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'Mad Max' director George Miller says the audience tells you 'what your film is'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

All five of the "Mad Max" films were directed by the Australian filmmaker George Miller. I interviewed him in 2016 about his previous "Mad Max" movie, "Fury Road." That film earned 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. It starred Charlize Theron commanding a massive Mack truck-like vehicle trying to escape an armada of violent men driving motorized rigs with bizarre armor and weapons. The film also starred Tom Hardy as Max. Here's his opening voiceover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD")

TOM HARDY: (As Max Rockatansky) My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why are you hurting these people?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: It's the oil, stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Oil wars.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: We are killing for gasoline.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Gasoline.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: The world is actually running out of water.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: There's the water wars. Water wars.

HARDY: (As Max Rockatansky) Once I was a cop, a road warrior searching for a righteous cause.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: The terminal freakout point.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: Mankind has gone rogue, terrorizing itself.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: Thermonuclear skirmish.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: The Earth is south.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: Our bones are poisoned.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: We have become half-life.

HARDY: (As Max Rockatansky) As the world fell, each of us, in our own way, was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy - me or everyone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: And the story begins. George Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. Great to have you. There aren't a lot of quiet moments in this film. We hear Tom Hardy as Max talking there. This is a wild ride of war on wheels, and the vehicles are real.

DAVIES: Vehicles are real, shooting all kinds of weapons, people leaping from one to another, huge cars and trucks and other kinds of vehicles smashing into each other and rolling over at various speeds. You didn't use a lot of computer-generated graphics here, right? Why did you want to actually have these vehicles in the action?

GEORGE MILLER: Well, it's a film in which we don't defy the laws of physics. It's real people in a real desert. There's no men in in capes flying around or space vehicles and so on, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense to shoot it all digitally because it would lose a lot of authenticity, and it's very, very difficult. Despite the amazing advances in 15-20 years of the digital world in film-making, it's still very difficult to make something feel really authentic, so we chose to do it old-school - going out to a remote location with endless desert, and have real vehicles and human beings in that landscape and so on.

DAVIES: You know, again and again, you'll see a vehicle of some kind that's chasing a big truck and smashing into the truck, and the truck will wheel over and try and knock the vehicle off the road. These are real vehicles, real people in them. How do you manage that safely?

MILLER: With a lot of preparation. With a film like this, where it's a long shoot - it's 120 days out there - every day is a big stunt day, so you have to be almost fanatical about preparation and safety. Otherwise, things could go horribly wrong. And so everything was very well-rehearsed, very well-prepared, and we had a wonderful stunt crew and rigging crew and effects crew out there, and it got to the point where, with proper preparation, you were able to sort of get the actors - who are all of them pretty physical, athletic people - in a lot of the shots. When there's a moment when you see Max hanging upside down between the wheels of a of this war rig, inches off the ground, and because it's a...

DAVIES: While it's moving, right?

MILLER: While it's moving. Like, it's going fairly fast. Well, that's Tom Hardy there, but he has two very, very secure harnesses supporting him, and also, you know, nowadays you can erase them very easily, whereas in the past you couldn't.

DAVIES: You said you can erase them.

MILLER: You can erase the harnesses, I mean.

DAVIES: And that's where the computer graphics comes in, I guess.

MILLER: And that's where it comes in, plus it is a lot of work creating or enhancing the landscapes. Because the film itself plays out more or less in real time - over three days and two nights - we were also able to get a consistency in the sky and in the shadows and in the landscape, so even though most of it is real-world, virtually every shot has CG in it in some way.

DAVIES: So the sky would be colored or the landscape would be colored, but the cars are really crashing into each other (laughter).

MILLER: Yes. You're also able to erase your previous takes. I used to watch movies when I was younger, and you'd know how many takes people did by the number of skid marks on the road.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MILLER: So we can now erase take one, two and three and simply have the skid marks of take four.

