There’s a link worth investigating as to the outward kindness of directors like George Miller and Peter Jackson after him, and the storm of insanity brewing in their minds waiting to be thrown up onscreen. As you’ll discover this Friday, Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” (our review) is essentially a two-hour chase scene that ups the ante of practical effects and narrative economy, while at the same time diving further into Miller’s deranged universe. And, of course, there’s the killer duo of Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in the lead as Mad Max and Furiosa, alongside a supporting cast of Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
Only occasionally do you get a glimmer of that gleeful, anarchic vibe when talking to Miller, who was the picture of kind and amiable when we met him recently in Los Angeles to talk about the long-delayed fourth installment of the “Mad Max” series. Having only wrapped up the 3D version of the film two weeks ago, Miller came ready to discuss the many qualities of “Fury Road,” from its initial conception to the difficulties of directing actors — all in separate cars — via earpiece in a truck following them. Read on for Miller’s answers to those aspects and much more.
The Playlist: After such a significant hiatus between the previous films and this one, what was that first day on ‘Fury Road’ like?
George Miller: I’m not as familiar with the Namibian desert as I am in the outback of Australia where I grew up, but it was uniquely familiar. There’s always trepidation, too — my biggest worry by far was safety, because that’s 130 days out there, six months, every day there were big stunts. And if something went wrong it was going to go horribly wrong. But we were rigorous about it, and we had a crack stunt, special effects, and rigging crew that were all very experienced. The rigging crew, they did the Sydney and Beijing Olympics where they flew people around. They only got one take in the Olympics; in this case it was the same thing.
With the ‘Mad Max’ films, it’s grown a legend where fans pass it around by saying, “Watch this, I don’t know how this stuntman lived.” Coming back now, how was it skirting that line of depicting complete danger practically but also safely?
Well, you’ve got to really plan things. You’ve got to be aware of two things. I’ve found that whenever something’s gone wrong on a stunt it’s when you take it for granted — usually it’s a fairly straightforward stunt that people have done many times. The more difficult the stunt, people are so focused and double-and-triple checking everything, they’re usually the ones you pull off really well.
Second is fatigue and repetition — a lot of people just doing something over and over again. Your body loses strength, you can dehydrate. There’s the suspense of waiting for so long to go as the stuntman’s getting ready to flip a car. On the older films that look sort of dangerous, there weren’t any injuries. Interestingly enough, there’s quite a well-known stunt from [“The Road Warrior”] where a guy hits a bike and flips. That one, believe it or not, was Guy Norris. He was 21, going for a world record. And Guy Norris, all these years later, is the second-unit director and the stunt coordinator on this movie. His two sons are on this movie as War Boys.
What happened on that stunt was Guy, even though he had kneepads as part of his costume, he clipped the vehicle and it caused him to flip. And when he knew he was going to flip he just relaxed his body and did that. He would’ve broken his femur, except he didn’t tell us that he’d broken it about two months before and he had a pin in it. And the pin bent — they wrote it up in a medical magazine about how this pin bent, and what happened. But there weren’t any serious injuries on any of the “Mad Max” films — touch wood — but only because we were very, very obsessed with safety.
In talking about the now-legendary flight from Sydney to Los Angeles in which you dreamt up ‘Fury Road,’ did you have Furiosa and the wives in that vision?
You originally talked about making a two-parter: “Mad Max: Fury Road” and then “Mad Max: Furiosa”. Was that slimmed down into what is now just “Fury Road”?
It wasn’t a conflation of two stories. We were going to do an anime before it was delayed a second time when we were rained out of Australia. But because we were delayed that didn’t happen, and so we’ve got that script, and we’ve got another one.
And the anime one is more Furiosa’s story?
It’s more Furiosa’s story and how she came about. Even though it’s a chase, to really make the film as authentic as possible we wrote backstories to every vehicle, to every character. We knew Nic Hoult‘s character Nux from the moment he was conceived, we knew who his parents were, how he became a War Boy. The Doof character, the guitarist, his backstory…
Speaking of Doof, where’s he from?
