‘Always Looking for the Allegory’

The director of Mad Max tells Kyle Pope how to make climate fear compelling

Licensed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

George Miller, the Australian film director, looked out of his office window. Smoke from wildfires obscured his view of Sydney Harbor, bringing ash and soot from miles away. Parts of the horizon glowed red. A stench descended on the city.

That was the scene when he spoke to me by phone in December, but it could have been right out of Mad Max, his dystopian franchise, which, decades ago, helped transform the climate crisis into a Hollywood terror. Miller, seventy-five, has made four Mad Max movies, including Mad Max: Fury Road, the most recent installment, released in 2015 and nominated for ten Academy Awards. The movie is a straight-up car-chase thriller, albeit ingeniously imagined and shot. What makes it memorable is the context: in the kingdom of Fury Road, water has become so scarce that it is the primary source of power. The setting is as scorched as the Australian outback, and superstorms, driven by dramatic climate change, are as much a part of the plot as Furiosa, the heroine of the movie, played by Charlize Theron.

Miller worked as a physician before becoming a director and has since taken on a role, almost by accident, as an evangelist for science and the climate story. In addition to Mad Max, he directed Happy Feet (2006), an Oscar winner about a group of dancing penguins whose habitat is threatened by a warming planet. For Miller, the story is his guide; he never sets out to make a climate movie. He wants the worlds he creates to draw attention to themselves. But what a journalist can see—and envy, and strive to equal—is his deep engagement with the natural world, from which compelling narratives emerge. In this conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Miller talks about how he thinks of storytelling and what we might learn from Mad Max.

Kyle PopeWhat does the air look like in Sydney?

George MillerWe’ve had these severe bushfires. And because of the weather conditions, I guess, it’s blowing the smoke from inland across to the coast. To look up every day and not be able to see the boats and the ferries—and to see that red sun almost every day—it’s killing people. I mean, the number of times, just casually, I’ve heard the word apocalyptic. It really gets to people.

Life imitates art: A photograph of the Australian wildfires resembles a scene out of ‘Mad Max,’ above. Peter Parks / AFP via Getty Images

Pope How much of your mental space do you devote to worrying about what’s going on with the climate? I know some people who cannot think of anything else. But are you able to compartmentalize it?

Miller You do, but it’s almost impossible to ignore. It’s astonishing how much it’s in the conversation, you know, with family and friends. It’s really interesting. Until something affects everybody, people seem to be able to brush these issues under the carpet. Now, somehow, everyone’s politicized. In rural Australia, there’s not only fires, but there’s severe drought. And the rivers, the great inland river system, which basically greens most of the Australian desert—they are drying up, and you see what they call “fish kills” in which, it seems, millions of fish wash up dead, for complex reasons. There’s almost a biblical pestilence about things.

Pope That image, the biblical pestilence, is so prevalent in the last Mad Max movie. It’s the dominant through line, which is why I wanted to have this conversation. And obviously, you tackled this issue in Happy Feet in a whole different way. When did you decide, or how did you decide, that climate would become a central part of your storytelling?

MillerIt arises organically. When you tell a story—and this would apply to Happy Feet or Fury Road—you’re starting with essential elements that you put into play. With Happy Feet, for instance, I saw that documentary—Life in the Freezer—that the BBC had done. It was the first time that cameras went into the uncharted winter and filmed the behavior of the emperor penguins. The cameras could withstand the intense cold, and I saw the behavior of these penguins in Antarctica, which made some sort of sense as to who we are as humans. They had to share warmth, and this warmth was a valuable commodity. Gradually through the long winter months, they huddle. Masses of penguins do this strange circular turn, which allows those on the outside to eventually end up in the center. It’s a sharing of the resource of warmth until they lose their body weight. They incubate the eggs and wait for the return of the female, from out at sea, who is basically bulking up and feeding and gathering this milk that she’s going to take to the young. It was a great observation from nature.

You’re always looking for the allegory, and that was a great one to be had. Even an allegory has to be rooted in something essentially true to who we are as humankind. That’s why we tell these stories. And of course, environment became the central issue. The attraction to making these stories, for me, is that they are allegorical. In a sense, even though the Mad Max movies are set in the future, it all goes back to the past—and ultimately, it’s about who we are today.

Fury Road had a long gestation. We started just at the turn of the millennium, and for one reason or another it fell away. Have you seen the movie?

Pope Multiple times.

Miller You remember Immortan Joe, who sits on top of the dominant hierarchy, controlling resources? Now, I think the thing that pleases me most about the film, or the way the film’s been received, is that the subtext is read. As I like to say, there’s a lot of iceberg under the top that people are picking up. And the exercise was to see whether or not, in a very linear chase film, to see how much people could pick up in passing. The strategy was to root everything as much as possible in reality, so that you’re sort of reflecting back what’s in the zeitgeist. That’s the basic interplay between the storyteller and what they see around them.

Here’s the point: Immortan Joe, way back at the turn of 2000, was basically distributing produce to the people—in very, very small doses, just enough to keep them interested in sticking around. He had potatoes, which he dropped down in baskets, and, because at that time he was covered in blue powder, he would rub one particular potato in blue powder. And whoever got the blue potato would be able to go to the top of the Citadel. It was a kind of a lottery which gave everybody hope. I thought that was a really good idea. But looking back, we didn’t do it because it was too complicated.

I had put aside Mad Max to do Happy Feet. We were in India. I don’t know if you know the Lake Palace in Udaipur. It’s beautiful; there’s a great palace, right in the center of the lake. And the lake was completely dry, for the first time in a long, long time. There were elephants wandering around the bottom of the lake and kids were playing soccer. Now, I remember saying to the person who was with us, “Gee, that’s really bad.” For the first time, he mentioned the term water wars. And it made so much sense.