DAVIES: George Miller, recorded in 2016. He directed all five of the films in the "Mad Max" series. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENINGRAD COWBOYS' "MAMBO FROM SAKKIJARVI")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We are listening to the interview I recorded in 2016 with George Miller, who directed all five of the "Mad Max" movies. The latest, "Furiosa," opens this week. I spoke to him in 2016, when the previous "Mad Max" film, "Fury Road," was in theaters. There's a series of wild and violent chases that happen in this movie, and you see one of the weapons that is used by these sort of dune-buggy-like vehicles that are chasing this big truck. You'll see these poles - like, 30 feet high - extending from these little chasing vehicles, and men on them, which, if I'm describing this properly, the poles bend and then, kind of like a pendulum, they swing the guy on top of the pole over to either attack the truck or jump onto it. This is an amazing thing to witness, and it was real, right? Tell us where this idea came from.

MILLER: Well, in a chase story like this, you're always looking for something that is new. Now, in the same way that pirates board ships and so on, we had these things called polecats, which is vehicles with a wide wheelbase and these pendulum-like poles going quite a ways up into the air and men on top of them, swinging, and as they come over the top of this war rig, they can jump down on top of it. I had seen some street performers with fixed poles in Australia and, in period costumes, kind of swaying in the breeze. I thought they were almost like those poles that pole vaulters have, and I thought, oh, that would be interesting, if we could put them on vehicles. I never imagined that those vehicles would move. I always thought we'd basically shoot them static and then comp them in in the usual visual effects way, because I thought the physics of it would be too dangerous, and if something went wrong, it would be catastrophic. So we worked on that, and then, because the film was delayed, the stunt crew and the rigging crew basically really, really paid attention to how the physics of it would work - this pendulum-like effect and the flexible pole - and one day, I looked across, and coming out of the desert were several of these vehicles with guys up on top of the pole, and they were swinging this way and that and it was quite, quite something to behold, and it was so safe that we were able to get Tom Hardy on top of one of those, even though it wasn't until he got up on top that he actually said, hey, you do know I'm afraid of heights?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MILLER: And I said, oh gosh, are you? Do you have one or two takes in you? And he said, yes, give it a shot, but that is Tom Hardy on top of that pole when he's, you know, Max is in that scene.

DAVIES: The three previous "Mad Max" films were centered around Max, and he is a big part in this, but in some respects, the hero of this is a woman, played by Charlize Theron. Do you want to talk a little bit about her role in this story and what she brought to the part?

MILLER: Well, the original idea of this film, given that it was to be a chase, was also that what people were in conflict over was to be human and, in this case, five wives escaping a tyrannical warlord. And they needed a road warrior. And it couldn't be a male because that's a different story. And it had to be female. But she needed to be convincing as a warrior and not just someone masquerading as a warrior. So Charlize actually was the only actor I thought about for this role. She's somebody who's got a lot of stature physically and in her spirit, and she's pretty uncompromising. She shaved her hair. She said Furiosa would not worry about hair in the heat and the dust. And Charlize is one of those people who just was able to do that.

DAVIES: You know, at the heart of the story here, you have a very tough and determined woman who is fleeing this despotic warlord and, in doing so, liberating his five wives, essentially women he uses for breeding. Did you think of this as a feminist story when you were writing it?

MILLER: Not overtly. I was very interested in the character and in the way that the "Max" stories are told. I mean, basically they're allegorical stories. In the same way, I guess that the classic Western was that. And Max is a character who gets swept up into this story. He's that - sort of wandering the wasteland, looking for some sense of meaning in a very stark world. And he gets caught up in their story. And because the MacGuffin, as Hitchcock used to say - the thing that's in conflict - is human and female, it just evolved. The characters go. They take you along in the story. And the sense that she was somehow a very, really interesting action hero female just arose organically out of the story. The feminist notions in the movie were the same. It was never, you know, the first agenda of the film. It was always story-driven, and the rest followed.

