In this NFSA Presents: Inspired interview, Jenny Cooney talks to George Miller about ambition, Australian storytelling, starting out and how the industry has changed since the 1970s.
NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations from 2021 and 2022 that dive into the creativity, the inspiration and the success of Australian cinematic talent.
Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the series complements the NFSA’s exhibition, Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent and ambition.
Jenny: What is your first influential Australian cinema memory?
George: I can't remember whether I saw it in the cinema or on television, but it was the movie Jedda. I don't know if anyone remembers Jedda, but it was a Charles Chauvel movie. It was the first film shot in Technicolor in Australia, in the 50s.
It was the first Indigenous Australian story brought to the world and it was so vivid. I know the Australian landscape had been seen in a lot of movies in black-and-white, but that's the thing I most remember.
It’s contentious today because of the way it deals with the subject matter, which is, an Indigenous woman Jedda, who's brought into the white community and there's an attempt to have her assimilate. It's a tragic story, but Chauvel is such a great part of Australia’s film legacy.
Jenny: And it's so wonderful that the NFSA has all of that available for people who want to get more educated about the history of our cinema. What do you think the secret sauce is for Australian cinematic success?
George: I've thought a lot about this, and there's no simple answer to any of these things, but I would say there are 2 things. The first goes back to a kind of relaxed discipline that Australians have. I think it's still part of the culture that we're non-hierarchical, at least not as hierarchical as some other cultures.
So, working in creative industries tends to be very egalitarian. I've noticed it particularly with Australian film crews. They’re incredibly disciplined but at the same time, it's very relaxed, and it's a reason why actors all around the world have loved Australian cinematographers, for instance, because the set is without a lot of tension. But that's not to say it's in any way loose. In fact, it's quite the opposite. To do something well, you have to be relaxed, and that goes deep in our culture.
The other thing I would say is that Australia being a relatively small population, you're allowed to try many things, so you can explore not just one discipline; you can act, you can write, you can do a multiplicity of things. And that's always going to be very useful. You can't specialise, you have to be a generalist, and you're more likely to do that in Australia than anywhere else.
Jenny: What a great answer. I hadn't thought about some of that. So when you reflect on your career, what does ambition mean to you?
George: Ambition is very tricky. I would say that I'm ambitious about process, not about results. You can't predict results. All you can do is the job as best as possible. In any industry, let alone something like making movies and television, you have to be deeply curious about every aspect of the process and you have to be hungry to learn. And most importantly, to continue learning.
I suppose you could say that about life, but I'd say my biggest ambition is to understand how to tell stories with moving image as well as possible. I know you can be doing it for a thousand years and never really fully understand it, but at least you've got to try.
Jenny: Can you tell us a bit about when you started and if you had any help from Australians that were ahead of you?
George: There were filmmakers' cooperatives [when I started], with people who really wanted to make films. The filmmakers' cooperatives that started in Melbourne came up to Sydney. A lot of the filmmakers who started to make features made their first shorts there. They would be shown there in dingy places in Darlinghurst or in Calton and that's where you'd meet like-minded people, and talk to them and share ideas. And sometimes work on each other's films.
A very significant figure was Ken Hall, again a filmmaking pioneer. And I remember, he was getting into his 80s and 90s, and whenever an Australian in that period would make a film, he’d write them a letter, just an encouraging letter.
Hall made silent movies – he made Australia's first sound movie, On Our Selection. The first time that Australians heard the Australian bush in the cinema, he made that happen. He was very influential just behind the scenes, encouraging filmmakers. And I was lucky enough to interview him later.
Jenny: And when you were coming up in your career, going to Hollywood wasn’t even really a thing for filmmakers. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your advice to Australian storytellers who are dreaming of making it in Hollywood and what you'd say to them now?
George: Well, now I would say that Hollywood is the whole world, a film doesn't have to be based in Hollywood. I honestly believe that. I mean, we've just been making … the 2 films I'm working on at the moment, because of COVID, basically haven’t left Australia. Casting can be done over video. So Hollywood is everywhere. If you look at where most big movies are made now, they're not necessarily made in Hollywood.
So that's the first thing. And the second thing is, I remember I grew up in a time when people would say, ‘it's not what you know, it’s who you know’. Well, I think that has reversed. I think what you know is much more important than who you know, because if you know something and you're rigorous about it and you have skills in whatever field that you're talking about, you’ll be bringing something unique.
I get asked that question a lot, and it’s about learning as much as you can, put it into action in some way and offer it out there. And the world will pretty soon tell you whether it’s got any worth or not.
It's a very egalitarian world. Now you could make a short film from the middle of the bush and if people find it and love it, it doesn't matter where you were.
That's exactly right.
Interview transcript edited for length and clarity.