitting at the video monitor between takes, listening on headphones, when Miller excused himself. “I watched him weave his way through all the extras,” he says. “He walked up to one gentleman and said, ‘Hello, what’s your name? I’m George.’ And he said, ‘I’m Frank.’ [Miller] says, ‘Hello Frank, can I get you to take half a step that way? Thanks. Can I get you anything? Are you guys right for water, tea, coffee?’ ” Miller then walked across to another extra, introduced himself and said he noticed the man trying to catch his slipping turban when he looked up at the sultan.
Calling over a crew member from wardrobe to help with the turban, Miller asked if all the nearby extras needed anything, then told them to have fun. “Remember, it’s a party,” he said.
To Hulme, these exchanges underline Miller’s “geniality and generosity”, adding: “It’s not about perfectionism. It’s that he’s seen it in his head already and he knows what he wants.”
Among the vividly dressed extras is Quaden Bayles, the Indigenous boy with dwarfism who appeared in a distressing 2020 viral video posted by his mother, Yarraka, to show how much bullying was upsetting him. Miller was affected by the video, then upset by a suggestion by News Corp columnist Miranda Devine that Yarraka might have coached Quaden in what could be a scam. He figured that as a director who had also been a doctor, he could recognise acting – and that wasn’t it. “I thought, ‘What the hell would she know about that?’ ” he says. “That really fired me up.”
While Devine subsequently apologised and a settlement was reached, Miller had already invited Quaden to be in Three Thousand Years. “It was good for us and it was good for him,” he says. “And he did such a good job that he’s got a small role in Furiosa.”
Genius, maybe. Mad, not so much.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
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