We come back to Sydney, Australia, and there’s no blood spilled over it, but there certainly are wars over the water—these great central rivers, which are drying up. And everyone’s trying to siphon up the water as it goes down towards the sea. There’s a lot of corruption; each state is fighting. I’m not sure if these sorts of things are happening in America, but I hazard a guess that they would be.

Pope So was that a sort of turning point in Mad Max—to replace potatoes with water?

Miller Well, it certainly made it more authentic and truer to the times. I won’t say that it was a turning point, but that was a situation where I thought a good idea was replaced by a metaphor much more potent.

PopeFor me, the movie was totally about the water pipe and this desperate fight for resources. So the background of the film became sort of foreground.

MillerI think what you’ve just described is the function of story. An audience is invited in to an experience, but the reading of it is up to the audience, according to their own worldview. There’s a really great quote from Freddie Mercury when someone came to him and said, “I think I understand what ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is about,” and the person proceeded to sort of explain that view. And Freddie Mercury said, “If you see a deer, it’s there.” And I think that, to me, is really the function of story.

I’m not saying that if you throw stuff out there, people randomly pick up on it. It has to be coherent. It has to hold to its internal logic. It has to be as well orchestrated as possible. And for the storyteller, there have got to be premises and themes and ideas and explorations.

PopeSo let me ask you what this means for journalism. I’ve been frustrated at journalism’s inability, broadly, to convey the climate story in a way that resonates with people. We both live in countries where there’s a significant part of the media that continues to propagate this notion that this isn’t a big thing. And I think there’s been a failure of storytelling—in journalism—to capture this. We don’t have, as journalists, the ability to create fictional stories. How do you think journalists could think of this climate story in a way that would resonate and connect more with their audiences? 

Miller Each story is part of some larger mosaic. So we have the broad narrative that you can distill out of many stories. Sometimes, one story can have a lot of impact, but I think it’s the general consensus of stories. Now, I think what’s happened is that the counter-story, the denialists, have a much easier story to tell, because it’s essentially a destructive story. And one thing’s for sure throughout human history: it’s much, much easier to destroy something than to create it.

Climate modeling is highly sophisticated and becoming more so as time goes on, principally through computing power. This is what drives me nuts about the likes of the Murdoch press and all the climate-denying politicians and clergy, and everybody else who we might want to include—is that they avail themselves of the benefits of scientific modeling and the accuracy of it when it suits them, but they completely cherry-pick it.

There’s that balance—that the countervailing voice is as legitimate as the scientific voice. And you only need a few of those stories to discredit the very strong evidence of science. It’s so reminiscent of the smoking-tobacco argument. It’s exactly the same denial. Tobacco companies were saying “It’s nonsense.” The politicians were beholden to them. This is a very similar thing. The only problem is, the organism we’re talking about is a finite ecosphere.

Pope That seems to me the difference in where we are now on this subject. We’re talking about the earth, and we’re dealing with a situation that’s irreversible. I’m intrigued by people’s adaptability. People move out of immediate harm’s way, but not far enough to really keep them out of eventual harm.

MillerEssentially, that’s our evolution. I think that’s part of how we survive: the ability to adapt is part of who we are. The problem is when we adapt in ways that ultimately are dysfunctional. Do you sense that the people around you and the world are becoming more pessimistic?

Pope There’s a bit of nihilism that’s creeping in. It’s acceptance.

Miller A sense that we can’t do anything?

Pope We can’t do anything about it. I mean, it’s very Mad Max. Everybody’s out for their own personal gain.

Historically, it’s been the job of journalists to shed light on the reality of society’s problems and make the public see. During the Vietnam War, for example, there were journalists who helped chronicle the lies, and news organizations decided: “This is a moral wrong, and we need to tell a story in a way that works.” I think the same moral argument is needed on the climate story. Journalists aren’t incapable of taking that initiative, but, generally speaking, they just haven’t decided that this is a story that requires that.

Miller The irony is, there’s not going to be any choice. Two things come to mind. The two great influences of change in the Vietnam War were—apart from the morality of the war and the confusion in that war—were Nixon and the draft. The draft politicized everybody—everyone who had an eligible-age son, or father, or whatever, knew that he could be called up, in a purely random lottery, and go to war. That was a really bad mistake on the part of the politicians, because it suddenly politicized everyone. The other thing, of course, was the media and watching all the events of that war—the body bags coming back in full daylight, and so on. There’s got to be something that affects everybody, not on a moral ground.

The only other thing I’ll say is, look—how do you describe science? It’s very, very difficult. Someone said to me once, “Science takes its own time. We can’t solve every problem.” The heliocentric view of the solar system was denied for centuries, and yet the evidence was apparent to everybody. But it was denied—mainly by the Catholic Church. So this is who we are as human beings.

I mean, if I were a journalist, I’d be going and doing as many stories as possible on the actual scientists, and asking them what is really needed. I’d talk about their frustrations and their fears and try to get their explanations. And the other thing is, do the opposite: talk to the farmers, the irrigators, the people who cut down the trees in the forest. Talk about how they either explain it away, or how they’ve realized, “Hey, I’m really going to change the way I think.”

Here in Australia, one of my nieces is married to a firefighter. And he couldn’t come to Christmas lunch, because he was off in another state fighting these fires. He’s a young guy, and I don’t know how politically savvy he is, but I would love to talk to him and his mates and just find out what it meant to them on that anecdotal level.

Pope Well, thanks, George. I appreciate your thoughts.

Miller Nothing affects everyone more than climate change. And I can’t believe that the story’s been hijacked by the denialist voices, because that’s so disingenuous. Good luck to you.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.