DAVIES: As the story develops, there are these five women who are the captive wives of this warlord, and they're being liberated in this huge vehicle - like, a big tanker truck - that's at the heart of the chase. The wives - they're young women - don't have a lot of lines. But I read that you invited the feminist playwright and activist Eve Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues," to come to Namibia to speak to those five actors. Is that right?

MILLER: Yes. Just as the war boys - we call them the half-life war boys - who are basically the cannon fodder for the tyrant who sits on top of the dominance hierarchy - so for the war boys, we had military advisers doing our own version of post-apocalyptic military group - I guess quite a demented version of that. So it occurred to me that we needed somebody to really help the female actors find a way into their characters and their world because everybody in this story, except the Immortan Joe, is in some way a commodity. Max himself is a trapped animal who's a blood bag. Furiosa is a warrior...

DAVIES: That's the Charlize Theron character...

MILLER: ...Basically - Charlize, yes.

DAVIES: ...Who is leading.

MILLER: Yes. She's a road warrior in the service of the Immortan Joe, who's this despot. So we needed somebody. And as it happened, I was listening to the radio in - down in Australia. And Eve, who's extraordinary in the work she does for human rights in Africa - I mean, she goes right into the dark heart of it. She just happened to be in the Republic of Congo around about the time we were in Namibia, while we were preparing to shoot the movie. And she gave us a week in the middle of a very busy schedule. And she came down, and she ran wonderful workshops that - a lot of them were quite intimate, with just the five girls. And by osmosis, it crept into the movie. I'm quite certain of that.

DAVIES: What crept into the movie?

MILLER: Just a sense that this story is one that has been fairly constant throughout history. Women, and indeed other human beings, have been basically the goods and chattels of the powerful. I mean, there was a moment when you see a chastity belt, and it's something that I remember seeing in Venice, you know, quite a brutal-looking chastity belt. And in that one image, you realize that - you know that these are some kind of belongings of this powerful man. And that sort of thing happens much more brutally in this real world, unfortunately, apart from what we have in the movies.

DAVIES: George Miller, who directed all of the "Mad Max" action films, recorded in 2016. His latest in the series, "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," opens this week. We'll hear more of our interview after a break, and we'll remember alto saxophonist David Sanborn, who played with a long list of rock and blues stars. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUTTGART STATE ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GLASS' "AKHNATEN, SCENE 1: FUNERAL OF AMENHOTEP III")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. The latest installment of the "Mad Max" series of post-apocalyptic action films opens this week. It's called "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," and it's a prequel to the last "Mad Max" movie, "Fury Road." Today we're listening to my interview with George Miller, who's directed all five "Mad Max" films. We spoke in 2016 when "Fury Road" was in theaters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, George Miller, you began your career in a way so many Hollywood folks do, by going to medical school. (Laughter) No. This is interesting. You grew up in, I guess, a rural area of Australia, right, and went to medical school?

MILLER: Yeah.

DAVIES: You worked as an emergency room doctor, is that right?

MILLER: Well, I did my normal rotations through emergency when I worked in a big city hospital. And once I started making films, I would work weekends in emergency doing locums. And then during the week, I grappled with learning how to make movies. I tried that for about a few years. And I ended up basically spending all my time making movies and very little time being a doctor. And I went through medical school with my twin brother. And I realized, after about a decade, how much I'd lost the practice of medicine. So by default I became a filmmaker at a time when I didn't think you could - there was no such thing as a career in Australia as a filmmaker. But I was just led to it out of a sense of inquiry, curiosity.

DAVIES: Did the things you saw in emergency rooms have anything to do with the "Mad Max" films, which of course are about mayhem on the highways and so, in great respect.

MILLER: Yes, the very first one definitely did - was about that. There was something about how we deal with violence in society and how we deal with it in the media that I was very interested in, I guess, thematically. But interestingly enough I was also interested in very kinetic cinema, as I was trying to understand what this new language, which is not much more than 100 years old - let's say 120 years old now, the film language is. And it's very universal. It basically was formed in the silent era in the chase films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and the true, real Westerns. And I really went back and looked at those. And I saw, oh, this in a sense where cinema was forged. So I became very, very interested in the action movie. And those two things sort of drove me, you know, to make the first "Mad Max" in some way.

