FILM / Miller's crossing: There's a lot of Mad Max in the medical weepie Lorenzo's Oil. No, really. George Miller explains why to Sheila Johnston

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DESPITE everything, he will probably always be known as the Mad Max man. At a time when the Australian New Wave was rolling gently along on a crest of picture-book costume drama, it caused quite a sensation, the terminally stylish, energetic, hyper-active Mad Max trilogy. 'All-stops-out, fast-moving exploitation,' Variety said, typically. Their author, George Miller, seemed like a Southern Hemisphere cousin of the emerging generation of Hollywood movie brats. He was frequently compared to Spielberg.

Like most of his compatriots he went to Hollywood - for The Witches of Eastwick - and, like many of them, came a cropper. Miller is candid about the fact that star tantrums (from Cher) and studio tampering made it a miserable experience - he thought he was making a mordant comedy about the war of the sexes; the producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters wanted a special effects blowout, the concept which more or less prevailed. But Witches was a big hit in the dollars and dimes sense, and when, six years later (having meanwhile gone back to ground to Australia as a producer), Miller finally shopped a new project around Hollywood, he was still bankable enough for several studios to show an interest.

In the heyday of Max, Miller was prone to give interviews averring things like 'cinema should be above all kinetic', or 'to me action is the purest film language. I'm not interested in narrative or content. I'm interested in visual rhythms'. And so jaws dropped when it was revealed that his new project, Lorenzo's Oil, was the true story of a little boy struck down by a fatal hereditary illness, ALD, which progressively renders its victims speechless and immobile.

'The film is not just about people ennobled by suffering - it goes beyond that because it ends in triumph,' Miller argues. 'Most disease-of-the-week movies don't have a third act, where in a sense the world is changed by the action of these people.' He is referring to Lorenzo's parents: Augusto and Michaela Odone, an educated middle-class couple with no medical training who managed, by persistent amateur research, to develop a treatment based on everyday cooking oils that could arrest the illness's progress and which - while not curing their son - has saved his life.

An inspiring story, then, but not, one would have thought, for the commercial mainstream. Miller, however, gamely makes a case for it as traditional genre cinema. 'The Odones were like gunslingers in the wilderness fighting against dark unknowns. Then there was the medical detective story, which is basically about a serial killer who goes round murdering children. The parents go to the cops, the cops say we can't do anything about it, and so they become amateur detectives and track down the killer. The Odones themselves went from complete ignorance to knowledge. So the audience could go through that process, too, and learn with them.'

I confess to Miller that, while I had come out of Lorenzo's Oil a little wiser, I'd now be hard-pressed, some two weeks later, to explain exactly how the potion of olive and rape seed oil protects ALD sufferers by . . . well, doing whatever it does. No matter, Miller says. 'When I watched The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't quite follow all the detective story, but that didn't diminish my intense experience of the film.'

You couldn't say that Lorenzo has done Max business (around dollars 6m in three months), but it has two Oscar nominations, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress - as the ferocious 'mother-tiger' Michaela Odone, Susan Sarandon is expected to give Emma Thompson a run for her money. And it has had mixed but mostly respectful reviews, although not everyone likes it.

Miller isn't on speaking terms with the family of Zack O'Malley Greenburg, the fractious little boy who plays Lorenzo - few people on set could avoid comparing his behaviour with the valour and forbearance of his real-life counterpart. 'His parents were going through a divorce when the movie started. And they were both would-be actors and screenwriters who manipulated the child to promote their own careers. Zack himself was quite good - I felt sorry for him because he was very used by them,' Miller says now, not unkindly.

He has also met with a deafening silence from the ALD Foundation, an association for victims' parents. 'They sent a letter to Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon and me when they heard we were making the film saying that we shouldn't do it. I haven't heard anything since, though I assume they don't like it because it condemns their willingness to be entirely in the thrall of the medical profession, to be completely undone by their despair. But I've also had lots of letters from doctors which said: 'I wish my patients were like the Odones, instead of sitting like some blob across the desk expecting me to play God'.'

Miller himself practised medicine for several years and was able to persuade the Odones to let him film their story partly because of that. But it was also partly because of his vision of it as a grand odyssey, although the Odones are by no means idealised; Michaela in particular is shown as sometimes unpleasant and at moments dangerously obsessive. 'The nature of heroic figures is that they're crazy, they drive us nuts, they have to be outlaws outside of normal behaviour, otherwise they would not have achieved what they have done. Without getting too pretentious, that's one of the things that Joseph Campbell defined as part of the hero-journey.'

The reference is to The Hero with 1,000 Faces, a study of the universal patterns of narrative which has become virtually set reading for all film-makers with minimal intellectual pretensions. Miller drops his name copiously and refers to Lorenzo as a 'magical figure - he might be the Golden Rabbit who leads someone into the forest; just by following him, they suddenly find themselves lost and caught up in some quest'.

By now the Mad Max trilogy has also been firmly canonised as a Campbellian myth. 'Almost a decade later I still get letters from people wanting to write a thesis on Mad Max as classic Post-Modern cinema, although when I made the first film I thought it was just a car-chase movie. And then in every place it seemed to have a resonance. Someone from Iceland said: he's a lone Viking guy. In Japan they told me he was a samurai. I suddenly had the wit to see that I was a storyteller and a servant of the collective unconscious. And, in trying to understand that a little bit more I got on to Campbell, after the event.'

The sceptical view might be that Campbell has a lot to answer for, in paralysing cineastes with self-conscious, pseudo-intellectual posturing when they should be churning out mindless entertainment which might just, in retrospect, prove to be (unintentional) Art. Certainly George Lucas - who also made a hugely successful trilogy inspired by Hero with 1,000 Faces - has all but retired from directing.

Happily Miller, despite a successful sideline as a film and TV producer, has no such intentions. 'You've got to be careful about what Campbell calls concretising the myth - if you're too aware of what you're doing, it destroys its power. You have to find the poetry and let the other stuff happen underneath. But there are recurring motifs. The lone hero undergoing dark and fabulous adventures, relinquishing self-interest, shattering the world and bestowing a boon on society. That's the Odones, that's Mad Max.'

BIOGRAPHY

Born in Australia in 1945. Studied medicine and practised as a doctor. Made a prize-winning short film, Violence in the Cinema - Part One (1971). Films as director: Mad Max (1979); The Road Warrior (1981); Twilight Zone: the Movie (one episode) (1983); Mad Max Beyond Thunderdrome (1985); The Witches of Eastwick (1986); Lorenzo's Oil (1992). Films as producer include: Dead Calm; The Year My Voice Broke; Flirting.

Lorenzo's Oil opens tomorrow

(Photograph omitted)

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