TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest today, Australian filmmaker George Miller, directed one of the movies nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Here's a typical scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD")
GROSS: The film is "Mad Max: Fury Road." And calling it a nonstop action film probably understates the case. Richard Brody of The New Yorker said it brings an eyeball-scorching, cornea-melting, socket-shattering intensity. It's earned 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Director. "Fury Road" revives the "Mad Max" series, directed by Miller in the '70s and '80s, all starring Mel Gibson. The new film stars Tom Hardy as Max, along with Charlize Theron as Furioso, this film's road warrior. Miller is known for incredibly realistic action sequences, but his work has a softer side, too. He wrote and produced the film "Babe" about a pig who becomes a master sheepherder. Miller also wrote and directed the sequel, "Babe: Pig In The City," and the animated films "Happy Feet" and "Happy Feet Two." At age 70, Miller has just been named jury president of this year's Cannes Film Festival. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. "Mad Max: Fury Road" was shot in Namibia and is set in a post-apocalyptic desert world, where Charlize Theron's character takes to the road in a massive Mack truck-like vehicle called a War Rig to escape an evil warlord named Immortan Joe. She is also liberating Joe's five young wives. They meet up with Max and are chased through the desert by an armada of vehicles with bizarre armor and weapons. Here is Tom Hardy's opening voiceover from "Mad Max: Fury Road."
(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: (As character) It's the oil, stupid.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oil wars.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) We are killing for gasoline.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Gasoline.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) The world is actually running on water.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) 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 #5: (As character) The terminal freak-out point.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Mankind has gone rogue.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Terrorizing itself.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) There are no nuclear scurmmage (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) The Earth is south.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As character) Our bones are poisoned.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: (As character)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.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: 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, 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 capes flying around or space vehicles and so on. So it wouldn't make a lot of sense to shoot it all digitally - or a large part of it - because it would lose a lot of authenticity. And it's very, very difficult. Despite the amazing advances in 15 to 20 years of the digital world in filmmaking, it's still very difficult to make something feel really authentic. So we chose to do it old-school. And that means going out to a remote location with endless deserts 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 were - 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 this war rig inches off the ground...
DAVIES: While it's moving, right?
MILLER: While it's moving. 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. And that's...
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 there's 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 are also able to get a consistency in the sky and in the shadows in the landscape. So even though most of it is real-world, virtually every shot has C.G. 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.
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. So we can now erase take one, two and three and simply have the skid marks of take four.
DAVIES: There's a series of wild and violent chases that happen in this movie, and you see one one of the weapons that is used by these sort of dune buggy-like vehicles that are chasing this big truck is, 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 pole cats, 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. Now, I had seen some street performers with fixed poles in Australia, and in period costumes, kind of swaying in the breeze. I thought - almost like those poles that pole vaulters had, and I thought, now, 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 on 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 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 and he actually said, hey, you do know I'm afraid of heights? And I said, oh, gosh, 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 one, but in some respects the hero of this is a woman, played by Charlize Theron. 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, five wives escaping a tyrannical warlord. And they needed - 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 it - she needed to be convincing as a warrior and not just someone masquerading as a warrior. So Charlize actually was the only actor I'd thought about for this role. She's somebody who's got a lot of stature physically and in her spirit, and she's able to - she's pretty uncompromising. She shaved her hair - she said Furiosa would not worry about hair in the heat and the dust - and it required quite a bit of immersion from the actors. And Charlize was 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 sort of wandering the wasteland looking for some sense of meaning in a very stark world, and he gets caught up in this 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 take you along in the story, and that sort of 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 were 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 called them the half-life war boys, who were basically the cannon fodder for the tyrant who sits on top of the dominance hierarchy - so for the war boys, we had military advisors 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 the 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 who's leading them.
MILLER: Yes. She's a road warrior in the services of the Immortan Joe, who's this despot. And so we needed somebody, and as it happened, I was listening to the radio 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 - and she just happened to be 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 very, very - in the middle of a very busy schedule. And she came down and she ran wonderful workshops. 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 - just a sense that this story is one that has been fairly constant throughout history, meaning that women and indeed other human beings have been basically the goods and chattels of the powerful. I mean, there's 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's new film, "Mad Max: Fury Road," is nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best picture. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with director George Miller. He directed the "Mad Max" films. The latest, "Mad Max: Fury Road," is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.
Well, George Miller, you began your career in a way so many Hollywood folks do - by going to medical school (laughter). This is interesting. You grew up in a, I guess, a rural area of Australia, right, and went to medical school?
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 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 are of course are about mayhem on the highways and so, in great respect.
