Mike: Today's guest is film director, academy award nominated producer, animator and owner of Blur Visual Effects Studio Tim Miller. After cutting his teeth with animation, game cinematics and short film; Tim made a mark on Hollywood with his memorable title sequences for ‘The Girl with theDragon Tattoo’ and ‘For the Dark World’ before moving into live action directing, with record beating hit ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Terminator - Dark Fate.’ He’s currently helming Netflix’s animated anthology series ‘Love, Death and Robots’ alongside David Fincher and joins us from LA. Welcome Tim, how are you?
Tim: I’m doing well. Thanks for having me. Oh and just areal quick minor correction, because I am proud of it I say, for The Dark World we did do the titles but also Marvel let me do the first three minute opening of the movie which is like a big fucking fight of Dark Elves against Warriors and Thors father. It was great.
Mike: I do remember that well. I was thinking in my research that it’s such a long intro, you have been such a busy guy for your career. Is there one of those multi-hyphenates that you align with more than other?
Tim: I could tell you one I would lose is The Academy Award winning producer just because yeah it was a short film but another guy Jeff Fowler who directed Sonic, which I was an EP on, and Jeff worked here for years, in fact his desk is still next to me here because he won’t let me clean it off and use it for other artists because it is his home away from home. But anyway Jeff did that, so I always feel like...I don’t know it’s not that I don’t think producers do a lot of work, some of them do an enormous amount of work and save movies everyday. I just feel like my street cred is more about the directing part of it. Although that is changing you know, Love Death andRobots I’m directing some of the shorts, but I am also producing all of the other ones.
Mike: When you started when you were younger. WasLive-Action directing always going to be the goal or were you primarily a VFX and animation kid growing up?
Tim: Live-Action was never the goal, I always loved movies but I loved to draw. And what I wanted to be originally was an illustrator, and then I got into animation; and so I wanted to be an animator because it had both the story that I loved, because I have always read books, and it had the art part which I really loved. Which is why I love comics you know, comics is kind of this perfect blend of words and pictures. I mean I kind of stumbled into Live Action, I wasn’t one of those animators that thought ‘animations area ghetto that I will hopefully get out of and become a live action director one day, it was not at all my plan I just wanted to animated film, just not kids stuff.
Mike: If you were talking to younger Tim now, in a new economy everything has changed. Lots of people listening to this podcast will be trying to get into the Industry and following their creative dreams; what sort of path would you follow now, if you were young Tim Miller now?
Tim: You know, I think the access to tools has brought a whole level of democracy to getting noticed and getting started that wasn’t there when I first started. Like you couldn’t do the job of computer animation or visual effects without a lot of fucking money. You had to buy a big computer that was very expensive, you had to buy expensive software. When I started atSony Image works as a Visual Effects artist, which was not my first job in the industry, but my computer, my personal computer, cost $90,000. And the software that I ran it on was almost $40,000. So it’s not something that anyone but a rich person or company could be involved in. Now it’s different, you can buy a computer for chum change, although it’s still a privilege that the western world takes for granted sometimes, but you can get the software, capable software, for free. So anyway that means then that your limit is your own personal drive and your own imagination.
Mike: Which is brilliant, and it also leads me in to I know that from your Terminator - Dark Fate tab, massive tabs on the top...you're a real researcher of...even hiring people from YouTube and people like that. Do you find that a really interesting way of reaching out to people who might not necessarily be found?
Tim: Oh yeah, I do it all of the time, in fact we have about130 people on site here at Blur. And then we have artists sort of scattered around the world that we also use. And we always do anniversaries and birthdays and stuff at our staff meetings and usually if someone comes up on an anniversary that is longer than ten years; there is some story about me finding them on the internet and writing them a letter that’s like ‘Hey Buddy, I really like your shit. What are you doing?’ But I reach out all of the time. One of the artists sent me this young gentlemen's work, he is doing what I think is pronounced ‘sarte’s’. But he is doing these handmade war hammer shorts that are fucking amazing and I was like ‘I am gonna track this guy down.’ He’s doing them all himself, the stories are his in the Warhammer Universe and he is doing all of the art animation/ visual effects and they’re amazing. So I tracked him down and I said ‘hey, come work for us?’ He hasn’t yet, but I’m going to.
Mike: Do you think working in that way creates more interesting and globally relevant work like some of the different shorts onLove Death and Robots for example with the Asian animation and things like that.
