Exclusive Interview: Happy Feet Two Director George Miller

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For sixteen years, director George Miller has been making films featuring talking animals that have thrilled the whole family by going beyond the kiddie fare some would usually expect. After two movies featuring a talking pig named Babe, he introduced the idea of dancing penguins in 2006’s Happy Feet, which became a global hit to the tune of $385 million.

Now, Mumbles the tap-dancing penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood) is back in Happy Feet Two, which has him dealing with a son that’s afraid to dance, as well as a moving glacier that threatens to permanently trap the Emperor Penguins along with his love Gloria (voiced by pop star P!nk, replacing the late Brittany Murphy). Robin Williams is back voicing the casanova Ramon and the penguin leader Lovelace, and new characters include Sven, a very odd “flying penguin” voiced by Hank Azaria, and a duo of journeymen krill, voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

The new story allowed Miller to explore the landscapes of Antarctica in another film that’s quite a visual achievement and an advancement in 3D animation that often makes you forget you’re watching animals on screen and believe they can talk and sing and dance in elaborate musical numbers.

ComingSoon.net met up with Miller last week to talk about the new movie as well as his plans to return to the “Mad Max” franchise with Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy in the role that made Mel Gibson famous.

ComingSoon.net: Obviously, you’ve had a number of successful sequels to “Babe” and with “Mad Max.” Was it very obvious while making the first movie that you had ideas for a sequel?
George Miller:
Yeah, exactly. It took four years to make the first one. Then you get to the other characters, they really sort of invaded your life and already as we get in, about two thirds of the way through I began to think of a sequel, just speculate what would happen with them. Also, as I was getting to see what the technology was able to do I thought, “Oh, we could do this. Oh, we could do this.” So, all of those things, even particularly because we rendered three scenes in stereo (i.e. 3D) in the first movie, but we didn’t have the bandwidth to get it done in time. I just saw how wonderful that immense landscape and all those creatures looked in it, so all of that led to the sequel.

CS: When you’re doing computer animation it’s always 3D anyway, and it’s just about outputting it in 3D, so was it harder doing a photo-realistic movie in 3D? Obviously, when you’re doing 2D you could fudge a lot of stuff to make it look okay which is harder to do in 3D.
Miller:
Exactly. Everything has to be three-dimensional including the right light rays and things like that, so we had to be more careful, but we had a very good stereo crew and they were very, very meticulous. You’ve seen the movie. It felt very smooth to you?

CS: Absolutely.
Miller:
So yeah, it takes a lot of careful thought in terms of just how much because it’s a reasonably cutty movie, so you gotta be quite careful, but it seems very creamy to me.

CS: A lot of people seem to still want 3D to jump out at your face and this movie really just pulls you in.
Miller:
Yeah, well, it’s a three-dimensional space beyond the edge of the screen. That’s a massive landscape, particularly when characters are flying and floating around in the water and swimming around in water and stuff, it just, yeah.

CS: Was it generally easier to start this one and get this going because you had already done a lot of the R&D and developed the characters?
Miller:
Yeah, but we got more ambitious on this film. So, on the first one, we stretched the technology to its bleeding edge, as they call it.

CS: That was in 2006, five years ago, so I imagine the technology has improved a lot.
Miller:
This time we did stretch. We did stretch it to its bleeding edge. There were some shots where the computer would take a week to render a frame and they almost gave up. (Laughs)

CS: You have some interesting new characters. You have Sven, the Hank Azaria character, and also these krill were almost like their own movie, their own concurrent storyline, which eventually merges. What did you want the Krill to bring to the story?
Miller:
Well, the first movie was a saga following the life of the main character from when he was born to when he was a young adult. This movie happens over about three or four days, so its epic nature had to be in scale. From a crew point of view, this is a very epic universe and so that was the main idea. Plus,all of these “Happy Feet” stories are based on the natural history of the creatures in Antarctica itself, so as I got to look at it more, the Krill are very interesting, the way they live in massive great swarms that they go and sort of float around on the great currents and basically provide the bottom of the food chain. It’s brilliant, brilliant stuff. I just found them really interesting, all looking the same.

