The filmmaker behind the 'Mad Max'
and 'Babe' franchises turns his attention to musical fowl
by Mike Russell
his new animated musical-comedy-adventure “Happy
Feet,” “Mad Max” mastermind George Miller
tells another story about a loner making his way through
a harsh environment full of brutal dangers. This time,
he tells it with Arctic waterfowl. Who sing. And dance.
Miller says he first started
thinking about the wastelands of Antarctica while he was
playing in the wastelands inhabited
by leather-clad apocalypse survivor Max Rockatansky.
“Back when I was directing ‘The Road Warrior’ — over
20 years ago, now — I was in the Australian desert,” Miller
recalls. “And there was this grizzled old cameraman
called Billy Grimmond who was on second unit. We were sitting
in this bar, having a milkshake, and he looked across at
me and said, ‘Antarctica.’
“He’d shot a documentary there. He said, ‘You’ve
got to make a film in Antarctica. It’s just like out
here, in the wasteland. It’s spectacular.’ And
that always stuck in my head.”
It stayed stuck while Miller
was carving out his reputation as one of the most influential
action directors of the ’80s — a
precise filmmaker whose brief filmography includes the “Mad
Max” films, “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Babe” and
In fact, 1998’s “Babe: Pig in the City” was,
until this year, Miller’s last foray behind the camera.
The intervening years weren’t idly spent. He devoted
years to planning a fourth “Mad Max” film that
was derailed by both the Iraq war and the collapse of the
American dollar. And then, finally, he turned his camera
toward Antarctica — with the computer-animated penguin
comedy/musical/epic “Happy Feet.”
“One of the reasons this
movie took so long is because we spent almost two years developing
data] pipeline,” Miller said. “And then we spent
three-and-a-half years working on the movie.” The film
tells the story of a young Emperor penguin living in a massive
community of birds who find their mates by singing their
own individual pop songs.
“So we have Nicole Kidman
singing a Prince song, ‘Kiss,’ and
we have Hugh Jackman singing an Elvis song, ‘Heartbreak
Hotel’ — and each penguin finds their soul mate
by blending their songs together,” Miller explains. “But
one penguin, played by Elijah Wood, can’t sing. He
goes to a remedial teacher, and she invites him to bring
out his deepest feelings — and it comes out as tap-dancing.
That doesn’t seem like a particularly great way to
attract a mate, so that starts him on his way.”
In Focus caught
up with Miller Sept. 15 as he was working on “Happy
Feet’s” final mix. The director told us about
penguin life, the logistical contortions of animation, pop
song mashups, Prince, Australian pride, and, yes, what really
happened with “Mad Max 4.” An edited transcript
You told USA
Today that “Happy Feet” “was
a chance to look at how individuals in a community can’t
survive without depending on one another.” Antarctica
and the “Mad Max” wasteland are sort of similar
environments, aren’t they? Do you see any parallels
between the two? Am I being silly?
[laughs] I make that connection, but very, very few people
About 15 years ago, some great documentaries
started to come out of there — particularly “Life in the Freezer.” I’d
had no idea what extraordinary creatures penguins were — particularly
the way they worked as a community.
Despite the headlines, humans are actually
pretty remarkable in the way we’re able to work in communities. We do
fray around the edges sometimes … And I think the Emperor
penguin, in particular, provides an extraordinary analogy
Yeah, that’s certainly of a piece with your other
movies. Your “Mad Max” movies are all about communities
that make their own rules.
And about how the individual relates to the community. I
mean, “Happy Feet” is the story of an outsider
who struggles with that. How do you maintain your individuality
and still be part of a whole?
Your character designs
on “Happy Feet” look
fairly grounded in reality. There’s not as much exaggeration
as you’d expect in an animated film.
I knew, way back during the first “Babe,” that
the story wouldn’t lend itself to flamboyant character
animation — so we waited until the technology allowed
us to make it with CGI. We learned from “Babe” not
to push too far from what nature provided.
I also saw that nature itself had provided
such remarkable creatures — you didn’t need to exaggerate them.
They’re already pretty anthropomorphic, the way they
walk around and interact. And the landscape is already fantastic.
