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Happy Feet took four years, 23 million decisions and US$100 million to make, and it seems the effort was worth it, as a relieved George Miller tells Andrew L. Urban. It also seems likely that Feet will have legs … and endure.

In the four years it took to make Happy Feet, George Miller and his team calculated they had made 23 million decisions. That explains why he wears a black chef’s shirt with three red chillies decorating the front. Why? Well, it’s obvious: “I have to make thousands of decisions every day so the last thing I want to have to think about is what to wear … “ So while touring through South African wine country prior to filming, Miller came across this rather smart shirt – and bought eight of them so he can just reach into his cupboard and get a fresh one every day. “I’ll find something else for the next film,” he says with a smile.

And well might he smile: those three red chillies could never have made him as hot as he is now, with Happy Feet grossing the equivalent of its US$100 million production budget within its first two weeks on its US release. This is not the first George Miller film to be a hit, but he’s not one for hubris and he was prepared for failure as much as for success. “a long ago I determined that the films you make don’t define you too much …I’d still go on with what I want to do.”

But the size of the initial success was a surprise, he says, because “Happy Feet had no constituency, not like say Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Nor was there a precursor … so it was risky. Well, it did have March of the Penguins (2005 documentary about Emperor penguins) … but still, there was no reason for it to open so big.” And as it was the case with Mad Max, you can’t know which film will have a lasting impact and how.

Looking ahead, Miller says he finds his head is full with more stories than ever.

"driven by curiosity"

He says he is driven by curiosity: “My big curiosity is storytelling and what function it has in how we deal with each other… it’s also a curiosity about creativity, about talented people and what makes them different.” And while he doesn’t believe that films can change the world, “the cumulative effect of narrative helps our view of who we are and to reinterpret ourselves as we evolve.” In this context, he says “the most you can hope for is that your stories endure.”

The story of Happy Feet, while told with Emperor penguins, will probably be one to endure, because there is a darker, urgent theme of planetary survival, filtered through a hugely entertaining premise and a classic story pitch: an outsider’s struggle brings him self knowledge and a strength to make a difference. It’s a $100 million venture, and it’s an Australian production. All the penguins are digital creations but their voices come from flesh and blood talents such as Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski and Robin Williams. (Australian release, December 26, 2006).

George Miller’s own story is that of a nice Queensland born Greek boy who left his home town of Chinchilla, grew up to be a doctor – and became Australia’s most successful, respected and liked filmmaker. George Miliotis Balloyoulus – better known as Dr George Miller – runs the only continually active Australian film production company, Kennedy Miller, with a core staff of 15, expanding to well over 600 when in production on a major movie – such as Happy Feet.

Kennedy Miller has not only made mountains of money but has earned the world’s respect for its entire slate of productions, from the iconic early movies such as Mad Max, to the extraordinary mini series such as Cowra Breakout and the family charmer, Babe. (Miller has some key collaborators such as Doug Mitchell, a fellow producer at Kennedy Miller, and writer/producer Terry Hayes, who worked with Miller on several productions. But Miller is unquestionably the fountainhead.)

George Miller and his twin brother, John, had enrolled jointly at the New South Wales Medical School in the late 60s, and on graduation, George interned at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney. But his interest in the physiology of the human body was matched by an urge to make films. In 1970, John and George jointly produced and directed a one-minute short. Entered in a local competition, the film won first prize – a one month summer filmmaking workshop in Melbourne.

Here, under the then young and “ill equipped tutor” as Phillip Noyce refers to himself at the time, George demonstrated “a remarkable cinematic sense, evident from the first moment he picked up a camera. I taught him how to load a camera – and that’s the only thing I taught him,” says Noyce, who was himself a beginner and yet to go to film school a few years later. “He teamed up with Byron Kennedy and they made a silent 2:40 minute short on 16 mm that was a perfect primer for silent filmmaking. He showed a remarkable instinct for camera placement – it showed then that George has a freakish understanding of editing and how to use the camera to add characterisation.” (Byron Kennedy died in a helicopter accident in 1983.)

