In 2007, the smash hit Happy Feet won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. So, it’s certainly no surprise that writer/director George Miller and some of the voice cast returned for Happy Feet Two. This time around, Erik, the tiny son of master tap dancer Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) and the vocally gifted Gloria (voiced by Pink), runs away and encounters The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), the only penguin who can fly. When violent shifts in the glacial landscape of Antarctica threaten the survival of the entire Emperor penguin community, Mumble and Erik must rally all creatures, both great and small, to save them.
During a press conference to promote the film, George Miller talked about collaborating with tap master Savion Glover for the penguin choreography, the importance of following nature and natural history for the film’s story, how despite our differences we can overcome the chaos of the world, what a privilege it was for him to see this voice cast working and recording together, and how he has no idea what the story for Happy Feet 3 could be, at this point. He also talked about his Justice League movie with Common as Green Lantern that never got off the ground, and whether Mad Max: Fury Road will ever actually happen. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
GEORGE MILLER: Well, the first thing to know is that I can’t sing and I can’t dance, so I had no right to be there. But, we had very, very good choreographers and people who really understand music, with the composer, John Powell, and the three choreographers – Wade Robson, who did the earlier material, Dein Perry, the creator of Tap Dogs, who did all the tapping later on, and Kate Wormald, who is also one of the motion capture performers for Gloria and Erik, and several others. In the center of that was Savion Glover, who came down for a week.
The first thing I had to understand about him is that he’s a percussionist. He’s a classic hoofer. He’s a brilliant percussionist who uses his body for the percussion. I look at it and get dazzled, but I’m told by the musicians that he’s working with such complex rhythms that it’s almost mind-boggling. With a movie like this, you get a lot of wonderful material that you end up not able to use because you’ve essentially got 90 minutes to tell a story, but we would watch him dance for hours. I can tell you, if he’s awake, whatever he’s doing, his feet are tapping. To watch that sort of virtuosity was fantastic. The great privilege in doing this stuff is that the way the universe conspired to make these individuals, they have unique abilities that let them shine. To see that and to sort of have a say in what they would contribute is just very exciting to me and makes me feel a sense of wonder about being a human being. And, Savion Glover is the dance equivalent of that.
MILLER: We tried to follow nature and natural history, as much as possible. All the creatures are designed, pretty strictly, to the anatomy of krill and elephant seals and penguins, and then we take the main characters and exaggerate them a bit. Even the behavior of the ice and snow and wind follows nature. I think that gives the film a lot more authenticity. You can’t tell the story about this world without it being about the environment. It’s the extremes of the planet, clearly. Any subtle change that we have is somehow recorded there, in the ice layers, because it’s fixed. The animals that have died there are 100 years old and they almost look intact because it’s a very, very cold climate. You can go down into the core of snow and ice in Antarctica and find every single volcano that ever happened in history, and every single nuclear accident. These massive icebergs are breaking off in the size of small countries, and they do block off the penguins. There are big shifts in the krill populations and where they are. There is melting on the peninsula, so the penguins are going south. The species are getting more mixed up.
That’s what we tried to indicate in the movie. All of that is there, as part of the background narrative. For me, the guiding premise of the film is the notion that, despite our differences, we can overcome the chaos of the world. All the characters in the film are, in some way, are divided. Every single character is torn apart, and it’s only when they come together that finally they can solve the problem. They can’t even rely on the humans that arrive because they have to save themselves. The time I’m most proud of being a human being is when I see the coming together of people to solve their problems, or to endure the human adventure. All of that’s in the film. I hope people can pick it up.
MILLER: That was thrilling to me. It’s such a privilege to see guys like that, working together. It was just a wonderful thing. One of the memorable moments for me was when Hank [Azaria] had to do a serious scene, where Sven was basically confessing about himself. Everyone had finished their parts and it was just Hank by himself. And then, suddenly, Robin [Williams] and Elijah [Wood], and others who had gone out for a coffee break, came back into the room. And then, all of the cast came back and stood in front of Hank, without any mics, and just played a crowd. I was just choked up. I thought, “God, this is generosity.” Everyone thinks movie stars are so narcissistic and self-absorbed, but it’s totally the opposite. Their generosity is huge.
How did you go about selecting the songs that you used in the film?
MILLER: It came from a lot of different places. First of all, you’re looking for something that fits the narrative. And then, the penguins and the other creatures are representative of us. John Powell is a composer who is really broad. He does everything from the Shrek movies to the Bourne movies, and he grew up in England playing in a Motown tribute band, and he trained classically because his father was a classical musician. He’s very broad in his knowledge and musical taste. And then, we had Pink, who has three songs. We needed a song for the center of the movie, and she wrote that.
I had never heard “Under Pressure” before, but during the recording session, Hank [Azaria] said, “You know that song? It’s like it was written for this.” So, we’ve got that in there. The opera is an aria that I’ve always loved the structure of. It starts so quietly and it ends with such fervor, and I knew we needed to have Erik sing that song. When we were finishing the first Happy Feet, every time we would like a shot, they would push a button and “Rawhide” would play. One day, it came up with a shot of the elephant seals and I said, “Oh, if we ever make another one, it will be the elephant seals singing that.” It comes from everywhere.
Do you have any ideas for a third film yet?
MILLER: If you put a gun to my head and said, “You have to come up with a story for Happy Feet 3,” I’d say shoot me. I would have no idea. I really would have no idea. The stories creep up on you. You just have to allow the stories to come, and then they get in like little ear worms in your head and they won’t go away. If that happens and we’ve got the energy, we’ll do a third one. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. That’s the only way you can do it. It has to be authentic. I really wanted to make this film better than the first one. Otherwise, at my age, what’s the point? You really want to make it better. If something comes up that’s really exciting and I can convey that enthusiasm to other people, then there would be a third one.
MILLER: John Lennon said, “Life’s what happens when you make other plans.” Films keep on coming out of my head, and I never know what film I’m going to make next. Common and I were going to work on a Justice League movie together. He was cast as Green Lantern. It was almost greenlit, and then it fell away. I fell in love with the guy and called him up and said, “You can’t play the Green Lantern, but how about playing a penguin?” And that was a whole bunch of complex events, in the middle of a writers’ strike and Australian rebate legislation, which was required to get the film going. It was just a whole complex series of events. It was no one’s particular fault that it happened. We were also due to do Happy Feet. These things are like big super-tankers, to start a pipeline like this, with over 600 or 700 people working on the film with the bleeding-edge of technology, where you’re pushing technology as far as you can. We had to commit to that, so I went on to that.
When did Mad Max fit in there?
MILLER: I was about to do the next Mad Max film, Fury Road. We were all geared up for that, to shoot in the Australian desert, and then unprecedented rains came. What was the wasteland – completely flat, red earth – is now a flower garden. And the big, massive salt flats, where they do world record speed trials, is now full of pelicans and fish. Where the fish came from, I have no idea. So, we’ve lost the wasteland. Luckily, all of these films have been with Warner Bros., so it’s been a very collaborative thing, going from one to the other.
Will Mad Max ever happen?
MILLER: Theoretically, it’s next year. We have 150 big vehicles built. But, to be perfectly honest, [I just finished Happy Feet], and I’m not even there in my head, right now.