And I come from live action. So many CG films
come from a spirit of cel animation; I’m approaching it from the
other end. So we kind of took the hard road — and pushed
photoreality to an extent I don’t think it’s
been pushed to before in an animated film.
exaggerate characters and environments to make the extreme
Yeah, I can see that. Though, to the penguins, the extreme
is their wonderland. It’s a harsh environment, but
for anyone who’s been there, it’s utterly beautiful.
There’s a scene in the movie where the young penguins
go to the ocean for the first time and dive in — and
they swim to the Beach Boys’ “Let’s Do
It Again.” To them, it’s Spring Break.
The movie starts out mirroring the natural
history of penguins. The cooperation is huge. The female
hatches the egg, and
it’s passed on to the male, who bulks up and incubates
it during the winter. She spends a whole six months of winter
out at sea, fishing. He huddles with the other male penguins
and their eggs that whole winter. If they didn’t, they’d
perish as individuals.
When the sun returns, the female returns full
of fish and milk, and the fathers hand over the chicks, like
on the night shift, and they fish. They take turns feeding
Now, all that detail is not necessarily in
the film. But we mirror it for the first part of “Happy Feet.” And
then we meet our main character.
The things that are surprising me at this
late stage are that I never thought it would be a musical
and I never thought
it would be so epic. A lot happens to that main character.
It’s kind of “Lord of the Rings.”
The pop songs in the
movie are eclectic — everything
from a Spanish version of “My Way” to Chicago
to Queen to Stevie Wonder to Grandmaster Flash to The Beatles
It took a while to get the mixture of songs. I realized there
are massive gaps in my pop-musical knowledge; I think I must
have been asleep during whole eras of music. But I had lots
of people around me who were encyclopedic in their knowledge
of songs, so we ended up finding the right mix.
I don’t know if you know John Powell, our composer —
Sure. He did the “Bourne” films.
He did the “Bourne” films, the “Shrek” films, “Chicken
Run”…. He calls himself a “musical slut.” We
did everything in this from liturgical music to the Beach
Boys — and he seems to be able to handle all of it.
That came out of nature, too. The Emperor
penguins live in colonies of up to 20,000, and they all look
the same — it’s
almost impossible to tell a male from a female. So they identify
themselves through individual songs. Somehow, they’re
able to pick out their mates in the massive crowd.
How do you transfer the movements of lanky tap-dancing pro
Savion Glover to a penguin with stubs for legs?
Well … The truth is, I don’t know how it’s
done. A lot of the dancing was choreographed to account for
the shape of a penguin. We designed it that way. But on the
motion-capture stage, I’m watching Savion Glover in
his little spacesuit with the receptors on — and on
the computer in front of me, I’m watching a penguin,
live, dancing in Antarctica.
The MoCap technology, they’ve really pushed it. A lot
of my crew worked on Gollum. It was basically like I was
on a live set, watching penguins dance. If I glanced up,
there were humans on a black stage with lights. And what
mathematics, what wizardry, allowed me to do that? I still
We interviewed Barry
Sonnenfeld once, and he said getting good performances
out of special-effects
artists is like “trying
to get actors out of guys who are really good in math.”
[laughs] Well, obviously we had great dancers and a wonderful
choreographer. But I must say I don’t agree with Barry
on that. We finished all our animation and were having a
party last night, and I said to the animators, “Look,
working with you is exactly like working with an actor. It’s
just all in slow-motion.” [laughs]
So did that Beatles
song cost like half the movie’s
It cost a lot. [laughs] I don’t remember the exact
figure — but when I was told, I thought, “Holy
cow. Michael Jackson or whoever owns it is making a lot of
I know you went through
a little bit of a thing with Prince …
We wanted to use the song “Kiss” by Prince, but
we wanted to change two words. We wanted to change the word “sign” into “song” and,
because it was sung by Nicole Kidman, we wanted to change
the word “girl” into “pearl.”
But Prince said, “No — I don’t want my
songs changed.” So we showed him a fairly mature cut
of the movie, and he kept watching scenes over and over — and
almost as the last song was playing, he picked up his guitar
and said, “I know what to do. I know what to do. Give
me a week.”
I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Oh,
you can change whatever you like. And I’m gonna write
a song for it.” He got really carried away with the
movie, which was great — he was one of our first audiences.
He’s written a wonderful song for the end credits.
The last film you directed
was 1998’s “Babe:
Pig in the City.” How much did you have to adapt to
the way filmmaking tools have evolved since then?