In the early 80s, Kennedy Miller made a handful of 10 hour mini series and Noyce – whose second feature, Newsfront (1978) had established him as a hot new filmmaker, was asked to direct two of them: The Dismissal (1983) and Cowra Breakout (1984). A few years later, Noyce directed Dead Calm (1989), starring Nicole Kidman, Miller’s first feature film for a major studio; Warner Bros. He says of Miller: “Relentless attention to detail … on Cowra Breakout we spent a full year rewriting the script. He has extraordinary enthusiasm, is utterly absorbed and extremely conscious of telling the right story – and of how it will tap into the audience.” He is often heard to say, “My ultimate contract is with the audience.”

"personable and has a doctor’s bedside manner"

His working style, is “collaborative in terms of getting the best out of people but extremely demanding; everything is processed through the Miller filter.” Noyce thinks Miller “is very personable and has a doctor’s bedside manner … to help you swallow the medicine!” he laughs.

Engaging rather than dictatorial seems to be Miller’s style; “He’s certainly driven, but in a positive way,” says Jason Ballantine, an editor and visual effects supervisor, who has worked with Miller on both Babe films, 100 Years of Cinema and Happy Feet. “He’s the one guy in the entire industry, here and internationally, that I truly admire. He’s an amazing, meticulous filmmaker and an absolute gentleman. He will never be rushed and he never loses his cool.”

An all round fan, Ballantine and his wife Bronwyn invited Miller and Miller’s partner of some years, Margaret Sixel, for dinner recently, “because it’s always a thrill to be in his company.” Miller, who has a teenage daughter from his first marriage, also has two young children with Margaret. They first worked together in 1991, when Margaret was dialogue editor on the Kennedy Miller feature, Flirting, and have a close and playful relationship, balancing work and family; Margaret edited Happy Feet and also worked on Babe; Pig In The City.

Happy Feet is financed by Village Roadshow, with Warner Bros distributing in the US (and through Roadshow in Australia). But the company whose digital prowess has helped Miller make Australia’s most ambitious digitally created feature film is Sydney based Animal Logic. Managing director Zareh Nalbandian worked closely with Miller over the four year production period and, as with the two Babe films on which they worked, Miller proved a generous mentor to the people around him.

Nalbandian describes him as “a warm, cerebral person, analytical, with a great appetite for knowledge … a great brain; of course he’s a live action director so he brings that paradigm to the digital world and has disdain for anyone who says ‘it can’t be done’.” What’s more, he loves tap dancing – even had lessons himself once, which might explain why the hero penguin in Happy Feet is a fantastic tap dancer.

Miller writes, directs and produces in a mix determined by the project and his sense of what’s best for the film. “You have to have the confidence to go forward, but also to be aware that hubris brings you down every time.”

He rarely has time for industry functions, except the AFI Awards, of which he is patron, but he supports the industry in various ways, including the annual Byron Kennedy Award, presented with the AFI Awards, for Outstanding Creative Enterprise in the film industry, worth $10,000 in cash (provided by Kennedy Miller, Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Greater Union, Cinemedia and Steven Spielberg.) He is also a patron of the Sydney Film Festival.

Working for him is “enjoyably challenging” says one staff member. “It’s always moving at a rapid pace, towards something interesting.” Kennedy Miller is not an overly generous payer, but is loyal to its staff and re-hires whenever the work is there. On the other hand, anyone who ends up in the Kennedy Miller black book will never work in the KM ‘town’ again.

"science is a faster way to God than religion"

His curiosity is also the driver for his deeper sense about the universe; when asked about his spirituality (appropriately enough while he’s 10,000 metres closer to the heavens), he pauses for a moment and quotes Australian astro-biologist Paul Davies; ‘science is a faster way to God than religion.’ For Miller the universe is “astonishing … it’s even more spectacular than any religion. I have a tremendous sense of wonder, but I’m not formally religious.”

As to a self-description, he declines, but recalls that “someone in Hollywood once said to me, ‘George, you’re more interested in wisdom than in power,’” and he’ll take that as a compliment.

Published December 26, 2006

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George Miller



Happy Feet Australian release, December 26, 2006

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