With ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ director George Miller tops his action classic ‘The Road Warrior’

Max (Tom Hardy) scrambles in a scene from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’
Max (Tom Hardy) scrambles in a scene from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’ WARNER BROS.

Nobody does post-apocalypse like George Miller. In 1979’s Mad Max, his low-budget directorial debut, the certified doctor-turned-filmmaker depicted a society that had started to crumble, with leather-jacketed, sadomasochistic nomads terrorizing people on the roads outside of Melbourne. The movie was a brutish tale of grindhouse revenge filled with vehicular stunts that looked a little too real and dangerous, because they were all done for real, and they were extremely dangerous.

Mad Max launched the young Mel Gibson’s career and brought international attention to the burgeoning Australian film industry. Two sequels followed: 1982’s The Road Warrior (titled Mad Max 2 in its native turf), which kicked off what is considered to be the greatest summer movie season of all time (Blade Runner, Poltergeist, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing, Tron, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Rocky III) with a 94-minute bolt of exhilarating, R-rated action that made every other Hollywood car-chase picture made before seem like it was shot in slow motion.

1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which Miller co-directed with George Ogilvie, toned down the mayhem and threw in stunt casting (Tina Turner) to lure in mainstream, PG-13-friendly audiences. Although it grossed more that the previous two installments, the cumbersome Thunderdome wasn’t as well-received as its predecessors. Miller, now firmly ensconced within the studio system, moved on to more respectable endeavors (Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witches of Eastwick).

This is why the anticipation for Mad Max: Fury Road, the first new installment in the series in 30 years, has been sky-high ever since the first teaser for the film was released in September. With Tom Hardy taking over for Gibson in the lead role as the tortured ex-cop, and shots of vehicular mayhem done on a scale larger than anything we had seen before, the trailer promised a return to the relentless thrills of The Road Warrior, something fans had been awaiting for decades.

Even Miller himself was blown away by the initial promo — until he realized he would now have to fulfill outsized expectations.

“The trailers were so great, I realized we would have to lift the bar higher than ever in order to live up to them,” Miller says via telephone from Los Angeles. “We were doing post-production on the movie and I felt a new level of pressure. We had to deliver.”

And he did. Too many big-budget summer entertainments today fail to measure up to their elaborate, spoil-all marketing campaigns. Or they rely on over-the-top special effects to outdo what has come before, often at the cost of plausibility and logic (see: Furious 7).

But Mad Max: Fury Road, which opens May 15, delivers the same rush as The Road Warrior did while ramping up the action to IMAX-sized dimensions: This one is even crazier, as well as the best entry in the series by far. The film, which cost a reported $150 million, has a propulsive energy and creativity lacking in most studio productions of this scale: The movie is full-on bonkers in the best, most exhilarating way, and it delivers the kind of sustained adrenaline rush that is hard to find in the multiplex today, where action films are comprised of several big setpieces strung together by scenes of dialogue and exposition.

The plot is thin, as it should be, and Fury Road requires no working knowledge of the previous movies. Max Rockatansky (Hardy), still mad as a hatter and haunted by torturous visions of his past, is kidnapped by a tyrannical warlord known as Immortan Joe (played by an unrecognizable Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villainous Toecutter in Mad Max). Joe rules the masses of the starving and unwashed by lording his supply of water over them, and he has an army of crazed young men known as War Boys, many of them dying from radiation exposure, to keep order within his realm. Much like The Road Warrior, dialogue is kept to a minimum: Hardy even sports a steel muzzle for a good chunk of the film’s opening 30 minutes that prevents him from speaking.

Miller acknowledges there are strong Western influences in Fury Road (think Stagecoach, or The War Wagon). The basic premise of the story – Max is dragged into a mission to stop Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), another battle-scarred road warrior who has stolen a tractor-trailer and five of Joe’s prized female slaves, who he uses as breeding farms – is a template for classic mythical stories of a reluctant hero pushed into circumstances that force him to act in a selfless way.

“In a way, we’re going forward to the past, because the future as seen in these movies is more of a medieval dark age,” Miller says. “You have an elemental landscape [the bulk of the film was shot over a period of six months in Africa’s picturesque Namib Desert and rural Sydney] and a story that is allegorical in the same way many Westerns were. A lot of people think of these movies as Westerns on wheels and I thought of it that way too. The nighttime sequences were shot day-for-night, which is the way a lot of Westerns did them too, because horses don’t have headlights, and our main vehicle [the War Rig driven by Theron] doesn’t either. Even Riley Keough, who plays one of the five women Max is helping to rescue, evoked 1950s Westerns with her bright red hair. The film uses a lot of saturated colors, mostly teal and orange, and her hair was striking. When I cast her, I didn’t even know she was Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, which is in itself another homage to the past.”

With their shaved heads and white body paint, the War Boys, who have been brainwashed into thinking they will ascend to a heavenly paradise if they die in action serving their master and constantly chant the mantra “I live, I die, I live again!” seem to be a metaphor for suicide bombers, many of whom sacrifice their lives believing a great reward awaits on the other side.

But Miller says that parallel, although hard to miss, was accidental.

“We started writing this script in 1999, so the Wild Boys were actually inspired by Viking warrior lore and the concept of Valhalla,” he says. “The fact that now we have suicide bombers and terrorists doing the same thing is just proof that history always repeats itself. There have always been people who do bad things. Fury Road deals with themes that are timeless, really: Dominance, hierarchy, tyrants. You end up making these connections to things that are constant throughout human history, but they rise organically out of the story. You don’t go shopping for them.”

