How 'Mad Max: Fury Road' lured Oscar winner John Seale back behind the camera
John Seale was retired. Then George Miller dangled a "Mad Max" movie in front of his face and, well, how can an Aussie say no? The 40-year veteran jumped right into the maelstrom Miller and his team were conjuring in the desert of west Africa and, along with killer second unit teams, captured one of the most innervating experiences of the year in "Mad Max: Fury Road." Oh, and he turned 70 years old while doing all of this.
Seale won an Oscar for "The English Patient," the first of a three-film collaboration with the late Anthony Minghella. He also partnered up with Peter Weir on a trio of projects ("Witness," "The Mosquito Coast" and "Dead Poets Society") and he's worked with many great filmmakers besides, from Sydney Pollack to Ron Howard, Rob Reiner to Wolfgang Petersen. In addition to the win, he has three more Oscar nominations to his credit and I must say, even with a considerable post-production process to achieve the look of the new film, he deserves some serious consideration for "Fury Road."
With all that in mind, I eagerly hopped on the phone last week with Seale to discuss all of this. The new film is such a robust achievement that it dominated the conversation, but I could easily have gone on for hours. Hopefully he decides to keep working and I'll get the chance again, but as I cross this one off the bucket list, enjoy the back and forth below.
(And for a little more, I highly recommend watching the behind-the-scenes featurette embedded above. That quote from Tom Hardy — "You're not really in a movie. You're in George's head." — says it all.)
"Mad Max: Fury Road" opens this Friday, May 15. SEE IT.
HitFix: First of all, let me just say it's a great honor and pleasure to talk to you. I'm happy I had a chance, since you were retired there for a moment! But congratulations on "Mad Max: Fury Road." It's such a mind-blowing achievement.
John Seale: Oh, thanks a lot. Have you seen it?
I did and I was completely blown away. I can't wait to see it again.
Oh, that's great. I haven't seen it yet!
No? Well you've got something awesome to look forward to! How did that feel to be back in the saddle with such a massive project like this after being retired?
I "retired" after every movie for the last 15 years, you know? And people find me again. But I did come out for "Mad Max" because — the great Dean Semler shoots those for George, but suddenly they amicably parted and George got [producer] Doug Mitchell to ring me and I had a night to think about it. I'd worked with George before [on 1992's "Lorenzo's Oil"] and loved it. And it was a pretty iconic subject matter. I heard on the grapevine, over the years, how it was developing, and it was fairly exciting listening to all of the talk around town as they went into pre-production. So I thought, "I'll do that."
And a "Mad Max" movie has to be a cinematographer's dream, particularly for an Aussie, because of that iconography you mention.
It was. I'd heard all the talk around town about how they were building their own 3D cameras from scratch so that they passed certain criteria that George requested and required to make the film. And that, of course, was the reason why he was building his own. I thought that sounded very exciting in itself, as part of our filmmaking process, actually building your own cameras. That's pretty unusual stuff. So all of that looked very exciting, plus the fact that it was "Mad Max" — there was no script. There were 3,500 storyboard drawings, I think. But if it was going to be George Miller it was going to be exciting.
What were the reference points for you beyond that? George has talked about how he didn't set out to emulate the previous films so much as create a new experience. How did that translate to the visuals?
There wasn't too much talk about what the film would look like. George is a great lover of the computer in post-production, having done animated films. And he knows what that can offer him at the end. So the image-making side of it wasn't that complex, to be honest. What was more complex was where the cameras would go to cover these scenes. And most of that had already been done by [action unit director] Guy Norris over years. I mean the film was basically in pre-production for 12 years.
So you got to show up and go for the ride.
It was sort of that. Exactly right. Because Dean Semler had done most of the hard yards in pre-production in Australia. And I just sort of, yeah, exactly, came along for the ride and tried to help out where I could. The neat thing that happened was that out in the desert it was basically all exterior, so we were at the mercy of whatever the weather threw at us. And George wasn't worried about it because he knew he could fix it in post. So we didn't stop for anything. There was no basic thought of continuity because George was going to fix it in post, which you can do now these days. But also George has an amazing idea of how the film should look. Technically, he asked us to center frame at all times. Whatever the point of interest was in every shot, whether a close-up or a wide shot, that had to be in the center of frame, so that as he cut it — and it's cut very fast, as you know; I think the average length of the shots in the movie is 2.3 seconds, George told me — he didn't want the audience to have to search for that point of interest. The cuts would occur and your eyes didn't have to move from one cut to the other. I found it fascinating.
That is absolutely fascinating. I suppose that pulls you into the immersive experience, a little trick of mind.
That was a big part of the boldness of George in recording a film and then putting it together. It would make his films far more enjoyable and easy to watch by actually shooting it in that way. It's always been a part of my work philosophy to try and record a film in such a way that you make it as smooth as possible for the audience to view it, because I feel if you can do that you're going to suck the audience out of their seat and go through that virtual window of reality you're creating and put them in the situation. And you've got to hold them there, you know? If you do something silly, like with lousy continuity or bad lighting suddenly, or make them suddenly think, "Well, that's not true. Why would that…" — they're out of the movie. You've got to get them back into the movie. So I think this was all part of George's philosophy, to get them in the movie in the first two shots and hold them there for another 112 minutes.