Writer/director George Miller talks MAD MAX: FURY ROAD; delays, stunts and timeline

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Look, no offense to Pitch Perfect 2, but there’s really only one new movie you should be seeing this weekend: Mad Max: Fury Road. 15 years in the making, writer-director George Miller’s fourth film featuring the post-apocalyptic world of Max Rockatansky is finally here, and it is stupendous! Also, totally freaking bonkers.

The movie officially debuted yesterday at Cannes to “rapturous applause” from the attending audience, capping off a pre-release week of unending praise from just about everybody that has seen it. While in Cannes, THR sat down with Miller to chat to him about the movie, and the director explained how this nearly didn’t happen as the film’s constant stop-start production kept being interrupted.

“Even I don’t remember the chronology, but it was right before 9/11 in 2001. Mel was interested in doing the movie. It was at Fox, and we weren’t far off from shooting it. But then when 9/11 happened, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar, the budget ballooned, and it fell apart. So we had to move on to Happy Feet because the digital unit doing that was ready, and Warners said, “Let’s go.” So I spent three and a half years on the first Happy Feet. You think you’ll never see another Mad Max, and then it pops its head up again — in the sense, you couldn’t kill it with a stick. Every time you thought it would go away, the planets would realign, and suddenly one day the rocket launches and away you go. By the time we got going again, Mel had hit turbulence in his life, and the time had gone. And by then, it was back at Warner Bros., and it started again.”

Of course, with Mel Gibson out of the picture, Miller needed to find a replacement leading man. And he found it and then some in the incredibly talented Tom Hardy, who doesn’t just emulate Gibson but puts his own unique spin on Max. But there was still something similar to Gibson that he had going for him.

“He came up very early on in the process. I’d seen [Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 film] Bronson and [the 2007 TV film] Stuart: A Life Backwards, which he did with Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought, “Wow, he has some ability,” because they were such different characters. When he walked into the room, I felt that same vibe I’d felt three decades before, when Mel first walked into the room, that same charisma.”

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With a different person under the trademark dusty leather outfit now, it was unclear exactly where in the timeline this movie fell. Is it a prequel to The Road Warrior? Maybe a sequel to Beyond Thunderdome? Well, neither actually.

“It’s connected in spirit. It’s kind of revisiting a familiar place for me. The films are loosely connected. Each one was made with different impulses, and this is clearly a postapocalyptic wasteland. The big attraction for me in these stories is that they effectively look forward to the past. Although we’re maybe 45 to 50 years after some apocalypse, we are really going back to the medieval Dark Ages — in the same way that the American Western allowed for allegory figures playing out morality tales in a landscape.”

This “spirit connected” tale has been brewing for a long time, so was it always the plan to have Charlize Theron’s Furiosa be such a major part of the story, sometimes even overshadowing the titular Max?

“Yeah, from the very beginning, the initial trigger for the story was that instead of making a thing the MacGuffin, let’s make it human cargo, let’s make it people. That led to the only pristine, healthy, child-bearing females in this wasteland running away from an aging warlord, and who would be their champion but a hard-bitten female road warrior? Basically, it’s a story between the two road warriors.”

One thing about that story that has changed since Miller initially came up with it, was the focus on water and drought as in the previous Mad Max films, it was all about the “guzzoline” for the crazy vehicles that inhabit this landscape.

“The Road Warrior was triggered by the oil crisis in the early ’70s. In this case, the ground rules with which all of us worked was the notion that it all starts next Wednesday, when all the bad things we see in the news come to pass. And then we go 45 to 50 years into the future. As the film evolved, you’re kind of riffing off the zeitgeist.

I remember going to the Lake Palace hotel in Northern India. In the ’70s, there was a great lake around this beautiful hotel. And we were there several years ago, and there were elephants in the lake, which had completely dried out, and kids playing soccer in the lake, with the hotel stranded high up on this little island. I remember people talking about water wars, particularly in Kashmir. Like California, Australia, where I came from, although an island continent, is for the most part desert. Growing up in an isolated rural town, I was very aware of the cycle of droughts and floods, so it was a natural thing to put in this story.

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Of course real life has a pretty twisted sense of humour: Mad Max: Fury Road was filmed in the deserts of Namibia, but that’s only because after writing this movie about drought and then finally, after years of pre-production, going to one of Australia’s driest deserts to film it, it started raining like it hasn’t rained a decade in a half.