Unlike many contemporary sci-fi and fantasy films, which often get bogged down in exposition while laying out the details of their respective worlds, Fury Road doesn’t stand still to explain anything: Miller trusts the audience to fill in the gaps about this barren, bizarre world as the movie barrels along at breakneck speed. Although it’s the longest Mad Max movie to date, clocking in at 120 minutes, Fury Road is also the fastest-paced — essentially one long, feature-length chase sequence, peppered with brief interludes in which the characters (and the audience) catch their breaths.

“Alfred Hitchcock said he wanted to make movies where people in Japan didn’t have to read the subtitles,” Miller says. “That is something that has influenced all the Mad Max movies. The audience has seen so many movies and video games and music videos and animes, they already know a lot of this stuff. I wanted to see whether we could pull off a long chase that takes place across three days, and the audience picks up what they need to know along the way — the characters, their back stories, what’s happening between them and the world they live in.

“I think Ridley Scott said that explanations pop up too often in movies, telling audiences what they can glean on their own. Film is a visual medium, and audiences have become very sophisticated at reading it. This is a relatively new language, cinema: It’s not much more than 100 years old. But we can read a movie before we can read a book. That’s true around the world. You have to trust the audience.”

Miller, who hadn’t directed a live-action movie since 1998, has had an unusual career. Born in Queensland in 1945, he studied to be a doctor and made his first short film during his final year of medical school. After completing his residency at a hospital in Sydney, he took a break from medicine to pursue his filmmaking bug. He was 33 when he made Mad Max, and after the success of The Road Warrior, he was drafted into directing a segment of 1983’s anthology film The Twilight Zone: The Movie alongside Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Joe Dante.

Miller’s segment, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, was a remake of a classic TV episode, starring John Lithgow as a terrified traveler who sees a monster on the wing of his plane in mid-flight. The film took place entirely inside the jetliner’s cabin, but it had the same kinetic energy and sustained excitement as The Road Warrior. It made Miller’s much more experienced co-directors look like amateurs, and it also brought him enough clout within Hollywood to direct 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, a big-budget adaptation of John Updike’s novel starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher, as well as 1992’s Oscar-nominated Lorenzo’s Oil, a punishing drama starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon as the parents of a boy stricken with a rare disease.

And then Miller took an unexpected turn off the traditional A-list director highway, devoting the next decade to family-friendly pictures such as Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.

His sudden detour into kiddie-film land, Miller says, was simply a reflection of what was happening in his personal life.

“John Lennon once said a wonderful thing that sums it up best: Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” the director says. “First I worked for a long time as a doctor. But I had always been curious about storytelling and the technical aspects of filmmaking. So I made the first Mad Max, but I didn’t have kids yet. Once children came along, all I did was watch family movies.

“I was completely immersed in them when I read [Dick King-Smith’s novel The Sheep Pig], a book about a pig who could talk. And after seeing the motion-capture technology Peter Jackson used to create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, I wanted to see if I could make penguins dance using the same technique. I made Happy Feet for my children. But now they’re all grown up, so I’m back to making Mad Max movies.”

Some Mad Max fans were understandably concerned that Miller might succumb to the same trap that has snared so many other filmmakers – an overreliance on digital effects. The most important thing fans expect from a Mad Max movie is, ironically, a sense of realism — the deep, tactile pleasure you feel when you watch real cars and trucks performing outrageous stunts instead of computer-generated images. No matter how good the technology gets, the eye can always tell the difference.

And although Miller admits he used CGI throughout Fury Road — whether to digitally erase the wires and harnesses that held actors in place during dangerous scenes, or to render things such as an enormous toxic sandstorm that were impossible to create on the set — he made sure every vehicle you see on the screen was real, every stunt performed by people on location instead of against a green screen inside an air-conditioned studio.

Luring the 72 year-old Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) out of retirement, Miller gave Fury Road a decidedly old-school vibe, including the familiar trick of undercranking the camera to give the action a surreal speed. Here is a rarity among modern action movies: One in which your eye can follow the action and you always know exactly what is happening, even when there are dozens of characters racing about on the screen.

“We don’t defy the laws of physics: There are no flying men or cars in this movie,” Miller says. “So it made sense to do it old-school: real vehicles and real human beings in the desert. We shot the movie more or less in continuity, because the cars and the characters get really banged up along the way. The biggest benefit of digital technology for me was that the cameras were smaller and much more agile, so you could put them anywhere.

“We also spent a huge amount of time on spatial awareness — making sure the viewer could follow the action and understand what was happening. There has to be a strong causal connection from one shot to the next, just the same way that in music, there has to be a connection from one note to the next. Otherwise it’s just noise.

“Too often, if you just cram a lot of stuff into the frame, you get the illusion of a fast pace. But there’s no coherence. It doesn’t flow. It comes off as headbanging music, and it can be exhausting. We storyboarded the movie before we had a script: We had 3,500 boards, which helps the cast and crew understand how everything is going to fit together. Movies are getting faster and faster. The Road Warrior had 1,200 cuts. This one has 2,700 cuts. You have to treat it like a symphony. Hopefully audiences will appreciate that.”

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