'Awards Chatter' Podcast — George Miller ('Mad Max: Fury Road')
"They're allegories," George Miller says of his four Mad Max films — the first of which, Mad Max, was released in 1979, and the most recent of which, Mad Max: Fury Road, was released in 2015 — as we sit down to record an episode of 'Awards Chatter.' The 70-year-old Aussie says of the latter, a $150 million action-thriller that unfolds over the course of one long chase scene, "You take from the world. Even though it looks like a helter-skelter, rambunctious film, virtually everything in the film has real-world connections, if not present-day then certainly historical." He adds, "I really wanted to see how much people could pick up on the run."
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The fact that Fury Road subtextually addresses issues ranging from feminism to water scarcity to suicide attacks, all while remaining immensely entertaining, may help to explain why it has received a warmer welcome than just about any "genre film" in history. Following its world premiere at last May's Cannes Film Festival, it opened to tremendous reception from critics (97% on RottenTomatoes.com) and audiences ($376 million worldwide). More recently, to Miller's surprise and delight, awards voters joined the love fest: the film landed a spot on the AFI's list of the top 10 films of 2015; was nominated for the top awards given by the Producers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America; and received a remarkable 10 Oscar nominations, including two for Miller: best picture and best director.
The filmmaker has come a long way from the first Mad Max, his feature directorial debut which, for better or worse, introduced Mel Gibson to the world. A practicing physician, he was making shorts on the side for fun, but knew that he could only have an alternative career if he attempted a feature. "I was really, really interested in the action movie, particularly the language of it," he says, citing Kevin Brownlow's seminal book The Parade's Gone By as a major influence. He had seen both sides of Australia's "road culture," which offered people a lot of fun, but also resulted in horrific injuries and death, "and that did affect me," he says.
With $600,000 that he raised from friends — too little to shoot on main streets, hence the setting of the story in a semi-apocalyptic world "a few years from now" — and using lenses left Down Under by Sam Peckinpah after The Getaway shoot, he made a film that quickly became an international sensation. "We tapped into some archetypes," he says of his wandering loner hero, who was a hit at box-offices around the world. "These are basically fables or allegories, and as in all storytelling they are metaphorical, and it's for us to read into them according to our worldview." (Incidentally, even with the film's great success, Miller didn't abandon his medical career for another five years — "I stayed registered because there was a requirement that you have a doctor on set if you're doing stunts," he says.)
In addition to directing Mad Max's sequels Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which were also hits, Miller ventured into Hollywood, where he had experiences good (directing a segment of 1983's The Twilight Zone) and bad (on 1987's The Witches of Eastwick "people mistook politeness for weakness" and tried to take advantage of him, and then his attachment to direct Contact fell apart and wound up in litigation). Consequently, he returned to Australia to produce a few films, including 1989's Dead Calm, which offered Nicole Kidman her big break, returning stateside only briefly to direct 1992's Lorenzo's Oil, for which Susan Sarandon received a best actress Oscar nom, before returning Down Under to make 1995's Babe, an instant-classic that was the result of five years of hard work, and for which James Cromwell landed a best supporting actor Oscar nom.
Over the ensuing years, Miller, the same guy who made the hardcore Mad Max films directed 1998's Babe: Pig in the City, 2006's Happy Feet and 2011's Happy Feet Two. Nobody could quite pin him down, although he says his career trajectory makes perfect sense: he made films for kids when his own kids were young, and once they had grown up he returned to edgier material.
He first started thinking about a return to the world of Mad Max some 17 years go, but fate kept getting in the way. He planned to reunite with Gibson, but then 9/11 tanked the economy and the actor blew up his career. He then hoped to fill the role with another intense Aussie, Heath Ledger, but before he could do so Ledger died of a drug overdose in 2008. And then, having recruited yet another intense actor for the part, non-Aussie Tom Hardy, he found that the Aussie desert on which he wished to shoot had experienced so much unexpected rainfall that flowers were blooming across it, ruling it out. After a year-long wait, he and Warner Bros. decided to uproot the production and relocate it to Namibia, where rain became the least of their worries.
"There's no real continuity," Miller says of the fourth Mad Max film in relation to the third, "just as there wasn't between the first three." Rather, he says, "This one came along and it was an opportunity to take what was there; repurpose it, in a way; and take into account all the ways in which the world has changed and I've changed and the technology's changed." In the new film, Max shares the screen — first as adversaries, then as allies — with a female badass, Furiosa, played by Oscar winner Charlize Theron. At the outset, Hardy (who would later apologize to Miller for failing to grasp the filmmaker's vision) and Theron (no shrinking wallflower) bucked heads. "The film [which was shot in-sequence] started off where Max and Furiosa don't really engage until 20 minutes into the movie, and that first scene is a fight where they're both basically trying to kill each other — and I think that seeped into the work in some way," he acknowledges. "But just as the characters develop a kind of positive regard for each other, and then only through that do they have any hope of surviving, I think that happened — it got better as it went on."
The bottom line? Miller — assisted by a crew comprised mostly of Aussies, including his Lorenzo's Oil cinematographer John Seale, who he talked out of retirement for the project, and Miller's wife Margaret Sixel, a film editor who made an astounding 2,700 cuts (versus 1,200 on 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior) — has given the world a film that feels like the work of a young man, even though he's now in his eighth decade. Rather remarkably, he insists he has no plans to slow down. "I definitely have an appetite for making films," he states firmly. "My family says, 'Can you do something a little smaller and quicker?' So that's my intention at the moment. But I'm still really interested in that world of Fury Road."