“That’s the irony, isn’t it? We were going to shoot in Broken Hill, where we shot the other Mad Max movies, out in the Outback of Australia: flat, red earth. We built our roads there, we built 200 vehicles, we rehearsed all our stunts. And then it rained for the first time in 15 years, and it rained big, and it became a flower garden. We saw the budding of sprouts. The great salt lakes in the center of Australia were full of water. Warners said, “Well, you know, let’s wait a year.” So the cast and everybody stood down, and we waited 18 months, and it didn’t dry out, so we took everything from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of Africa, where it never rains.”

Scumbag weather.

Mad Max: Fury Road of course marks the second blockbuster in 2015 to feature a story built around gigantic vehicular action set pieces, with current box office king of the year Furious 7 being the first. With the massive success of the Fast & Furious over the last few years – specifically how they’ve just kept coming up with bigger action scenes – did this and other major blockbusters influence Miller’s movie in any way?

“I saw some of the early ones, but by then I was so busy working on my own films, you don’t have time to watch other films. This film was basically written and pretty well-established through storyboards quite a long time ago, although it did have to go through modifications. But I was extremely aware of the fact in the intervening three decades since the early Mad Max movies, not only has the world changed but cinema language changed. It’s getting faster. This movie has close to 2,700 cuts, whereas Road Warrior had 1,200. I saw recently that the original Jurassic Park movie had something like 950 shots, of which only 65 were CG shots. I think the average blockbuster movie has just around 2,000 to 3,000 cuts in it, so there’s no question we’re reading film language much more quickly than we did in the past — simply because audiences are growing up on faster music, faster commercials.”

That mention of Jurassic Park‘s low CG shot count is a telling one. That film has aged incredibly due to Steven Spielberg’s decision to do things practically as much as possible. And I’m pretty sure that the same will happen with Fury Road as well, as the Miller and co kept CG use to an absolute minimum, mostly only using digital effects to go in afterwards and remove safety rigging, harnesses, etc that the stunt men were using. So yes, even though it looks impossible, most of what you see on-screen was really done. The problem is that most modern audiences have become so condition to seeing the impossible accomplished through polished CGI, that they may just not pick up on and appreciate the fact that what they’re seeing is actually real.

“I guess that is a concern. We put a lot of effort into actually creating the patina of the movie, the texture of everything — wardrobe, weapons, the vehicles to make them feel real. That’s often something you can’t achieve in that world of CG. But my hope is that people suspend disbelief and believe everything they see. They don’t have time to think about it. I must confess, there is a stunt in which two vehicles simultaneously go through a spectacular crash, and [cinematographer] Johnny Seale was showing sections of the movie to the Australian Cinematographers Society. And there was one question about that particular shot, how much of it was CG, and the fact is none of it was CG. It was all real. So even if the practiced eye of cinematographers can’t differentiate the two, you do worry a bit about whether the effort will be appreciated by audiences. But I think cumulatively, moment by moment, the audience thinks that it’s solid and real in all its textures.”

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And with that much real, death-defying action, how do you prepare your actors for what is surely going to be one hell of a grueling shoot?

“We had that conversation. This is a movie that doesn’t defy the laws of gravity. There are no flying humans or spacecraft, so everything had to be done for real. Real people, real vehicles and real desert. Also, action movies in which there aren’t many words spoken, that’s really difficult for the actors. In a lot of these fantasy movies, actors have to work against greenscreen, and that’s difficult, but it’s a different issue going out there and doing everything in the real world. It’s a mosaic art. There are no big, extended master shots. It’s all broken up into little pieces. It’s a very interrupted process for the actors. They are out there in the grit and the grime. Tom himself is very physically adept; he was a rugby player and very athletic. And Charlize, of course, was an accomplished ballet dancer, and not only did she have that special skill and athleticism, but dancers are also incredibly disciplined.”

With that technical and physical pedigree of filmmaking, I would not be surprised if come next year’s Oscars, you see Mad Max: Fury Road hogging the ballot when it comes to the technical awards. In fact, if it doesn’t, then there is something seriously broken with the awards process. But while recognizing production design and costume and makeup are all good and well, does Miller feel that the stuntpeople, who risked life and limb in this movie, should be getting their own golden statue?

“I’ve never really thought about it. I know the skill they have is extraordinary. We had 120 days of shooting, and every day was a big stunt day. And we had no serious injuries at all. I know how brilliant some of those people were. But maybe that day’s gone by because so much now is done digitally, you’d have to differentiate very, very clearly.”

Mad Max: Fury Road opens in cinemas today. Go see it now on the biggest and loudest screen you can find! You will not be disappointed!

 

Last Updated: May 15, 2015

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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