MILLER: The very - 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. I saw - this in the sense where cinemas forged. I became very, very interested in the action movie. And those two things sort of drove me to, 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 if 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. 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.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with George Miller, who wrote and directed all four "Mad Max" films. The latest, "Fury Road," has 10 Oscar nominations including best director and best picture. After a break, they'll talk more about "Mad Max" and about Miller's film, "Babe." I'm Terry Gross, and this FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with George Miller who directed all four "Mad Max" movies. The latest in his post-apocalyptic series "Mad Max: Fury Road" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director. The film stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. The three previous "Mad Max" films starred Mel Gibson. George Miller also wrote the animated film "Babe" and directed the sequel, "Babe: A Pig In The City," as well as the animated films "Happy Feet" and its sequel "Happy Feet 2."
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 FILM, "MAD MAX")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They've broken his wife.
JOANNE SAMUEL: (As Jessie, screaming).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They've killed his best friend.
ROGER WARD: (As Fifi) People don't believe in heroes anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They've pushed him too far.
WARD: (As Fifi) We're going to give them back their heroes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mad Max, the last law in a world gone out of control...
(CAR SCREECHING AND CRASHING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...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.
(CAR SCREECHING AND CRASHING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "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 was 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... 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. But - so when I listen to that, I thought - oh, that's the classic kind of - you know, first of all, AIP, Samuel Z. Arkoff exploitation movie-making, which it was. But also when I hear some of the characters - indeed, Mel Gibson who was American - he was born in America -was dubbed. And there's an actor in it who plays the Immortan Joe in this movie. Hugh Keays-Byrne was from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he ended up in Australia after touring a show. And when the film was released in Britain, they played the dubbed version, and all his friends from the Royal Shakespeare Company turned up to hear him speaking with a Southern American drawl.
MILLER: It was quite - so all that comes back to me when I hear that.
DAVIES: So when we - if you get the DVD of that in the United States, you're not hearing it the way it was originally spoken by the Australian actors, right?
MILLER: Well, no. As far as I know, there was a quite - enough uproar about it that eventually the original version was released at some point...
MILLER: ...On DVD. But I'm not too sure what exists.
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, a kind of a Western hero, fighting bad guys out on the highways. But the bad guys are, like, these really creepy, sadistic guys. They're just utterly ruthless and cruel. Where did those characters come from? Were there people like that on the highways (laughter) in Australia?
MILLER: No, no. Unfortunately - I mean, they 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 on busy streets and have other vehicles and pay location fees for expensive buildings and so on. So the solution was, was to go to the backstreets, the empty backstreets and go to derelict building 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 just simply put the caption in front of it a few 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, suddenly aware that we had unwittingly tapped into a kind of archetype. The first film did extremely well all around the real 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: When you cast Mel Gibson in the original back "Mad Max," he was a relatively unknown actor, right? What did you see in him for - that was right for that role?
MILLER: Well, he was a - he was just out of the National Drama School. He and Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis were all in the same class. And they're very, very traditional theater education, basically, because there wasn't really much TV, and certainly, there weren't many movies being made at all. And he was 21 when he did - made the first "Mad Max." And all I know is when we were casting, there was something about him when he walked through the door, that when I saw him perform in the video tests, there was something about it that was very, very convincing. And I really didn't know much about acting, but I was very interested to see what this actor would do next.
DAVIES: We're speaking with George Miller. His new film, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with film director George Miller. He made the "Mad Max" movies. The latest, "Mad Max: Fury Road," is nominated for best picture.
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: (As sheepdog puppy) That looks stupid, Mom.
MIRIAM MARGOLYES: (As Fly, the sheepdog) Not as stupid as sheep, mind, you, but pigs are definitely stupid.
CHRISTINE CAVANAUGH: (As Babe, the pig) Excuse me? No, we're not.
MARGOLYES: (As Fly, the sheepdog) Good heavens. Who are you?
CAVANAUGH: (As Babe, the pig) I'm a large white.
MARGOLYES: (As Fly, the sheepdog) Yes, that's your breed, dear. What's your name?
CAVANAUGH: (As Babe, the pig) I don't know.
MARGOLYES: (As Fly, the sheepdog) Well, what'd your mother call you to tell you apart from your brothers and sisters?
CAVANAUGH: (As Babe, the pig) Our mom called us all the same.
MARGOLYES: (As Fly, the sheepdog) And what was that, dear?
CAVANAUGH: (As Babe, the pig) She called us all Babe.
MICHAEL EDWARD-STEVENS: (As the horse) Perhaps we shouldn't talk too much about family.
CAVANAUGH: (As Babe, the pig) 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 had the "Mad Max" films, which the villains are these just ruthless, cruel, sadistic people. And then we have "Babe" and then "Babe" two, "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, (laughter)?
MILLER: Well, there is. It's (laughter). 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.