Tim: Oh totally and I have a lot of respect for that. And just bring different cultural perspectives to different stories. I pick all of the stores and I feel like I try and pick an eclectic mix of not only genres but cultural styles. And then we kind of cast the right animation company or the right director. But back to the whole production of it all, there are things that I struggle with everyday and where I can certainly do better is that a show like Love Death and Robots is all about the different perspectives, it's all about the variety so I try and not be heavy handed in producing it. And you don’t want to be one of those directors who becomes a producer and then forces everybody to make the decision the way that you would have made them. Right? So you have to sort of have this inner battle of ‘is this note that I’m feeling a subjective thing, or is it an objective thing.Because sometimes shits just wrong. But sometimes shit is just not what you would do and not necessarily wrong and ego is… you have to wrestle your ego into submission before you can kind of make those distinctions. I’m not sure that I am always successful.
Mike: So obviously it comes across that you are such a big fan of collaboration and curation I guess with shows like that. Do you throwout the idea of the altar-theory and you think that there’s a much more synergistic world where working together creates something greater than the sum of their parts.
Tim: Oh absolutely I mean I think you saw that on Deadpool. I never feel like I am the guy that has to have all of the answers. I feel likeI have to have a vision and a direction. Maybe I am the guy steering the boat, but I didn’t build the boat. And I can’t set the sails and I can’t man the oars. I can’t pull the anchor up and I can’t cook the food and play a fiddle.That was a sailing metaphor...but it really takes everybody. And if I was left on that big ship alone I would get nowhere. I would drift around aimlessly and produce nothing. So I believe that and I like the camaraderie, I love it when people come up with an idea that is better than what I was thinking. And often with animation to, not only that but Live Action, people have time at your speciality to think about a problem more deeply than in the five minutes I may have in that particular part of the process because you have got to skim like a pond and so you have to trust that you hire people and you trust them to bring you good solutions to each problems and solutions that you didn’t have time or inclination or talent to think of. You see it all of the time on set. We all lean on the cinematographer because he’s got a much better eye for shot composition and lighting than I will ever have, so why not use that.
Mike: Definitely, that whole world view of coming up to you and saying ‘I have got this idea’ or whatever does seem to fit with quite progressive companies like Netflix where even if you’re the runner you go up to the exec and you say ‘I have got this idea’ and they say ‘that’s the best idea.’ Is that one of the reasons that you feel a bit of kindred spirit with companies like Netflix.
Tim: I don’t know about that. I feel that the interesting thing about Netflix in general is that they are...it’s almost like somebody who has been repressed all their life suddenly got a lot of money. And they’re like‘I want to taste every flavour, I want to sample every colour. I want to experience every human emotion in the full spectrum. And they have the wherewithal to go do it versus the sometimes jaded part of the industry that held its way for so long. And it's cool because it kind of forces everybody else to say ‘oh wait a second, maybe we have got to shake off our eyes and look at things fresh. Now you get a lot of drag with that, I’m sure we all experience sort of the cultural filtering that has to happen because you lean on your friends and family and community to sort of tell everybody what you like and what you don’t and it makes a big difference, like I send a book list out every couple of months to people at Blur like ‘these are the good books that I have read lately’ because I feel like I can save them the time of reading bad books by recommending good books. You hear from your friends all of the time like I watched ‘For All ManKind’ on apple which I hadn’t really heard a lot of buzz about but fuck it was great. And so I am proselytising that show to other people and conversely when you watch something that doesn’t hold up you put that out there as well. And then you have disagreements with it. I was at a show the other day and one of our producers said ‘oh man I am really enjoying that show!’ And I am like ‘Really? I watched the first two episodes and I need to reevaluate your aesthetic opinion from here on out because it was fucking shit.’ But he loved it.
Mike: That goes back to collaboration, just to go back to what we were talking about before. Do you think that some of the older style studios could potentially become dinosaurs if they don’t keep up with Netflix and their pursuit of creativity?
Tim: Well I don’t know that they will survive long enough to be dinosaurs. They will become fossils quickly. But from what I see of them I mean the process is slow and painful at times but also at the end of the day it’s really just finding talent, nurturing it and figuring out where it goes in the spectrum of mediums available for people to watch and I don’t really see a whole lot of difference in the process between what a studio does and whatNetflix does. It's kind of the same, and in fact the longer time goes on, the more sameness occurs; and that’s both good and bad. I’m sure you have seen it but even in my company, if somebody rises from the ranks into a supervisor position they come into that position usually with this ‘Oh I’m gonna right all the wrongs that I suffered with, I am going to solve all of the problems that I have seen as I rose through the ranks and then they get up there and they go ‘Oh maybe there’s a reason these problems exist and maybe there’s a reason why they weren’t solved before. And I think you see the same thing like there was thisWild West period with the streamers and some aspects of that are passing or have passed already. They're not willing….because they encountered the same problems that the studios had years before and adopt the same sort of solutions because you kind of have to. So I think ultimately the playing field gets even, and it really just comes down to...who’s gonna make great content.