Well, I won’t give you his backstory but I can tell you what he came from. There’s always the music of war to pump people up. You had bugles, you had drums, bagpipes. You can’t have a bugle when you have all those cars charging across the wasteland in a great sort of road battle. You have to have something really loud, and like everything in this story the guitar had to at least have two purposes, so Doof also has a flamethrower weapon. It’s all very logical. [laughs]
The actresses that play the Wives were also saying that an entire film could be made just about their characters and their backstories. It was interesting to hear that Eve Ensler consulted with them — was she at the forefront of your mind when developing these characters?
Just before we were going to shoot she came down to Australia. I heard her talking on the radio, and she had a connection to my wife [Margaret Sixel] who edited the movie. [Ensler] was incredibly busy but she does all this heroic work in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and places like that. And because she was in the region, as it were, she came down and ran this workshop basically as a way of bringing the wives together. We had workshops for everyone, the War Boys had hardcore military guys, and she had the Wives. For someone who was busy doing such important work it was fantastic.
And what about implementing the unique slang used in the film?
Well, everything in this world is found objects, repurposed, so it’s a diminished world. There’s no books, internet. You’d find the pieces to make up a steering wheel, or a guitar made up of a bedpan. So same with language — they talk about the “Highways of Valhalla,” Valhalla being the Viking warrior paradise. At one point Nux is talking to Capable, Riley Keough‘s character, and he talks about how he “should’ve been McFeasting with the heroes of Old Time.” So you’re using little bits of language to play around with it.
You do notice that no one’s dropping f-bombs left and right on the road.
If you use contemporary language, the moment that happened suddenly you pop out of the movie, I think, and less likely to suspend your disbelief.
You first storyboarded the film out entirely, and placed a heavy emphasis on the action, rightly so. But it seems as though the actors, Tom and Charlize especially, felt a frustration at not having the traditional space to breathe and really find their characters in a scene. How long did it take with Tom and Charlize to nail down a working rhythm, and did you notice a certain dynamic between them in figuring that out?
It took some time because there aren’t any master shots, and because it was continuous action it’s very hard for an actor to do get comfortable. On the one hand they’re there in the real place so it feels real, on the other hand it was hard to find where you were. One thing we did was that, because we had such vast space, we could basically do resets on the run. So if the cameras were there and everything was running, providing there was nothing disruptive like a fight, we could say, “Reset, reshoot”. Everybody would go back to one and we’d just repeat five or six times on a run. So that was sort of useful and gave the actors more to work with, and let them experiment with the role.
Because there was attrition to the vehicles — the war rig gets knocked around, and the characters do, too — we shot in continuity so that Max and Furiosa begin by trying to kill each other. And that gave the actors a chance to progress as a group, particularly with Tom and Charlize – it gave them some mutual regard where they have to cooperate to survive. That was an interesting thing to observe.
I’m sure as a director that’s a moment where you step back, focus on the logistics, and let whatever their dynamic is happen.
There was a little bit of that, but also the initial fight was highly choreographed. And instead of jumping here and there in the story, it gave them a little bit of a progression. I was usually in a van following, listening, watching. There was no room to fit in their vehicles, so it was unusual, I couldn’t go up and talk to them. That was difficult.
Would “Mad Max: Furiosa” as an anime, like originally planned, come next for you?
I’m not sure what we’ll do now. The script for “Mad Max: Furiosa” was very powerful and it would work extremely well as a feature. But to be honest I just finished ‘Fury Road’ 12 days ago, so the last thing I’m thinking about is doing another one. I don’t know, there’s a couple of other Mad Max stories that are pretty wild, so it’d be interesting to see what happens with that.
Could you see yourself letting go of the reins, almost like what’s just happened with “Star Wars”, and letting other directors take a shot at the universe?
There’s so many great filmmakers around, that could happen, too, yeah.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” opens in 2D and 3D theatres on May 15th.