MILLER: But there is a logic. The - 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, obviously, it 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 can do cell 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 - this was still an 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: You know what, I read that when you were discussing the success of that film, you said that you can never tell why a film works until 10 years later. Do you still think that - you get more of a sense?
MILLER: Yes. I think you make a film. You put - if you do it properly, you're putting all of yourself into it - everything you know and whatever wisdoms and skills you might've accumulated along the way. But you don't really know how it's going to impact. And it usually takes time. First of all, people write about it in reviews and there tends to be a consensus of what works and what doesn't over time. And then people somehow - to some extent, a film other impinges in some way on a culture or it doesn't. And after a while, the audience starts to tell you what your film is. I think that's accelerating in some way. It happened very, very quickly on "Fury Road." I mean, on the surface, it's an action movie, but there's a lot of stuff that people are picking up along the way. And this film came out almost a year ago, and because it was - the reviews tended to be very full-hearted. And so people wrote incisively about the film and talked incisively about the film. So that's gone a little bit more quickly. But I don't know. It'll be a few years before I or anyone else will have any idea as to whether the film really stuck, as it were, and, you know, I'm quite taken aback when people stop me now and then and show me their tattoos that they have of characters from particularly the "Mad Max" movies and particularly from "Fury Road." Of course I'm thinking, oh, tattoos are permanent and I hope the film sort of endures in some way so that they don't have to get them removed so painfully later on.
DAVIES: (Laughter). Yeah, I've read that you see people with tattoos from characters from this film. What's your reaction when you see that?
MILLER: I'm very...
DAVIES: Permanently marked their body, they're so moved by your film.
MILLER: It's an astonishing thing to see because it's something that you've played around with in your mind and then you made some representation of that, and then people are responding to it in a way that you never expected. You know, I was in Japan, and I was being interviewed much like this by a Japanese radio interviewer and he talked about "Fury Road" in a way that I thought, wow, you know, he got down deep into the subtext and all its resonances and so on about, you know, the contemporary world and the past and the history and so on. And I said, did you get all that from one screening? And he said no, no, I walked out and then I asked to see the movie again a second time, almost immediately. And I said, wow, gee, that's very - you know, very impressive. And then he took me aside and he opened up his shirt, and on his chest he had tattoo - the logo of the Immortan. He brands everybody with his logo.
DAVIES: The cruel war lord, yeah. Yeah.
MILLER: Yeah, the cruel war lord, the Immortan Joe. And I thought, boy, I was - that was pretty humbling thing to see. And it meant enough to him to do that. And, you know, often - I realized at some point that all stories should have a little health warning - you know, hazardous material. There is a responsibility to storytelling and particularly the darker stories, you know, if a story does have some impact in a culture.
DAVIES: Well, George Miller, thanks so much for speaking with us.
MILLER: Thank you.
GROSS: George Miller directed the four "Mad Max" movies including the latest, "Fury Road," which is nominated for 10 Oscars including best picture and director. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a short break, rock historian Ed Ward will profile band leader Dan Hicks. He died Saturday at the age of 74. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Dan Hicks, who died of liver cancer Saturday. He was 74. He was a singer-songwriter and leader of the band Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, which he formed in the late 1960s in San Francisco. His music, an acoustic mix of folk, jazz and swing with modern, quirky lyrics, was out of step with the rock bands of the time. But our rock historian Ed Ward says Hicks was so far behind the times, he was ahead of them. We're going to listen back to a piece Ed recorded about Hicks in 2002, after the release of the album "The Most Of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks," which collected previously unreleased demos along with tracks from the band's first album.
ED WARD, BYLINE: By 1969, Dan Hicks was already a San Francisco-scene veteran. He'd been the drummer and, later, guitarist with the first of the psychedelic bands there, The Charlatans, who specialized in Wild West attire and electric folk rock but got passed over when the recording gold rush came to town. But Hicks had another vision, one that was to put him completely at odds with what America expected from the city of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW CAN I MISS YOU WHEN YOU WON'T GO AWAY?")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) I've talked to your mother, and I've talked to your dad. They say they've say tried, but it's all in vain. I've begged and I've pleaded. I've even got mad. Now we must face it. You give me a pain. How can I miss you when you won't go away? Keep telling you day after day. But you won't listen. You always stay and stay. How can I miss you when you won't go away? You're never in...
WARD: Quitting The Charlatans, he cast around the city for acoustic musicians. Instead of a lead guitar, he wanted a violin and recruited David LaFlamme for that job but lost him when LaFlamme started his own band, It's A Beautiful Day. Hicks wanted call and response with a couple of girl singers and found Tina Gancher and Sherry Snow. The band was delayed while their bassist, Jaime Leopold, did a few months for selling pot, but when he came back, he brought about his guitar-playing roommate, Jon Weber, and the Hot Licks were almost there. With a recording deadline looming, Hicks took his mother to a cocktail lounge for her birthday and heard Sid Page playing violin. That was it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD TIMEY BABY")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) Baby, you sure are looking good tonight. I sure do like your style, all the while. She's a bit old-timey, but that's all right with me. She wears a dress of velvet that hangs below her knees, her knees. She...