Mike: It’s interesting you mentioned ‘nurturing talent’ andI read somewhere that you’re not a big fan of the word ‘mentor’ which is something I am always banging on about in these podcast interviews for juniors. Is there a reason why you don’t feel aligned with that idea?
Tim: Well if I was to call myself a mentor, it sounds pompous as fuck. And it immediately suggests that I think that I have some kind of wisdom to pass on. And I don’t. I feel like I have some suggestions and I have some knowledge. But here’s the thing when you talk about the nature of your podcast; the thing that I would stress and I don’t it’s the worst advice probably. I don’t know how you implement it, but all the stupid shit I did, all of the mistakes I made...I don’t regret making them. For instance starting this company; what I thought it was going to be, how hard I thought it was going to be, what it would become and what it would do to me...I was wrong about all of them. But if I knew what it really was, or what I really would have to do, or how hard I was really going to have to work I wouldn’t have done it. So the illusions that I laboured under, though incorrect, it had a good result for me in that I don’t think I would go back and change it if I had the chance. But I also know how wrong I was about what I thought it was going to be. Do you know what I mean? So for me saying to someone ‘this is what you need to do...’I’m not sure that that is the correct thing. It can only be ‘this is what I have learned over time.’ Sometimes you need to be wrong and move ahead anyway and hope that something right will come of it in due time.
Mike: Definitely, I mean the journey along the way is going to take you to the place that you're always heading I guess and that’s the most valuable bit. I imagine for you of course Blur is the most valuable thing that you have ever done opposed to doing massive stuff like ‘Terminator’ surely.
Tim: Yeah I mean even still you know I didn’t direct a movie until I was 50, and I am going to be 56 next month so the directing movie thing is still pretty fresh. Every year in my 40s I would have a conversation at least 4 or 5 times ‘Well what if you don’t get the movie? What if it doesn't work? What if this is what you have?’ And I would say genuinely I would say I have been incredibly fortunate and successful before Deadpool, beforeTerminator, before any of that. Successful for me, maybe not by the standards of the world but I was always happy with it and the community we have with the artist. There are 100s of artists that have come through here and worked here and have said that their lives are better for it, it's the best place they ever worked, they produced great work. So I haven't sold world peace or cancer or anything but I am proud of what we have put out.
Mike: How did it feel to walk on to your first live action set at 50, with all of those people listening to your every word... Did you feel ready?
Tim: Oh yeah, I felt ready. I think in hindsight one of the best training grounds you can have for features is running a company. And in many ways it is much like that, you have a bunch of people looking to you for some kind of guidance or leadership. But more importantly looking to you for you to set the tone for how they are going to be able to do their jobs. I don’t believe in that in Blur and I certainly didn’t on a movie set where fear and anxiety and people being unsure about the emotional tenner of the people above them produces the best work. Maybe it works for some people, but I just think it's childish. Those directors that you hear stories about that yell and scream and stomp their feet, and I have experienced some of those people… as have you and I just stand back and go ‘oh my god’. It just feels so...If I did that...Everytime I have lost my temper, and you know because you were on Terminator I have never yelled on a movie set, never yelled at anybody. But everytime I think I felt it inside, I feel like I have lost because it feels childish to me.
Mike: My memory of you Tim was that you were pretty emotional on set. I remember you at the end sort of wrapping on Terminator and you got so teared up at the end because you were finishing your story.
Tim: Man I cry so easily it's embarrassing. I can’t give any speech without crying because... I think somewhere online there’s an article about me as ‘the crying director.’ It's never for pain, but yeah I get very emotional and I am very grateful for all these things, and usually that’s whenI tear up it’s when I am talking about how lucky I have been or about how grateful I am feeling. And my dad was the same way, he had enormous back pain would never cry, would never complain but a dead puppy? He’d be weeping a river of tears. And do you know what, I think that’s alright. Nobody said I wasn’t tough, and the tears to me just mean that I am tough enough that I can be sensitive about that stuff.
Mike: Did your fearlessness of stepping onto set and being the boss from being the boss of a company stretch to having to direct Arnold Arnold Schwarzenegger in his most famous role?
