Interview : George Miller

Clint Morris checks out his “Happy Feet”


Trying to get an answer out of director George Miller about who’ll be replacing the deserting Mel Gibson for the next “Mad Max” movie – which has been in the works for a good five years or so, now – is like biting into a searing slice of pizza without getting the top of your mouth scalded: almost impossible.

It’s quite a thing then, when Miller decides to give us the scoop on who’ll be playing the Road Warrior without much arm-twisting at all.

“Magda will play Mad Max”, jokes Miller, who worked with Szubanski on both “Babe” films and now, “Happy Feet”. “There ya go – put that in the article. Her names already close enough to Max…. Magda… so yeah. There’s a scoop!”.

In all seriousness, says Miller – in town to promote his newest film, the family-comedy “Happy Feet” – he hasn’t got anybody firm in his mind for the role, but every man (or in this case ‘Max’) and his dog do seem to want to play the part.

“I’ve had a number of young well-known actors express a lot of interest”, Miller, who was a practicing physician before leaving the world of medicine to join friend Byron Kennedy on a quest to make films; their first being 1971’s “Violence in the Cinema”, says. ““They have to want to push the limits – they have to be lean and hungry”.

(A discussion follows about Paul Walker, reportedly interested in the role, and the fact that “he’s the real thing” when it comes to on-screen car stunts, being the car enthusiast that he is, so it’s possible that he might be in with a chance?).

Contrary to belief, Miller won’t have to re-write the character for a younger actor – because the film isn’t a prequel perse, but merely another chapter in Max’s life.

“It’s sort of how you balance the cast. I didn’t write it old”, he says, being careful not to drop too many hints.

Warner Bros may not necessarily make the next “Max” film. “There’s a lot of appetite for it – there’s definitely been enquiries from more than one studio.”

“Mad Max IV: Fury Road” was set to film in 2002, but due to “the war, and the American dollar collapsing, and ultimately losing over twenty-percent of our budget” it collapsed. It was then that Miller knew he’d never get Mel Gibson interested again if the film ever did get up again.

“He was just on the cusp of being too old five years ago. I mean, he was 21 when he first played Mad Max, and now he’s in his fifties – and it’s not about an old fading warrior – Max is a pretty lean and hungry guy. Mel didn’t really want to do it anyway. It was clear that he wasn’t that interested – he was basically saying that he’s done everything that he wants to do acting-wise. He’s got this fire to make films now, not act.”

Instead of drowning his sorrows at the local when “Max” fell through, Miller dove straight into another project – the ambitious animated film “Happy Feet”.

“The two were being written at the same time – I like working on at least two things at once, and the different they are the better – and so it was just a matter of jumping off one and jumping on another. Doug Mitchell, my producing partner, had slipped a copy of Happy Feet to Warner Bros just as we were gearing up to do Fury Road [actually]. That’s where it started”.

The film, which was four years in the making, tells of a penguin that is exiled because of not only how his unwelcomingly fuzzy he is, but also the fact that he doesn’t have a singing voice – unlike every other waddler on the ice.

The film features an immense all-star voice cast including Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving and Brittany Murphy. Notably, it also features the late great Steve Irwin.

Irwin voiced his part a month before he died. Originally, he was to provide the voice of an Albatross (which he voiced some two years back), but that character was cut and so Miller asked him to come in again and voice another part, an Elephant Seal.

“He jumped at the chance”, says Miller. “He was a big supporter of the movie because he’d been to Antarctica and spent time with the penguins… he was a serious eco-warrior, as the say. He was the genuine article. He said ‘Look, this is important this movie. It gets the ideas out there’. He was great, ya know?”

Miller, who says Irwin put his heart and soul into voicing that character, feels “Australia died when we lost Steve Irwin”.

Like Irwin, Miller merely found actors to fit the parts, not the other way around, and lucked out. And as the film progressed, noticed the animators had even gone so far as to make the characters look a little like the actors that were voicing them.

“As it went on, I noticed that Mumble was looking more and more like Elijah. That was just the animators staring and looking at his picture and then incorporating some traits into the character. He was a little bit like Mumble – there’s a gentle side to him, but he’s also as tough as nails”, he says. “So yeah, you cast according to the characters and because all of the penguins are black and white you really have to find distinctive voices with very distinctive accents. Brittany Murphy, I knew for instance, had a really sexy voice – I didn’t even know she could sing. Robin [Williams] can do anything – he can do any role, Nicole [Kidman] we had worked with before and she was happy to do a small role, Hugh [Jackman] we knew could sing, and so it went on and on..

Although he is trying to get “Mad Max IV : Fury Road” back up, it won’t be his next film. Says Miller, “I’d like to do it, but before then I have a smaller film I’d like to do.”

And for the record, “Fury Road” mightn’t be the only sequel in Miller’s future – he’s also discussing doing another “Babe” movie.

“There’s already some serious talk about it”, confirms Miller. “It’s certainly in the wind in one form or another”.

HAPPY FEET Commences December 26 Across Australia