We spent three-and-a-half years working on the movie, and
the tools we had at the end were significantly advanced over
what we started with. I mean, the main character has 6 million
feathers, and there’s all that landscape, and sometimes
there’s a massive number of penguins in a scene — there’s
a huge amount of surfacing and rendering and so on. We were
pushing our computers to limits that weren’t even possible
three years ago.
If these tools had been
available to you in the ’90s,
would you have gone completely digital on the “Babe” films?
That’s a good question. No. I don’t think so.
The thing about “Happy Feet” is that you can’t
shoot it the way we shot “Babe”: You can’t
go to Antarctica, and you can’t get penguins to dance.
I reckon in another 10 years, we’ll get that level
of photoreality where you could make a “Babe” film.
That final threshold is how well we can create human actors;
I don’t think we’re there yet, despite some very
valiant efforts. It’s a mystery, the human face and
You’ve talked elsewhere about your concern that Australia
tends to export talent instead of stories. Is Peter Jackson’s
renaissance in New Zealand lighting a fire under Aussies
in any way?
It’s lit a fire under me. The cameraman I work with,
Andrew Lesnie, shot the “Babe” films and shot
earlier stuff for us in television, and he went off to do “Lord
of the Rings.” A lot of crew were exchanged back and
forth between “King Kong” and “Lord of
the Rings” and this film … That sort of technological
renaissance is definitely happening down here. We’ve
got a lot of New Zealanders here.
But in terms of exporting our stories: That’s a big,
big subject. I have a pretty jaundiced view about the ability
of Australian culture to differentiate itself. We’ve
had 10 years of conservative government that hasn’t
decided to export Australian stories. The Australian culture
itself … With the death of Steve Irwin, who was a genuine
Australian, there aren’t many left. Except for the
indigenous Australian stories, we don’t have a lot
that distinguishes us from other cultures. So I think we
have to move into fantasies.
We’ve got a lot of Australian actors doing voices in
this film, and not many of them are doing Australian accents.
Steve Irwin did a voice on this film [he plays Kev the leopard
seal], and he used his Australian accent. But Hugo Weaving’s
doing Scottish, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are doing
American … But part of that’s because this story
is meant to be about the whole world; there’s a whole
range of nationalities, just as there’s a whole range
I’d love to ask you some questions about “Mad
Max 4: Fury Road.” First of all: Is there going to
be a “Mad Max 4”?
Well, there almost was. That’s why it took so long
for me to make a film.
We would need probably about 10 weeks of shooting;
we were in Namibia, Africa, and we were about to start shooting — and
that’s when the war started. And at that point, the
American dollar, against the currencies we were working with — the
Australian dollar and the South African rand — crashed
20 percent, and we lost a lot of our budget. And besides,
we couldn’t get insurance, and we couldn’t get
our vehicles transported on the container ships.
“Mad Max 4” is so prepared, there seems to be a lot
of momentum for it to get done. Right now, I’ve got
another, smaller film to do, and then we’ll gear up
and do “Mad Max” again. In what form and so on,
I don’t know. But it hasn’t gotten stale in the
meantime, and I’m very very keen to do it. It seems
like there’s the appetite out there.
That’s about all I can say at the moment. I’m
finishing “Happy Feet” and preparing to do the
next script while we gear up for that. I think the short
answer is: If we have fair weather, we should get there.
But being two films away, I just hate to put down that anything
will happen. But there’s a decent probability it will
The “blood for oil” aspects of “The Road
Warrior” have achieved a certain … potency in
the past decade and change. Is the world catching up with
your pessimistic vision?
I must say, it feels like it. There have been a number of
documentaries that have referred to “Road Warrior” and
the oil wars — apocalyptic visions and stuff. I’d
rather see it up on a screen as a fantasy rather than the
reality we’re seeing right now. It’s a little
soul-destroying, isn’t it?
“The Road Warrior,” at least, ends in hope — not
necessarily for that one individual, but for the community.
That’s the only reason to keep going — the hope
that things can improve. And then it’s a question about
what we can do, individually, to make that happen.
A story in Daily Variety dated
Dec. 10, 2002 reported that Mel Gibson had signed on for
a fourth “Mad Max” movie.
Does that mean the rumors about “Mad Max 4” being
a prequel — focusing on Max’s days in the Main
Force Patrol — were always patently false?
Yeah. Yeah, they are.