There’s still plenty of madness left in Mad Max: Fury Road helmer George Miller, who, at the tender age of 70—after an Oscar-winning detour into the family-friendly Babe and Happy Feet franchises—is about to unleash the most unrelenting, eyeball-searing, wall-to-wall, ultraviolent action opus Hollywood has seen in years.
Fourteen years in the making.
3,500 panels of storyboard planning, inked before he had a script.
Over eight months of filming—first in Australia, where unprecedented rains turned his desert locations into non-Mad Max friendly flowerlands, then amongst the massive sand dunes of Namibia.
120 days of pulling off large-scale, mostly practical stunts.
480 hours of footage whittled down to a 114-minute cut, then tested. And tested. And tested.
“I thought I was done on the first [movie],” Miller admitted Wednesday night in Los Angeles after an early screening of Fury Road, the fourth in the film series that started in 1979 with a crew of Hollywood outsiders, turbocharged DIY future-punk villains, and a young Mel Gibson roaming the outlaw-infested, post-apocalyptic Australian Outback.
Miller was speaking at a post-film Q&A with fellow director Edgar Wright.
“The second one came along and it was a way to try it again and do something better,” Miller said. “I was just learning to make films—I’m still learning to make films—and then I thought after the third one, that was it.”
“[But] things stay in the back of your head and keep popping up, and then they won’t go away … soon you become obsessed. ‘Mad’ is right. Mad is definitely right. And one day, you find yourself in the middle of that.”
“That” is Fury Road—one continuous violent, firebombed chase movie that opens on loner hero Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) as he’s enslaved by desert dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his cultlike army of paint-huffing “war boys.” He teams up begrudgingly with warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and a harem of Immortan Joe’s escaped concubine-wives only to find every warlord in the Wasteland hot on their trail.
Miller said he benefited from lessons from the films he’d done in the 30-odd years since his last Mad Max flick—including, improbably, his animated Happy Feet films, which helped him visualize and plan out Fury Road’s ambitious scope.
“[Roman] Polanski said, ‘There’s only one perfect place for the camera at one time,” and when you shoot animation and you have exactly the same performance, exactly the same words, exactly the same lighting, but you shift the camera—you’re virtually able to prove that,” Miller said.
“You couldn’t make this as a CG movie. Even if you did it really well, people wouldn’t know it. Plus, [now, with digital film] you didn’t have to wait for it—you pull off a stunt, check your cameras, and there you go,” said Miller, who acknowledged the well-documented delays that prolonged Fury Road’s journey to fruition—the post 9/11 economic crash, acts of God, a regime change at Warner Bros.
The gentle-voiced Miller recalled one stunt sequence featuring characters swinging in the air from giant poles affixed to moving battle-cars. While timing forced him to go make Happy Feet 2, his Fury Road team worked out how to do the stunts without resorting to VFX magic. “I thought we’d never be able to get those guys moving. Gradually, bit by bit, they figured out how to do it,” he said.
That old school devotion to practical effects gets a showcase in Fury Road's elaborate and densely-packed action sequences. Max, Furiosa, and her big rig full of precious human cargo is besieged by enemies packing heat, blades, spears, flamethrowers, and post-apocalyptic doodads, with the truck—the film’s main set—itself in near-constant motion, charging across the dusty landscape.
In grand Mad Max tradition, even minor villains are memorably flamboyant. Take The Doof Warrior, for instance: Miller’s version of a war drummer zooms through the post-apocalypse, a heavy metal battlefield accompanist, suspended in the air above a massive amp-toting ride, riffing power chords to keep the bad guys pumped with a guitar that, yes, shoots flames.
“It’s the bagpipe, it’s the drummer, it’s the trumpeter, it’s the bugle. The army has all these vehicles without exhaust pipes so he has to have something very loud. So he has a guitar which is made from a hospital bedpan… and he’s got to have a weapon, so it becomes a flamethrower,” Miller said with a laugh. “I think that’s logical.”
Even The Doof gets his action moment in the frenetically-paced Fury Road, which contains more minutes of outsized onscreen action and practical stunt work than any movie in recent memory.
“If ever there was a year for the Academy to give out a stunt Oscar, this is the year,” said an enamored Wright, “and it should go to this movie.”