Call him Doc Hollywood. George Miller was a working ER doctor when he set off on making his first movie, the independently financed Mad Max. The actioner became one of the most profitable films of all time, launched Mel Gibson’s career, and led to three sequels, including last year’s box-office hit Mad Max: Fury Road, which earned Miller his first Best Director Oscar nomination.
In between his work on the original Mad Max trilogy (which also included 1981’s Road Warrior and 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome) and Fury Road, Miller helmed a couple of adult dramas (1987’s Witches of Eastwick and 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil) and a few projects that couldn’t be further from the bloodbaths of apocalyptic Max land: the family flicks Babe: Pig in the City (1998), Happy Feet (2006), and Happy Feet 2 (2011).
In our latest installment of Director’s Reel, Miller, 70, walked us through his humble beginnings on Max and all the furious roads it’s led him down. Highlights:
Mad Max (1979)
Miller is the first to admit that he didn’t have a tight grip on what filmmaking entailed when he shot his debut. It was after they wrapped, in the editing room, where he feels his education truly began. “I was confronted every day with all the things I should have done and didn’t do. So Mad Max 2 was informed by all of that.”
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Shooting The Road Warrior in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, Miller wasn’t able to see his dailies until a whole week later. So he had to rely solely on the reactions of cinematographer Dean Semler to gauge if the takes were keepers. “Depending on how he came off the lens, I’d know,” Miller explained.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Tragedy struck the threequel, as Miller’s close friend and producing partner Byron Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations. “Every film is tough, but I remember doing that was very, very hard,” said Miller, who considering abandoning the project before bringing on George Ogilvie to co-direct.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Miller’s first big Hollywood studio movie was this fantastical comedy starring Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Nicholson. The director recalled how Nicholson helped Miller through the experience, saying, “They mistake kindness for weakness. So you gotta make them think you’re a little crazy.” Miller followed through on the crazy, not showing up for work one day when he felt the studio was taking advantage of him.
Happy Feet (2006)
Miller won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for this dancing-penguins hit. He says those dancing penguins were directly influenced by footage he had seen from the set of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly the motion-capture work of Andy Serkis as Gollum.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It took Miller 15 years (and two unsuccessful attempts with Mel Gibson) to make the latest adventure with Max Rockatansky (now played by Tom Hardy). Miller names a few favorite moments from the Best Picture contender (those crazy pole-vaulting dudes, the film’s signature tree), but it’s the final product as a whole that he’s happiest with. “It’s when all the bits come together. It’s such a comprehensive medium. You can make movies for a thousand years and never really master it.”