Cannes: How George Miller Rebooted an Iconic Franchise With 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (Q&A)
Mad Max's return never was a sure thing, but somehow the film overcame 9/11 and Mel Gibson's departure.
Thirty years after Mel Gibson last raced, motor revving and guns blazing, across a blasted-out landscape in 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, director George Miller has resurrected his signature creation.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in the apocalyptic series, Tom Hardy steps into Max's boots. The $150 million Warner Bros. release premieres May 14 as part of a worldwide rollout. Miller, 70, the medical doctor turned writer, director and producer, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about why it took so long, how he discovered a new Max and his concern that, in an era of digital filmmaking, moviegoers might not appreciate all the physical effort that his cast and crew contributed to the nonstop action movie.
How is Mad Max: Fury Road connected to the previous three Mad Max movies? Do you consider it a sequel, a reboot?
It's connected in spirit. It's kind of revisiting a familiar place for me. The films are loosely connected. Each one was made with different impulses, and this is clearly a postapocalyptic wasteland. The big attraction for me in these stories is that they effectively look forward to the past. Although we're maybe 45 to 50 years after some apocalypse, we are really going back to the medieval Dark Ages — in the same way that the American Western allowed for allegory figures playing out morality tales in a landscape.
Given the concerns over global warming, does the setting have even more resonance now?
The Road Warrior was triggered by the oil crisis in the early '70s. In this case, the ground rules with which all of us worked was the notion that it all starts next Wednesday, when all the bad things we see in the news come to pass. And then we go 45 to 50 years into the future. As the film evolved, you're kind of riffing off the zeitgeist.
I remember going to the Lake Palace hotel in Northern India. In the '70s, there was a great lake around this beautiful hotel. And we were there several years ago, and there were elephants in the lake, which had completely dried out, and kids playing soccer in the lake, with the hotel stranded high up on this little island. I remember people talking about water wars, particularly in Kashmir. Like California, Australia, where I came from, although an island continent, is for the most part desert. Growing up in an isolated rural town, I was very aware of the cycle of droughts and floods, so it was a natural thing to put in this story.
But then the production in Australia got rained out?
That's the irony, isn't it? We were going to shoot in Broken Hill, where we shot the other Mad Max movies, out in the Outback of Australia: flat, red earth. We built our roads there, we built 200 vehicles, we rehearsed all our stunts. And then it rained for the first time in 15 years, and it rained big, and it became a flower garden. We saw the budding of sprouts. The great salt lakes in the center of Australia were full of water. Warners said, "Well, you know, let's wait a year." So the cast and everybody stood down, and we waited 18 months, and it didn't dry out, so we took everything from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of Africa, where it never rains.
You've been trying to make this movie for more than 15 years. Did you ever feel like giving up on it?
I think that happens all the time. Even I don't remember the chronology, but it was right before 9/11 in 2001. Mel was interested in doing the movie. It was at Fox, and we weren't far off from shooting it. But then when 9/11 happened, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar, the budget ballooned, and it fell apart. So we had to move on to Happy Feet because the digital unit doing that was ready, and Warners said, "Let's go." So I spent three and a half years on the first Happy Feet. You think you'll never see another Mad Max, and then it pops its head up again — in the sense, you couldn't kill it with a stick. Every time you thought it would go away, the planets would realign, and suddenly one day the rocket launches and away you go. By the time we got going again, Mel had hit turbulence in his life, and the time had gone. And by then, it was back at Warner Bros., and it started again.
Why did you choose Tom Hardy to take over the role of Max?
He came up very early on in the process. I'd seen [Nicolas Winding Refn's 2008 film] Bronson and [the 2007 TV film] Stuart: A Life Backwards, which he did with Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought, "Wow, he has some ability," because they were such different characters. When he walked into the room, I felt that same vibe I'd felt three decades before, when Mel first walked into the room, that same charisma.
And did you always know you wanted to pit Max against a strong female character like the one Charlize Theron plays?
Yeah, from the very beginning, the initial trigger for the story was that instead of making a thing the MacGuffin, let's make it human cargo, let's make it people. That led to the only pristine, healthy, child-bearing females in this wasteland running away from an aging warlord, and who would be their champion but a hard-bitten female road warrior? Basically, it's a story between the two road warriors.
How much did you let the actors know ahead of time about what you were going to put them through physically?
