Gregg Kilday
February 05, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

If he had not become a director, George Miller, who began a career in medicine, figures he’d now be a surgeon. So when the 47-year-old Australian filmmaker read about Michaela and Augusto Odone — the Washington, D.C., couple who refused to accept the fact that the rare genetic disease (ALD) afflicting their 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, was fatal — he was compelled by their saga. According to the story, the Odones defied both the medical establishment and the odds by discovering their own therapy and managing to keep their son alive.

After further research and several meetings with the Odones, who initially regarded him with skepticism, Miller became obsessed with telling their tale. But from the beginning the delicate project teetered on collapse, bounced from Warner Bros. to Paramount and finally to Universal. Stars like Michelle Pfeiffer and Andy Garcia flirted with the lead roles before Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte committed to them. Even now, despite generally strong reviews, the film is being met with some resistance: It earned only $1.66 million in its first weekend of wide release.

At first glance, the intimate and emotional Lorenzo’s Oil would seem a far cry from Miller’s starkly apocalyptic Mad Max movies. But to the director, who has drunk deeply of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s writings, the story is not really all that different from his earlier work. It’s ”a classic heroic quest,” he says, ”(about) someone who is unexpectedly drawn into an adventure and who, in the face of great despair, draws on an inner strength, relinquishes self-interest, and then triumphs and bestows a great boon on society.”

Sarandon, whose performance is regarded by Oscar handicappers as having a lock on a nomination, knew of Miller’s fascination with Campbell but resisted it herself. ”The worst thing we could have done was play heroes,” she says. ”It’s like doing the Bible and knowing you’re a saint already. These guys were renegades.” A vocal AIDS activist, Sarandon insisted a line be added drawing a parallel between ALD and AIDS because ”that’s what got me involved in the project. If people have a life-threatening illness, shouldn’t they be allowed access to whatever drugs they want?”

For all the concerns, however, making movies is ultimately a matter of crafting moments. Because so much of Lorenzo’s Oil plays itself out in libraries and on the phone, Miller, for inspiration, screened All the President’s Men for his cast and crew. He built the set of the Odones’ home opposite a school building so that the voices of healthy children echo throughout. He toyed with the idea of the movie fading to black and white as Lorenzo’s health deteriorates but eventually settled for a darkening color scheme. And when it came time to cast the role of Don Suddaby, the aging British chemist who serves as a Capraesque angel, Miller decided that no one could do the job better than Suddaby himself.

But capturing Lorenzo on screen was Miller’s biggest hurdle. ”Having watched Steven Spielberg work with children (on Twilight Zone — The Movie, to which both directors contributed episodes), I knew you had to keep it as spontaneous and playful as possible,” says Miller. Young Zack O’Malley Greenburg won the part because ”he was not a typically cloying child actor — he had a certain mystique, a certain sadness about him. He didn’t have to do much but be a regular kid.” Assisting the 6-year-old were five other performers, including Michael Haider, a boy with cerebral palsy, who did many of the sickbed scenes.

”My challenge was to tell it straight,” says Miller. ”If I tried to be manipulative in any way, it would be offensive. Because the real story followed the heroic archetype, I knew if I told it straight, the story would take care of itself.” Miller appears to have diagnosed the case study successfully: By hewing to the facts, Lorenzo’s Oil assumes the aura of myth.

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