When it comes to the Academy Awards, voters tend to think highbrow. They like to represent the best, most humane, classiest version of themselves. But don’t forget the Steak Eaters. The Academy is full of them—they’re red-blooded males (not just American), often directors, writers and craftspeople. They’re the guys who voted for “Argo,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Avatar,” and yes, “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain.”
“They vote for big movies that make big money, good solid moviemaking with great actors and good storytelling,” one veteran Oscar campaigner told me. Last year this faction of the Academy voted for such mainstream hits as Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” And this year the Steak Eaters —and many women Oscar voters as well—came through for “Mad Max: Fury Road” with 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, as they did such large-scale past triumphs as Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” It’s about recognizing the nuts and bolts of the craft of fashioning cinema spectacle that makes your eyes pop.
The BAFTA voters made up for not rewarding Alejandro González Iñárritu last year for “Birdman” with wins for “The Revenant” for Picture, Director, Actor, Sound, and Cinematography. While the DGA voters went for Iñárritu for the second year in a row, the overall Academy, with all its craft voters, could still go for Miller for director (if not Best Picture), as Iñárritu would mark only the third time in Oscar history that a director won the Oscar twice in a row. Academy voters may also go with the four “Fury Road” BAFTA-winners: Lesley Vanderwalt and Damian Martin for makeup and hairstyling, Margaret Sixel for editing, Jenny Beavan for costumes, and Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson for production design.
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” more than most films, came out of the filmmaker’s imagination. The central images of the movie’s extended chase came to Miller, who had never intended to make another “Mad Max” movie, on a long flight to Australia. He saw five women fleeing a warlord with a female warrior in a war rig in a continuous chase movie. He finally realized that film at age 70, 35 years after his feature debut with the original “Mad Max.” It helps that Miller owns the “Mad Max” franchise. (Even if frequent distributor partner Warner Bros. is paying for it.) And he took the time he needed—fifteen years—to make it. The project was revived at Warners long after it died at Fox after Mel Gibson’s troubles met the recession. We are all the beneficiaries of this.
Who but Charlize Theron, in all her muscular maturity, could play one-armed Imperator Furiosa, who more than holds her own with Mad Max (Tom Hardy stepped in for Gibson, after receiving his blessing), measure for measure? (Theron wanted to shave her head.) She even shows her prowess in a key moment that defies every Hollywood convention, when Max passes her back her gun after he’s missed and lets her take the shot over his shoulder. She makes it.
Throughout the film Max, a caged animal, struggles to free himself—he’s chained to Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and his souped-up car and enclosed inside an iron face mask—and slowly builds back the wardrobe that is stripped from him. Max is finally set free by his non-romantic ally and kindred spirit Furiosa. (We know how they feel about each other via silent looks and reactions. Mere dialogue is in short supply.)
While Miller likes to describe his vision of a non-stop silent action movie, “Fury Road” falls into distinct sequences, mapped out first on 3500 storyboards by Miller and comic book artist Brendan McCarthy and then by screenwriter Nico Lathouris, and does occasionally stop to breathe. The viewer is hanging onto to every precious word to explain and reveal what is going on. Eventually the rules and characters and vehicles and caches of weapons become clear. The movie comes down to this sage line from Max: “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”
Miller consciously follows western tropes, substituting wheels for horses and pitting his adversaries against each other in an endless desert. Given the passage of time, Miller was well aware that his early success had spawned many imitative post-apocalyptic narratives. So he decided to zig where others zagged. The cliches of the genre were to desaturate the cinematography. So he and great Australian cinematographer John Seale (dragged out of retirement and now nominated for Best Cinematography), saturated the color.
Thus these survivors, poisoned by radiation and riddled with tumors, struggle in a hostile environment short on resources like clean blood, fresh water and gasoline. So they come up with a religion to explain things and motivate them. And Miller’s creative team dug into the details—vehicles, props, costumes—all derived from scrap materials that would have existed before the fall. But he avoided the junkyard look of other dystopian landscapes. He looked for beauty.
It was up to Miller’s humongous team—1700 crew were spread over several football fields at base camp—to realize his imaginings, from Jenny Beavan’s costumes to 150 hand-built durable vehicles and multiple digital cameras shooting over 120 days. They yielded over 400 hours of footage that had to be whittled down to size by Miller’s Oscar-nominated editing partner, Margaret Sixel.
Two stunning sequences involve digital enhancement. One is the massive dust storm (Miller did use animatics) that envelops the swarm of warring vehicles, which get lost in a swirling dreamy CGI haze. The other is out on the wide desert (shot in Namibia) on an eery blue night with shining stars. Like the 40s and 50s westerns that Miller loves, he shot it day for night, with light glistening on hair, skin and eyes.
While it’s true that Miller couldn’t have made this film without digital enhancements, he goes practical when he can, with a lot of remote technology, and used CGI for wire removal, sky painting and fixes, more than the stunts themselves, which were largely accomplished live. When the actors could do the stunts they did them—but an army of stunt guys did them too. Original “Mad Max” stunt man Guy Norris broke a world record by tumbling Max’s Interceptor (which started out as a 1973 XB GT Ford Falcon Coupe) in a rehearsal for the opening sequence over and over 8 1/2 times—and landed on a dime in front of the camera.
Cirque du Soleil wrangled the acrobats who execute the swoony pole vaults through the air, perfectly controlled by weights. Remote control drivers allowed the actors to look like they were steering the vehicles. Miller directed the action from inside a speeding decked-out dune buggy control room, manipulating multiple stunts at a time. With each set-up they’d line up the vehicles and go, communicating via pre-set cues, ear-wigs and walkie-talkies, he told me. “It was like being in the middle of a furious video game.” He admits to experiencing some “post traumatic stress” when he looks back on those adrenaline-intense shooting days on remote locations with anxiety-laced stunt work, but experienced “demented pleasure” too, as “not a day goes by when you don’t say to yourself, ‘I think I’m crazy.’
The wire work on the film was not Hong Kong style, but the stunt crew used an Australian rigging crew imported from the Sydney and Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies who only got one take. The VFX folks could wipe out the wires and enhance puppet work with CGI.
But Miller gives credit too to the great Australian cinematographer John Seale for “his intimate moments with the actors; he made them feel safe and secure knowing their work was being caught on camera.” It was tough on the actors. “You can’t table read this movie,” he said, “there’s no extended dialogue. What they did between action and cut—there was nothing to play but those little moments of the mosaic going to come together to be the movie.”
So where does Max go from here? Like a John Wayne hero, he’s a western loner with no home. Will we follow Furiosa? Reportedly not. Miller will only do another if it sits right. “We’re definitely talking about other movies,” he said carefully. “Every time we talk about titles, we’re trying to avoid spoilers. The hope is there will be other movies, there are certainly energetic conversations about them. We did write a lot of backstories in the down time, how they survived the apocalypse. We know so much more about Max and Furious and Nux. The thought of going back into the wasteland is daunting. There’s a gravitational pull toward a story. I don’t make many films, that has to happen, so that I have almost no choice in the process. There are other scripts and films I want to make. The next one I do is all film, with not a lot of visual FX, not an epic shoot. I am always drawn to tech in a way to help tell a story, but I want to do a low tech movie and get it done quickly and get in and out. But something with the characters in that world is what bangs around in the back of my head.”