We had that conversation. This is a movie that doesn't defy the laws of gravity. There are no flying humans or spacecraft, so everything had to be done for real. Real people, real vehicles and real desert. Also, action movies in which there aren't many words spoken, that's really difficult for the actors. In a lot of these fantasy movies, actors have to work against greenscreen, and that's difficult, but it's a different issue going out there and doing everything in the real world. It's a mosaic art. There are no big, extended master shots. It's all broken up into little pieces. It's a very interrupted process for the actors. They are out there in the grit and the grime. Tom himself is very physically adept; he was a rugby player and very athletic. And Charlize, of course, was an accomplished ballet dancer, and not only did she have that special skill and athleticism, but dancers are also incredibly disciplined.
Given how much digital effects have developed since the first Mad Max movies, do you have any concern that audiences won't appreciate all the physical effects you pull off in this movie?
I guess that is a concern. We put a lot of effort into actually creating the patina of the movie, the texture of everything — wardrobe, weapons, the vehicles to make them feel real. That's often something you can't achieve in that world of CG. But my hope is that people suspend disbelief and believe everything they see. They don't have time to think about it. I must confess, there is a stunt in which two vehicles simultaneously go through a spectacular crash, and [cinematographer] Johnny Seale was showing sections of the movie to the Australian Cinematographers Society. And there was one question about that particular shot, how much of it was CG, and the fact is none of it was CG. It was all real. So even if the practiced eye of cinematographers can't differentiate the two, you do worry a bit about whether the effort will be appreciated by audiences. But I think cumulatively, moment by moment, the audience thinks that it's solid and real in all its textures.
While you were developing this movie, the Fast and the Furious movies were coming out. Did they up the ante for the car stunts you were planning?
I saw some of the early ones, but by then I was so busy working on my own films, you don't have time to watch other films. This film was basically written and pretty well-established through storyboards quite a long time ago, although it did have to go through modifications. But I was extremely aware of the fact in the intervening three decades since the early Mad Max movies, not only has the world changed but cinema language changed. It's getting faster. This movie has close to 2,700 cuts, whereas Road Warrior had 1,200. I saw recently that the original Jurassic Park movie had something like 950 shots, of which only 65 were CG shots. I think the average blockbuster movie has just around 2,000 to 3,000 cuts in it, so there's no question we're reading film language much more quickly than we did in the past — simply because audiences are growing up on faster music, faster commercials.
Do you think stunt performers should get Oscar consideration?
I've never really thought about it. I know the skill they have is extraordinary. We had 120 days of shooting, and every day was a big stunt day. And we had no serious injuries at all. I know how brilliant some of those people were. But maybe that day's gone by because so much now is done digitally, you'd have to differentiate very, very clearly.
Do you have any trepidation about premiering the movie in front of a black-tie Cannes crowd?
I don't know. I've been on Cannes juries twice, so I'm familiar enough with Cannes, but I've never shown a film there. I think the original Mad Max was shown there, but I never attended. So I don't know about the black-tie audience. It wasn't suitable for opening night, with all the dignitaries wearing all their medallions, so it's the next night. That should be a more moviegoing audience.
Miller's Odd Oeuvre
From road rage to dancing penguins, these films highlight the director's versatility
Mad Max (1979)
A bloodthirsty mashup of Australian spaghetti Western and postapocalyptic biker movie, Miller's debut feature launched Mel Gibson's screen career as the psychologically scarred "road warrior" Max Rockatansky and set the stage for the franchise.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Jack Nicholson shines as a sexually voracious Satan in Miller's Hollywood breakthrough movie, a rowdy adaptation of John Updike's 1984 novel. Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer star as the witches who can't resist their new neighbor's charms.
Lorenzo's Oil (1992)
Miller's most somber work is informed by his medical training. Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte play parents who defy doctors in a bid to save their son from a rare disease. The film was a commercial failure but earned rave reviews and Oscar nominations.
Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
Having produced the original in 1995, Miller got behind the camera for this grittier sequel, in which the eponymous talking pig leaves home for a scary adventure. Though less commercial than Babe, the darkly comic urban fantasy still enjoys a cult following.
Happy Feet (2006)
Miller's charming CGI-animated film about a penguin who saves the world from disaster was voiced by an all-star cast including Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Robin Williams. It became an Oscar-winning worldwide hit and spawned Happy Feet Two in 2011.