CS: It was really funny when you finally see them interact with the penguins, you realize how small they really are. What about getting Brad and Matt to voice them, which is kind of a coup in itself?
Miller:
Yeah, I’m very big on actors working off each other, riffing off each other, so we needed two actors who knew each other and were friends. They just happened to have a few days that coincided in the same city and managed to get them in Los Angeles. We put them working with each other, and it went very, very quickly, very, very smooth. It’s great because you get so much more when actors work off each other. They basically did it because their kids knew “Happy Feet One” and it’s the only films they’re interested in doing. (chuckles)

CS: That’s one of the benefits of making family films, because most of these big actors do have kids, so eventually they want to do something which they can take them to see, which isn’t always the case with other movies.
Miller:
At one point Brad, who plays Will – Bill played by Matt is singing to him. Originally he said, “Will you shut up?” Brad said, “Please, please can I not say that line because my kids are going to tell me, ‘You keep on saying to me'”; Brad keeps on saying to his kids, “Don’t use those words.” He said, “If I say it in the movie, I’ll never live it down. Can we change that to ‘Will you keep quiet?'”

CS: I assume you had some sort of script but when you go into the recording studio with these guys – when you have Robin Williams, you can’t really hold him back from improvising I’d imagine.
Miller:
Oh no, you rehearse like as if you would do a little play. You work it out and you stay on the page. Then, once everyone gets the dynamics between the characters, what they’re feeling and who they are and all that sorta stuff, then you create the sort of boundary conditions within which they need to play. You just let them go, explore it, improvise and you just get much better material.

CS: I’m always fascinated by that because I assume these actors have no idea what is going to be happening and the scale of what’s going on around their characters.
Miller:
I’m very, very careful to tell them where we are in the scale of things, very, very careful. Even though they’re just on the mic, if someone has to yell at someone a long way away I say, “Look, they’re 20 yards away,” so you have to speak to them, or if you want something really intimate, we often–I remember we had Robin Williams and Sofia Vergara–he plays Ramon and she plays Carmen–in an intimate love scene, we put them on the same mic. So, physically if someone’s fallen on the floor or something like that or on the ground and has to speak, we record them on the floor, because otherwise it sounds very fake, yeah. Robin would be singing on the wall at one point when he put his head in the bucket and stuff, yeah.

CS: Did you or your animators or anyone actually go to Antarctica or go to any of these places? What do you use for a reference to really capture these places?
Miller:
On the first one, we sent a whole crew down to Antarctica. Our key designers and technical crew went down. One of the producers, Bill Miller, my brother, he went down. Then, we have a penguin expert called Dr. Penguin, one of the world’s leading authorities on the penguin. Well, he’s now on his 20th year down there. He goes down there every year. So, but all of our rigging, the people who rigged for the animation, they know the anatomy of a krill or an elephant seal or a penguin just really well. Because it’s based on nature, it kind of picks up on nature. We have to exaggerate our main characters because otherwise every character would look the same. It’s almost impossible to tell the movie like that. But by and large, everything is very close to their anatomy, not only that, the behavior of snow and wind and even the clouds in the sky is something that we follow very closely.

CS: As you watch the movie, you almost completely forget you’re watching animation.
Miller:
Oh, good, good.

CS: But it’s really different from seeing all these other animated movies where you have very stylized animals.
Miller:
Yeah, it comes from a different tradition.

CS: I also wanted to ask about the dancing because there were some big sequences in the first movie but even bigger ones here. What’s the most dancers you had at any point? You still did it on a stage, right?
Miller:
Yeah, we do it in the stage. We had I think it would’ve been the biggest motion capture stage in the world, but at any one time, you’d get a maximum of 15 dancers, so we would have 15 dancers.

CS: Then you just use the computers?
Miller:
Well, no, then they do it over and over and over again because you want enough variation, and you want them all trying different positions. Then, that’s all put together by crowds and simulations and they allow you to put them on the ice and move. So that’s a big effort. There’s a whole massive team of people to do that.

CS: Are you anxious to get back to live action after doing these two animated movies back to back?
Miller:
Yeah, I mean, yeah. The thing you have to prepare yourself with animation is that it’s also slow motion and there’s a big advantage to animation because you have a chance to hone your story because the characters and everything emerge as if from a mist. You see them in crude form and then eventually, it’s not until quite late, do you actually see them with the full glint in their eyes and feathered and so on.