Tim: No not at all and honestly I think there’s something wrong with me because I don’t think I feel stress and fear the same way that everybody else does. People have said it about starting your own business too.They’re like ‘you left Sony Image Works and started your own business and how that took a lot of courage and I’m like ‘Did it? Really? Because what if it hadn’t worked? The company didn’t work and then I would go back and get a high paying job in the digital effects field. Where is the fucking risk? The risk came the first time you signed a loan with your house as collateral. If you don't pay it then you know that you start to feel the risk. But I mean the movie set, what I am risking is embarrassment for a bad film or actors who don’t like me. But they all made it easy I mean you saw from being on set;Linda and Arnold and Mackenzie and Natalia and Gabe we all had a really great time together and they were really great people. Arnold makes it easy, he fucked with me a little on the first day. But never after that.
Mike: What did he do?
Tim: He didn’t want to do a line so there’s always a little bit of a challenge like ‘Lets see what kind of dude you are’ moment with people. But Arnold has such a genuine love of people and a good temper. You know he was always laughing and joking; you don’t take it seriously when he does challenge you. Even though he is one of the smartest guys in the room.
Mike: Do you think that the fearlessness comes in part because unlike most people in the industry I guess you have got your own company behind you and realistically you’re not in a way webbed to the day job.If you got fired from a movie ‘so what?’ You have got this big company behind you and you can go and do the effects. Do you think that gives you a bit of a different perspective maybe.
Tim: It certainly does, and maybe I have forgotten what it’s like to not have a net there but I can honestly say that I didn’t act any differently when I didn’t have a net. I had lots of jobs and I came from an upper/middle class family which means that I didn’t get everything that I wanted but I got a lot of what I wanted. So I felt like it was the sweet spot where I wasn’t completely spoiled but I also didn’t feel this great desire to have shit that I never had. And so anyway, whenever I take some kind of risk, I always feel like ‘well if it doesn’t work out I’ll just do something else. When you have kids it changes a little bit, like that’s a risk but generally speaking I always felt like ‘well if this doesn’t work out i’ll just do something else. And that is a luxury I feel like a lot of people don’t have. I can’t tell you why I have it or why I deserve it. I can say that I just felt like...you know how people say ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ and ‘failure is good...you learn’ I think that’s bullshit. Any failure is terrible and you should do anything you can do to not fail. But even when I would say that things have not worked out on occasion for me, but I don’t know that I would term it failure, I would just say ‘well that didn’t work’ and you try something else. Or ‘that didn’t work the way I thought’ and you try something else.Failure feels like it has finality to it, that I feel like it doesn’t usually happen. If you're mountain climbing, then maybe failure is the right word because if you slip and fall you’re dead...but not fucking directing movies or visual effects.
Mike: When I was doing the research to speak to you Tim I was obviously watching my way through Love Death and Robots again, and it’s obviously so wide in its scope and it covers...it’s very difficult to explain I remember you talking to us inSpain about trying to name it and not even knowing how to name it. Are you going to try and stretch that even further with the new series that you’re doing at the moment?
Tim: You mean the next batch of them?
Tim: You know I think this season's selection of stories is very different from last stories. Fincher was down the week before last and I showed him some of the stuff work in progress and one of the ones I am doing is, it would never be one that you would imagine I would do, it’s a total poem.Nobody dies and there’s no machine guns. But anyway I showed it to David and it was back to back with one that was a real crazy, comedy, violent thing and he was like ‘dude I just fucking love that these two things sit next to each other inside the same series because they are about as far from each other as they can get from a tonal cultural sort of vibe. But they all still sit with Love, Death and Robots. And I feel like the audience gets that, I always assume that the audience is like me. I feel like if I’m interested in it, they're going to be interested in it. Now on terminator I felt like that was a big swing and a miss because I felt that I was super confident that I just need to make a great movie and terminator fans like me will love it and I was very wrong because the movie tanked.
Mike: You mentioned your collaboration with David Fincher there, obviously you are two directors that I assume have very different visions. David Fincher famously has a very specific vision, what is it about your collaboration that keeps it so in sync.
Tim: You know we laugh about it all the time because if you knew David he is very genuine and very funny. He is always the smartest guy around, and he’s not unapproachable. But when you look at the kind of stuff that I generally make it has a messy, very human, very compared to David, amaturist approach to storytelling, and his is very sophisticated and controlled. It’s like a designer versus an Illustrator and I would never have guessed that David and I would be friends or collaborate in an aesthetic way and I think it works mostly because a) he is secretly a genre fan, he didn’t do a Spiderman movie but he wanted to do a Spiderman movie. David Finch directing a Star Wars movie, would make me go and see a Star Wars movie opening day. But anyway it is a different aesthetic bu the still likes all the same shit as I do, so we get along well and on Love,Death and Robots he is involved in it and looks at everything and we talk about it. But he sort of lets us handle the day to day and it works well and he likes it.
