George Miller on 'Happy Feet 2,' animation and 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Director George Miller has made a career of depicting extreme worlds, from the frigid ice floes of Antarctica in his animated “Happy Feet” musicals to the dusty Australian deserts in the dystopian “Mad Max” series he originated in 1979.
“Happy Feet Two,” which is now playing in theaters, revisits the community of dancing penguins from Miller’s 2006 Academy Award-winning film. Now tap-dance king Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a father, and his tiny son, Erik (Ava Acres), is afraid to dance. The South Pole-set story also includes a mysterious flying guru named Sven (Hank Azaria), a pair of intrepid krill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) and some surprisingly mellifluous elephant seals.
Miller recently spoke with 24 Frames' Rebecca Keegan about the evolution of animation, how he chose songs for sea mammals and his plans for the “Mad Max sequel,” “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Rebecca Keegan: Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinksi, why do you think we’re seeing more live-action directors like yourself working in animation?
George Miller: So much of a movie like “Lord of the Rings” or “Transformers” is already animation, using the the same techniques we used for “Happy Feet.” There’s not just a convergence with live-action movies, but with gaming too. On “Happy Feet 2,” for instance, we used quite a few people from L.A. Noire.
RK: Do you find the animated filmmaking process very different?
GM: I’ve always loved animation. My favorite movie is “Pinocchio.” But animation is ultra slow-motion, it’s like glacial filmmaking. You don’t get the full performance until very late. At first the voice is the most interesting thing and then the animator has to figure out how to bring life to that performance. Then you see the character covered in feathers with the right glint in their eye.
RK: Music is a key part of the “Happy Feet” films. How did you choose your songs for this one?
GM: Music came from everywhere. Our composer John Powell is classically trained and he played in a Motown tribute band in the U.K. When he came on the film he said, 'The thing you’ve got to know about me is, I’m a musical slut.' Our choreographer Wayne Robson wrote some of the early songs that would be good to dance to. Pink wrote a song for the middle of the movie -- we needed somewhere where the mother has to calm the son. Once when we were recording the dialogue, Hank Azaria suggested “Under Pressure.” I didn’t really know the song, so we YouTubed it right there in the recording session. He said, “I think you’ll feel like it’s written precisely for the movie” and it’s perfect.
I knew there was a scene when little Erik -– Mumble’s son -- would need to express indignity and outrage, but it was a spoken scene. Then I heard the Puccini aria on a plane and I thought, 'Ah, it’s a perfect dramatic structure, someone just utterly expressing themselves in almost a volcanic way.' I thought it was much better done with such an operatic flourish rather than someone trying to speak those words.
RK: What’s the status of “Mad Max: Fury Road?”
GM: We were gearing up to shoot at the beginning of the year, but there’s been unprecedented rains in the desert in Australia. It’s wonderful, except not for “Mad Max”... So next year we’re going to Namibia instead.
RK: It’s been more than 30 years since you directed the first “Mad Max” movie. Why return to the franchise?
GM: "Mad Max" is humankind in that very elemental arena, almost back to medieval times. It becomes very powerfully metaphorical so that’s the attraction. It’s very clear to tell a story in that very spare world. It’s almost anthropological for me. I think that’s why we tell stories -- how power is distributed, how resources are distributed, how people struggle with the difference between individuality and community -- stories have the function of providing cohesive signals about who we are within the huge mosaic of events happening around us. Clearly narrative is really important to us. We’re hard-wired for it.
RK: Before you directed “Mad Max,” you were an emergency room doctor, making short films on weekends. That’s an unlikely career trajectory.
GM: To direct you have to have a deep sense of inquiry of human beings at every level, some acute observation of humanity to work with an actor. To be a good doctor you have to have those sort of things. But I have a twin brother who’s a doctor, and there is a way in which it’s very different. To be a good doctor, your world view becomes very convergent, you know more and more about less and less, whereas as a filmmaker, you’re a jack of all trades.
— Rebecca Keegan
Photo: George Miller. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times