DAVIES: There's quite a car culture in rural Australia, isn't there?

MILLER: Yes. We don't have a gun culture, but growing up in remote Australia, the car was the thing. Big, big expanses of landscape and long, straight roads. And as soon as someone could get their hands on a car - I mean, like a lot of rural people, people were driving, you know, when they were kids already, not on the main roads of course but on country properties.

And so I remember growing up there. And the car was - I don't know - it was a way to get out of town, it was a way to express them - people to express themselves in some way by doing up cars. They were - it was something that really, really struck me. And then we - my brothers and I, my parents took us to the city. And I had an education where, you know, as I said, I ended up working in big city hospitals. And I saw the other side of it as well, the chaos of the vehicles and, you know, when people were coming into emergency with really bad injuries and so on. And so that sort of got to me in a way. And I think making the first "Mad Max" was a way of processing that.

DAVIES: Well, you made the first "Mad Max" film in 1979. I thought we'd listen to some of the trailer of that film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: They've broken his wife.

JOANNE SAMUEL: (As Jessie, screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: They've killed his best friend.

ROGER WARD: (As Fifi) People don't believe in heroes anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: They've pushed him too far.

WARD: (As Fifi) We're going to give them back their heroes.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Mad Max, the last law in a world gone out of control...

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS CRASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Where every day is a duel, every life is on the line and every turn in the road brings you face to face with a new kind of terror.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS CRASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: "Mad Max." Pray that he's out there somewhere.

DAVIES: And that is the trailer for "Mad Max," directed in 1979 by our guest, George Miller. Yeah, it takes you back to hear that?

MILLER: Well, and makes me a little squeamish because the film is Australian, a very low-budget Australian film. And here in America, back in 1979, it was released by Samuel Z. Arkoff from American International Pictures, which made the kind of Roger Corman-type movies. And they took all the Australian accents...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MILLER: And then dubbed it with the American accent because the Australian accent, back then, very few people had heard. And...

DAVIES: And American audiences couldn't understand what they were saying?

MILLER: Yeah, yeah. I remember when I first came to America in the mid-'70s. People were surprised that Australians spoke English. It wasn't too many years later, of course, that people got used to listening to Australian.

DAVIES: Now, the first "Mad Max" film is not in a, you know, post-apocalyptic nuclear landscape. I mean, society still exists. He's a cop, kind of a hero, a kind of a Western hero fighting bad guys out on the highways. But the bad guys are, like, these really creepy, sadistic guys, just utterly ruthless and cruel. Where did those characters come from? Were there people like that on the highways in Australia?

MILLER: No, no. Unfortunately, I mean, there could be, but not as exaggerated as that. I mean, that story, I initially intended to make it contemporary. It was a very, very low-budget film, and it was the first film that I made with my partner, Byron Kennedy. And we'd made short films but had never really been on a movie set before, and it was very difficult. We could not afford, if it was a contemporary story, to block off busy streets and have other vehicles and pay location fees for expensive buildings and so on. So the solution was to go to the back streets, the empty back streets, and go to derelict buildings where we didn't have to populate it with anything but our key characters. And in order to make that convincing and because the story was so hyperbolic that I'd just simply put the caption in front of it a few years from now to imply some dystopian world - and that came out of just simply working with the budget.

It wasn't until we made the second film, "Road Warrior," that I was suddenly aware that we had unwittingly tapped into a kind of archetype. The first film did extremely well all around the world, and it was recognized - for instance, in Japan, they saw Max as a kind of lone samurai, and the French critics picked up on it and called it a Western on wheels. And in Scandinavia, he was the lone Viking warrior wandering the wasteland. It seemed to have that sort of universal resonance, and that's when the second film became much more consciously mythological in that sense.