Mike: One of the things I ask guests about on Red CarpetRookies is the future of the industry and Love, Death and Robots is of course futuristic Sci-Fi, I think it is interesting that animation could be a very positive force for promoting diversity on screen, do you think that is something that might happen as we move forward?
Tim: We are very aware of it, I have felt all my life whereI grew up, the way I grew up, I haven't really thought about it much. I wasn’t really aware of...I had no racism to get rid of, I had no gender bias to get rid of but I have learned as we became more aware of it that there is a lot of stuff that I am not aware of and subconscious bias. Like on set at Terminator, Mackenzie was the best one to point that shit out. And so I would ask, we have conversations about it all the time and I remember one where we were with the stunt guys and we had to climb this hill and I’m like ‘alright let's get up there ladies, let’s go we have got to hustle’ and Mackenzie is like ‘that’s fucked up Tim!’ And I was like ‘What I am not insulting you’ and she goes ‘yeah you are, it’s a slight insult because there are no ladies’ and I was like ‘you know what you’re right, and I didn’t mean it as an insult and I wasn’t aware that I was insulting it and it made me fear a whole level of behaviour that I am just unaware of. And if I am going to insult somebody, I want to know that I am doing it, I don’t want to do it unconsciously. And truthfully I don’t feel any of that. But anyway back to your question, so we make a very conscious effort to be inclusive which means the characters we cast, this year we are doing a much better job with female directors. And we are really trying hard to make sure that it feels representative of the whole culture and not just the privileged few. And I still feel like there is a whole fucking world that we could do better in that. Because the next thing you go ‘well are you're presenting Arab cultures? Are you representing African cultures? There’s a whole area of inclusiveness that can be had, but we are trying to do our best.
Mike: Is there anything about the industry you would like to change?
Tim: I don’t know it seems incredibly unfair at times, but by the same token there has to be gatekeepers and there has to be some kind of maze that all the mice need to run through to get their shot. On the surface of it I probably have everything going for me. I own a company, I’m a man, I’m a white man. I come from an upper middle class family and so I got to go to college, so I have all of these advantages and I still didn’t get a shot to do a film until 50 despite trying very hard for 15 years to get one. And so I would say that sometimes it doesn’t really matter. There’s so few people that get a chance to make a movie or a Television show that you just have to stay in the game and keep trying. But I don’t know that there’s any way to change that.Everybody that wants to make a movie doesn’t deserve to make a movie, everybody that thinks they’re good isn’t. And so even if they’re nice and kind people they might be a terrible director or they might be a shit set dresser, so there is no place for kindness in there.
Mike: It’s a business I guess.
Tim: It’s a business, I don’t know it’s tricky. I don’t knowhow to answer that question. My heart says I want to give everybody a chance but the fact is there is just not that many chances for the number of people that want them. And I just feel lucky more than deserving that I finally got mine.
Quick fire questions:
Mike: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Tim: It would have to be two poems from my father; one of them is Rudyard Kipling's ‘if’ and the other on is ‘Invictus’. He quoted them often, but ‘if’ really is the best one, and i’ll sum it up with ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’ that’s the best advice to always be calm.
Mike: Do you have a favourite film?
Tim: It would be a tough choice between Aliens, Blade runner and Gladiator.
Mike: What gives you a reason to get out of bed for an early call time?
Tim: There are people already up.
Mike: What other job in the industry would you do if you weren’t doing yours?
Tim: I think I would make an amazing production designer, no I’m just kidding. I think i’d love to be an editor, if I weren't a writer....maybe a writer. Maybe an editor, editor is more collaborative.
Mike: What general profession would never want to do?
Tim: Air conditioner repairman. Because I am watching those guys suffer this week. It’s terrible.
Mike: If you could work with one person, living or dead. Who would it be?
Tim: Jack London.
Mike: What is a book that everyone should read?
Tim: The Sea Wolf by Jack London.
Mike: Finally, if you won an Oscar, who would you thank?
Tim: I know this sounds overused but my wife. She is a driver and without being willing to take the risks beside me, this whole thing wouldn’t have worked. And without her advice it would have failed many times so got to be her.