George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is neck-deep in the flesh of our culture like a burrowing tick. This is a film that gets under the skin and itches, and which mingles with the bloodstream in a way that leaves its viewers at least a little bit changed forever.
It was my great pleasure to speak to George Miller, the creator of Mad Max and the director of his four films, about Fury Road, the future of the wasteland, and the very careful craft of making a movie like this actually work for an audience. I’ve previously shared Miller’s comments on making a DC Universe movie, so now it’s time to share how the remainder, the real meat of the conversation, went down.
One of the things that struck me hardest about this film is how unusual some of the compositions are. It seems like you use a lot more central framing than many other movies. What were you thinking about here? Was it an eye-tracking issue?
Exactly. You’ve nailed it. With something moving so quickly, and with so much action, it can become like visual noise. Not disorienting but annoying, really. There has to be a strong causal relationship between one shot and the next. It’s just like when you’re composing music, there needs to be a real strong connection, in many ways, in the structure of the music. So central framing helps you to do this [in the visuals]. On the big, wide screen you can predict where the eye will be going a lot of the time. It’s particularly important when you’re doing a stereo conversion [for 3D release]. That’s the key to it.
But do you give away some of the tools in your tool kit to do this? There are some compositional things you can’t do when your shots are like this; do you feel that it’s a compromise?
No. The great thing about new digital filmmaking is that you can adjust the image exactly how you want to, and find the exact spot you need for the eye to go to at any real moment. In a scene where you’re not required to cut very quickly from one shot to the next to the next, you can compose however you like. It’s just during the very, very fast action… the average shot in this movie was 2 seconds and 9 frames. This means that there were shots that were 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 frames long – 8 frames is just a third of a second. Those shots are the ones where you use central framing.
Something I noticed not in the film but in the press reception to it was some confusion about how the overall continuity of the Mad Max films work. I’ve got my ideas about what’s going on here, but can you clarify what you think the relationship between these stories is?
Well, they’re not really connected in any very strict way. They’re another episode in a saga of a character who is pretty archetypal: the wanderer in the wasteland, basically searching for meaning. This is someone we see in the classic westerns, in samurai stories. You can’t really put a chronology [of the Mad Max films] together. They were never conceived that way. After I made the first one I had no intention to make a second, the second was ultimately an attempt to do the things I couldn’t in the first one and so on. They were all standalone films in many, many ways.
Like fragments of a bigger folklore.
What are you left with now, having made the fourth film, that you’d want to address in another one? Is it something technical, something in the craft, or something to do with theme? Why would you ever come back to this world again?
Good question. Believe it or not, there are two more stories I’m really interested in telling. It’s never technical, it’s always the gravitational pull of the story. These two stories came, almost unbidden, when with the delays [in making Fury Road] we sat down and wrote deep backstories, really exploring this world in very fine detail. We ended up with two more, really interesting stories that I want to tell. The technical aspects are always intriguing, but it’s something about the stories that you want to tell.
In real terms, what’s happening with these other two stories?
We’re in discussion with the studio about them… this movie took so long to make. It was green lit three times, it fell apart three times, but you couldn’t kill it with a stick. It just kept coming back, and here we are. We finished it!
Making this film at all seems like an amazing feat. It’s like some Herzogian story, like Fitzcarraldo, that you pulled this off in the real world, that you went out there and did this.
I had some incredibly heroic colleagues, not the least of which was Doug Mitchell, my producing partner. We call him The Honey Badger because he won’t take no for an answer. I had PJ Voeten, my first assistant and also a producer, and Colin Gibson the production designer, and Guy Norris, the second unit director and stunt co-ordinator. They were just a force, like a military force that kept on. They’re ‘Never say die!’ people, and here we are. I must say that I’ve never had such a response, not only in the reviews – which dug down unusually deep into the subtext of the story – but also a very full-hearted response from other filmmakers whose work I am in awe of. Even people in the music industry that I’ve never encountered before.
Something about this movie just… I don’t know, just gets into them, I guess. It might have shifted something a little bit more… I’ve never had this response and I’m grateful to be here.
When you wait for a story that resonates with you, you’re on the track to a film that is really resonant.
That always has to happen. You’re exactly right. It’s too hard to make a movie otherwise. There’s a kind of demented pleasure in making them, and somebody has to be a little demented about forcing their will onto the process of making films, trying to get it out in the way that you’re seeing it, and you end up putting everything you know into a movie like this – good or bad, and there it is. Then you present it to the world, and if it’s any good, it belongs to everybody, you get response and you keep getting feedback and it lasts for a long time and suddenly the movie impinges on the zeitgeist. That process is what tells you which story you have made.
The Happy Feet films had a very different visual language, and the animation technology you used allowed you to do things that are far, far away from Fury Road. When I heard talk that one of your proposed Mad Max films was suited to animation, I wondered if this was because you wanted that different cinematic language for it?
I was always interested in anime, and I wanted to tell a Mad Max story in anime, but to be perfectly honest, the stories felt too strong and I thought “Wait a minute, now that we’ve done live action and found a way to do them with real cars, real crashes, real deserts…” and I just would rather do it in live-action now.
Now that you can capture the impossible in live action, you no longer need the extra inch you can go with animation.
Mad Max: Fury Road is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and whatever fancy downloading thing the kids are into these days.