Having masterminded the original cult classic trilogy (Mad Max, Mad Max 2: Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); director, co-screenwriter and producer George Miller returns to the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Australia with Mad Max: Fury Road. Whet your appetite for the film’s release in 2D and 3D on Thursday 14 May by reading this interview with Miller.
Can you remember back to the time when the character of Max Rockatansky first began to form in your mind? What inspired you to create this world and this character?
GM: I was always interested in cinema. I went to medical school and during that time, I drew and painted a lot. Then I became intrigued by the language of cinema. It’s not much more than a century old. The syntax was basically forged in the silent era and, in particular, the chase films—the action movies, the Buster Keaton films, the one-reel Westerns, and so on. And that followed through into the chariot racing of Ben Hur and all of the car action movies. So, by the time I decided to try to make a feature film, the thing I was most drawn towards was the action movie.
By then I was working as a doctor in emergency and saw a lot of road trauma. That obviously affected me. And that experience folded into Mad Max. The first Mad Max was an intense story — I’m trying to avoid the word hyperbolic. It would probably be too fanciful, too extreme if it was set in the contemporary world.
Secondly, we couldn’t afford to shoot it modern-day because we’d have to populate the streets with a lot of people and cars and block off roads and so on. So I decided to make it more spare by setting it in the near future after some apocalypse. A lot of the character of Max was, of course, Mel Gibson. He brought a lot of himself to it. It was one of Mel’s very first films straight out of drama school. All of that led to the first Mad Max film.
I wasn’t sure whether it would be seen widely, but when it came out, I saw all the things that I could have done and should have done because it was literally the first time I’d been on a film set and I learned a lot. So Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was an opportunity to put in place so many things I’d learned. By that time, we had a bigger budget, so I could afford more remote locations and a more fully realized post-apocalyptic world. And ditto with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
Even though I never intended to make a trilogy, each film was a stepping stone—I wanted to try new things in that world. These characters live like imaginary friends in your head. They’re niggling away at you from time to time.
From their earliest releases, as the Mad Max films built momentum over time, they became somewhat the stuff of legend. Did it surprise you that they resonated in such a big way all over the world?
GM: It really was surprising. The first film was so hard to make that I didn’t think it was releasable, but when eventually it was shown, it seemed to have a big resonance all over the world. The same was true with the second film. One of the tests of a movie is that time will tell you if it impinges at all on any culture, and as I watched that happen, I began to see that it had. In Japan, they called Max a lone Ronin Samurai. In France, they saw the film as a ‘western on wheels’ and Max as the lone gunslinger. And in Scandinavia, some said Max reminded them of the lone Viking warrior, wandering the harsh landscape.
I realized that unconsciously I’d tapped into that classic mythological archetype. It was never my intention; I wasn’t even aware of it. So the vanity of the artist—where somehow you think you’ve created something special—dissipated to some degree. [Laughs] I realized I was an unwitting participant in what Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others have called the collective unconsciousness.
You mentioned the language of film, and I wonder if it was not just the story but the way you told it.
GM: It was the part of cinema I was most interested in, and one of the reasons I was drawn back to making Fury Road. I love movies that are best experienced in the cinema—movies that are immersive and sweep you up into a world, as great pieces of music do. No matter your mood or disposition, you’re carried to a place outside of yourself, and the film language is very much part of that. One of the things that drove Fury Road was the Alfred Hitchcock line about making films that can be watched without subtitles in Japan. That’s what we try to do with these films.
When you first began conceiving the story of Fury Road, how much of it already existed in your head and how much of it evolved as you sat down to write it?
GM: The great thing about making this film after all these years was that I was able to realize the world more fully. I never intend to make sequels of anything, and for so long I resisted doing another story of Mad Max. I thought three films was enough. But I’m one of those people who is drawn to film through curiosity, and once I get caught up in something, it won’t go away.
About 15 years ago, I was walking across an intersection when an idea flashed into my mind that I thought would make a good Mad Max movie. But, by the time I got to the other side of the road, I decided to push that thought away. About two years after that, I was on a long night flight across the Pacific—from Los Angeles back to Sydney where I live—and in that hypnagogic state between wakefulness and sleep, this movie played out. That little idea that started on that street crossing had been festering in some way. It was misty and not at all vivid, but by the time I landed 14 hours later, I realized that I had to sit down and give expression to it.
I sat down to write the story with [co-screenwriter] Brendan McCarthy, who is a wonderful writer and storyboard artist, following the notion that the film should play out almost wordlessly, like a silent movie. We decided to storyboard it and worked with two other artists, Mark Sexton and Peter Pound. The four of us plotted it out, shot for shot, until we ended up with 3,500 panels all around the room, like one extended comic book. After the visual template was put down, [co-screenwriter] Nico Lathouris came onboard, and we added language. So, over the course of that process, we had to come up with core design strategies that informed not only the world and its organization, paraphernalia, vehicles, and so on, but also inform who the characters were and how they spoke.
Can you talk about the design strategies that guided this world?
GM: They’re much clearer and more fully realized now than they had been in the past. The first rule was that the apocalypse starts next Wednesday, and everything we see in the news comes to pass all at once—economic collapse, power grids collapsing, failed states, oil wars and water wars, plus a lot of things none of us could even foresee. It’s multiple organ collapse, just like in the human body. Now you jump 45 years into the future and all the cities have been razed. People are marauding in gangs and have moved to the center of the continent. Out of that chaos rises a dominant hierarchy that’s controlled by a warlord—the Immortan Joe.
The attraction of the Mad Max movies, particularly Fury Road, is that you can go back into a reduced, more elemental world. There is a very clear balance of hierarchy with the powerful few literally above the many, and above the moral. Into this world comes Max, who is simply trying to escape his demons and find meaning. As he says, he’s chased by the living and the dead. And then he becomes swept up with Furiosa and the others who are in search of something better. Each character and every interaction, as well as every piece of design—had to find its fantasy in the world from next Wednesday.
The one other rule was that just because it’s the Wasteland, that doesn’t mean that people can’t make beautiful things. That was very important. Everything in our film is a found object, repurposed. People have artifacts that have survived the apocalypse, so they take on an almost religious significance to them. That led very much to the physical aesthetic of the world.
In the 30 years since Mad Max, there have been a lot of post-apocalyptic movies and games, which tend to look like junkyards. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in impoverished cultures all over the world, and have noticed that there can still be a powerful aesthetic. They can turn coat hangers and soda cans into the most wonderful wire toys, or strip the electrical flakes out of wires and make the most beautifully patterned wire baskets, with astonishing artistry. So we carry a lot of that into our Wasteland as well.
There is also a tone in the film, which is a wild, rambunctious spirit of celebration. Just because it’s after the apocalypse doesn’t mean that people can’t have a sense of humor. I think it’s the wild human spirit of Mad Max that people get into. There’s an event called Wasteland Weekend—it’s a bit like a Mad Max version of Burning Man—and people who have been to it say there is a tremendous amount of playfulness and fun, and a strong human spirit there. The very words ‘Wasteland Weekend’ sort of catch that tone. You can go to the Wasteland for a weekend. It’s what Halloween gives us, dressing up as zombies, ghosts or skeletons.