DAVIES: George Miller, recorded in 2016. He directed all five of the films in the "Mad Max" series. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2016 with George Miller, when his film "Mad Max: Fury Road" was in theaters. His latest in the "Mad Max" series, "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," opens this week.

I want to talk about another film of yours. This is one that you wrote but did not direct - the adorable film "Babe," where animals are talking. It's about the pig who becomes an award-winning sheepherder. In this clip - this is the beginning of the film, when this little pig has arrived at the farm, all the animals can talk. And what we hear is a mother sheepdog talking to her puppies about the pig and briefly with the pig and with a comment thrown in from a horse. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character) That looks stupid, mom.

MIRIAM MARGOLYES: (As Fly) Not as stupid as sheep, mind you, but pigs are definitely stupid.

CHRISTINE CAVANAUGH: (As Babe) Excuse me. No, we're not.

MARGOLYES: (As Fly) Good heavens. Who are you?

CAVANAUGH: (As Babe) I'm a Large White.

MARGOLYES: (As Fly) Yes, that's your breed, dear. What's your name?

CAVANAUGH: (As Babe) I don't know.

MARGOLYES: (As Fly) Well, what did your mother call you to tell you apart from your brothers and sisters?

CAVANAUGH: (As Babe) Our mom called us all the same.

MARGOLYES: (As Fly) And what was that, dear?

CAVANAUGH: (As Babe) She called us all Babe.

MICHAEL EDWARD-STEVENS: (As The Horse) Perhaps we shouldn't talk too much about family.

CAVANAUGH: (As Babe) I want my mom.

DAVIES: And that's from the film "Babe," which was written and produced by our guest, George Miller. So, George Miller, you have the "Mad Max" films, in which the villains are these just ruthless, cruel, sadistic people, and then we have "Babe" and then "Babe 2: Pig In The City," which you directed, and "Happy Feet," the terrific movie about the penguin who can't sing, but can dance. Is there a connection here?

MILLER: Well, there is. It's - people do look at me weirdly. Even my mother said, you know, when you started making the "Babes" and "Happy Feets," I thought you were calming down in some way. But when she saw the latest, "Fury Road," she said, but, you know, I sometimes wonder what goes on in your head. But there is a logic. I said earlier that I really was aware that the "Mad Max" stories were a kind of corruption of the hero myth. And, you know, we all know the great work that Joseph Campbell did studying comparative religion and folklore and so on and basically huge scholarship there which has influenced movies and the classic hero myth.

Now, what was interesting is that I happened to hear somebody reviewing a book written by a pig farmer, Dick King Smith, in England called "The Sheep-Pig." And the way - this was someone on the BBC radio, and as she was reviewing this book, she started to laugh and laugh in a way that it obviously really got to her. So I immediately went and bought the book and read it and recognized that, indeed, this was a classic Joseph Campbell hero myth. By relinquishing self-interest, the heroic character basically is the agent of change and bestows some boon on the world and, in a way, changes it. But it's a very, very small story. It's not something that could be done as an animation, and it's not kinetic and flamboyant in the way that you could do still animation, which is the main - the only way people were doing animation back then.

So it was a question of waiting to see whether or not the technology was available to actually make the animals talk, and that took about - you know, this was still in analog era, and it took about five, six years. And the film was shot at Universal just at the time when Steven Spielberg was doing "Jurassic Park," and that same technology was basically used. It was early to mid-'90s, and it was the beginning of that - you know, the biggest shift, I believe, since sound - the digital era. Anyway, the point being is that there is that connection.

DAVIES: Well, George Miller, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MILLER: Thank you.

DAVIES: George Miller, who directed all five of the "Mad Max" films, recorded in 2016. The latest in the series, "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," opens this week. Coming up, we remember alto saxophonist David Sanborn, who toured and recorded with some of the biggest names in rock. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK ZAPPA'S "WAKA/JAWAKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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