WARD: While his peers were delving deeper into electric blues and hard rock, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks were exploring swing, and their first album, "Original Recordings," baffled nearly everyone who heard it. Nonetheless, Epic Records called them back to do a second one produced by blues scholar Pete Welding. But it was never finished or released. Still, it had made an impression on some people, and in late 1970, Tommy LiPuma, who was a partner in a new record label called Blue Thumb, signed the latest edition of the Hot Licks to the label and set them up in the Troubadour, an LA nightclub, for five days and recorded them live.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAN HICKS: This is a little exercise in control, this next tune. You probably think it's easy being up here, singing and everything and playing. It's not. It's not easy. Thank you.
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing, unintelligible).
WARD: It was the right decision. In the couple of years since their debut, the Hot Licks, and fiddler Sid Page in particular, had gotten hotter. Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Maryann Price were far more accomplished vocalists than the previous girl singers had been, and Jon Weber was gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HICKS: This expresses our feeling, ladies and gentlemen. It's called, "I Feel Like Singing."
One, two - one, two, three, four.
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) There are people who live for the moment. The moment. The moment. The moment. And others who don't seem to get much enjoyment. Enjoyment. Enjoyment. Enjoyment. Some are always glad, others, always sad. But lately - lately - it seems that I've been somewhere in between. It's a - It's a funny feeling. Love is what I mean. Yes, I'm so in love. Can't tell down from up above. Down, down, down from up above. I feel like singing. I feel like singing...
WARD: The resulting album, "Where's The Money?", flopped, rising only as high as 195 on the hot 200. Undeterred, LiPuma put the band in the studio and tried again, this time with a hot lead acoustic guitarist for Page to interact with - John Curtin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' ONE AND ONLY")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) Some folks think it's cool to have some kind of lover. He don't believe it's true 'cause he just found another. And when they see him, they might see him on the street. He walks with rhythm so he's got some kind of beat. He clicks his heels a bit. His suit's a perfect fit. He knocks 'em out. Though he looks alone - somebody - somebody wants him on the phone. Shout. He won't shout. He's walking one and only, and they're calling him by name. He won't be leaving town till he can count some fame.
WARD: "Striking It Rich," the second album, was a masterpiece. Maryann Price's sardonic reading of Johnny Mercer's "I'm An Old Cowhand" became a number so identified with her that she still performs it today. And they re-recorded a couple of numbers from their early days, "Canned Music" and "I Scare Myself," and brought them to perfection, particularly the latter tune where Sid Page spent two minutes and 47 seconds fiddling himself into history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNED MUSIC")
SID PAGE: (Playing fiddle).
WARD: The second Blue Thumb album did no better than the first, but the band toured and they went in for a third try. This time, it showed signs of life, rising to no. 67 the charts. As always, there was life in the grooves, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG COME A VIPER")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) I'm standing on a corner with my feet in my shoes racking my brain. I've paid my dues. My jug is empty of my number one booze. 'Long comes a viper and I blow my blues. I got the elation, hesitation, dissipation, coagulation, relation, angzation, emancipation, propagation, moppin, soppin', talk about your coppin' blues. It's never too late to be up-to-date. You can get it now, but you have to wait. Along come a chick, come a little dolly. She's out walking a big fat collie. Golly, Miss Molly says, you're looking mighty jolly. There ain't nothing left and I'm really mighty solly. I got the outer space, what a race, dropped an ace in my face, a goose chase, you want a taste, match it, scratch it, stretch it, catch it blues.
WARD: Maybe it was a joke calling it "Last Train To Hicksville: The Home Of Happy Feet," but that's what it turned out to be. One day, in 1973, Dan just broke up the band, and that was that. One of America's best bands disappeared before most people had had a chance to hear them. He finally got another album out in 2000, with guest appearances by Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits among, and Sid back on the violin.
GROSS: Ed Ward recorded that profile of Dan Hicks in 2002. Hicks died Saturday of liver cancer. He was 74.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JOEL GREY: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: Tomorrow, my guest will be Joel Grey. He originated the role of the decadent MC in the 1960 Broadway production of "Cabaret" and co-starred in "Chicago" and "Wicked." He's written a new memoir about his career and about being gay and closeted.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREY: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: He fell in love with an actress, they raised two children and then divorced. Only recently did he publicly come out. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREY: (Singing in foreign language).
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.