Peter Taylor-Whiffen 8 Nov 2018 04:09pm

Taking it to the Max

Doug Mitchell tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen how he went from trainee accountant to a world-renowned producer making the world’s biggest movies, and what the two occupations have in common

Caption: Photography: Daniel Boud

"Film-making,” says Doug Mitchell, “is always a risky business. You have to create it right, market it right, then hit the audience right. This industry has a habit of turning billionaires into millionaires.” Since introducing a young Nicole Kidman to the world in Dead Calm nearly 30 years ago, Mitchell’s CV includes Lorenzo’s Oil, Babe, Happy Feet and the cult Mad Max movies.

“The secret is the story and how it connects with people,” he says. “You can spend a s***load of money on actors, sets, special effects, but if you don’t have a story, it doesn’t stand a chance.” Mitchell’s own story is almost as colourful as his films. Born in Colombia, he grew up in the shadow of the country’s drug cartels; moved with his parents to their native Scotland for his O-levels; then followed a girl to Australia and by chance answered an ad that would make him one of the world’s most successful movie-makers.

“My dad was a partner at Price Waterhouse and we saw the world,” he says, “often stopping off at places like Barbados and Bermuda before such travel was commonplace. I went to boarding school in Scotland, where I learned to play the bagpipes and swear like a Scotsman, and returned to Colombia to study economics. But we left again in 1972 – it was frightening, friends were being killed.” He decided to follow his father into accountancy – after articles in London he joined Ernst & Young and then followed his heart to Sydney and worked for Arthur Andersen.

“It was a great learning adventure,” he says. “Audit arms you with skills, flowcharting, an overview of business – it still helps me today.” But after a couple of years he quit accounting and spotted the ad that changed his life. “It was with TV and film production company Kennedy Miller – they wanted someone with ‘international financial abilities’.”

It was 1980 and Mitchell joined a dynamic pairing of film producer Byron Kennedy and director George Miller who, after a succession of moderately successful TV series, were celebrating the success of their breakthrough movie Mad Max. “It was a great time for making films,” says Mitchell.

“Australia had just introduced a new tax incentive that gave movie backers a tax reduction on 150% of their investment. George was the creative one but I teamed up with Byron. I learned so much from him. Making movies is a wonderful, fantasy world, but it’s not a philanthropic venture – you have to make money. And I also learned from Byron that unless you’re a power player, people dismiss you very quickly.”

The company was renamed Kennedy Miller Mitchell but on 7 July, 1983, tragedy struck. Kennedy was killed when he crashed piloting a helicopter. He was just 33. “It was a horrible time. But I’d learned so much from Byron that George looked to me.” Thus began a partnership that matched Miller’s movie-making genius with Mitchell’s pragmatism, financial know-how and newfound industry knowledge.

“We pioneered seeking investment from Bankers Trust Australia, rather than previous traditional ways of funding movies by asking people like doctors and dentists,” he says. “That brought us bigger budgets than ever.” The hits flowed. Lorenzo’s Oil, a true-life drama about a couple seeking a cure for their disabled son (“George was really affected by that, and wrote a beautiful story”); Babe (“he found this great book, and he didn’t care that the main character was a pig, it was still a hero”); and Happy Feet, about a penguin cursed with the gift of dance in a colony of singing penguins. “Watching tap dancer Savion Glover motion-captured to become a penguin was magical.”

There have been duds – a Babe sequel and Happy Feet 2 – but Miller and Mitchell, who still lives in Sydney with his wife Louise, made up for it in 2016 with Mad Max Fury Road, which stormed the box office and won six Oscars – earning praise for focusing the story on a female hero, Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron.

“People say it was groundbreaking, but we – George – conceived that idea in 2001,” says Mitchell. “We decided the patriarchal society had a pretty poor track record and it was time for a female lead. Various problems – exchange rates, spiralling costs, location changes – kept holding the film back, but we eventually made it and we’re very proud of it.” Mitchell is now a very fit 66 (“I swim, windsurf, ski, ride horses – though as I get older I’m also enjoying meditation and sometimes just decide to stay in the hammock”), and has no intention of retiring. Future projects include a Furiosa back-story and “another major movie I don’t want to reveal yet”.

His fiscal training still comes in handy. “Accountancy taught me to simultaneously focus on the fine detail while bouncing high above it to see the overall picture. I’m managing situations, controlling budgets, talking to actors when they spit a dummy. Even in the worst situations, you have to keep moving forward.”

The account

I like being an ACA because... It taught me to cut through all the financial forest to get to the detail. I’m happiest… When my world is at peace and I’m with my family.
My favourite book is… The Lord of the Rings. Genius.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… To pick yourself up after disappointment. But you learn dark clouds always pass.
I’d like to be remembered as… A kind man who cared for others.
Love of my life is… Louise, our three children and two grandkids.
My worst habit is… Not listening carefully enough.