CS: It’s not as immediate though?
Miller:
It’s not as immediate, but live action, of course, is just to have it all there and you know the feelings you’re getting from the performances or the events almost immediately is really great. So, yeah, I’m anxious to do it. I was meant to be shooting the fourth “Mad Max” again at the beginning of this year, and then there were unprecedented rains in the middle of Australia, and the wasteland is now literally a flower garden and the great salt lakes in the center are full of pelicans and fish.

CS: It’s kind of ironic to be making an animated movie that involves environmental stuff, then when you try to make a live action movie, the environment completely messes you up.
Miller:
(Laughs) Like, totally.

CS: You’ve been doing these anthropomorphic family movies for many years, so how hard is it getting back into that head with the gritty R-rated world of “Mad Max”? Especially since you haven’t made a “Mad Max” movie in over 25 years.
Miller:
No, because I’ve been working on that screenplay and preparing the film. We cast the film. We had cast it a year ago. We built 150 big vehicles for the story. The film is designed, so I was doing the two simultaneously. That’s kind of very useful because it allows your objectivity. You can sort of give your head a holiday from the detail of all that work that you do in the animation. You can go a little crazy and you have to keep a bit of a big picture to keep the scope of the story because you have to obsess about every little pupillery response, every little bit of eye dart, whether the tongue hits the top of the mouth at the right time on certain words, the plosives are right, that everything, gravity, all the things you need to sort of – every effect is right and so on. So, you can get caught very much in the detail. It’s very hard to see the larger picture, but if you’re working on the script – I wrote two other screenplays while I was doing “Happy Feet,” simply to get my head out of the space, stories I wanted to tell.

CS: You and Baz Luhrmann have probably done the most for the Australian film industry in terms of making movies there, so will you have to take the movie somewhere else to find locations?
Miller:
Well, it looks like we’re going to Namibia for that now. It hasn’t dried up. The water table is so full of water that it’s not drying up.

CS: Those problems may not be good for your movie, but it’s nice for Australia.
Miller:
(Laughs) It’s great for Australia. No, yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful, but it’s not good for the wasteland.

CS: Tom Hardy was brilliant casting, and you cast him right after “Bronson” or very close to that I guess. He hadn’t been booked on “The Dark Knight Rises” or anything, so how’d you come to him?
Miller:
Well, I just saw lots and lots of actors and tested them. Tom was there and he just got that thing, you know? There’s a certain quality of a really charismatic actor that, I don’t know, they remind me of some sort of big, wild cat. They look great and then they walk around or whatever, but you never know when they’re going to strike. You just don’t know what they’re going to do. We tested for a day. Well, it wasn’t like a test. It was just working, improvising and playing around. He was fantastic.

CS: Are you going to be able to keep some of the same cast that you’d already been putting together?
Miller:
Yeah, yeah, Charlize, Tom, Nicholas Hoult, quite a few others, yeah.

CS: I’m guessing you want to keep it a bit of a mystery, but I heard that this isn’t a sequel or a remake…
Miller:
No, it’s not. It’s not a sequel or a remake, no, but it’s a post-apocalyptic world. I mean, the big attraction of those films is that the human behavior is reduced to its very essence, to a very elemental stage. It’s almost like a medieval world set in the future. It’s very spare, given that it’s figures in the landscape, a little bit like “Happy Feet,” in that big, vast landscape with these figures interacting.

CS: Is it harder to do that kind of stuff 26 years later? When you did the other movies in the ’80s, you could see things going in that direction. Now it’s 26 years later and there are parts of that actually in the real world.
Miller:
(Laughs) Oh man, I try to be optimistic about the world, but I can see “Mad Max.” It’s remarkable how “Mad Max”–just too much of it–you see it in the real world. It’s kinda worrying really, yeah.

CS: You can’t have any iPods or anything in your version.
Miller:
There are iPhones, but they’re used for brick paving or something like that. (Laughs) They’re not used. They don’t work anymore. Computers don’t work anymore.

CS: Quickly before we wrap, I understand you were going to do “The Odyssey” with Brad at one point?
Miller:
There was something. We did talk about it. Warner came to do it, but I just didn’t have the time to get them the script, but it was a very interesting thing to do, but I just didn’t have time to get them the script.

Happy Feet Two opens nationwide in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX screens on Friday, November 18.

(Photo Credit: Flynet Pictures)